Monday, January 14, 2013

GradSkool: "Honest and Popular Don't Go Hand in Hand:" Gender Discourse in Elaine May's Ishtar

One thing I hope to do with this blog is address the alarming lack of content that has been a pervasive problem since I started graduate school last semester. To make up for it, I'm going to be giving excerpts from papers I wrote while in graduate school last semester. Please note that these are going to be sometimes dense, often boring, and most likely not very good, but I'm sure someone out there is going to enjoy them. Here is something I wrote on Elaine May's Ishtar, which is actually part of a larger project on the writer-director-star I'll be doing in 2014.

May made radical comedies that eluded any sort of expectations, which is even more true of her final film Ishtar, only remembered today solely for its over-sized budget, critical shellacking, and failure at the box office. However, Ishtar’s comedy now seems twenty years ahead of its time—it is the type of film that one would make now with Will Ferrell and John C. Riley. But Ishtar was doomed from the start; Grodin, who plays the willy CIA agent, notes, “The media jumped on the cost of Ishtar because it was a good story…the brunt of all this cost seemed on Elaine May, which was really strange because she’d be about the third person to look at…If the picture had cost half as much, I believe the reviews would have been twice as good."

                Ishtar’s comedy is radical in its complete inversion of both political and gender expectations and played to the broadest of caricature. Billed at a political satire starring two of Hollywood’s most important stars, it is a return to the screwball-style of A New Leaf, but taken to the highest levels of stupidity. Inspired by the Bing and Crosby “Road” pictures, Ishtar follows Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as songwriters Rogers and Clarke, who have plenty of belief but absolutely zero talent. Like Mikey and Nicky, Ishtar certainly focuses on the nuanced paradoxes of male friendship, as they use and abuse each other to assert their own masculinity. However, there are two essential differences: firstly, May uses their stupidity as not just an attack on each other, but as a gateway to political satire about American ignorance. And secondly, the two are able to overcome their differences by the end of the film. 

Ishtar is a romance between two men—their “meet cute” scene at a restaurant is undercut with their two girlfriends jadedly staring into space—but it turns into a battle of dominance like Mikey and Nicky. Beatty, perhaps the most attractive actor in Hollywood, is awkward with women and deemed unattractive, while the odd-looking Hoffman is the smooth-talking ladies man, though insecure about his lack of success. This comical flip of the two is perhaps May’s most complex statement on the performative aspects of gender, as she uses the iconography of the star to mock the spectator’s expectations of what it means to be a man.. But May also takes a sympathetic tone at times—in one of the film’s most ridiculous comic set pieces, Clarke stands on the ledge of his apartment, ready to kill himself. Rogers comes to the rescue, telling him about those “who ain’t got nobody to come out on a ledge for them” While May is at times extremely cynical about her cartoonish characters, she has deep sympathy for them at the most comically heightened moments, suggesting that at the center of male friendships is a passionate romantic love.
 Their masculinity is certainly tested as the duo get a gig in Morocco, but find themselves in the middle of a political scandal in the bordering country of the fictional Ishtar. Clarke finds himself secretly hiding money by sending secrets to a CIA agent attempting to keep the emir of Ishtar in power, while Rogers searches for a secret map desired by a revolutionary, a very attractive woman that both fall in love with. The woman, Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), is perhaps the least cartoonish female character in May’s four films, and yet Clarke and Rogers cannot help but only see her as a sexual object of their desire—she screams at Rogers, “For God‘s sake forget my body. I am begging you to give me the chance to overthrow a tyrant!” to no avail. The duo constantly lie to each other in order to have control over their relationship, even if it means purchasing a blind camel or traveling out into the middle of the desert with no way back to civilization (Ishtar is a dumb comedy after all). Their exploitation by both sides is made only more humorous by the fact that neither has any comprehension of the stakes of their actions. Their climatic confrontation has both of them referring to the various political rhetoric in the film (“Brown nosing the Commies isn’t going to get you anywhere!”), but it becomes painfully obvious that neither of them understand what exactly they are discussing. The lack of communication is something that works both at the micro level of this friendship, as well as between the different political and cultural groups. May characterizes this in a scene where Clarke poses as a translator for a group of gun-running Australians. He spews complete linguistic nonsense to the various revolutionaries interested in the weapons, but Beatty, posing as one of them, acts if he can understand the dialect. Like the perfect couple of Henry and Henrietta, Clarke and Rogers are made for each other, and the film is about their attempts to find a balance in their masculinity. Mikey and Nicky realized that their entire relationship was built on their antithesis to each other—Rogers and Clarke instead complement each other’s comical egos. This is highlighted by Shirra’s final remark: “I think they’re wonderful.” She is unable to separate the men, as it is only together do they form a unified vision of masculinity. Under all the broad comedy—agents from every government dressed as tourists, Beatty punching a woman in the face, and the sublime hilarity of those truly awful songs—is a deep truth that unites both friendship and politics; it’s all about the desire for power, even if one has no understanding of what that power might mean.

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