The Rhetoric of Intentional Failures: A Palimpsest for Mainstream Success

Pearce Durst

Failure to enter the current of mainstream culture often leads to the creation of eddies that form counter-movements. In cinema, these counter-movements branch into a myriad of distinct and definable categories such as B films, genre films, Camp films, Midnight Movies, or the run-of-the-mill “they’re so bad they’re good” films. Yet beyond the definable characteristics that establish a film’s counter-culture category is the basic intention of the film. Not all films that fall into these categories are worthy of critical or pedagogical attention. However, the merit or lack thereof within a failed mainstream success should not be found within the particular variety of failure, but should instead be based on the film’s individual success at reaching an intended audience. To strip a mainstream failure of its genre and analyze its contents based solely on intentionality is to find the rhetorical importance of intention.

In order to best navigate the turbulence of mainstream failures it is imperative to determine whether the film in question should be deemed an “intentional failure” or “unintentional failure.” Intentional failures subvert expectations and purposefully reject mainstream conventions; that is, they consciously appeal to a counter-culture audience. On the other hand, unintentional failures founder expectations of mainstream filmmaking craft while also mimicking social conventionality with little originality. These films are made with a mainstream audience in mind, but somehow fail to find acceptance. An intentional failure is like a rebel with a cause, while an unintentional failure is an oblivious poser. To make this distinction in intended audience within mainstream failures is to prevent intentional failures from falling into obscurity. Intentionally failed films deserve greater scholarly attention for they purposefully go against mainstream normativity, resulting in critical social commentary and a rich communal critique. While intentional failures can easily be overlooked or confused as unintentional failures, defining this distinction becomes of greatest importance. Not only can it create a vessel for sustained dialogue between mainstream conventions and counter-culture contradictions, but it can also enable a fresh vocabulary in which to discuss the concept of a failure. To make these evaluative divisions within the broad realm of failures is to aid in bringing intentionally failed films into scholarly debate and discourse.

Unintentional Failures: The Room and Dune

It is an unfortunate fallacy to assume that the only kind of failures are unintentional failures. Yet, the reason for this common misconception can be purposeful for the mainstream; namely, if all failed films are deemed as unintentionally failing to achieve mainstream success then there can be little to no threat posed by failed films. This is to say that the mainstream interprets unintentional failures as a harmless, yet futile, attempt at success. However, an intentional failure consciously rebels against mainstream ideals, and is therefore a threat to the mainstream establishment. To lump all failures together regardless of intention is to see them as nothing more than mistakes that should be discarded. It is to throw the baby out with the bath water. In order to prevent this mistaken and shortsighted outlook, in this section I introduce two examples of unintentional failures as a useful starting point.

To be able to recognize and categorize an unintentional failure as such is to better understand the nature and importance of intentional failures. It is through the comparing of the two side by side that recognition and definition is made possible, thus illuminating the pivotal ingredient that separates the unintentional from the purposeful: the level of self-awareness within the execution of conventions.

A contemporary example of intentionality’s importance is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). The plot loosely centers on Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) whose life unravels as his fiancée (Juliette Daniel) begins an affair with his best friend (Greg Sestero). In this unintentional failure, viewers are subjected to an onslaught of errors in continuity editing such as a wine glasses vanishing and reappearing in character’s hands, errors in character continuity such as one character inquiring about candles and music when neither are present, and revealing mistakes such as a second love scene awkwardly reusing clips from the first love scene. There are a multitude of other examples that reveal Wiseau’s ineptness at the craft of filmmaking, such as the comedic onslaught of non sequiturs in dialogue or the inconsistencies in diegetic time, which results in a film that unintentionally fails to obtain a cogent sense of verisimilitude.

The Room is much more than a technical mishandling, however. It serves as an exemplary unintentional failure due to its courtship of conventional mainstream values. Most evident is Wiseau’s heavy reliance on a heteronormative relationship that teeters between over-the-top love scenes soundtracked by mainstream R&B love songs, as well as the predictable femme fatale and exaggerated bro-mances. Due to Wiseau’s poorly applied use of stale societal tropes and conventions, an abundance of unnecessary melodramas, and the unoriginally acted male-bonding sequences laced with causal misogyny, audiences endure ninety-nine minutes of clichéd conventionality that pathetically pleads for mainstream audience identification. While this film strives to fulfill the requirements of a mainstream drama, the uninspired execution results in an unintentional comedy that audiences laugh at but not with. However, since this film failed to reach its intended audience, and because of its unconscious trope-laden content, it is doomed as an unintentional failure.

Most audiences of The Room would agree that this type of failure holds little pedagogical worth other than serving as a contrast to define intentional failures, or as a map of what not to do in filmmaking. However, just because it is an unintentional failure completely lacking in scholarly value in no way means that the inconsistencies and narrative flaws are absent of entertainment value for willing audiences. Quite the contrary. In many ways The Room functions as this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. Documenting these responses to the film, McCulloch concludes, “Through their atypical cinema behavior, audiences collectively encourage each other to adopt a very particular reading protocol – one that identifies ‘badness’ specifically in order to locate humour in it” (211). More particularly, this is accomplished through reading protocols (“A Viewer’s Guide to The Room”) where audiences are instructed, for instance, to throw spoons at the screen at key moments, toss a football around the theater when the actors do the same, and even yell “because you’re a woman” at female characters as a commentary on the clear and persistent misogyny. Such a call for participation is important because it showcases the entertainment value of unintentional failures. Yet, this form of interactive entertainment is not to be confused with pedagogical worth. For even though The Room has an undeniable laugh factor, it fails to grant the invaluable critical commentary provided by intentional failures.

A much more nuanced illustration of an unintentional failure is David Lynch’s Dune (1984). What makes this example different from The Room is not only Lynch’s technical adeptness, but also the fact that Dune was preceded by such films as the relatively successful Midnight Movie Eraserhead—I’ll discuss this film at length in the next section. In addition, the sheer anticipation that surrounded the filmic release of a literary sci-fi classic created intertextual expectations absent for Wiseau. Whereas Dune was backed by more than adequate funding, The Room was originally advertised with a single billboard in Hollywood (Shaktin). Finally, what makes Dune distinct in the following consideration is that some viewers may question its status as a failure. With this in mind, let me further define an unintentional failure.

Dune is most evidently an unintentional mainstream failure because it aligned itself with the expectations of a Hollywood blockbuster such as a big budget, special effects, and well-known actors, but it was rejected on all accounts. Most telling of its lackluster audience reception is the fact that its 40 million dollar budget resulted in a meager 27 million dollars in box office sales (Dune, IMDB). While it is not enough to say that because a film fails to make a profit that it is an unintentional failure, what makes this film a failure, in the words of Roger Ebert, is that it’s “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” In a similar vein, another reviewer humorously remarks, “several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie” (Maslin). In short, while many viewers (including this one) happily forgave the unimpressive special effects, even for its time, the film is neither uniquely Lynchian nor climactic in any fundamental way. Even Lynch laments his own film as a failure. Commenting on Dune, Lynch adds, “it wouldn’t be fair to say it was a total nightmare, but maybe seventy-five percent nightmare. And the reason is I didn’t have final cut.” He goes on to comment on the nature of failed films, “when you have a failure, like they say, there’s no where to go but up. It’s so freeing. It’s beautiful in a way” (Great Directors). The point is that Lynch laments Dune as a failure time and again in a way that identifies the film as an unintentional failure.

It is worth considering the various ways of using “intention” as a compass to navigate failed films. With The Room taken as an example, audiences do not need to go outside the film to locate the auteur’s reflection on the film’s perceived success or failure. It can be assessed firmly through the artifact of the film itself. On the other hand, Dune reveals how intertextual elements such as production value, promotional intentions, and box office return can help to gauge its categorization as an unintentional failure. Both inter- and intratextual considerations are legitimate ways to assess the category of failure.

To be clear, and in both previous considerations, failure in the eyes of the mainstream does not imply that a film fails to captivate an audience. In fact, both of these films attract many onlookers and a minor cult following—even if seen with satirical eyes. Despite their entertainment value, my argument is that both of these films provide less value in furthering scholarly dialogue and debate, and that intentional failures are much more effective in this pursuit.

Intentional Failures: Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead

Just as it is a fallacy to assume that the only kind of failures are unintentional failures, it is just as important to resist calling all failed films intentional failures. Whereas unintentional failures do not challenge the norms and conventions of mainstream films in significant ways, intentional failures directly address taboo, abnormal, or unconventional subject matter while centering on subversive values. Intentional failures are defined by their conscious ability to break from expectations, norms, and conventions, which ultimately creates a redeeming artistic quality worthy of further critical inquiry.

John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) is one provocative example of an intentional failure. The tagline of the film, “an exercise in poor taste,” clears up any confusion about Waters’ intention as writer, producer, cameraman, editor, and director of this transgressive black comedy. The film concerns a notorious criminal of the underground (Divine / Babs Johnson) who must retake her title as “The Filthiest Person Alive” from a sordid married couple attempting to humiliate her and steal her title. What makes the film an intentional failure is not its defiant yet shoddy handling of craft, although this element surely adds to its mainstream rebellion. Instead, Pink Flamingos can be understood as an intentional failure based solely on the analysis of its content. There is no hope or desire for Waters’ filmto reach mainstream success when taking into account the following plot developments: black market baby adoption, heroin sold to elementary schools, gift boxes of human feces, an anal sphincter mimicking the rhythm of a song, cannibalism, castration, oral sex, a flasher with sausages tied to his penis, a sex scene where a live chicken is crushed as a peeping-tom gazes, and the film’s notorious climax of dog feces being eaten on screen. Through these subversive, taboo, and outrageous acts the intentionality of Waters’ failure is made undeniably evident.

The value in this kind of intentional failure is twofold. First of all, by questioning social normativity greater voice can be given to taboo subjects. In the context of Pink Flamingos, this can range from risqué humor and homosexuality to subversive sexual fetishes such as bestiality and coprophilia. Surely this is an extreme example, but intentional failures always push back against the unquestioned norms and values of mainstream culture. Unlike unintentional failures that only reinforce social conventions, an intentional failure sheds light on mainstream alternatives. The second value of intentional failures is that they urge audiences to question why an artist sets out to resist the mainstream in the first place. There is a range of moral, ethical, political, and artistic reasons for setting out to purposefully subvert norms and intentionally fail with mainstream culture, but through this kind of artistic statement audiences are urged to question the limitations of mainstream norms that might otherwise be left unquestioned.

In order to further consider the nature of intentional failures, David Lynch once again provides a nuanced example. Eraserhead (1977) is a failure of the mainstream but a counter-culture success due to its intentional employment of subversive subject matter. Superficially, the film revolves around an alien baby that is the offspring of two reluctant parents, Henry (Jack Nance) and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). The two remain completely unromantic in their obvious unease concerning their baby’s abnormal appearance and constant crying. The film invites viewers to enter the surreal industrial and monochromatic world that surrounds the protagonist, Henry, who encounters writhing and blood-gushing baby chickens at the family dinner table, a sexually forward mother of his girlfriend, and an abnormal sexual encounter with a beautiful girl across the hall (Judith Roberts). In the end, after much torment and dreamlike avoidance from the reality of their situation, the baby who is never even sexually identified as male or female is abandoned by its mother and murdered by its father.

While any one of the latter elements might be enough to classify the film as an intentional failure, it most obviously comments on the nature of failed performances through one character, the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near). This lady is literally concealed on a stage inside the radiator of Henry’s room with no audience to hear her song and dance, and mainly appearing in his dreams and/or hallucinations. He begins experiencing visions in which the Lady sings to him as she stomps on miniature replicas of Henry’s child—a fetus-like form falling from the sky. This lady provokes a series of meta-cognitive questions about not only the film’s intention, but about a film’s audience (or lack thereof) more generally: Why is this women trapped in the radiator with or without an audience? Why is she the source of infanticide? And what does it mean that Henry is embraced warmly by this Lady in the Radiator at the end of the film after killing the child? These questions are never fully answered, but it is clear that she is the source of the uncertainty. The Lady in the Radiator comes to represent a presence that is usually banished, hidden from the mainstream, but like Henry we are urged to embrace her.

What makes this film a noteworthy and complex intentional failure is that it is neither an aesthetic, artistic, or even cinematographic failure. However, it remains a mainstream failure because of the questions that it raises in relation to parenthood and relationships, as well as its unconventional reactions and murderous conclusion. This film does not provide a normal filmic response typically given to newborn babies. In fact, its displays of terror and despair against a newborn baby runs completely counter to the accepted expectations of new parents. It is precisely this intentionality that enhances the film’s scholarly worth.

It is important to distinguish between types of failures lest all failures be abandoned or confused as singular in type. With this in mind, what this section hopes to create is an awareness of how there is an important rhetorical switch when identifying a film as an intentional failure. Even if there is debate about films worthy of this categorization, it is crucial to entertain this dialogue and establish this boundary, lest the agency of intentional failures be lost. By identifying films such as Eraserhead and Pink Flamingos as intentional failures there is a greater sense of direction and purposefulness granted them. By reading artistic failures in this way, certain failed films can be considered less as an anomaly in the counter-culture, but more as an artifact commenting on mainstream conventions.

Abject Intention: Failure as a Palimpsest

Intention can help to redefine the concept of failure in film, and works as a palimpsest in which to re-view the mainstream. Intentional failures are films in which the mainstream norms have been effaced in order to make room for the subversive. And yet, even within this effacement, a residue remains linking the mainstream to the subversive. That is, when we watch intentional failures we can’t help but see how they compare and contrast with mainstream success. It is the connection made when you compare and contrast that aids intentional failures in making their mark on mainstream films. To know the norms of mainstream film is to see the mirrored subversive effects within intentional failures.

One such subversive effect is the intentional failures’ relentless focus on the abject. The abject is critically defined by Julia Kristeva:

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture. (2)

This is to say, the abject can only be known as such because of its relentless contrast against the mainstream. The abject is found through taking a mainstream norm and turning it upside down, stripping away its context, and placing it in an unfamiliar setting or situation so that it is vaguely recognizable as such, yet ultimately unfamiliar.

Take, for example, the mainstream normative idea of a newborn baby. In Eraserhead, where there should be joy and celebration for a new baby, there is horror and dread because the new infant is not exactly human. Here, the abjection and its effects are made possible because of the preconceived notions set forth by mainstream culture and perpetuated in film. The audience expects a birth to be accompanied by a cute baby and bubbly happiness, but instead the film takes the preconceived notions of parenthood and makes it foreign. The baby is replaced by a disfigured alien-like form that the father never cuddles, and ultimately the mainstream norms of jovial parenthood are erased as the infant’s crying becomes increasingly monstrous. Here, the abjection is highly effective because the audience can directly connect with how it should feel about a new baby; there is a familiarity and recognition of the mainstream notions of how a father and infant should behave. And yet, that recognition dissolves into the uncanny when the audience realizes that the baby is not exactly a baby; it is grotesque and sexless and unclassifiable, all the while remaining completely helpless in its infant state. Suddenly the audience feels conflicted and doesn’t know what to feel. Should they identify with the confused father and feel disgust for the infant? Or should they look at the father as a monster and adopt feelings for the helpless infant? With the social expectations of a newborn baby being stripped away, the audience is left to ponder the unrecognizable familiarity. It is in this collapse of meaning that an intentional failure thrives, but it is only made possible by the link that viewers are asked to make with previous mainstream successes.

To know that Eraserhead intentionally uses mainstream ideas to create a divergence into the abject is to see intentional failures as a palimpsest to the mainstream. In other words, intentionally failed films work “from [a] place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master” (Kristeva 2). Building from Kristeva’s commentary, Judith Butler elaborates on how/what the abject counters:

The ‘abject’ designates that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered ‘other.’ This appears as an expulsion of alien elements, but the alien is effectively established through this expulsion. The construction of the ‘not-me’ as the abject establishes the boundaries of the body which are also the first contours of the subject. (133)

The baby in Eraserhead is by its very nature abject. It falls from the sky alongside other aborted fetuses, and because Henry fails to adopt the baby it stays in the realm of the “other.” The commentary provided by Butler is also at play in the presence of excrement in Pink Flamingos. The film uses recognizable elements of expulsion and physical discharge but places them in unfamiliar and unsettling situations to establish the abject. While both films surely have different purposes for employing the abject, they equally rely on this effect to achieve the mark of an intentional failure.

While making this distinction is an important venture in scholarly pursuits, it becomes all the more important in the classroom where theories can be put into practice. One way to apply these critical insights in the classroom is by comparing a film like Eraserhead with a mainstream success. This is important in order to define and illustrate what is meant by a “mainstream success.” To vocalize what a “mainstream success” is can seem rather nebulous, but it is an important conversation to engage in order to defamiliarize ourselves with social conventions and reevaluate what constitutes normalcy. By comparing an abject failure like Eraserhead alongside a mainstream success, social norms can be profoundly redefined and contradicted.

For example, if Eraserhead was compared alongside a mainstream successful film then the palimpsest metaphor can be put into practice. What would happen if Lynch’s Midnight Movie was positioned alongside Father of the Bride (1950), or even the 1991 remake of the same name? Surely there would be laughter, and indeed Eraserhead is a comedy of sorts. But at another level, the two films work as a palimpsest when seen alongside one another in the sense that Eraserhead comments on the normative values expressed in a film like Father of the Bride. It is not just an analysis of intentional failures that such comparison provides, but a way to re-view mainstream successes.

Perhaps it is when the family attempts to eat the artificial chickens and they start twitching and bleeding when Henry tries to carve them, or maybe is after dinner when Mrs. X interrogates Henry about whether or not he had pre-marital “sexual intercourse” with Mary that is the most vivid representation of the abject—then again, maybe it’s when Henry’s new mother in-law forwardly tries to kiss him. Nonetheless, the abject examines the bounds of normalcy. Lynch urges audiences to question the conventions of motherhood, fatherhood, domestic life, and other critical junctions in familiar relationships. In this way, when the newlyweds bring home their mutated, alien baby, there is a reality divergence from the casual normalcy presented in a film like Father of the Bride. Both films create a palimpsest for one another that allows intentional failures to comment on mainstream norms.

While Father of the Bride is an interchangeable example of how you can employ any mainstream success as a palimpsest against intentional failure (i.e., the mainstream success selected here is incidental), the point is that this kind of analysis models how to approach mainstream successes and intentional failures as a palimpsest. Success is defined by failure, and failure is categorically opposed to success. Surely these terms can function on a relatively defined spectrum, but the act of definition or categorization is an inherently rhetorical act. By making visible the unseen, the unsuccessful, and the marginalized failures, then the norms furthered by mainstream successes can be made visible. As a whole, the metaphor of the palimpsest is valuable in these continued efforts to assure that intentional failures do not fall into obscurity, but instead serve as a vessel of dialogue for social and rhetorical issues.

Conclusion

There are many different ways to talk about failures. This essay proposes one productive method by taking into account the power of intention. In the above examples, if The Room was created as a satirical comedy then it might have been a great success. If Dune would have been pitched as a low-budget sci-fi thriller, then critics might not lament its ambition as a Hollywood blockbuster. At the same time, if Eraserhead would have had the ambition of a blockbuster it would have been an unintentional failure. Likewise, if Pink Flamingos would have been produced for mainstream audiences not only would it have failed, but it probably would never have been made. In any of the above cases, intention functions as a defining term in order to determine the value of failed films.

To isolate a mainstream failure from its genre and analyze its contents based solely on intentionality can help to overcome the problem of genre classification, which ultimately provides little assistance in determining the nature of failed films. What it means to be a Midnight Movie, cult film, B film, or any number of other generic categories ultimately leads critics in circles, or at least provides little headway in distinguishing types of failures worthy of further scholarly dialogue. Moreover, just because a film intends to fail from the mainstream as a Midnight Movie, as is the case with Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead, does not necessarily mean it will be an intentional success amongst a counter-culture audience. For that matter, a film may intentionally fail from mainstream culture at one time, but years later get adopted into the mainstream as normative values inevitably change.

Another benefit of focusing on intentionality is that different intentions can be taken into account. A film can be read as a self-contained text without much attention given to intertextual elements such as production, marketing, and distribution (The Room).  On the other hand, the intention of the auteur might be of considerable importance (Dune). In other words, intertextual and authorial intention can both be considered to determine the type of failure. While there is an inevitable level of subjectivity to be taken into account when determining whether a film is an unintentional or intentional failure, this consideration and conversation awakens greater awareness of failed films and their implications.

At this point, some may remain hesitant about fully embracing an analysis that focuses on intention. While it is true that what is considered “normal” in the eyes of the mainstream is temporally situated, my pedagogical illustration of using the metaphor of the palimpsest to compare a failure alongside a mainstream success can help to clear up any confusion about what is particularly meant by normal or conventional. Moreover, by pitting mainstream successes against failures, intention can be used to help renegotiate our encounters with a wide variety of films.

While films that fail from the mainstream all share the commonality of being deemed a failure, the distinction should be established between unintentional and intentional failures. It is within this distinction that productive scholarly debate can be found. When an auteur desires to embrace taboo, unconventional, or abnormal subject matter with little ambition of reaching the approval of mainstream audiences, what results is an intentional failure that speaks directly to conventional society. This dialogue brings to light not only the flaws with accepting socially defined “traditional” values, but it also aids in giving a voice to the minority or counter-culture. By differentiating an intentional failure from its substandard counterpart, a scholarly discourse can blossom not only in the field of academia, but in the classroom as well.

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