Monday, June 14, 2010

She Gave Me The Golamine Beads: Ishtar (1987, Elaine May)

(For the 4th Annual White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Paul Clark at Silly Hats Only)

Not to make any excuses, but there's a reason the last entry in this blog was last year's White Elephant entry. In case you didn't know, I am now the father of not one, not two, but three kids. That's right, I now have a three year old and two eight month old babies, and things like blogs just aren't in the cards these days. So the following isn't quite the entry I want to write, but the only entry I'm capable of writing at this time.

So: Have people actually seen this film? Granted, it's not a hidden masterpiece, but the idea that this is some kind of comedy nadir is absolute rubbish, especially since Ashton Kutcher is still making movies. (May's MIKEY & NICKY is the hidden masterpiece, but that's an entry for a day that'll never come.) There's a number of theories as to how ISHTAR got its poisonous reputation (mostly dealing with star Warren Beatty's battles with the media), but it dovetails with my personal philosophy: everything that isn't the film -- the publicity, the gossip, the interviews with the cast and crew, hell, even the poster -- all of that is completely irrelevant. All that matters is the first frame, the last frame, and everything in between. Everything you need to understand (and if you wish, judge) a film is there, and all you have to do is look.

The following is less of a look then an extended glance -- it's not like I'm getting paid for this -- but I think there's enough there to suggest that there's much, much more to ISHTAR then as the punchline to an ignorant joke.

(Since ISHTAR is unavailable on DVD in America... er, what I'm saying is, pardon the crappy resolution and Swedish subtitles.)

Evolution of a song and a friendship. Through a series of cuts, we see the process by which they, paradoxically, create a truly awful song and come to gain respect for each other. "Shit, man, when you're on, you're on," says Hoffman about Beatty's terrible couplet. The first act is jumpy, jittery, a New York state of mind. Not only is a night of songwriting conveyed in a less than a minute through cuts, but this is actually part of an extended flashback. It feels very modern, and interestingly, this aspect completely disappears once the film relocates to the Middle East.

There's a Woody Allen quality to the first act, a bit like a late 70s Allen with the aggressive editing of an early 90s Allen. This is a particularly moody shot that wouldn't look out of place in INTERIORS or (if it was in black & white) MANHATTAN. Here, New York is associated with gloom, the dark, broken relationships and broken dreams. When the story moves to North Africa, the style changes -- the quick editing disappears and the colors brighten. Ishtar may be a dangerous place, but like its namesake, it's also a place of fertility -- rebirth.

(It should be noted that I'm still not sure if the fictional Ishtar is supposed to be a city or a country or what.)

Check out this great composition, like a widescreen Buster Keaton. Hoffman is planning to jump, and he's got a cops to the right and above him, and his parents to the left. Fitting that, at Hoffman's lowest point in the first act, the film's palette drops down to about three colors (blue, brown-grey, and black). (That red thing in Hoffman's hand is a pillow, and he'll get rid of that quickly.) Compare that to the multicolor of the market, below. Also compare it to the desert shots of the impending helicopters below, as well.

For a brief moment in Morocco, the two worst singer/songwriters in the world become stars. (See reaction below.) In a sense, it's a sham -- this audience is hungry for any entertainment, and any rendition of standards, delivered with gusto, is going to be received warmly. I think ISHTAR would win over most people if given a chance, and I think its secret weapon is its sweetness. Rogers and Clarke are dumbasses, and they're terrible singers and songwriters, but they're way too passionate about music to hate. They aren't in it for the money, they aren't con artists. They're deluded, sure, but who among us isn't? Point is, they're bringing joy to the audience, and themselves, and it's hard to dislike them.

And yet, there's a saltiness along with the sweet. These people aren't Moroccans. (Except for maybe that waiter.) Clearly there's a critique of imperialism (cultural and otherwise) going on here, with this audience having traveled thousands of miles to gobble up an entertainment they know by heart, and paying for the privilege. The film is overtly critical of American intervention in the Middle East, but for me, this is the moment that really works, where the film does two different things -- get us to empathize with Rogers & Clarke and critique what it is that they're doing -- at the same time.

Here's the introduction of Charles Grodin's character. Guess who he's works for. Go ahead, guess. That's right, he's a spook, and you can spot him a mile away. Smartly, in the very next scene, the film has the character come out and tells Hoffman's character that he works for the CIA. What's interesting is that in a movie about shifting and hidden identities (Rogers & Clarke are mistaken for tribesmen, Isabelle Adjani disguises herself as a boy, the talent agent becomes a peace broker, etc.), the two characters that are unambiguously static -- the CIA agent and the emir -- are the bad guys.

Hey look! It's Matt Frewer!

(Also, Fred Melamed is supposed to be in the film somewhere, but I don't think I'd recognize a 29 year old Sy Ableman.)

This is the reaction of an assassin after he accidentally shoots his own teammate. It's a brief shot, maybe a second long, but it's both funny, this spontaneous gesture of regret in (what I presume) is a hardened killer, and another indication of May's generosity towards her characters, even the unnamed ones.

I haven't seen A NEW LEAF or THE HEARTBREAK KID, but I wonder if May doesn't get enough credit as a composer of images. Along with that great composition for the suicide attempt, here's three stills from the big chase sequence. The various factions down on the street have just discovered that the rolled up rugs they think contain Hoffman and Beatty are empty, while the two are actually escaping above them.

May effectively splits the screen, a lower level and an upper level, and the action runs simultaneously. It must have been a bitch to pull off, but the effect is genuinely exciting.

A different angle, this time with the frame split horizontally, Hoffman and Beatty running across the roofs while commotion commences on the ground. This sequence alone reveals the sham that is the Michael Bay/Paul Greengrass run-and-gun style of cinematography.

A smaller action moment, but one that is just as effective. In a single take, Hoffman and Beatty see the American helicopters coming over the dunes to kill them, and they get ready to face them. This durational shot is the kind of thing that film can do that other art forms can't, and we lose something when we edit it down to half-percieved one-second images.

It's probably a stretch to correlate this horizontally-focused, limited-palette composition, one about impending death, with the suicide attempt earlier in the film. But to hell with it, consider it correlated.

"We didn't need a pencil!" Probably the emotional highlight of the film, and my favorite bit -- as certain death looms, they sing the song they composed earlier while dying of thirst in the desert, giddy at not having forgotten it. The friendship has been tested throughout the second act, with Hoffman thinking Beatty's a Communist spy and Beatty thinking Hoffman's an American one (that shifting identity thing again), but now that friendship has been renewed, strengthened.

Do they survive? Watch the film to find out.

I've only scratched the surface of May's (at this writing, final) film. I hope this post acts as a trail of golamine beads for some future writer, leaving a glowing trail out of the desert of neglect and towards the bright lights of critical re-evaluation.

Well, if golamine beads were real, that is.

Maybe I need a new metaphor.

Happy White Elephant Blogathon, everyone.