Describing Robert Altman as "the John Belushi-esque Dionysus" of 1970s American cinema, or Ang Lee's stab at making a comic book movie, 2003's Hulk, as a "bravely quiet … subversion of the comic book movie" requires a certain skewed pop intellect. And Nathan Rabin's got it in spades.
In 2007, Rabin, head writer of The A.V. Club (the non-satirical entertainment arm of satirical newspaper and website The Onion), undertook a project of cinematic masochism: the re-evaluation of cinema's most notorious critical and commercial failures. The result was My Year of Flops, a series of bi-weekly "case files" published on The A.V. Club website, and herein collected in codex form (in the tradition of blog-cum-books like Julie Powell's Julia & Julia and Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like), along with some book-exclusive interviews, bonus case files and extended riffs.
My Year of Flops is an index of the miscarried big-budget gambits we all remember - from the kid-friendly Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero to budget-bloated bombs like Heaven's Gate and Waterworld - and others we'd just as soon forget, like Uwe Boll's video game adaptation Postal (cherished by some as the big-screen debut of Dave Foley's penis) or Roberto Benigni's live-action Pinocchio (cherished by none as the film in which Roberto Benigni prances around in frilly puppet-man pyjamas).
"You can learn a lot about society by the pop culture it embraces," Rabin writes in his introduction. "And just as much by what it angrily rejects." But more interesting than the spurious sociological project the author claims is constituted by his book - that bad movies are bad, i.e. ill-conceived, bungled in execution, or just plain lousy, and that they are rejected as such by the movie-going public seems reasonable enough - is the one that motivates it.
My Year of Flops is less a methodical prodding of the parameters of taste, and more a handbook for a whole generation of cinephiles who have come to see the good in the warts-and-all badness of bad movies; who pack repertory cinemas and pot-smoky college dorm rooms for ritualized screenings of The Room, Troll 2, Birdemic and other films generally considered not just lousy, but among the lousiest ever made. It's easy enough to imagine these boosters of bad film slavishly thumbing through their dog-eared copies of Rabin's book, quoting choice passages as a means of exalting the much-maligned 2001 Tom Green comedy Freddy Got Fingered as "borderline Dadaist provocation," or further damning the "surreally misguided" caper Exit to Eden with all the ecstatic conviction of theologians citing Aquinas or the Talmud.
My Year of Flops is loaded with all kinds of snarky jibes, empurpled prose and well-barbed witticisms. But Rabin's greatest triumph is his ability fittingly to articulate our present moment of pop culture hyper-literacy. Now that the Internet (via Netflix, and less than, let's say, "legal" file-sharing software like BitTorrent) has granted us access to the shadier corners of cinephilic arcana, the more sluggish word-of-mouth tides that defined the flow of cult film and bad movie fandom has been undermined. It's no longer the ability to sniff out a rotten apple that defines the savvy pop intelligentsia, but the ability to polish it: to look at the mediocre, the devalued, and the out-and-out bad through some novel recuperative lens.
To paraphrase Proust - and hey, while we're tracing the collapsed high-low borderland, why not? - it's not about seeking out new cinematic landscapes (all points on the map having by now been meticulously plotted), but in screening the existent ones with new eyes. It's not about merely getting your grubby mitts on a VHS copy of Paul Verhoeven's sexploitation flop Showgirls, but in crafting a case for it as an elegantly campy high satire. It's a matter less of taste than of perspective.
And for a generation of readers and filmgoers whose attitudes towards politics, culture, religion and just about everything else have stewed in dense pop wallows of stuff like The Simpsons, Rabin's perspective rings as wily and clever as it does resonantly true.
John Semley is a Toronto-based pop culture critic and contributing editor to Maisonneuve magazine and Torontoist.com.