I. In Praise of Shambling
"If only we were allowed to be in shambles more, to fail more, we might all produce a body of work that has a lot of good stuff in it—even if people dismiss some of our shambles as the biggest catastrophes in movie history."
--Jill Dawsey, "On Elaine May" (2009), discussing May's movie Ishtar (1987), the famous failure that tanked May's shambling but brilliant directing career
I saw Ishtar when it came out twenty-some years ago. I loved it. The two heroes, played by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty (left), are mediocre middle-aged songwriters. Worse than mediocre: they stink. It takes a kind of genius to be truly bad, and they have it.
(Pop-songster Paul Williams wrote the atrocious melodies, as well as some of the lyrics with May. Williams wrote the Carpenters' hit "Rainy Days and Mondays", so he was well qualified.)
In the same article, above, Julian Myers points to one of Ishtar's great moments:
"Hoffman is on the ledge considering suicide. His girlfriend, played by Carol Kane, has just left him, with the killer line, 'If you never see me again, it’ll only be one time less a week than you see me now!' Beatty’s character comes out to save him, and consoles him by saying, 'Hey, it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age.'"
Instead of the American/Hollywood myth of heroes who go West and make good, these guys in Ishtar go into the wilderness (a music gig in the Middle East), get involved a CIA tangle, and come out the same musical mediocrities.
But happier. Which is, of course, a kind of success.
I remember a hysterical note to the critics' negative reviews. Not to say Ishtar's a great movie, but it's got charm and is no worse than many flawed comedy films, which tend to be spotty anyway.
Even at the time, though, when the movie came out, I thought maybe some of the rancor toward it came from how contrary it was to the popular mood.
It was 1987, the heydey of Ronald Reagan.
Right: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shakes the hand of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983. (from the National Security Archive)
Some of us might have approved of Ishtar mocking CIA meddling (at this time, the USA was supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War); but the movie also celebrates failures. Which was heresy, even to the "alternative" folks I knew, who were busy visualizing prosperity.
The '80s schtick, as I recall it, was that if you follow your bliss, you'll manifest your brilliance, or some such thing.
But what if you do what you love and you stink at it ...forever?
Who wants to watch movies about that?
II. My Shambling Life
I can't say I felt good about having nothing when I was in my twenties and saw that movie. But I didn't see any alternative that didn't involve doing stuff I really, really didn't want to do. Like get a full-time job.
It seemed my best option was to shamble along--or just to stall, like the blind camel in Ishtar that refuses to move.
I feel a lot better about it now.
When my mother killed herself seven Decembers ago, I spent many evenings sitting in the dark. Mostly stunned, but also taking stock of my life.
"I have nothing," I thought.
No career, no house, no car, no lover, no prestige...
It was weirdly freeing. Like, hey! I've succeeded: I've held out so long, the war for My Success is over. Now I can come out of the fox hole and have the place to myself.
It took a few more years before I had the emotional energy to use the freedom that comes with Nothing. It's like a "do what you want" permission slip.
Looking back at this past year, I see I really called on that freedom in making my first movies.
When I first started making Orestes and the Fly in the fall of 2008, the most misguided advice I got was that it was too ambitious for a first-time project: I was likely to fail and should start with something smaller.
But if you're already a failure, failure's not a problem!
Why not start big, if you want? And I did want.
I made sure to shore up that freedom by telling everyone that my first film was likely to be a total mess--and I meant it. Why wouldn't it be? In fact, it still surprises me that it came together at all, much less as well as it did. It's a bit of a shambles, yes, but I'm happy with it.
Happiness. That's the opposite of nothing.
III. Screwing Up [Courage]
When I was a kid, I thought it'd be great to live in a garret, be poor, and make art.
At mid-life, I live in a garret, I'm poor, and I make art.
By those standards, I'm a success.
Not to be too glib here. Having nothing is scarier when I think about getting old and sick, which feels more real since I've had some health problems this year.
And the risk of failing in public still makes me feel sick.
I've had to face that all over again with the recent herring film, which bink is almost done editing.
It's the fourth little video I've conceived of, and it's the least coherent. It was meant to be a comedy sketch, and what do I know about that? Comedy is, I think, the trickiest, most delicate art, and one I've never practiced. The raw footage shows that.
I don't see any way to learn it, though, except to do it.
Right: "Mike Nichols and Elaine May," by Richard Avedon, 1960. From the back cover of the album An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mercury Records, 1960.
In a 2006 conversation between Mike Nichols and Elaine May, May said about the many mistakes she made as a first-time director (on A New Leaf),
"There’s no way to know unless someone teaches you or you screw up."
I usually opt for the "screw up" option. I don't know if the herring film will be a total shambles or not. Of course I hope bink manages to pull something charming together, but in a way, it won't matter if it's a failure. I'll make film #5 anyway.
Yeah, it does take a lot of nerve to have nothing at my age. But I trust that I'm building up a body of work--or a life--that might have some good stuff in it. Or if not--no guarantees--godwilling, I'll be happy doing it.
[So far as I can see, Ishtar still hasn't been released on DVD. Just recently, however, it's become available to watch online at Netflix. I wrote this post without having watched it again, so I'd better do that.]