Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Book of Movie Flops and Thoughtful Re-Analysis

My Year of Flops by Nathan Rabin (2010)
Scribner; Soft Cover; 261 pages; ISBN: 9781439153123

Optimism isn't bad; it's merely unfashionable.

As a young person, I had an obsession with movie reviews in the Friday entertainment section of my local paper and my mother's copy of the New Yorker. I read with manic glee as film critics eviscerated culture trash for daring to have the wrong actor or tone, salting the newly torn wounds of producers and film studios alike. When these critics delighted in a movie and lauded its artistic strengths, I mirrored their delight and rejoiced in the prose they used to build up the films they took under their wings.

A good beating is always much more satisfying to watch, however, though not always warranted.

In middle school, I began to suspect that these critics weren't always right. Sure, their dismissive attitudes and flowery word choices intrigued me, but it came to my attention that I didn't always agree. I briefly squelched these feelings, believing that the critics I read had a holy mission to preach the "correct" way to view pop culture.

Then I realized that I disagreed with plenty of people about what "correct" meant, both in life and on the page. Ang Lee's 2003 adaption of The Hulk yielded a universal shrug that didn't quite fit with what I thought was a thoughtful, moody, if somewhat plodding comic book movie. Yeah, there could have been more sequences with tanks being ripped in half, but the movie seemed to yield tons of dismissive criticism it just didn't deserve. The owner of a comic shop I could never bring myself to visit regularly opined that the trailer for the film made the Hulk "jump around like the Jolly Green Giant." And all I could think was, "Well, yeah. He's the Hulk. That's kind of what he looks like."

My faith in the cynical review system was shaken. The critiques of Lee's adaption weren't groundless, but they certainly didn't feel right. Movies deserve a chance––or two, or ten––and a little time to find a true audience.

This indulgent thesis drives Nathan Rabin's My Year of Flops, a collection of comic essays written for his column of the same name. His three year project (and counting) chronicles the orphans of modern entertainment, movies that critically, commercially, or financially failed but live on in secret as they wait for the right viewer.

The comedy of each column, whether Rabin is writing about the buddy-cop BDSM crime caper, Exit to Eden (1994) or the forgotten hippie musical, The Apple (1980), often gives way to deeper pathos. In writing about what he thinks makes a movie watchable or good, Rabin is ultimately and intimately writing about himself, his own tastes, and personal history. His humor is so self-deprecating, this style comes off less as egotism than as a serious and gentle rumination of the relationship between film and viewer.

Many of Rabin's verdicts are surprising, but he never gives reason to show his feelings are misguided. His kind review of Jim Carrey's creepy suspense comedy, The Cable Guy (1996), is colored by the writer's teen years in a group home where film entertainment appeared to be his only outlet. Acknowledging but eventually glossing over a movie's critical flaws, he pieces together the remains in what's certainly a more honest look at how viewers watch movies.

Rabin also finds redeeming qualities in oddities like Johnny Cash's vanity project, Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus (1973) and Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters's depressing remake, Pennies from Heaven (1981). The book chronicles his journey to compassionate film analysis. While I disagreed with many of his reviews, they always contained some particle of personal investment.

Many of these reviews are still wonderfully searing, of course, especially his essays on the incredibly stupid adaption of Demi Moore's The Scarlet Letter (1995) and the liberty it took with its source material. Memorable evicerations also include the faux-bohemian (but cute) Rent (2005) and the bumpy lesbian literary epic, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993).

"Three years of My Year of Flops have instilled in me an eagerness to see the good in everything," Rabin writes in his last chapter. I was especially touched by his sweetly forgiving essays on Tom Hanks's forgotten adventure in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) and the aforementioned Hulk (2003), which Rabin suggests may just be a comic book movie for fans who prefer Chris Ware to Stan Lee.

The appendix tacked onto the end of the book, a minute-by-minute review of Waterworld: The Director's Cut (1995) feels empty and threatens to dissipate the good will Rabin builds. It does not, however, exist just to " just so he can prove how good he is at coming up with killer quips" as Stephenie Zacharek's oddly vicious review in the New York Times suggests. The point of the book is that even the most disposable pieces of modern culture are worth time and critical thinking. Waterworld may be in the wrong portion of the book, but it has a right to be a part of Rabin's journey as much as anything else.

So. Is this book good, fun, both, or neither?

Definitely fun and, for a certain kind of reader, indispensable. This is the sort of book that ought to be mandatory when teaching film students how to find their voice. I can imagine excerpts being used to teach high school students not only how to write an essay but how to show you're sincere about it.

Letting popular critics judge films on a good-bad dichotomy may be far more hurtful than helpful to the culture at large. Nathan Rabin's crusade of optimistic film re-evaluation obliterates this scale and asks readers to think for themselves.