Movies I Want Everyone to See: Ishtar

I have been defending this movie for thirty years and I stand by it today. This is exactly what it set out to be, a comedy that is a throw back to the Hope/Crosby road pictures, with a little contemporary humor thrown in. From before it even opened however, “Ishtar” has been the subject of invective, disinformation and derision, usually without having been seen. The fact that the most prominent TV critics of the era, Siskel and Ebert, panned it, probably contributed to the premature grave to which it has been buried for most of the last three decades. Look, I’m not saying it is an essential classic, I am simply arguing that it is an entertaining couple of hours that an open mind can get some enjoyment out of. Humor is subjective, my guess is that a lot of people don’t get “The Three Stooges” and they don’t think it is funny, but millions of others do. This film is the same, and I am challenging you to watch it and figure out which group you fall into.

I will structure my argument that Ishtar has good humorous value in a chronological fashion. The opening of the film features Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as songwriters trying to put together a new song. “Dangerous Business” may not be a good song, but it is a good example of the song writing process. These two bandy back and forth with lyrics and lines that try to move the structure of the song forward. They make several wrong turns and most of them are funny. When the word “herb” gets thrown in, that was funny, but it was even funnier when it got thrown out. We get some other quick instances of their terrible instincts in a series of songwriting attempts during some flashback sequences.

I’m Leaving Some Love in My Will

Chuck Clarke has written a song for an elderly couple celebrating at the restaurant he plays piano at. This is their third year coming back to celebrate an anniversary, and Chuck promised to commemorate their long time marriage with an original composition. It is so accurate but also tone deaf that it defies reason that the songwriter doesn’t get it. Except that he is so sincere and also so confident in his unrecognized talent, he doesn’t even see the horrified faces of the couples family.

Lyle Rodgers is equally as blind to his lack of talent. He is so involved with the song he is working on,  that he doesn’t notice all the customers he is driving by in his ice cream truck. Every kid in the neighborhood wants a drumstick, and all he can think of is “Hot Fudge Love”.

Cherry ripple kisses.

These are two obtuse individuals with the same dream and they happen to find each other. Academy Award nominated actresses Tess Harper and Carol Kane play the romantic partners of the two nitwits, but they are in the movie for all of two minutes. They clearly are aware enough that dumping these two is the only logical course. The fallout from these break-ups is part of the awkward humor in the opening act of the film. Lyle is devastated but it is Chuck, who was commitment phobic who really goes off the deep end. They attempt to bury themselves in work, but the guy who they approach to represent them suggests that they put together a singing act to launch their songs. This is where the second layer of comedy comes in. Chuck has the will but very little talent at performing and Lyle is so shy and introverted that he looks incredibly uncomfortable on stage.  They are also both a little long in the tooth.

The sequences with them trying out their own songs are plenty funny because most of the songs were written by Elaine May, the director and a well known comic mind, along with Paul Williams, one of the most prolific songwriters of the era. I remember reading back in 1987, that Williams was planning a release of the fifty or so songs or parts of songs that he and May had put together for the film. It would have been comedy gold. Of course since the film did not live up to it’s potential, the album never got made.

Interestingly, the characters do actually progress a little bit as entertainers. Of course improvement is a relative term.

The astonished looks on the faces of the audience also mimic the looks on our faces as we are watching this. This is a very self aware presentation and it is supposed to be deliberately awful. It’s why their agent Marty Freed. played by the worn out and down trodden Jack Weston, can only get them a booking in Honduras, where the death squads are active, or in Morocco, which is next to Ishtar, where revolution is blooming in the desert.

After a most humorous interlude [which includes Rabbis and SWAT]on the ledge of Chuck’s apartment building, where the two handle the most embarrassing suicide attempt since Dirty Harry or Lethal Weapon, they choose North Africa.

So far, this movie has sustained it’s tone, created characters that we can laugh at and even sympathize with in spite of their deficiencies, and it has provided us with a justification for the change in scenery. Now the one section that is a bit of a slog, involves the set up of the two musicians with a plot device to put them in over their heads. There is a convoluted story about a map that portends the fall of a kingdom and two messengers from God. While the film skirts the contentious issues in the Middle East concerning Israel, the Palestinians and the Sunni Shiite rift, it does presciently forecast the fanaticism that is sometimes found in this part of the world. Cultures that can produce riots where people die as a result of a cartoon published in another part of the world, or a rumor over mistreatment of a Qua-ran can bring unrest, are on display in the fictional Kingdom of Ishtar.

Hope and Crosby also got mixed in, usually by accident, with some big plot involving a power struggle in the places they visited. So too do Hoffman and Beatty. Chuck, who prefers the nickname “The Hawk” is approached by a mystery woman, posing as a boy, to obtain his passport so she can move freely between Ishtar and Morocco. He falls for the line “The Dome of the Emir’s Palace is made of gold. The people have never seen a refrigerator”.This becomes the insertion point for Isabella Adjani into the story and she serves as the Dorthy Lamour in this updated Road picture.

At almost the same time a fourth character is added to the story, the mild mannered and duplicitous Charles Grodin as Jim Harrison, the local CIA station chief. I can say with confidence, that if you do not find Grodin’s dry delivery and feckless spy craft funny, you will probably not enjoy the rest of the film. Most people however recognize that Grodin is an under appreciated comic treasure.  Adjani is sometimes a protagonist but usually a love interest, Grodin is the real villain of the film and he is hysterical.

The sight of him in a djellaba and fez is pretty damn funny in itself. The notion that other agents might get away with it is even more amusing. There is a good chase scene where the two Americans, who have been labeled dangerous because they might be conflated with the messengers of God foretold in the map, are followed by the CIA, the KGB, the Emir’s Secret police and the revolutionaries trying to recover the map all at once. The costuming provides a large amount of the humor there.

A whole variety of mistaken intentions, cross purposes and back stabbing behavior ensue. The third act of the film builds from the moment that Beatty’s Lyle buys a camel. Well not exactly, here is how he puts it:

Chuck Clarke: You mean you bought a camel?

Lyle Rogers: No, I didn’t really buy it. They SOLD it to me!

Lyle Rogers: Oh no. I think that something went wrong and now I own a blind camel. A blind camel!

The mistaken identity them reaches it’s climax as , after being lost in the desert, Rodgers and Clarke end up impersonating a Berber translator and a tribesman anxious to buy guns. I haven’t even mentioned the lengthy vulture and camel interludes that lead up to this moment. Suffice it to say, the dialogue is loopy, philosophical and matches the tone of the whole film.  

I have read some material that suggests that the film represents the naivete of Americans in the Middle East and that makes it a politically aware and forward thinking film. I’m not going to defend that point of view, I will simply say that all foreign policy is tricky and this film takes advantage of that. There is a pretty good summary of some of the misadventures of American policy  “The enemy of my enemies is my friend.” I’ll leave the politics of the film to someone more motivated to discuss that. I just want to argue that the movie is funny. 

I sat and watched it with my daughter who was born the year after it came out, and she was laughing so hard at some of the camel bits, it echoed down the hall and my wife called down to see what was going on. Like I said earlier, humor is subjective, and maybe because she is my kid she shares some of my perception, but we are not alone in this assessment. Gary Larson, who drew “The Far Side” cartoons, once lampooned “Ishtar with this panel:

Larson later apologized in one of his printed anthologies, stating “When I drew the above cartoon, I had not actually seen Ishtar…. Years later, I saw it on an airplane, & was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it’s not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark. There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so.”

There were even critics who offered praise but they were somehow drown out by the negative buzz. I read the Sheila Benson review in the LA Times and I remember thinking she was pretty brave to be swimming against the stream. Almost every review of the time focused on the cost of the picture and not it’s entertainment value. The long knives where out before the movie opened. The dean of the LA Times Critics community, Charles Champlin put it this way, “Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait, avid for signs of terminal weakness and early demise.”

Ishtar Blu

Ishtar Blu

Laser Version

Ishtar Laser Disc

The nice thing about films that get a home video release is that they can be reassessed years later by audiences without those preconceptions, as long as they ignore the prior invective.

This coming week, I will be hosting the Lambcast Movie of the Month. I championed “Ishtar” in the voting, and I look forward to doing the same in the discussion. I will pose a link for you when it goes up. I lost the 1987 Draft on the Lamb by a few votes last summer, I suspect my inclusion of this film is part of why that happened. I can’t complain about it, because the words of Rodgers and Clarke already told us this was true…

“Telling the truth can be dangerous business;/ Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.”

Fan Art by Adam Keene

TCM Film Festival Day Three

So let’s see if we can get the whole day in on one post rather than spreading it out over several. Saturday is always a densely packed day at the TCMFF. It begins with one of the movies I treasure from my nostalgia bank. A comedy takeoff on my favorite film.

The Court Jester

The film features the clown prince of movie comedy from the 1940s and 50s, the amazing Danny Kaye. Like most people my age, I encountered this movie in reruns on Sunday afternoon movie programs. It is a brilliant take off on “robin Hood” and other swashbucklers.

The movie looks great on the big screen and this is one of the reasons I chose to see a movie I practically know by heart, because I have never seen it it a theater. The color bursts forth in amazing hues and the costumes look lush and detailed. The opening number with Kaye pretending to be The Black Fox and dancing with miniature versions of himself was a riot. The Foxes outfit was reproduced a dozen times for the diminutive actors playing the acrobatic troop that Hawkins once worked with.  Captain Jean shows up in a similar outfit, tailored for a woman and with a slightly different color. This is the start of the little details that make a big screen viewing extra special.

The audience was full and host Illeana Douglas and guest Fred Willard shared their stories about seeing the film and loving Danny Kaye. Outside in line for the next film, I encountered a woman who had a myriad of tattoos, but her most recent ones were the focus of my attention.  If you look closely you will see here on the wrist a Vessel with a Pestle, a Chalice from the Palace, and a Flagon with the figure of a dragon. She definitely is a fan. My fandom will not go so far as to paint my body, but I do have a full post on the film here. I think you will find the review and story there worth your trip.

The Awful Truth

This was a last minute call for me. I’d originally planned on seeing “The Last Picture Show” with director Peter Bogdonovicth , but I decided that since I’d seen it only a month  earlier, I’d look for

something else. My daughter Amanda and I split up at this point and she headed off to see the 70’s classic while I queued up for a screwball comedy that I saw three decades or so before and had only a vague memory of.

This was a chance for me to sit with some of the TCM Party People I know from on-line. Kellee Pratt and her husband Gary were there as was Aurora from Citizen Screen. I saved a seat for my local blogging buddy Michael, and there were a dozen others from the group around us as well. Some of those folks were introduced to me and some were not but all of the group was friendly and full of anticipation.  The excitement was completely understandable because this movie is a delight. As with most screwball films, the premise is a little far fetched and convoluted but once you accept that, everything falls into place. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are married couple who have some secrets that they keep from one another but they appear to be a little innocuous. Grant however lets his suspicions get the best of him and they pursue a divorce that neither of them really wants.

Ralph Bellamy plays the third wheel love interest who complicates the couples reunion. This is a part that he most have done in films a dozen times, including “His Girl Friday” where again his romantic proclivities are thwarted by Cary Grant. I’d just seen Grant in “North By Northwest” a few days ago, and It is amazing how great his range was. The picture at the top of this post was taken by TCM of the line for the film. If you look closely, you will see me giving the “Fight On” victory salute of my Trojan Family.

The Jerk

I saw this movie when it was first released and I thought it was hysterical but a bit of a thrown together piece of work. I must have watched bits and pieces of it over the years so that I knew it intimately. Watching the whole thing once more, it was much more coherent and professionally assembled than I remembered, although it was just as funny 38 years later.

Much of that credit belongs to the director Carl Reiner, who along with star and screenwriter Steve Martin, put together a series of loose sketches (much like they had done throughout their careers) to make a real movie. Reiner was present before the screening for a book signing that went on quite a while and caused a pretty big delay in the schedule.  I was worried I’d not make it in time to get to the next film where I was scheduled to reconnect with Amanda.

Reiner was much like Mel Brooks was, full of stories and very funny. He does digress a bit into some political themes that are prevalent these days. One of the reasons I  want to go to the festival is to get away from that subject matter and it was a little annoying. I was glad when he got the subject off his chest and went back to the film and his admiration of Steve Martin. Host Ben Mankiewicz, while interviewing him had a hard time understanding the baseball cap he had handy. The information that Reiner is not a Colorado Rockies fan, lead to realization that the hat logo had more to do with the guest than baseball. I’ll bet you figure it out faster than Ben did.

I was Mr. Reiner last year at the TCM FF talking about “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid“. At age 95, he has not lost his wit or enthusiasm for working. Apparently he has two other books coming out this year as well.

Best In Show

The least “classic” in terms of date released film I saw at the Festival was the most successful of the Christopher Guest directed improvisational films, “Best in Show”. I suspect some classic film fans would be wondering why this movie is included in the program. It is barely seventeen years old and hardly the sort of thing that would attract this audience. It was however not only well attended but completely booked and I don’t think anyone in the standby line got in.

Since the theme of the festival was comedy, it makes sense to have some of the funniest movies around included in your program. Since the Festival makes a great effort to add value to the screenings with special guests, this film really paid in spades because there were four actors from the film present to share some stories.

John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Jim Piddock sat down front and spoke of the process that is used to put these ensemble films together and they reminisced about the making of the film. Poor Bob Balaban had such a sore throat that he could not speak, but he participated with notes that the host or one of the co-stars would read. It seems appropriate that he was the one with a wing down since it was also true when they made the film. He had a large footbrace on his leg the whole time that they were shooting and had to have his slacks altered so that he could hide the fact but still wear the piece. Piddock recalled how difficult it was to play straight man to Willard. He also noted that all of their work was basically done in an afternoon and that there were no dogs present at the location where they shot. Best In Show Actors

We had an interesting encounter with a woman in line for the next movie. She had been in the screeing with us and she and her friend were discussing the film while we waited to get back into the main Chinese theater. She hated the film, and I think she represents many of the fans who would have questioned it’s inclusion. However if you judge by the volume of laughter in the room and it’s frequency, the movie was a success with most of the crowd.

The Graduate

While it may not be from the studio era that most fans of TCM would use to define “classic film”, the rest of the world would certainly concede that this is at least a modern classic. “The Graduate” introduced Dustin Hoffman to the world and the themes of the movie reverberate throughout Hollywood for ten years after the film was released. As hard as it was for me to believe, my daughter had never seen it and I was anxious to get her take on the film.

The Simon and Garfunkel songs that are littered throughout the story are part of the soundtrack of we baby boomers lives. The opening sequence with Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, being moved without any effort on his part by the people conveyor at LAX, with the blank tile walls behind him, completely forecasts the characters story and ambivalence. Much has been written about the final shots and the tentative smiles and uncertainty on the actors faces, but if you ask me, this was the moment that Mike Nichols earned his Academy Award.

Screenwriter Buck Henry was the guest and his was one of the most interesting interviews of the weekend. Mr. Henry is eighty seven years old and not quite as spry as Carl Reiner or his old collaborator Mel Brooks. He was in fact in a wheelchair, but he did not appear to be infirm. As he was interviewed, there were times when he seemed indifferent to or confused by the questions, but just when you thought he was out of it, he usually made an insightful comment or quip, and I began to think he was really just toying with us.

The fact that Robert Redford walked away from the part as Nichols continued to try and interest him in it might be well known. Henry added to the story however by explaining that Redford’s reason given to the director was simple, he didn’t get it. He also shared a piece of info that I was unaware of , Murray Hamilton was a replacement for an actor who Nichols let go. The actor was very capable but Nichols simply did not think he could play “rich”. The actor was Gene Hackman, perhaps my very favorite actor ever. To me the bigger question was how he could play older. Hackman and Hoffman are pretty close to the same age and they shared rooms together at one point. Hackman moved on to “Bonnie and Clyde” which was not at all a bad trade for him.

The best part of the film came in the car on the ride home that night. I had the kind of discussion with my daughter that film fans always want to have. We had insights and disagreements and intelligent comments to make about a movie that inspired us. She has asked me several times what my favorite part of the festival was. I’ve not said it before but I will put it in writing right here. My favorite thing about this years TCM Film Festival was the forty minute ride home that night, talking to her about a great movie.