The ‘Ishtar’ Effect: Changing Perceptions and the Allure of Objectivity

IshtarI didn’t think Ishtar (1987) was all that bad.

I know, I know. It was one of the big box-office bombs of the 1980s, raked over the coals for its bloated budget and not-as-funny-as-it-should’ve-been script, among other issues. Yet I have to wonder if it really lives up (or down) to its reputation, given the fact that so many other, worse movies have replaced it in this dubious category.

Take Mortdecai (2015), for instance. You knew this film would be terrible based on the quality of its marketing campaign, whose central premise seemed to be based on the idea that moustaches are inherently funny. Who could’ve predicted, however, that the picture would flop so quickly out of the gate? Maybe it’ll pick up soon, or maybe it’ll recoup its losses following release to on-demand, but it’s not clear as yet that it’ll attain the notoriety of Ishtar. Or Gigli (2003), for that matter.

We need to jump into the future to see where these flicks will wind up, and I’ll tell you honestly: I’m all against time travel if it means revisiting Mortdecai to see if it’s still as lousy as ever.

The weird thing is, the passage of time often does change perceptions, and many a film that laid an egg at the box office in the past could be regarded in a different light today. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), I feel, is one of those pictures that initially got short shrift; today, it compares quite favourably to other Terry Gilliam successes, such as Time Bandits (1981). What a difference a couple of decades makes, huh? Who knows—perhaps Mortdecai will follow the same route.

Yeah, I doubt it, too. But stranger things have happened; I’m not discounting anything. And whenever marketing has a role in determining a product’s success (or failure), there’s always the chance that we’ll start remembering the campaign more than the movie … perhaps leading us to wax nostalgic a bit about the junk that was.

It works in the opposite direction, too. Are we still going to believe that Titanic (1997) was Best-Picture-Oscar-worthy in 50 years? Or that The Wizard of Oz (1939) wasn’t? I succumbed a long time ago to the idea that Gone with the Wind (1939) should’ve been ignored by the Academy, given its cinematic competitions, and I still think there’s little lustre on that dreary, socially noxious piece of celluloid. Had I seen it when it debuted, though, I wonder how long it would’ve taken me to come to that conclusion.

MortdecaiSo it is with taste and how it transforms over time. The question is, how can we objectively determine whether a picture is bad if the determinants aren’t set in stone? Is there an objective way to do it? Or are we destined to suffer through the ages believing that beauty is in the eye of the filmgoer?

We live in an era where the word “genius” is often thrown around when describing a personality—so much so that the label has become diluted, milked of its original power. I’ve seen that moniker slapped on folks like director Christopher Nolan. But is it warranted? Who gets to say if it is and whether that holds true? Are there, in fact, arbiters of quality?

Popularity is an oft-used tool, and ratings on sites such as IMDB hold a lot of weight. Still, they don’t represent everything correctly, and figures may be skewed when compiled from the results of voters owing to a variety of factors, including the possibility that many good films—especially foreign ones—are seen and voted on by fewer people.

Do folks sometimes get it right? Yes, it can happen: Mortdecai, for one, has fared poorly on IMDB from a ratings standpoint. Yet that number may shift over time, change with the guard. How can we say it’s unequivocally awful when perception of it over the years has the chance to be more sanguine?

It’s true—we should trust our own judgments. It’s hard, though, when individuals such as Nolan are affixed with the same label used for packaging Kurosawa and Eisenstein. I’m wondering when the time will come when folks begin to equate Eminem with Mozart. Or Koons with Rembrandt. Can we stop the insanity before it starts? Isn’t there some way to put quality on a pedestal high above the pedestrian? To make such assessments permanent?

Somehow, I wish that were the case. Then again, what would that make me when thinking about Ishtar? Kind of a hypocrite, no? Maybe there’s both very good and very bad … and what’s in between is up to us. I’d hate to come to that conclusion, but it’s the only way I can rectify the issue I have with Ishtar. It ain’t as bad as some. Could that be my taste talking—or my era?

I’m not sure. I could resign myself to watching it again to find out. I’m worried, however, that I’ll find myself liking it more than I should. Because I do believe in a certain kind of objectivity.

Especially when it comes to me.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

9 thoughts on “The ‘Ishtar’ Effect: Changing Perceptions and the Allure of Objectivity

  1. Great topic, Simon. We are very quick to judge something the best or the worst, and very bad at understanding how perspective changes opinion. When it comes to evaluating a director’s career, I like the Baseball Hall of Fame rule. Wait until the director has been out of the game for five years before coming to any conclusion. It’s very hard to evaluate a career-in-progress.

    • Thanks, Jon. You’re right, as usual–and that’s a great point about the Baseball Hall of Fame rule. Being a baseball fan myself, I find that to be a helpful analogy! But it’s funny: Even the Hall has admitted players that were products of the times … when, say, 300 wins or batting average were deemed important instead of stats such as ERA and on-base percentage. I wonder what our baseball/movie hall of fame is going to be like when we start examining future classes … will the curve be sizable? It’s an interesting question.

  2. We should just trust our on judgement about movies (and books). I too sort of liked Ishtar and thought I must be really dumb after reading all the reviews. I think I will have to go back and watch it again. My best judgement tells me to stay far away from Mortdecai given the clips I’ve seen on TV.

  3. Perhaps a better name for this phenomenon would be the Vertigo Effect. That 1958 Hitchcock film opened to mixed reviews and barely broke even at the box office. But by 2012 it had knocked Citizen Kane off its perch on the top on some lists of the best films of all time. Blade Runner is another, less obvious case. Then again, Ishtar might not even quality for the Vertigo Effect, I can’t imagine anyone saying that stinkbomb was ahead of its time. When the credits rolled I half-expected an Army MP to bark, “Applause!”

    • What has happened to Vertigo is fascinating; it never was one of my favorite Hitchcocks, but I do like it all the same … and I can’t imagine what audiences thought of its emotional highs and lows when it first came out. And I agree about Blade Runner; I think Citizen Kane also was greeted with some puzzlement when it debuted, right? As for Ishtar, I don’t think it was all that bad … but I don’t think it’s a great film, either. I will say that I don’t think it’s as lousy as its reputation; that’s a category I reserve for only the great bad films, like Showgirls. 😀

  4. I think it goes without saying that some films just don’t stand the test of time. Many that I once thought were ‘great’ seem lame on later viewing. Some of course were always terrible, and I have to include ‘Ishtar’ in that category Simon. As for comparing some modern directors to the likes of Kurosawa, then age and experience seems to be important. Many younger film-goers, bloggers, voters on sites, and some reviewers have probably never even seen a Kurosawa film, let alone the work of Eisenstein.
    As for your plea to stop the insanity, it’s already too late my friend. Far too late.
    Best wishes from England. Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. Yes, I’m afraid the insanity seems to have taken hold, but I do think there’s still hope. As long as we’re still keeping the faith about the greats in venues such as CURNBLOG, we can continue to get the message out.

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