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.
So 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.