Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next year or so I am going to be doing something peculiar, even counter-intuitive: I am going to celebrate some of the biggest critical and commercial flops in film history. What could possibly compel anyone to pursue such a strange, Quixotic quest?
As you might imagine, I'm an unabashed failure junkie. I get positively giddy over the toxic buzz, noxious press and scathing reviews that send saner moviegoers fleeing in horror. There's a strange majesty to a truly epic failure, a furtive glory to films that lunge towards the heavens before plummeting indelicately to the earth.
I am not here to bury flops but to praise them. The commercial and creative evil that failed movies do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their paltry box-office receipts. I am here to celebrate the epic overreaching, messy humanity and Herculean ambition of cinematic failure at its most spectacular.
But before I immerse myself in a riveting world of failure, hubris and colossal miscalculation I'd like to map out the parameters of this project by articulating what it is I won't be doing.
I won't be playing the knee-jerk contrarian provocateur. I'm not going to argue that Gigli is better than Citizen Kane. That would be unfair to both Citizen Kane and Gigli. It would demean what Gigli sets out to accomplish and what Citizen Kane actually achieves. Also, it would be retarded.
Nor am I here to rave about movies that were huge commercial failures upon their initial release but have subsequently become universally revered classics. The world doesn't need me to point out that even though it lost poor Walt Disney a bundle back in 1940 Pinnochio is actually a pretty swell movie.
Similarly I won't be heralding movies that were flops upon their initial release but have subsequently become cult classics. The Donnie Darkos and Rocky Horror Picture Shows have enough staunch defenders out there without me joining their chorus of admirers. Obviously every film has at least a tiny cult. I'm sure there are a few deluded souls out there who consider Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector the apex of Western civilization but I will be limiting myself to movies that don't have substantial cult followings.
I also won't be championing every failed movie. I have a very limited amount of sympathy for films–especially sequels and remakes–that aspire only to deliver a healthy return on investment but come up short. So movies like Poseidon will have to find defenders elsewhere.
To an extent "My Year Of Flops" is an extension of an A.V. Club sidebar called "10 Notorious Flops Worth Seeing". The point of that piece was that movies that movies that belly flop on a historic level often do so because they took huge, admirable risks that didn't pay off. I want to defend movies that dare to dream big. I think it's important to herald the ambition, conviction and audacity of truly epic failures while at the same time acknowledging their shortcomings.
For example the qualities that make Spike Lee such an important and vital filmmaker–audacity, conviction, fearlessness, ambition, vision, a seeming indifference to commercial considerations and a burning hunger to comment insightfully on the most pressing issues of our time–also make him one of the most prolific creators of terrible, terrible movies the world has ever known. I want to celebrate filmmakers like Lee who oftentimes make all the wrong moves for all the right reasons.
Another reason I'm pursuing this project is to refute what I like to call the "Everything Sucksism" afflicting popular culture, a cheap adolescent nihilism that delights in taking down celebrities and pop-culture entities that are already walking punchlines. "Everything Sucksism" reigns on E! and VH-1, where seemingly half the shows (especially those with "Awesomely Bad" in the title) consist of anonymous C-listers making agonizingly banal, snidely delivered comments about tacky celebrities and failed projects. Boy, that K-Fed isn't a very good rapper! That Britney Spears sure is unencumbered by excesses of dignity and intelligence! Isn't Paris Hilton worthless!? Wasn't hair-metal lame?! Milli Vanilli sure was cheesy! And what's up with The Macarena? What were we thinking?
Everything sucksism is ugly, it's cheap, it contributes nothing of value to popular culture and worst of all, it's not funny. Everything sucksism reduces all of human endeavor to a cheap punchline. The poster boy for everything sucksism is David Spade, a snarky sentient smirk of a comedian who has built an entire career out of taking on the easiest of targets without ever hitting his mark.
Once a movie fails spectacularly it generally ceases to be the subject of intelligent and informed debate and enters the cheap, degraded realm of everything sucksism, where yesterday's disasters are resuscitated solely so they can be kicked in the teeth one last time for the unforgivable crime of failing.
In the My Year Of Flops to come I will certainly not abstain from cruelty. After all, my first entry, posting Thursday, is titled "Elizabethtown: The Bataan Death March Of Whimsy". If you see me viciously attacking something here you can bet that I'm probably guilty of it as well. But I will try to be meaningful in my cruelty and constructive in my criticism.
But I am attempting to enter into this project with a spirit of generosity. These films have been kicked around enough: by critics, by audiences, by various Medveds and by history. What they need someone to defend them.
With that in mind I'd like to map out what I hope to accomplish with this project. First and foremost I'd like to ferret out movies I think are worth watching even if their historical reputations suggest that they're worth than Hitler, The Hindenburg explosion and Gigli combined. Secondly, I'd like to praise celebrate cinematic failure at its most majestic. Accordingly I'll be kicking things off with my take on Elizabethtown, an epic celebration of the glory of failure that is itself an example of the peculiar glory of failure. I may not like movies like Elizabethtown but I admire the chances it takes. Elizabethtown will also provide me with a handy grading system for this project: I'll be dividing movies into three categories: Failures, Fiascoes and Secret Successes. To paraphrase Orlando Bloom's stilted Elizabethtown narration a Failure is simply the non-presence of success while a Fiasco is a failure of mythic proportions. A commercially underperforming movie like Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle is a mere failure.Myra Breckinridge however, is a fiasco. A Secret Success, meanwhile, is a movie that has a dreadful reputation but that I think is genuinely good. The first, and hopefully not final, Secret Success in this project will be the little-loved Ben Stiller/Jack Black vehicle Envy.
Human beings are generally at their most human and vulnerable during periods of failure. The same is true of films. Directors' failures often say as much, if not more, about the people behind them than successes. Think Lady In The Water or Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio or Kevin Spacey's Beyond The Sea. In those films the director's insane narcissism is laid bare for all the world to see, unencumbered by distractions like "compelling storytelling" or "engaging characters."
The line between failure and success is often a thin one. A fifty-something Benigni playing a boy puppet is seemingly a surefire recipe for disaster. But couldn't the same be said of a heartwarming feel-good family comedy set in a concentration camp? Yet Life Is Beautiful was an international smash, a phenomenon even, and Pinocchio a colossal dud.
Lastly I'd like to single out great scenes and transcendent performances from otherwise failed movies. By breaking films down into chapters DVD and YouTube have encouraged moviegoers to become connoisseurs of moments of unexpected grace that stand in sharper relief when they're nestled inside graceless, clumsy movies. Think of Robert Stack quietly tearing up while watching Dumbo as the outside world goes flamboyantly to hell all around him in 1941 or the delicate way Christopher Walken flips his long, greasy hair or pronounces "hooty owl" in Envy.
My ambition here is modest. I would simply like to become the world's preeminent expert on cinematic failure. I would like the name "Nathan Rabin" to be synonymous with colossal failure. Or rather I would like my name to be even more synonymous with colossal failure that it already is. To start things off on a fittingly ironic note I'm choosing a day when The Academy honors cinema's biggest winners by announcing Oscar nominations to begin my year-long tribute to cinema's biggest losers.
Will I be as passionate about defending failed movies six or eight months from now? Who the hell knows? But I'm going into this project with a certain dewy idealism. Who knows if the Bonfire Of The Vanities and Swept Aways of the world will beat that out of me?
With this project I aim to give some of the most reviled films of all time something I think everyone and everything deserves but that few ever receive–a second chance.