So here we are.
There is a force in the world, and certainly in America, that I like to call Understood Culture. It’s the massive generalization of where all of our pop culture lies in the lens of history. A gentlemen’s agreement, if you will, about what is Good and what is Bad. It’s made up of countless archived reviews and articles and lists -- holy crap, so very many lists -- of the Best and Worst Thises and the Best and Worst Thats, distilled into the common knowledge that becomes Understood Culture.
Understood Culture does shift a bit over time, allowing what may once have been considered Bad to become a Cult Classic (see: “Lebowski, The Big,” or, Edsel, Ford’s), or what was once Popular to become Hopelessly Out of Fashion but then swing back to Re-Appreciated Nostalgia (see: Dancing, Ballroom, or, Disco).
Not everyone agrees with everything deemed Good or Bad in Understood Culture. There are those who actually enjoyed the taste of New Coke, something that is definitely Bad, according to Understood Culture. But that doesn’t matter. Understood Culture isn’t about you. Understood Culture is about the collective you. And it’s here to help that collective you.
You see, at its core, Understood Culture exists to allow people an easy way to know what is Good and what is Bad without ever having to actually experience any of it. Kids who weren’t even born when New Coke came out know that it was A Bad Thing. You may not have seen Raging Bull or Lost in Translation or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, but thanks to Understood Culture, you know they are Good. Understood Culture helps a lot with dinner party conversation and stand-up comedians’ punchlines. Johnny Carson! Jar Jar! Sinatra! Honey Boo Boo! Citizen Kane! Ishtar!
Ishtar. That’s where Understood Culture bit me in the ass.
Understood Culture has told me for years that Ishtar is a horrible movie. I remember seeing the TV spots for it when I was in high school, and thinking that it looked kind of funny, and that maybe I should see it. But with no car, no money, and no one in my life who had any desire to see the movie with me, I never managed to get to a theatre near me in the late spring of 1987.
However, Understood Culture soon swooped in, letting me know that I’d dodged a bullet. Ishtar was Bad. Not just Bad, but possibly The Worst Movie Ever. At least, that’s what Understood Culture told me. And I, with all of my little then-15 year-old heart, believed it. I believed it enough to pepper it in conversations: that pizza may be bad, but at least it’s no “Ishtar!” I even put it in the lyric of a silly little song I wrote in college: Not having you is like doing the [flexed] arm hang for two solid hours without any fingers and forced to watch “Ishtar.” Again, I never saw the movie, but thanks to Understood Culture, I didn’t have to.
And I never questioned it. Why would I possibly question Understood Culture? It had been right about so many things: The Beatles and Springsteen: Good. Plan 9 From Outer Space and Small Wonder: Bad.
Sometimes, in the course of human events, we encounter people we truly admire, but whose work Understood Culture has mixed feelings about. For me, that person was Paul Williams. Paul Williams wrote classics like Evergreen and The Rainbow Connection and all the songs from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. He also wrote and co-wrote most of the songs in Ishtar.
This didn’t matter to me when I met him, or continued to occasionally encounter him, because Ishtar never came up. That is, until last month, when Paul was appearing at a weekend of screenings at the Museum of the Moving Image. My husband and I went to see Phantom of the Paradise (Understood Culture says: Cult Film) and said hi to Paul before the screening. And then he said:
Are you coming to see “Ishtar?” Elaine’s going to be there.
Elaine. Elaine May. Director of Ishtar. Understood Culture says: Comedy Legend. Oh yes, I think I can sit through Ishtar.
Still, having lived as long as I have and having seen films that are all shades of good, bad and horrible (we like to play Turner Classic Movies Roulette sometimes), I also have less and less patience for spending increasingly valuable life hours on things I know are going to be subpar. So I was torn, certainly, and also a bit nervous when we found ourselves seated directly behind Paul. This could be uncomfortable, watching a bad movie right behind someone on its creative team. Oh, well, I thought. You don’t like going to the dentist, either, and Paul Williams and Elaine May never show up there.
Understood Culture, for whatever reason, is wrong about Ishtar.
There are people who like to watch bad movies and TV for ironic reasons, but the copious laughter at this well-populated screening was genuine. I know mine was, and my husband’s certainly was. It’s a funny (albeit far from perfect) movie, just as I suspected it was when I was 15.
I don’t know that I would have appreciated the movie when I was 15. I don’t know that I would have found it as funny if my expectations weren’t so low, thanks to Understood Culture. I don’t even know that it’s a movie I would see again and again. It’s not the greatest movie ever, and yes, it has a few flaws. But I do know that it is not the Worst Movie Ever, not by a long shot.
Paul and/or Elaine told an interesting story after the screening, about how Gary Larson had done a “The Far Side” comic strip about a video store in Hell where there’s nothing but shelves and shelves of Ishtar... and apparently, years later Larson saw the film and actually apologized for the fact that he hadn’t seen Ishtar when initially he drew it and was sorry that he’d been so unfair to the movie.
Understood Culture undoubtedly led Larson to draw that strip, and the strip subsequently reinforced the Understood Culture, certainly in my mind, anyway, because I remember seeing that strip and thinking: if Understood Culture says “The Far Side” is Good, and if something Good thinks that “Ishtar” is Bad, then it stands to reason that “Ishtar” is most definitely and maybe even doubly Bad.
And that’s the sad crux of Understood Culture... it feeds itself on ignorance.
I feed myself on carbs. Carbs are a paradox in Understood Culture: they are deemed both Good and Bad. But I’m done with caring about that.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.