Sunday, February 13, 2011
Bad is Good, Awful Even Better
The following column is reprinted from the Feburary issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):
Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel
To many of those of us who follow the wonderfully weird world of commercial cinema there is nothing quite as fascinating as a movie train-wreck or an outright film bomb, that shaggy dog species of pure cinematic failure on either the artistic or commercial plain ---or in the best/worst case scenario, both. Of course, film flops provide a lot of heightened film nitcrit rhetoric, and often an equal amount of finger-pointing and ha-ha fodder for a variety of media types and the general public, although they can be pure talk-talk nirvana for your run-of-the-mill barstool film buff (and I am definitely looking in the mirror as I utter that).
Thus, I bow my head with a combo of deep and overwhelming envy and admiration towards Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club (the sister publication to The Onion) who published one of the more entertaining and erudite movie books of 2010, My Year of Flops (264 pp. Scribner. Paper, $15)), an extremely humorous but strangely respectful small tome devoted to being a largely effervescent look into film flops both big and small, both heralded and obscure, both at the box office and laid out as targets at the movie reviewer’s collective shooting range.
Even the casual filmgoer has some knowledge about big-time movie floparamas, particularly in this era when a film’s weekly intake of cashola gets examined on the pages of USA Today and on the nightly TV entertainment wrap-ups. Any moviegoer with a modicum of knowledge outta be to able to come up with a quick list of infamously failed flicks, from Cleopatra to Gigli, from Paint Your Wagon to Heaven’s Gate, from Ishtar to Waterworld (all of which Rabin examines). Flops are yet another way to peer into the constant push-and-pull between art and commerce that is omnipresent (and often vastly under evaluated) when interpolating the art and craft of moviemaking. What makes an exceptional filmmaker go so strangely astray? How can so many dedicated and truly knowledgeable artisans contribute their earnest and hard-earned efforts to a project that seems so spectacularly stupid? Why green light such obvious crapola? Does more popcorn get consumed during the screening of yet another Hollywood misfire rather than that dripping-with-sincerity offering playing down at the near empty boutique art theater?
Rabin doesn’t have the answers, but he delves into the good, the bad, and the very, very weird without adopting a hipster pose, and with an eyes-wide-open enthusiasm that makes for some trenchant and amusing reading. Calling each movie reexamination a Case File, he positions himself as a cinematic sleuth with puppy dog eagerness, attempting to place each failure in one of the following categories: Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success. (Or in once case, “a semisecret fiascopiece.”) Thankfully, particularly with such a potentially ripe subject, Rabin can be legitimately funny without being overtly snarky, as in his attempt to explain the way-out acting turns in the final chapter’s of acting great Marlon Brando’s onscreen career: “…sometime in the mid-70’s, Marlon Brando began taking marching orders from The Great Gazoo, the tiny effeminate green alien only Fred Flinstone could see.”
The book’s subtitle is “One man’s Journey Deep Into the Heart of Cinematic Failure”, allowing the author to utilize his cinematic detection talents to equally scrutinize such diverse degrees of badness as Inexplicable Directorial Lead Ballons ( Robert Altmam’s O.C. And Stiggs, Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, Preston Sturges’ The Great Moment, and Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From a Mall), Truly Execrable Efforts (Freddy Got Fingered, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and The Love Guru), or more Fascinating Failures ( the 1962 and 1997 versions of Lolita, The Rocketeer, or the truly gonzo Tough Guys Don’t Dance).
Rabin can indeed be cutting (on Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band: “ But Stigwood’s film reduces the Beatles diverse, literate humor to history’s dumbest variety-show skit. …It ransacks vaudeville and silent film for its hokey jokes, grossly exaggerated performances, and groaning stupidity, but adds disco flourishes and special effects that wouldn’t look out of place in a Rudy Ray Moore movie.”), but his lack of film snobbery and general authorial high spirits make it all palatable, as do the constant stream of descriptive bon mots and eye-winking one-liners. (The book’s appendix, a scene by scene dissection of Waterworld, is something of a comic tour de force.)
Critic and film historian David Thompson once called Heaven’s Gate “a wounded monster”, and Rabin is bright and blithe enough to place it and it’s fellow monstrosities into a cage with plenty of water and food, and, yup, popcorn. After all, the scary monsters of commercial cinema ought to be watched and enjoyed as much as the holy beasts that we spend so much time endlessly analyzing, handing out awards to, or compiling all-time lists about. My Year of Flops, may not be a highly illuminating, sturdily academic study probing directly into the heart of film flop darkness, but it is an exceptionally witty read and an undeniably cool concept.