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Another look at classic movie bombs


How did Ishtar (1987), director Elaine May's fourth and final feature, come to be the ultimate shorthand for cinematic failure? While it's far from perfect, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman eventually manage to wrangle some chemistry out of their time together on-screen, and the film is often quite funny. So what happened?

            The film gets another look this Friday, June 4, at the Dryden Theatre, and it's being presented by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who discusses Ishtar in his latest book, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Rosenbaum argues for the return of the impassioned championing of great and/or overlooked films --- instead of the watered-down, poll-driven lists produced by Zagat and the American Film Institute, which simply end up cataloguing blockbusters.

            Rosenbaum also lists his own personal canon at the end, running from 1895 to the present. Ishtar is on it. He recently spoke to City about that and several other wrongly maligned films.

            City: I hadn't seen Ishtar since it came out, so I went to rent it the other day. Not only could I not find it anywhere, but I felt perverse asking for it, because the name Ishtar is synonymous not just with commercial failure, but with something that is so bad you aren't supposed to want to see it.

            Rosenbaum: Well, it's also become the subject of a cult by now. I run into people all the time who love it. I don't want to overrate it... but there's still a lot to be said for it, including --- and this is something that nobody was paying attention to when it came out --- the film's politics. Which are very prescient, too. It's all about America's blundering in the Third World, which couldn't be more up-to-date.

            I think one thing that is important for people to understand is why it became targeted and scapegoated by the media as being supposedly such a terrible movie. Warren Beatty had had in the past a very high-handed way with members of the press. The way they were handling the press on Ishtar was a lot of people saying, "You can't have an interview unless you put Warren on the cover."

            He was playing very hard to get, and this wasn't the first time he was acting this way. So I think this was a chance for a lot of people in the press to kind of get even with Warren Beatty. It wasn't about Elaine May, it was about him.

            I'll give you a good example of something that I witnessed firsthand. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were doing a special tribute to Warren Beatty. [He] first refused to be up onstage with them until the very end, which was already annoying to them. But when he did come up, he made fun of both of them. When one of them referred to him as being a sex symbol, he said, "What do you mean? You're a sex symbol," and everybody laughed.

            And he used the occasion to... give a political speech. Which was actually a pretty good speech, but the point is he was really getting them very irritated, and using them as the butt of all these jokes, and so on. And so the point is that if you start multiplying that in terms of the treatment [of] a lot of other people in the press, Ishtar was their one chance finally to get even.

            City: What about the perceived hubris of the production itself?

            Rosenbaum: Well, they could have said that, but my God, think of all the hubris of a lot of other films! Why single out this one, of all the films they could get angry at?

            I knew one of the leading publicists at the time in Hollywood who attended an early screening of the film. And when she started laughing, people started giving her dirty looks --- to give you some idea of the lynch-mob mentality.

            It was sort of like --- I don't know if you ever knew about Jack Benny [doing] all these gags... about The Horn Blows at Midnight, supposedly the worst movie ever made because it was a flop --- that he was in?

            City: That's one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid, actually. I loved it. I've seen it since, and it's totally entertaining.

            Rosenbaum: Yeah, it's great! It's not a bad movie at all. To me it's another example of the same thing, that it becomes a kind of received opinion. In terms of how much money was spent [on Ishtar], yeah, it seems like it was excessive, but that's true of so many movies.

            City: It's coin of the realm.

            Rosenbaum: Yeah, why it would be singled out in this case, and why people care --- I mean, after all, it's other people's money, it's not our money. Just like there's all this interest in box office receipts. Why should we be interested in how much money other people are making? Would we think it was a little weird if they had figures each week about toothpaste, you know --- the top ten selling toothpastes?

            City: I turned on my computer this Monday, and the first thing that greeted me was that it was a "'Shrek'-tastic" weekend.

            Rosenbaum: (Laughs) Yes.

            City: The Dryden is also showing, in a similar vein of looking at other films that were notorious failures and bloated productions, "One From the Heart," "Heaven's Gate," and "Cleopatra." Any favorites among these?

            Rosenbaum: I think the most interesting of those is Heaven's Gate. It's certainly the most interesting of [Michael] Cimino's films. I know The Deer Hunter was garlanded with all these Oscars, and everything --- it's a film I have always detested. I consider it racist, sexist... I guess in some ways it has a certain impact, and it's effective, but I find it an extremely obnoxious and unpleasant film.

            Whereas Heaven's Gate is a lot more interesting. I don't think I've even seen it on the big screen --- I'd like to. A friend who went to see it in New York found that it was out of focus, and he went to the projectionist's booth to complain. And the projectionist said, "What are you talking about, haven't you read The Times? Don't you know that this film's a dog; it doesn't make any difference?" The point is, under those conditions, nobody can like it. Nobody's allowed to like it.

            City: "Ishtar" does make it into your personal canon at the end of your book. If the film had been a hit, would it be there?

            Rosenbaum: Oh, sure. I think all of [May's] films are.

            City: The reason I ask is because when you talk about compiling a canon, one of the reasons you give is because a film was overlooked, or is now unavailable, and the balance is being redressed.

            Rosenbaum: Well, that could play a role, it's true. If everybody were saying it was the greatest film of the past 10 years when it came out, I might have been resentful: "Well, it's not that good." I might have been influenced that way. But the point is, what I like about it, basically, I think I still would have liked about it.

            City: How clean should the viewing of a film be or not be? For instance, when I saw "Crimson Gold," I took it as a hypothetical scenario, and I kind of thought whatever point was being made to be somewhat muddled. If I had read your review first, I would have known it was based on a real incident, and not making any point necessarily, but exploring why the event might have happened. And I would have seen the film as less problematic, but only with this additional information. So is it better to process a film on its own terms, or to have elucidating information?

            Rosenbaum: Well, I wouldn't say there's any rule about these things, you know? I didn't know that it was based on a real story when I saw it the first time, but I still kind of liked it.

            I wouldn't say muddled; I would say on the other hand when I saw it the first time --- or even the second and third time --- there were things more mysterious about it that I didn't quite understand, and couldn't quite figure out in some ways. I remember seeing it in Toronto, and Robin Wood, the critic, mentioned it reminded him of [Chaplin's] City Lights --- the scene with the very wealthy guy. Of reminding him of that, and then making me realize that in a way it was about class.

            City: Well, that's what I meant, because to me it was clearly about class, but it wasn't saying, you know, the typical thing people say liberals say: "Oh, circumstances made this guy into a criminal." It's kind of aloof about his amorality.

            Rosenbaum: Well, I think what you're saying is very important, in the sense that we tend to get so programmed toward the way points are usually made in films, and the way things are set up, that films that do something different and are original --- which of course are the films that we ultimately value the most --- are the ones that are the hardest to process at first. A film that's doing something new, we have to adjust to.

            I think what's important is whether we are temperamentally disposed to give a film the benefit of our doubt or not. We can go either way --- I know there's certainly films I don't like which I'm sure are better than I think they are.

            I think one could probably argue The Deer Hunter, for example, is one of them. There are qualities it has that I'm just not going to be disposed towards because of the racism and everything I find so offensive. That doesn't mean that the virtues aren't there. I'm sure they are.

            City: Let's talk about masterpieces for a moment. In your writings you indicate that the word is overused by critics, generally. But when a film is given four stars in your paper, the "Chicago Reader," it's labeled a masterpiece.Does that bug you?

            Rosenbaum: Well, I've been dealing for as long as I've been at the Reader with all those definitions of what the different stars mean. And I don't know that I'm happy with them at all, except you get used to a particular convention and then you adopt it. Once you adopt it you kind of forget about it.

            It's interesting that what's considered a masterpiece in France --- it doesn't mean quite the same thing as it does in the United States. Our attitude is more [that] masterpieces are very rare. Well, it means a work by a master, and there are different ways of interpreting that.

            City: I've always understood it to mean it's the summit of an artist's abilities.

            Rosenbaum: Yeah, but on the other hand, when you have filmmakers who have made several masterpieces, how can you have summits? I think I actually prefer the generosity of the French attitude to the more parsimonious Anglo-American attitude, because I think the French get more enjoyment out of the arts! And know how to get more enjoyment; it's a culture oriented towards pleasure, and I feel like we can learn a lot from that.

            City: Will the time ever be right for a reevaluation of Gigli?

            Rosenbaum: Oh --- well, I sort of liked it! I don't think it was great, but I'm a Jennifer Lopez fan, and she was very sexy in it. That's another thing --- it seems to me when there's some kind of consensus about something being a bad movie, they usually pick the wrong one.

            City: Well, I don't think you can underestimate the delight of the masses in bringing someone down, and that certainly played a part with "Gigli" if not "Ishtar" as well.

            Rosenbaum: Well, with Gigli, everybody was getting inundated by all this stuff about J.Lo and her boyfriend. It was too much.

            City: Basically, the critical response to the film was "Get a room!"

            Rosenbaum: Yeah, that's right. But the point is, it was reacting to a kind of hard sell. And that could have also happened probably with Ishtar, because it got an awful lot of publicity in advance. People wind up reacting against the publicity, not against the film.

            I like to think things change over time, too. Many of the most popular movies were flops originally.

            City: "Wizard of Oz," just as the most obvious example.

            Rosenbaum: Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane... Bringing Up Baby was a total flop when it came out. I think it was Jacques Rivette who once said, and I think he was right, that's it's almost impossible to know the long-term value of a work at the moment it comes out.

Jonathan Rosenbaum will present Ishtaron Friday, June 4, at 8 p.m., as part of the Dryden Theatre's Beautiful Losers series. The Dryden is in the George Eastman House at 900 East Avenue. Tix: $6, $5 students. 271-3361. An extended version of this interview is available on our website,