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June 1996, Week 1


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"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 3 Jun 1996 23:46:45 -0700
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        Mike Plott's disclaimers gave me the impression he was about to ask
why *Citizen Kane* is considered such a big deal when it's a bore.   (This
view was actually offered by Sofia Coppola on her short-lived MTV show.  I
guess her dad, who appeared in the same episode in a hot tub, didn't spend
much time discussing film aesthetics with his daughter.)  But Mike's
question about why *Ishtar* flopped is a very interesting one.
        I've often thought it would be great to do a course on hits and
flops.  The history of these films would look very different than the
history of masterpieces, or the history of films that are retrospectively
remembered.  When you realize how much money Deanna Durbin's films made, it
gives you pause.  What would a history of cinema class look like if one
watched *Howard the Duck* next to the big hit of its year?
        If you look back at newspapers from the time *Ishtar* came out,
you'll see there was a huge deal made in the press made about how much money
was spent on the film, and on how the cost overruns could be attributed to
the perfectionism and/or neurosis of director Elaine May.  The same kinds of
criticism can be made when a male director has cost overruns, but it seems
to me there was more than a grain of hostility towards a woman director
involved.  (Think of how the same kinds of criticism about "perfectionism"
are aimed at Streisand.)
        Also, the press made the film out to be a vanity piece in which the
ego's of the stars were being massaged.  Like *Waterworld* (which has made a
good deal of money overseas, despite its reputation of a bomb or bomb-to-be
here in the U.S.), *Ishtar* was a sitting duck.  All the press beforehand
had been negative, and from time to time ambivalence about mass media rears
up in some form, a fairly regular sort appearing in this hostility directed
towards films with large budgets.  (It seems that at the same time we pay or
$5--I mean $7.50...I mean $8.00--to see a lot of money spent blowing things
up, we must feel some anxiety about this exorbitant waste.)
        But a large budget alone is not enough to guarantee this treatment
by the industry and popular press:  *Cliffhanger* was also notoriously
expensive, but nevertheless did quite well at the box office; *The Last
Action Hero* also had this kind of negative press before opening and, while
it didn't do the great business it needed to in order to get back what was
spent, it didn't flop--although people tend to remember it as being a flop.
(Which is a related issue:  why are some films not remembered, despite
having been successful, while others are remembered as unsuccessful, even
when they weren't?)
        A lovely exception to the critical lambasting of *Ishtar* was an
opinion piece in the Sunday *New York Times* by Janet Maslin (if memory
serves), in which she pointed out that the film cost the same to the
spectator no matter how much was spent on it, and that if Elaine May wanted
to bring in bulldozers to rearrange sand to look more Sahara-like, that was
her prerogative, and while this care wasn't particularly noticeable in the
finished film, the film was not lacking in its pleasures.  In other words:
she punctured the whole way of talking about the film, the whole frame that
had been established for it, by resorting to a less prejudiced encounter
with it.  (Or better still:  with a different sort of prejudice.)
        So three cheers to Mr. Plott, for asking a question which deserves a
better answer than I can really give.  A good question is better than a good
Edward R. O'Neill (a non-lurker)
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