Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review of "My Year of Flops" by Nathan Rabin

Watching bad movies has been a favourite pasttime of mine for almost two decades now. I'm not alone in this questionable activity and different folks derive different strokes therein. Some enjoy feeling superior to others. Some come for a laugh. And some, and I admit I am guilty of this, enjoy inflicting bad movies on others for the sadistic joy of watching somebody else cringe. In any case, I've seen more than my share of cinematic shit and I fear that it has warped my sensibilities.

My quest for awfulness has led me to read several books about bad movies. Such books are essential for seeking movies that have otherwise escaped notice. Most of them adopt a snarky tone and give play-by-play accounts of the worst aspects of the films. The better books provide backstory to showcase production follies and the devatating effect on the careers of those involved, as well as contacting members of the cast and crew and allowing them to reminisce.

My Year of Flops, by Nathan Rabin, senior editor of The Onion's AV club, has all the best qualities that a rotten movie book should. However, the aim is different. Whereas other movie books have been written exclusively to mock, Rabin watches bad movies to find undiscovered gems. It is well known that if art and entertainment are misunderstood in their time, the public can punish the artists involved with mockery and shunning. When Nathan Rabin watches a notorious flop, he tries to see the good in each of these creations. However, if there is no good to be found, mockery ensues.

Those of us who revel in cinematic garbage know that there are several types of bad movie. To be avoided are movies that purposefully try to be awful and fail. Many such films are created every year and, surprise-surprise, it actually takes talent to purposefully make a cheesy movie. The result is an awful lineup of shitty horror movies that try to bad and hope that snarky viewers like myself will watch for a laugh. The result is usually excruciating. Sorry guys, the best bad movies are sincere efforts that have gone awry. My Year of Flops is composed entirely of sincere efforts.

Rabin has three ratings in his system: Failure, Fiasco and Secret Success. A Secret Success is a film which he feels is actually good, but misunderstood. A Fiasco is a film that is filled with love and effort that has gone horribly wrong, resulting in hilarity. A Failure simply has nothing going for it. It's a useful way to sort. Those who wish to find secret successes can seek them. For the rest, the Fiasco/Failure ratings are an excellent way to separate the hilarious from the irredeemably horrible.

Rabin's writing is charming, often following his stream of consciousness which invariably leads to the river of sewage that is his "case". He often begins his case files talking about some other bad movie, waxing witty on a thought which helps illuminate his subject. My only complaint with the writing is that often it seems like Rabin is playing to an audience which has already seen the movie in question, rather than introducing an outsider to the madness.

There are too many movies to list here, but some highlights include "The Conqueror", featuring John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in the role that would kill him, "Battlefield Earth", wherein John Travolta plays a hulking alien overlord to appease his Scientologist masters, and one of my personal favourites "Southland Tales", featuring an ensemble cast in a senseless story set in an incomprehensible future that constantly leaves the viewer giggling, "What the hell is going on?" Rabin concludes with his tortured minute-by-minute notes as he watches the director's cut of "Waterworld". Ugh.

My Year of Flops is clever and charming. Readers who are having a lousy day need only pick up the book, read a single case file for ten minutes, and I guarantee their quality of life will be improved. Nathan Rabin is obviously passionate about cinema and it shows in his writing. He loves to sift bad movies to find a good performance, a beautiful shot, a truth, a cool idea or an excellent line of dialogue. When he finds one, his praise is touching. When he can't find one, his commentary makes me laugh out loud. It's a marvelous masterwork of mockery, a must for movie masochists!
4 1/2 manic pixie dream-girls out of 5