My Year of Flops — Nathan Rabin

Let me admit biases up front: for the past few years, I’ve looked forward every Wednesday to Nathan Rabin’s regular column at the AV Club,“My Year of Flops,” where he reviews–and reappraises–some of the worst-received films of all time. I’m also a fan of Rabin’s other columns, “THEN! That’s What They Called Music!” and “Nashville or Bust,” as well as the general tone of the AV Club, which he no doubt helps set as its head writer. I also thought Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind was pretty good. So, I’m probably not the most objective person to review Rabin’s new book My Year of Flops, which comprises 35 of Rabin’s past columns, 15 new entries, and interview snippets with some of the actors who had the (mis)fortune to turn up in these flops. I’ll do my best to assess how well these columns–most of which were written for the internet–hold up as a book.

So, what, exactly, constitutes a flop?  There are the biggies here, of course, infamous studio-busting career-killers like Heaven’s Gate, Battlefield Earth, and Ishtar;  the batshit crazy weirdfests that were destined to become cult classics, like Southland Tales, Howard the Duck, and The Apple; the disposable movies made to be forgotten, like Bratz: The Movie; there are forgotten and overlooked oddballs, like Robert Altman’s teen sex comedy, O.C. and Stiggs, and Gospel Road, where Johnny Cash tells the life story of Jesus. All of these films share disappointing (or non-existent) box office results as well as general critical disapproval (or at least bewilderment). As part of his revisionist project, Rabin ends each entry by declaring the re-appraised film a “Secret Success,” a “Fiasco,” or a “Failure.” Tellingly, most of the time Rabin finds his subject to be a “Fiasco.” He’s willing to take each film on its own terms; he’s also incredibly open to viewing each film in a way that transcends the trappings of its marketing to an intended audience.

Take, for example Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a film macho novelist Norman Mailer thought it would be a totally sound idea to not only write but direct. Rabin’s initial analysis derides the film for its cardboard characters, debased gimmickry, and embarrassing dialog. By the end of his reassessment, however, Rabin has given the would-be thriller a new life as “a darkly comic, horror-tinged melodrama about the emptiness of excess and the soul-crushing costs of pursuing endless pleasure.” His review rests not on a personal ironic vision, but rather on a willingness to see Mailer’s own ironic vision at work behind (and in front of) the camera.

In the same way, Rabin is able to put aside–even while acknowledging–the dreadful reputations surrounding films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. Even though the latter film essentially destroyed both its studio and the maverick filmmaking style of the 1970s, Rabin finds in it more than a slight redemption–he finds a flawed masterpiece, a gorgeous treatise on Manifest Destiny that doesn’t deserve its reputation. Similarly, Rabin would have us believe that Istar actually is funny. Both of these entries are remarkable not just in their clear revisionist goal, but also for how instructive they are. In both write-ups, Rabin reveals much of how movies are made, and how movies are made flops–the ways that infighting, firings, and studio expectations can damn a film before it even premieres.

While My Year of Flops is instructive in its criticism, it’s also very entertaining. Rabin has a keen sense of satire, and if he occasionally tips into snark, it’s always earned (and if you have a problem with a writer being snarky at the expense of Battlefield Earth, well, you’re probably a prig anyway). A great illustration of how Rabin combines his sense of humor with his instructive criticism in his coinage of the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”–

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors, who use them to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl serves as a means to an end, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Once life lessons have been imparted, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl might as well disappear in a poof! for her life’s work is done.

Cameron Crowe is particularly guilty of employing the MPDG trope, but you can find her pretty much everywhere you look–at least in the domain of rom-coms. Rabin proposes the term in his first entry in the series (also the first entry in the book) a review of Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown. Rabin finds it to be a Fiasco. In a move that sums up both Rabin’s program and his generous spirit, Rabin concludes My Year of Flops by re-reassessing Elizabethtown–he now dubs it a Secret Success. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that a critic should-be a starry-eyed optimist who finds the best of all possible worlds in each work, I do think that it has become far too easy to outright dismiss someone’s hard work. We live in a hyper-mediated age that moves too fast: all propositions are disposable, including the arts. Rabin, in taking each work on its own terms, does a service to both criticism and creativity.

Rabin’s own columns might, of course, fall prey to this disposable age. Today’s columns and blog posts are meant to be consumed quickly; although the best might find a life of new clicks in cyberspace, most are tomorrow’s virtual bird-cage liners. The blog-book is thus a tenuous grasp at some permeability–or at least respectability. My Year of Flops is fun, energetic, and insightful, but it does not bear sustained reading. The entries are best consumed one at time, probably between other tasks (or other books). It’s a great book for the john. Still, in an ideal library, My Year of Flops would stand squarely along side any other work of film criticism (it’s certainly sharper than anything by Leonard Maltin or Gene Shalit). Ultimately, Rabin does here what all great critics do–he makes a case for the works he’s appraising. He makes you want to see his Secret Successes and even the Fiascos (and, at times, even the Failures). I’ll even forgive him for making me watch The Apple. Recommended.