In 2000, Bill Maher released a stand-up special with the irresistible title Be More Cynical. There was more than a germ of truth to the title. In order for democracy to flourish we must maintain a principled skepticism about our leaders, the educational system, our foreign policy misadventures and, of course, those infernal bogeyman in the mainstream media. We must hold the powerful accountable. We must demand and expect truth.
There is at least one realm, however, where cynicism has curdled into something very ugly: online arts criticism, blogs, and Internet message boards. It's a world whose motto seems to be, "If you don't have anything nice to say, say it as loudly as possible and get all your friends to re-tweet it." I have long been frustrated by the tendency in our culture to equate commercial failure with creative bankruptcy, to see a film's death at the box-office as incontrovertible proof of its inherent worthlessness.
It seems like every time a film or television show or celebrity fails spectacularly we indulge in a culture-wide wave of Schadenfreude that amounts to kicking a man not just while he's down, but after he's died. Mere financial failure isn't sufficient punishment for our winner-takes-all society. A truly spectacular failure is further cursed with a sad, sordid afterlife as an easy punchlines for hack comics and water-cooler cut-ups.
In early 2007 I began an online project on A.V. Club, where I've long toiled as head writer, called My Year of Flops. The column, which has proven so popular that I continued it long after the original year ended, is designed to fight what I clumsily dubbed "Everything Sucksism" but is more commonly known as snark. I wanted to look back at the history of cinematic failure with an eye towards finding lost masterpieces unfairly slandered by history or ignored by audiences blind to their truth and beauty. Films often fail on a historic level not because they lack audacity, vision or guts but rather because they have altogether too much audacity, vision and guts. They dream big and fail big.
Of course, one can only discern so much truth and/or beauty in films like Gigli and Battlefield Earth so in the column I've alternated between writing passionate defenses of flops like Ishtar, The Cable Guy and Freddy Got Fingered and takedowns of noxious fare like The Real Cancun and Bratz: The Movie.
I've fallen in love with the notion of defending, or at least chronicling, the widely mocked so I began writing columns about the often stereotyped and dismissed world of country music (for a column called Nashville or Bust) and the instantly disposable realm of NOW That's What I Call Music! (for an ongoing series called THEN That's What They Called Music).
I have become addicted to writing about the misunderstood and the reviled. For my next book I am going to delve deep into the strange world of curious musical subcultures like the Juggalos, the almost universally derided followers of Insane Clown Posse, a duo that calls itself the most hated band in the world with ample justification.
It's easy to laugh at Insane Clown Posse and its coterie of largely uneducated, heavily tattooed, clown make-up-wearing die-hard fans but it's much more interesting and satisfying to discern the good in a duo that provides a world of escape and fantasy to fans who desperately need distractions from their everyday lives. Where others might look at Insane Clown Posse fans and see grotesques I see a bunch of poor, vulnerable kids who are attracted to the Juggalo ideal of "Family" (at the duo's annual Gathering of the Juggalos chants of "Family" break out every hour or so) in no small part because so many of them come from broken homes.
As part of my lifelong project to defend the maligned, clown-oriented and otherwise, A.V. Club and I are releasing the book version of My Year of Flops through Scribner. It's a collection that combines favorites from the online series with lots of new entries and bonus material.
It's my attempt to inject a little generosity of spirit into a field that all too often devolves into smug cynicism. I view each of the films chronicled in my book as a lost little orphan just waiting to be discovered by indulgent audiences able to look past its initial critical and commercial failure.
I have no idea how the book will be received but I'm hoping it will be greeted with kindness and/or appreciation. Because heaven knows pop culture can use a whole lot less snark and a whole lot more empathy and understanding these days.