In the hands of a less interesting writer, My Year Of Flops, a book about films that failed critically and commercially, could be a profoundly lazy project, akin to Alex Rodriguez writing the book, My Year Of Doing Nothing But Taking Batting Practice, Oh And By The Way My Mom Was Pitching.
Nathan Rabin, the head writer at the A.V. Club (The Onion's entertainment section), certainly has all the shredding skills required to sit back and casually transform 500 pounds of unsuccessful movies into a fine tartare. (He wrote his memoir The Big Rewind last year, and that's also a very good book.) And if you're in the market for slice-and-dice mockery of bad films done well, you'll certainly find it. Consider this description of the 1995 Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter:
This Scarlet Letter is many things. It's a shameless bodice ripper, a potboiler, softcore porn, and a sleazy wallow in sex and violence. It isn't, however, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The "freely adapted" credit gives the film considerable wiggle room, but the filmmakers really should have been honest with audiences and given it a new title, like The Lusty Pilgrim, and a tagline like, "The man with the clerical collar ... has this wench all hot and bothered!" or "He was a man of the cloth; she wanted to rip his clothes off!" Joffe's heavy-breathing, soft-headed erotic drama splits the difference between The Scarlet Letter and Red Shoe Diaries.
This kind of writing — eviscerating that which deserves to be eviscerated — is delightful. I enjoy it. I engage in it. I heartily endorse it. But I'm not sure this would make a whole book, just lining up films that are, in the eyes of history, already down, and mercilessly beating the tar out of them while your friends laugh and cheer.
What My Year Of Flops does instead is to genuinely reconsider all these failures and give them a fair hearing, which sometimes results in surprising conclusions, like this evaluation of Heaven's Gate:
Today, Heaven's Gate stands as a haunting, though profoundly flawed, elegy for a bloody and lost West, for a cinematic revolution on its last legs, and for one very talented, very troubled director whose untethered, uncontrollable ambition was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
And where there's ... well, where there's beating the tar out of a film and where there's a conclusion that it is indeed an artistic failure, the criticism is not glib and cheap but thoughtful and specific — as here, when Rabin discusses the problems with committing to film some of the lines spoken in Gus Van Sant's adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get The Blues:
The elaborate, almost sadistic wordiness of those phrases might have a pleasing, perverse rhythm in print, but on-screen, they groan and lumber, secretly beckoning audiences to check their watches and contemplate dinner plans. Robbins' loopy poetry and stoner lyricism died somewhere in the fraught journey between page and screen. Whimsy has a way of becoming grotesque when rendered in the literal-minded vocabulary of film.
Don't get me wrong — for all the thought that's gone into it, it's still a very funny book. I can't quote very much of Rabin's dissection of the collision of sex and comedy as displayed in the bondage comedy Exit To Eden starring Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O'Donnell, but I will tell you that (1) it makes me laugh every time I read it, and (2) it includes the observation that "sex and comedy go together only when sped up and accompanied by Boots Randolph's 'Yakety Sax.'" (Oh, and this observation about one of the characters: "Dr. Halifax is the Yoda of deviant sex.")
If there's one fundamental argument I have spent more energy disagreeing with than any other in the last ten years or so, it's this: That thing is not very good, and therefore, by definition, it is a waste of energy to talk about that thing. But when things don't work, there are a hundred questions that follow. Why isn't it good? Is it the very idea? The execution? Is it schlocky and predictable, or thoughtlessly nihilistic? My Year Of Flops is a great step toward snuffing out the ideas that only great things should be talked about, that there's nothing to learn from failure, and that the only thing to do about an artistic or commercial punching bag is to pretend it never happened.