Talking film and more with the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin

Rebecca Lang

I got to chat with head A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin just after I’d finished his new memoir, "The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You By Pop Culture." We talked for about 45 minutes, longer than I could fit in my 30-inch article, so I thought others who were interested in the author or his book might want to see the rest of the interview. For those who didn’t read the main story, Nathan Rabin went from a troubled adolescence, where he was even named "the angriest guy in the mental hospital circuit" into a grateful adulthood, where he got to make a living writing film reviews for The Onion’s cultural (and non-satirical) section. The memoir showcases Rabin’s seldom-used first-person writing voice, which turns out to be pretty damn funny and pretty damn laid-back.

 

You criticized [reporter] Zorianna Kit for analyzing films according to how well the actors performed. What are your key points of analysis?

It’s understandable that people see movies through the prism of actors. Actors are the most famous and the most talked about and publicized people in the world. We have the naïve sense that if Will Smith is in a movie that he’s just making stuff up and existing on camera. You go to the supermarket and see what’s happening with Jennifer Aniston’s love life; you’re never like, "What’s happening with a screen writer?" [In film criticism] there is very much this emphasis on directors and writers and storytelling and placing films in an appropriate historical context. One thing a critic does is find patterns and see how things connect together. That’s a lot more of my critical perspective. There are 100 different filters and I use a lot of them at the same time. Some of them ask "How does the film fit into the director or writer’s filmography, or how does it meet genre expectations – does it exploit conventions or tweak them?" I think that a very interesting way to view the world is seeing things in terms of class. And also feminism; my sister was a great feminist and I internalized that. "Does it feed into negative stereotypes? Is the director a misogynist?"

Where should people go to find good examples of film criticism?

The A.V. Club. I don’t want to be a shameless company manm but I think we have some of the best reviews in the world. I was reading all the reviews and I was like, "We have good f-cking film reviews." That’s my base; that’s what I do, but I’m one of five critics that we have, so I’m part of a team. I like Roger Ebert a lot. He always has an interesting thing to say and he always comes from an appreciated place.

Your manuscript was originally much longer. How did you turn it into the book it is today?

I had never written a book in my life. Growing up, I always had the sense I better be able to turn my experiences and life story into something fruitful and productive. Basically, what happened was my TV show had just been canceled. I’d been working for The Onion for nine years. I love my job, but I felt like I needed to stretch out and tell a story on a big scale, so I just wrote and wrote and I wrote and this idea, when you don’t know what the f-ck you’re doing, the sky’s the limit and there’s something beautiful and pure about that and sometimes people accomplish great things because they have no idea that that they’re not supposed to work that way. I started to just write about my life – 780 pages, part about growing up and [film crit. show in which Rabin was a main cast member] "Movie Club," part of it post-adolescence. I had no fucking idea if I could get that in one book; it was a trilogy that was all mapped out. I kind of edited it down and turned it into a manuscript. I spent about nine months, a pregnancy is a very direct analogy. It was a pregnancy and then a stillborn fetus of a literary project. We sent it to publishers and waited for the magic to happen and they emailed and said there’s no market for a book about a show no one’s ever heard of. In hindsight, I’m really grateful for that. That was the passage that was the least loved. I feel like at this point, I kind of have to justify it and I think the reason my agent saw potential in that part is … it didn’t have a cult-following, it was an interesting story and had larger-than-life figures. It does make you kind of second-guess yourself a little bit. Why did I think this is interesting and my agent and editor, too? Complete critical consensus that the book would be stronger without [the passage about "Movie Club"] and nobody wanted to read about some silly television show. I thought the arc of the book is that I went from being a kid and fighting for validation and finding this place where I felt comfortable and free and knowledgeable and happy. It’s not like I’m Judd Apatow or something. The arc is I’m going from a passive follower to an active creator. I just didn’t show my book to anybody before it was published – not even my boss, ’till it was pretty much done. It was so personal and so intimate. I felt like I can’t let anybody see my dark secrets; they’ll lose all respect for me. I had to tell myself, after July 7, anyone with a library card will have access.