Last week, Ishtar, one of my all time favorite movies, was brought to mind when one of my bosses made the statement ‘I am not going to be popular for a couple of weeks.’ When the choice of telling the truth or being popular is presented to me, the theme song from Ishtar, Dangerous Business, always starts to play in my head.
Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
If you admit that you can play the accordion,
No one'll hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.
But we can siiinnnngggggg . . . our hearts out (all night)
And if we're lucky, then no neighbors complain.
Nobody knows where the beginning part starts out (sing all right)
But being human we can live with the pain.
Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job.
I’ve often wondered why I was one of the few people that liked Ishtar. I know I went to the theater expecting great performances from Hoffman and Beatty. I sat there mesmerized by the characters they portrayed, stiff, clumsy, desperate, and down right irritating, nothing like the actors I knew. I am not going to apologize that I easily find humor in life. If you don’t find it humorous that an American could believe they could go to a Middle East market, find one guy named Mohammed and buy a blind camel, then I think you are talking life to seriously. So I laughed out loud at the theater. But I think I also cried. I saw too much of myself in the film. Was this what it would look like if I really tried to live out my dream? Would my life look this pathetic?
During a PBS pledge break this weekend a British actor was explaining what he thought the difference between American and British humor was. In British comedy the audience wants to laugh ‘at’ the actors’ situation, while American audiences want to laugh ‘with’ the actors’ situation. This sums up what’s wrong with Ishtar. No one wants to identify with Lyle and Clarke. No one wants to live their dream and proudly say like Lyle did to Clarke,
It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age, don't you understand that? Most guys'd be ashamed, but you've got the guts to just say 'to hell with it'. You say that you'd rather have nothing than settle for less, understand?
That was a message from the film that I didn’t want to lose, that living my dream, even if it meant failure to the world, should be the most important thing to me. I was thrilled when I found the file in my Columba Video club catalogue, and ordered it right away. I wanted to remember to live my dream.
Unfortunately, it turned out that I didn’t ‘have the nerve to have nothing at my age’. The video and most of my dreams sat on a shelf for years.
My boss’s comment last week flooded me with memories, so I goggled the song lyrics. I was shocked to find an Ishtar presence on the web and it kind of restored my faith in my dream. It made me pull my video out and watch the magic again. Hey, I might even be interested in arranging a fan convention, but only if I can sit between Dustin and Warren at the banquet.
I didn’t get to mention Charles Grogin’s excellent portrayal of a CIA agent, or the film’s 1987 Middle East political overtones, or even how bad music can bring people together.
Elaine May has said “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today." She learned that most of us don’t want to be reminded that we are ‘leading lives of quiet desperation.’ It turns out that telling the truth is dangerous business.