The Crackle Wonders: Nathan Rabin

Justin October 19, 2010 0

Let’s get this out in the open right off the top, Here’s a partial list of “great” movies I have never seen:

The Godfather
The Godfather Part 2
The Shawshank Redemption
Schindlers List
Raging Bull
Taxi Driver
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

But I’ve seen both Miss Congeniality movies close to a dozen times each.

So,  it seems only fitting that I interviewed the AV Club’s head writer, Nathan Rabin, about his new book, “My Year of Flops,” a look back at some of the least critically acclaimed films in history.

We talked about flops and bombs, made some sly references to the Northern Ireland’s political landscape and reminisced about the career of the Diceman.

SCP: The book, and the AV club series before it, is called “My Year of Flops,” yet it’s been ongoing since 2008. Do you want me to mail you a calendar?

Wow, that’s starting the interview off on something of a confrontational note, don’t you think? I’m not sure I like the tone of your question or the cut of your jib. I originally intended for the series to last a single year and have a clear cut off point. But when I got to entry 104 (there were two entries a week during the first year) I faced a difficult decision: do I go out on a high note and quit and risk disappointing fans or do I continue the column and risk it overstaying its welcome? Do you dramatically drop the microphone at the end of a performance and swagger offstage or do you dramatically drop the microphone at the end of a performance and swagger offstage, then return immediately afterwards and perform until the crowd gets sick of you? For better or worse, I chose “drop the microphone at the end of a performance and swagger offstage, then return immediately afterwards and perform until the crowd gets sick of you” option though thank heavens the My Year of Flops audiences doesn’t seem to have tired of me yet. Give them time.

SCP: What defines a flop? Is it different than a bomb? Am I getting caught up in semantics?

My criteria for the project was that a film had to meet three criteria. They were, in order

1. It had to be a commercial failure domestically (sorry, Roberto Benigni, those seven bazillion dollars Pinnochio made in make-pretend Italian money just don’t count, as far as I’m concerned)

2. It has to be a critical failure

3. It has to have a tiny cult or no cult at all.

So, to answer your question, flop and bomb are pretty much the same thing.

SCP: How many times were your initial impressions of a film changed during this? Anything you used to love that in hindsight looks horrible? Anything that you hated originally that you now feel better about?

NR: For the final entry in the book I went back and re-watched Elizabethtown, the first entry in the series, a second time to see how the journey through cinematic failure had changed me and was delighted and moderately surprised to see how dramatically my opinion of the film changed over the course of my three viewings, from open-mouthed shock and horror that such a talented filmmaker could make a film so seriously misguided, to well, you’ll have to pick up the book to read my final verdict on it. In one Case File in the book, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, my opinion actually changed while writing the entry. I wrote the first half after watching Tough Guys the first time and the second half after a second viewing during which I discovered that all the film’s supposed faults—purple dialogue, macho posturing, feverishly over-the-top melodrama, an utter lack of shame—became strengths upon repeat viewing. So I’ve definitely gone from disliking to liking a film upon repeat viewing; one film that didn’t make the book and didn’t hold up to a second viewing was Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. There’s still some funny stuff in it and a winning comic spirit but sweet blessed lord don’t even think about seeing the film unless you’re high. A good rule of thumb; if everyone involved in the making of something was probably high, why on Earth should you experience it sober? I call that my First Law of Snoop Doggivity.

SCP: I thought “Lost in Translation” was one of the worst ways to spend 2 hours in the history of the world, yet it’s hailed as an amazing work of filmmaking. What’s the best “worst movie of all time,” and what’s the worst “best movie of all time?”

NR: I hate the idea of films being “underrated”. That just feels like a self-congratulatory way of saying, “The rest of the world incorrectly thinks this film is great but I have the superior judgment to discern that it is in fact crap.” But there are definitely films considered classics that I don’t care for, like Network (so relentlessly didactic and heavy-handed) and Gone With the Wind. As for the “best worst movie of all time” there are a number of candidates. I will never tire of The Room for example and I think it’s safe to assume that I am the only person who considers Boat Trip a sly meta-commentary on the convoluted stupidity of 1980s teen sex comedy.

SCP: Which actors, actresses and directors did you run across the most during your year of flops?

NR: The actor who probably appears in more flops than any other might just be Bruce Willis. I consider Willis the Teflon movie star, since everyone remembers the hits and the classics (Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, The Sixth Sense) but Hudson Hawk aside, no one seems to hold his flops against him, perhaps because his signature as a movie star is a kind of smirking ironic distance that implicitly says, “Yeah, I know this is ridiculous and stupid but hey, they offered me twenty million so whaddya gonna do?” I also wrote very extensively about Barry Levinson and James Toback for the column, though that probably has more to do with my own weird idiosyncracies than the films they made. As for actress, it’s hard to say. I wrote about four Lindsay Lohan movies in part because I find her so endlessly fascinating as a pop icon, not necessarily as an actress.

SCP: Looking ahead, are there any movies coming to theatres that are guaranteed flops? Any ideas that you can’t believe got greenlit?

NR: I walked out of Avatar and said to my colleagues Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, “Boy, is that going to be one of the biggest flops of all time. I bet the world is dying for a ham-fisted three hour long message movie about how colonialism is bad inhabited by giant Native American alien Smurfs.” I was, to put it mildly, wrong. I also thought Across The Universe and The Happening and The Last Airbender would all be flops. I was wrong. So I’m just going to be lazy and recycle, yet again, William Goldman’s famous line that when it came to predicting the success or failure of movies, nobody knows anything.

SCP: The AV Club is sort of like the legitimate journalism arm of the Onion (in the same way that Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA.) Have you ever had trouble landing an interview or getting taken seriously because of that?

NR: Every fifth interview or so the interviewee says something along the lines of, “Whoah, I should watch what I’m saying cause you guys will probably just make up a bunch of crazy shit anyway” and I chuckle unconvincingly. I began writing for The A.V Club in 1997. The section has grown by leaps and bounds since then. When The A.V Club made a big push to establish itself as an autonomous entity outside The Onion I remember finding it counter-productive. Why purposefully separate yourself from something hugely popular, beloved and awesome? But now it makes all the sense in the world, in part because it means fewer interview subjects saying something along the lines, “Why on earth would I want to talk to a fake newspaper?” The A.V Club has really grown and developed its own readership. We’re not just piggy-backing on The Onion’s success; we built our own thing and we’re very proud of it. I think most of the people we talk to respect that.

SCP: Is it awkward being on the other side of interviews as you promote this book?

NR: Back when I was just interviewing people I delusionally imagined that it was super-easy to be a riveting interview subject. All you had to do was be honest and candid and yourself and greatness would follow. When I started doing interviews for my memoir The Big Rewind last year I discovered that’s not the case. It’s as hard, if not harder, to be the interviewee than the interviewer. I also used to be disappointed with interview subjects who recycled the same answers or anecdotes over and over again but now I realize that’s a necessary evil: unless you want to make shit up or engage in jazz-like free association your answers to variations on the same questions are going to be pretty much the same. That’s not being lazy; it’s being honest. Whether I’m being interviewed or doing the interviewing what I am for is to establish a good rhythm with my partner (and they really are your partner) so that the interview stops being a list of questions and becomes a conversation with a momentum and a personality and a dynamic all its own.

SCP: Remember “The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine” with Andrew Dice Clay? Man, that was a piece of crap.

NR: I sure do, though in the book I cunningly manage to use 1500 words to make pretty much pretty much the same observation. Clay’s follow up, “Brain Smashers: A Love Story” on the other hand: that is sheer genius.

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