Friday, February 09, 2007

40s rayon with bling. And at $235 it still costs less than the similarly emblazoned hoodies from Billionaire Boys Club. It’s got its original cloth belt and measures 46-33-46. The french blue background makes these diamonds really pop.
I will now answer one of the great modern riddles. One that has plagued me for decades: is "Ishtar" the worst film ever made?

The answer is a resounding no. In fact, the film does its best to undo the 80’s genre of Swashbuckling white American dudes abroad.
Invoking the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road movies, Beatty and Hoffman are down on their luck entertainers, Rogers and Clarke, working abroad. Unlike Bing and Bob, Rogers and Clarke have
zero talent. Much off-key song styling ensues, both of 70’s standards and the duo’s original (intentionally) cringe-worthy compositions set to key boards and bongos. There is shameless headband wearing throughout.

The film is at its best as the two flounder in New York. Jack Weston as their reluctant agent, Marty Freed, has some great lines. He tells them: You’re old, you’re white, you have no shtick. Hoffman’s suicide scene is hilarious. Beatty tells him: “It takes guts to have nothing at your age.”
Beatty and Hoffman have real chemistry. Plus they seem to be having fun. I liked that they both play against type: Beatty plays the dork, while Hoffman is the ladies man. But there are times when it all seems too much like an inside joke. Like "Buckaroo Bonzai" or "Straight to Hell".
Then we get to the imaginary war-torn Fiefdom of Ishtar. Here the movie could go the route of the dreaded Action Adventure colonialist propaganda, where white American dudely intervention will save the day, but it does not. Our songsters remain clueless shlimazels. They leave the real political negotiations in the capable hands of leftist guerrilla Sheera (Isabelle Adjani also cast against type). But the CIA, and its avatar of Jim Harrison (played with bland psychosis by Charles Grodin) is the real villain here. Grodin has a marvelous scene played to a telephone with a photo of Ronald Reagan on the wall behind him. Even the Emir of Ishtar (played by Aharon Ipale) doesn’t trust the CIA to protect him pointing out their track record protecting Saddat and the Shah.

At heart, Ishtar is a liberal satire of the racist American foreign policy Adventure flick. Writer/Director Elaine May has said that she had been thinking a lot about Reagan’s presidency at the time. Thinking that the only movies he had seen about the Middle East were the Hope/Crosby road films she thought she would sneak some political satire under the wire and just maybe he’s see it. While it doesn’t go far enough for me, I appreciate that May was a furtive voice of dissent.
Looking at the other films of the time, May can be seen as radical. I wish she's gone further.
(Though at the time she thought the CIA was trying to undermine the film's advance press, the truth is it was indicted on its budget because of a change in studio heads) Why (oh why) in all these movies from “Indiana Jones”, to the nauseous-making Michael Douglas vehicle “Jewel of the Nile”, is nothing in Arabic subtitled? Did the director just say to the extras: Talk among yourselves? Rumor has it that throughout Jewel the extras are just saying “Michael Douglas”. Me, I’d like to see the dialogue of all the extras who play the locals subtitled. I rather hope the extras are saying in Arabic: “This is the last time I work for Paramount.” Or: “The craft table was pretty good this afternoon, you think we’ll have chicken again tonight?”. And if that was subtitled, it would be truly in the Road movies tradition. And I want them to get sceen credit for it, and paid scale goddamn it.

Rogers and Clarke are compelling as characters because they never give up. When they get to Morocco they are playing the lounge at the Hilton that looks almost exactly like the joint they were playing in New York. In May’s position I’d have exaggerated the comparison more. Just as William S. Burroughs has the same apartment and only the view changes when he goes from New York to Tangiers in Cronenburg’s Naked Lunch. Even lost in the desert and staring down vultures, the duo continues to create bad songs.
So put a little Ishtar in your heart. After all, you won't see a film made today where someone says: "Granted she's a terrorist, that doesn't means she sleeps around."
And if you haven’t seen any of the Hope/Crosby films please do so at once. They are problematic. Mostly they are not funny. But they frequently break the 4th wall, admit that their exotic locales are phoney, and throw in a little soft shoe.


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