True To Me Too: What’s the difference between opinion and critique?
Nathan Rabin (The Dissolve): I think the idea is that everybody has an opinion, it’s a gut thing, it’s a primal reaction, visceral, reaction. I feel like critiques are ideas that are backed up by arguments that are backed up by reason. Everybody in the world has an opinion about everything, it’s part of being human, but the ability to have an insightful, well reasoned, well written, well argued critique of anything is a lot rarer and a lot more precious and valuable. I feel like critiques are built from opinions but you have to have a lot more than that to be persuasive.
A lot of it goes back to what I learned in freshman year of high school, which is probably where I learned more than anywhere else, one thing was that it wasn’t enough to just have an argument you have to support it, you have to build it. There’s an architecture to it, it has to have a base and scaffolding, otherwise you’re basically just throwing stuff out into the wind. I feel like we live in a world where people have never had more opinions, or they’re more proud of their opinions, or they define themselves more by what they like and what they don’t like. At the same time because of that I feel like opinions have been devalued. A lot of it is a power battle of people yelling and shouting and I feel like if you read a lot of the comments online you see the nature of it where it’s “I saw a trailer for this, fuck you, here’s my opinion”. It’s not even based on having seen something or experienced something, it’s based on I’ve seen a trailer, I’ve seen a commercial, I’ve seen an ad for this and based on that I have a very very strong opinion and I will fucking fight you to the death. I think it’s an interesting distinction and one that seems to get lost in this online era. A lot of people confuse their opinions for critiques.
When did you start writing?
I had a speech impediment when I was about 5 or 6 and I was incredibly self-conscious and incredibly shy. I’d been abandoned by my mother and I pretty much had this idea that I couldn’t communicate and I couldn’t talk and I was really nervous and shy and had no friends, but what I could do is write. Probably the first big thing for me was I remember in second or third grade you had to write sentences using vocabulary in context. I kind of made it a point to myself to write the most crazy, surreal wild and interesting sentences that I could think of. I used that as an incredible challenge and what happened was my teacher said “you have a gift, you’re good at this, you’ve made this your own, you’ve gotten really passionate about this” and it was really the first time I had validation. They also made my dad laugh, which was huge, there was no better feeling in the world than being able to make my dad laugh. I think because of that I really cultivated this idea that if I could make people laugh than I would have value. I could write things that were funny, and weird, and crazy, and memorable, and maybe that would be my way of making my mark in the world. When I was about 12 I borrowed my dad’s typewriter and would write these scripts, and novels, and stories, they were all terrible, but it gave me an identity and something to believe in and something to put my hopes and dreams and aspirations into.
How did you get started with The Onion?
I started doing reviews in sophomore year of college. I would write reviews for the Madison Area Technical College student newspaper, which was called the MATC Slant, and I would get paid $5 per review. It was really exciting and this incredible form of validation, that what I was writing, was getting printed–people were reading it, and the editors were requesting more of it. Around that same time my sister was friends with a guy who was the graphics editor at The Onion and she said to him “hey, my brother is really funny, he should write for The Onion” this was early 1996 and he said “if he wants to write for The Onion he should send headlines to the editor and if he likes the headlines maybe that will lead to something else”. So I would write 10-15 headlines on looseleaf paper and send that to them in the mail every week Ben Karlin, who was the editor at the time, and he would call me up and explain to me on a point-by-point basis why each of my ideas sucked and why they were no good. At the time I thought this was awesome, I was getting this really amazing firsthand lesson of writing comedy and the craft of comedy through somebody who is obviously really smart and knows what he’s doing. Even though I was only about 20 years old and the people that wrote for The Onion were 24 or 25 years old, I still worshiped them. I thought oh my God these are the smartest, funniest, most brilliant people in the world, why are they all not rich, why is this not this huge national thing, why is it just this weird Madison thing. Eventually I got a couple ideas into the paper and that was really really exciting. I can actually remember all 3 of the comedy headline ideas I got into the paper. One of them appeared in a pretty important New Yorker review of The Onion. That was pretty surreal seeing something that I had written that somehow made it into The Onion and then made it into The New Yorker.
This was all in 1996, I was 20 years old, I was a student at Madison Area Technical College, so it was very very surreal. I ended up going to a couple Onion comedy writers meetings where you had to pitch ideas and throw things back and forth and build the foundation for what was going to be in the paper next week. I was overwhelmed and I was terrified. It was still very shy and very self-conscious. I grew up in a group home for emotional disturbed adolescence and I very much had this idea of myself as being inferior, being substandard, being not adequate. These meetings were terrifying, incredibly stressful, I kind of wanted out. The third meeting that I had was a very important meeting and it was the last meeting of Ben Karlin, who was leaving to conquer Hollywood, at the time we all kind of laughed but he ended up being one of the main people behind The Daily Show, New York Times referred to him as John Stewart’s brain, which is pretty high praise considering that Stewart seems to have a pretty good brain. It was the first meeting where Rob Siegel would take over The Onion, they were handing the torch from Ben Karlin to Rob. At the end of the meeting Rob was given this Vince Lombardi memorial plaque about winning, and people were not sincere or earnest at The Onion but this was a moment where he was incredibly earnest and incredibly sincere. He was talking about how people think we’re just a comedy newspaper now and this university paper thing but we’re not just Onion writers, we’re Onion people, and this is going to be a huge thing and will change all of our lives, it won’t just be a national thing it will be an international thing. I remember thinking oh my God you are so deluded, none of that is ever going to happen, we’re a bunch of weirdos in this room in Madison, Wisconsin of all places.
At the end of the meeting he asked to have a talk with me, I had a pretty good sense that he was not going to offer me a staff job right then and there. He didn’t have an office at that point so we just went into a corner and he said “I think you have three primary shortcomings as a comedy writer, first, you’re a little too young, you’re only 20 years old, you’re still a kid. The second is that you don’t really have a niche, there’s nothing that you do really well that you can confidently call your own. The third thing is that you’re just not that funny”. At that point I knew all of that, I knew all my shortcomings. I knew I didn’t belong in those places. I remember asking him about Stephen Thompson, the guy who ran The A.V. Club, and at that point The A.V. Club was literally Stephen coming into the editors meeting with some movies to review and say “this week we’re reviewing Chasing Amy” and everyone would sit on their hands because there was no glory and no prestige in movie reviews at that point.
I thought I sucked and I didn’t think it was in the cards for me to be a professional writer so I applied for a bunch of jobs and one of them was for a video store called 4 Star Video Heaven. During the interview the guy looked at my resume and said “it says here that your place of employment was at The Onion and that you left because of creative differences, what were those creative differences?” and I said “well I guess it all kind of boils down to me thinking I was really funny and them feeling very strongly otherwise” so he laughed and then he hired somebody else. That person quit after a week and a half and I got hired because I was the second choice. On my first day there I met the guy who opened the store every morning, Keith Phipps, and I totally recognized him from his name and byline in Isthmus, which is Madison’s big alternative weekly, and he also wrote for The Onion as well. We kind of became good friends and bonded over our love of film and feeling like outsiders and wanting to educate ourselves about movies. After about a year I mustered up enough courage to ask if I could write for The A.V. Club. That was May 21, 1997 and at that time The Onion was still small but it was growing and I was able to get in on the ground floor and I worked for them for about 16 years.
Did you take any film or journalism courses while you were at school in Madison?
I got my degree in Communication Arts with a concentration in Radio, Television & Film. I got a really good education . . . and I never used anything that I learned. It was very academic, cerebral, distant approach to them. I didn’t take any English or journalism classes and I think it’s because I had such low self-esteem and such raging towering insecurities that I worried that if I had taken any of these classes I would realize that I was terrible. Not only am I not a very good writer or professional writer but I’m subpar and sub-mediocre. I probably was pretty subpar, I can’t go back and read anything from the first 5 years of The A,V. Club. The first few years at The A.V. Club were kind of like my graduate school. I learned how to be a film critic, a book critic, and a music reviewer by doing it and having the pressure of a deadline, which is one of the best things for a young writer because it forces you to have discipline, it forces you to work hard, it forces you to develop your own voice. I went to college at The Onion and I got my grad school degree from The A.V. Club. Everything I learned about writing and about movies I kind of learned in the process of doing it. I think the idea was to challenge myself and throw myself into it and figure out a way to swim or to die drowning.
When did you realize you could go from getting $5 a review to having a lifelong career? Were there any critics you followed?
I grew up worshiping Roger Ebert. I grew up on the north side of Chicago in the same neighbourhood as Gene Siskel and went to the same high school as him, I’m bald and Jewish and weird like him. It was always the dream but that’s all I thought it would be, a dream. I wasn’t used to a lot of success. There was always this idea that I’d like to write about movies but that would never happen cause that’s fucking impossible. I really thought this is how my future will be, this is how my 20s will be, I will work at a video store, I will sell my plasma, and God willing I can get some pieces published but that would be a really long shot. What happened was The Onion just fucking exploded and they didn’t have any entertainment writers and I was in the right place at the right time and had the right attitude.
I had the mindset that I was going to do anything, if there was anything that other people weren’t doing that needed to be done I was going to do it. I was so hungry and so ambitious. I was 21 in Madison and a junior in college and Stephen Thompson, asked if I’d like to be a staffer until I graduated college and once I graduated I could move to being full-time. I thought holy shit this doesn’t happen, you don’t get your dream job as a 20 year old in college. I felt like I won the lottery and it was up to me to prove that I was worth the good fortune that I had achieved. It took me a really really long time to not be terrible, then to be mediocre, then to be something a little bit better than that. I’ve also been incredibly lucky that I’ve had 16 years to do nothing but develop my writing, my intellect, my frame of reference. I knew pretty early on that I was lucky and I was worried they were going to take all of this away from me. It took years and years for it to all seem real.
Did getting the opportunity so young and having to learn everything on the job make your time at The A.V. Club a trial by fire process?
The nice thing about it was that there wasn’t really a trial by fire because nobody cared about The A.V. Club. The idea was that you were the red-haired step-child. They had this amazing world class groundbreaking satire section that everybody loved that was super unique and to fill out the rest of the newspaper they had the reviews and the interviews that everyone else had. The bar was pretty low and nobody was paying attention. I feel like if the writing I did for The A.V. Club in the late 90s had been posted in 2011 it may not have even been published. We were able to grow in darkness and not have that pressure and focus on us the way we would later on. I was able to find myself and develop my voice.
The two most memorable trial by fire experiences at the AV Club was when I interviewed Russ Meyer. My boss had tried him a few times and had given up on it, but when I finally got a hold of him he was pretty senile, he didn’t really seem to know who I was. I called him up and said I was going to interview him for the paper and he said “what, newspaper, I don’t want to subscribe to a newspaper” and I explained I was supposed to interview him and he said “fine come over to my hotel room, I’m in room 471″ so I had to tell him it was going to be a phone interview. I guess to amuse himself he decided that he would shock me. I had some pretty bland softball questions about him being a photographer in World War 2 and landing on D-Day and he said “Tits, I love tits, I wish I was floating on a giant pair of breasts right now”. It was kind of like being a rodeo rider, I felt like all I needed to do was stay on this bucking bronco for a minute and a half and I would emerge from it with something amazing. That was really great and one of the best interviews I’ve done.
The second was an interview with Gene Simmons, who was the most belligerent asshole, and basically spent the first 4 minutes making fun of me. It was a similar thing where once you don’t shrink from the challenge and say, oh my God Gene Simmons is being such a jerk, you get something good. It was a pretty low pressure atmosphere because nobody was paying attention to us so we could kind of do what we wanted. In the early days we literally had 6000 word print interviews with Pat Boone and the Unknown Comic and this was a newspaper that was pitched to college kids in 1998 and we were saying guess what you’re going to read 5000 words on Pat Boone and you’re going to like it. That was really neat and really cool and there was this wild west sensibility with the idea that no one is paying attention and we can do whatever we want.
Content on the internet is dictated by advertisers a lot more today than it was when you first started writing online. Do you have any advice for someone looking to build a career without quote unquote selling out?
When I started doing junkets it was awesome, you get flown out to Hollywood, you get to talk to all these famous people for your interviews but then very quickly I realized that this was gross, it made me feel like a whore, let’s not ever do this or let’s figure out a way to spoof it and to be kind of vicious about the people who are doing it. At the same time we stopped getting ads and getting invited back to junkets. For young writers I think the nice thing about the internet is there’s never been more places to get your name out, there’s never been more places to write for. I would encourage them to develop a thick skin. If you’re pitching to a place learn the place’s voice. If you’re pitching to a horror site don’t pitch a romantic comedy. Don’t send a form letter to them that you’ve sent to 75 different places, people want a personal email, they want to make a human connection. I think a lot of the mercenary element of the media now, a lot of the intense focus on commerce and integrating content with sponsoring is kind of at the top. With The Onion it was a real church and state division for a very long time. As an aspiring writer don’t think about that stuff, focus on your job, and your responsibility, and your passion, which is towards the writing and the craft and not to the people who advertise at the place where you might be writing. Also Twitter and Facebook is a good way to get your face and name out there.
Professionally the thing that probably made my reputation and my name was starting this column My Year Of Flops in 2007, it defined me as a writer and it also defined me as a human being. Being a champion of the underdog and taking a look at all the stuff that was reviled or disparaged and trying to find the value in it. To find the beauty and the poetry in stuff that society tells us is stupid and ephemeral and does not have meaning.
How do you keep your personal bias in check? If you really like serious dramas and you get assigned to review a romantic comedy, how do you approach that in an unbiased way?
That’s a good question. One of the things that separated me from other writers is that I would invest a lot of myself in my writing, especially with My Year Of Flops, it had a lot of myself, my sense of humour, my autobiography, my politics, and I think readers really connected with that in terms or I know this person from his writing, I know who he is, he bleeds allover this stuff. At the same time it could be a crutch and it could be a little lazy or a little gimmicky. I was editing the book version of My Year Of Flops and a lot of it was new content and a lot of it was from old stuff that I had to rewrite from scratch because I looked back and thought there were too many bad jokes, too many turns of phrase. It was kind of disheartening and I realized holy shit I need to be more refined and so much more methodical. One of the things in the evolution as a writer was realizing that I didn’t need to put so much of myself into my writing. I could just be a critic. There are two different parts of my writing, the analytical critic and the performing clown aspect. Thank God I have both of them, they made me more versatile and more useful as a writer, but if you lean to heavily on either one you kind of get into trouble.
I had this experience two years ago where I was in a position where I was writing Weird Al’s coffee table book with Weird Al. At the same time I was writing about Phish and the Insane Clown Posse. Originally the idea was for the Phish and Insane Clown Posse book to be less personal and more analytic and a little more detached and logical. That got really fucked up because I didn’t have the money or the time or the resources to really write the book that I had set out to write but at the same time I was professionally and morally and legally obligated to write this book all the same. It ended up being a book sort of about Phish, sort of about Insane Clown Posse, and in many ways about me and my psychological descent and all these weird fucked up things that I experienced. I remember my sister asking me at the time “so this book is about Insane Clown Posse? Obviously it will be less personal, right?” But in a weird way I feel like it might be more personal and more revealing and more intimate.
At the same time I was writing Weird Al’s coffee table book, which was a really great experience, but it was the opposite, I couldn’t put any of myself into it, I couldn’t use first person, I couldn’t make any reference to myself or my life, I couldn’t swear. I was basically fulfilling Al’s wish and I was helping write the book that Al wanted to write and that was a really interesting and worthwhile discipline and I’m super fucking proud of Weird Al: The Book. I love the guy, he’s a personal hero and I thought he’s a genius but that at the same time I came on as a gun for hire. It was really weird, it was like you were these siamese twins and one was this ragging rampaging kid that was foaming in the mouth and was untethered and going in a million directions at once and the other was this respectable person in a suit and tie, it was very very weird. It served different parts of my psyche and different parts of my skill sets. I’ve been injecting myself less and less into my writing, like with The Dissolve, I love The Dissolve but it’s more cerebral and academic. There’s wonderful wonderful things to be said for both of those styles of writing, both the personal and the impersonal. I kind of go through cycles.
Do you ever watch a movie 10 years later and think how you’d review it differently?
Oh yah. Every review is one persons impression of one movie at one specific point in time. You can’t write it as a guy who was sleepy or cranky that day and had got into a fight with his girlfriend and doesn’t like the way that actor did that interview. You have to make a pronouncement on a films worth or lack of worth and that’s why I think people have so much hostility towards critics because people think they sit up in their ivory tower, which is ironic because most critics are fucking broke and have no job security and are mocked and reviled by their peers. There’s this idea that critics sit up high and tell you that this movie is dumb and if you like it, you’re an idiot. This movie is great and if you don’t like it, you’re an idiot. It’s not that way at all. I feel like everything I’m doing is the beginning of a conversation and I’m saying this is how I felt about Nebraska, this is what it meant to me, these are the commonalities, I want to hear your opinion now too. I feel like people are so invested in their opinions that they take other peoples’ conflicting opinions as a direct attack on them. They think that if I’m saying that because you liked this movie you’re a moron so fuck you. But all I’m saying is that it didn’t really work for me, there were things I loved about it, but on a whole it wasn’t really successful. The weird thing is I love talking about movies and writing about movies but there’s this sort of bloodsport element to it. I never put that high of a premium on my own opinion and I think that’s a pretty healthy, but maybe a little counterintuitive, mindset for a critic to have.
How has that conversation changed over your career? You can now start receiving online comments from people immediately.
It changed the way that I saw myself and it changed the way that I saw my writing. The A.V. Club didn’t really have comments until around 2006 and up until then I literally would write my stuff and think that I was sending it from my laptop into a black void and nobody is going to read it, nobody is going to notice it, nobody is going to talk to me about it. I thought obviously I must be doing something right because I hadn’t been fired yet and we were staying in business but nobody talked to me about my writing and nobody talked to me about The A.V. Club. When commenters started writing on My Year Of Flops, I think it started out in a box and it was so popular they put it on the main screen, and that changed the way I perceived my work and my writing. The features that we did at The A.V. Club back in the early early days with 6000 words with no comments would never fly on the internet. Commenters were incredibly nice to us in the first couple years, they were kind of rooting for us and that level of discourse was really really nice and I feel like we’re just getting back to that at The Dissolve. I love our commenters and they’re so sweet and so engaged. I feel like so much of the internet is scan a headline, scan a picture, oh James Franco is doing a movie in the Bahamas? Fuck James Franco, fuck the Bahamas, Spring Breakers sucks, I didn’t see the movie I saw the trailer, James Franco’s a loser. Whereas at The Dissolve people will read the piece in its entirety and will think about it and then will have a nuanced response to it.
Twitter is something that has drastically changed how I see myself and my writing as well because that’s just a validation machine. There’s something deeply deeply unhealthy about it. My wife looked at me looking at my phone and said “didn’t you used to read books?” with the implication being that I used to read books and now all I ever do is read Twitter and there is not a lot to be gleamed from Twitter it’s kind of just an echo chamber where there’s all these different voices trying to make themselves heard. One of the nice things about The Dissolve is that we don’t have that much pressure about getting as many views or getting as many comments. We write things because it’s the right thing to do not necessarily because it will get a lot of views and it will get a lot of attention. There’s a certain trigger you can keep pushing over and over again to get traffic and there’s motherfuckers online who push those triggers over and over again to the point it becomes exhausting. If you do things a different way you handicap yourself but you also make things a lot more interesting.
For example in 2002 I did a 2 hour long interview for The A.V. Club with the writer and director of the movie Pootie Tang and at that point nobody knew what Pootie Tang was, it was this weird obscure movie that made no money, but the guy who wrote and directed it was Louis C.K. who was really fucking fascinating and had such an interesting perspective and such honesty and candour. It was so amazing that we were able to devote 6000 words in print to Pootie Tang. That was an incredible non-commercial movie to write about, it didn’t make any money and it was by this weird cult comedy writer that hadn’t really done a lot. Ironically if you were to do a 2 hour long interview with Louis C.K. now it would be the biggest thing and would be huge huge huge. Louis C.K. is popular for the right reasons. Now I would want to talk to him and hear about him but at the same time that would be amazing, it would bring a lot of viewers to the site, people will like this, it will get passed around a lot. At The Dissolve I’m not obsessed with those ideas, I’m not overly concerned with them, but you can’t be agnostic when it comes to stuff like that. I want The Dissolve to succeed, I want it to have readers, I believe in it, I believe we’re doing things the right way but it’s a little harder when you can’t write ’17 things about Breaking Bad’ and have a slideshow and cleavage and all the other things that are proven page view generators.
It can be discouraging because a lot of people tell young writers that nobody reads anymore but your reviews on The Dissolve have actually been getting longer.
They’re getting longer and less read than ever before (laughs). There’s this insane constant need to fill the feed and quickness and brevity that’s fucking surreal. It’s not enough to have a juicy sexy article about your favourite celebrity it’s then there are 9 different pieces that are just bullet point lists of details from other articles about that story. The idea is that you’re not actually going to read the article about Lindsay Lohan and The Canyons that everyone is talking about so we’re going to have 200 words about the most salacious parts. It’s like we as a culture aren’t even eating Big Macs anymore we’re just eating the cheese and meat because we don’t have time or the energy or the hunger anymore. At The Dissolve our reviews are twice as long as they were at the AV Club. I wrote a 900 word piece about Sex Kittens Go To College, which obviously is not going to be super well read or super sexy to a broad audience. It’s all about quality rather than quantity.
What role do you think your work or a critique plays in the success or failure of a film?
I think critics have a certain power but it’s a very limited power. As a member of the film critics association every other week you’re forwarded an article saying that Transformers made $750 million dollars even though it got uniformly terrible reviews so I guess proves that critics don’t matter anymore, nobody reads them, they don’t have any power. But no that doesn’t prove anything at all. A movie like Transformers is a massive commercial endeavour whose success or failure has very little to do with its quality, very little to do with the reviews, and everything to do with this massive infrastructure in place. It has everything to do that almost every blockbuster is rooted in a very well established franchise, be it video games, or comic books, or television shows or any of those things.
I feel like the places where I can make a difference is in really small stuff. Instances in my own career where I feel like I’ve been able to make a difference was with a movie like Idiocracy in 2006. I loved Mike Judge, I kind of worshiped him, and I wondered why this Mike Judge movie was being released in 100 theatres around the country with no press, no preview screenings, without even a fucking poster. They were just sneaking this movie out and trying to burry it in their backyard. I remember watching it and thinking this isn’t terrible, there’s actually a lot going on here, oh my goodness, this is one of the greatest satires of our generation, this is so fucking smart and has so much to say about the world we live in. So I wrote this pretty emphatic review and I felt like I could make a difference and create a counter narrative for the film that it wasn’t shit and obviously it got fucked up and was being dumped.
Another instance would be Louie, I watched the first 4 episodes and I said holy shit this is brilliant and I Tweeted “Louie is brilliant and original and unlike anything you’ve ever seen on television” and Louis C.K. actually retweeted it, which was pretty crazy because he never retweets anything. Obviously Louie didn’t need my praise or validation, it’s brilliant, but didn’t hurt, and he’s been pretty nice about saying that that was one of those things that let him know that maybe if The A.V. Club is gushing about how great Louie is there is something to this show. I think we can make a difference in micro-budgeted movies, we can make a difference in VOD, we can make a difference with documentaries, I feel like my reviews of Searching For Sugarman or Bad Milo or Rewind This!, which are $300,000 movies that need to find an audience and my reviews will have more of an impact and will be much more useful and worthwhile than my take on the third Transformers movies. I’ll still enjoy writing about it and hopefully readers will enjoy reading about it but if you’re going to see the Transformers movie you’re going to fucking see it no matter what critics say and if you’re not going to see it it doesn’t really matter.
Critics don’t really matter with all these massive movies but there are all sorts of small movies, delicate meek movies, that do need people to write about. When I left The A.V. Club to work at The Dissolve it was like I went from being on a major label and now when somebody has a link to a site or they mention us it really matters, it’s awesome, we really appreciate it, and we can see a spike in traffic, whereas if you’re part of a huge enterprise and you have 3 million viewers a month it doesn’t have that kind of impact as it once did. For me it’s very easy to feel like people don’t really respect it and you don’t make a lot of money but for me one of the most powerful and moving things for me in the last year or so was that I went to Roger Ebert’s funeral and his memorial and the memorial was over 3 hours long and it was an incredibly stirring testament to what a critic could do and what one strong, clear, powerful, eloquent voice could do to a culture and what an impact it can make and how many lives it can touch. It made me feel like it’s not just some ridiculous thing where you get money to write about a comic book movie, it can be a really great thing.
What do you think are some stereotypical tropes or easy traps that critics can fall into when reviewing a movie?
It’s very easy to be glib. I had an experience with Mike Reiss, who is the co-creator of The Critic and one of the main people at The Simpsons during its golden age, and I had written a review of his movie, My Life In Ruins, which was a little loved Nia Vardalos vehicle post My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and I had made a reference that he had defecated the script or something to that effect. He actually did not like the movie either, he kind of felt like okay I wrote a script and it wasn’t a very good script and they turned it into a bad movie and he was like if you have to use a synonym for a bowl movement in your writing than that’s bad writing, that’s lazy, that’s cheap. There’s this idea that in order to score points and make your name known you have to be mean and you have to be tough. One thing I always try to do as a critic is to keep in mind that there is a person who made this and there is a chance that they will read it and they will be hurt by it. There are rules of engagement. Obviously you can be harsh and you can be a little bit mean but it has to be warranted and it has to have substance. It can’t be mean for the sake of being mean. You can’t be a fucking bully.
Another thing that was drilled into me when I wrote the memoir, The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, I got a review from The Washington Post after the book had been out for 3 months and I was thinking it was a really nice run and I was happy with the reception and I got this review that basically said I had started The A.V. Club because I hate popular culture and my incredibly mean spirited writing was a manifestation of that. My book was an incredibly earnest, sweet-natured account of my childhood battle with suicidal depression and how movies helped me get through that. The review was incredibly mean spirited and ugly and dumb and was like “Rabin starts to have a little bit of relevance when he talks about his Jewish heritage but loses all credibility when he talks about the Beastie Boys in a positive light” so it was like wait a minute you’re saying I should be ashamed of myself because I’m mean spirited but literally in the next sentence you’re saying that anyone who likes the Beastie Boys is a moron and cannot be taken seriously because of it.
So it was kind of like holy shit, I never want to write a review that has that kind of impact on the person that it had on me. I never want to be that mean or personal or vicious. That’s an important thing for critics to keep in mind. There are human beings working in all different forms of endeavour. Obviously you feel less sensitive about taking on something huge, that appears to be monolithic, I don’t worry about hurting Michael Bay’s feeling. I wrote a piece about Troma, it’s a weird fascinating documentary about its leader Lloyd Kaufman that depicted him in a negative light and I feel kind of bad about that because I don’t want people to be mad, I don’t want people to be upset, I want to make the world a more positive place. Don’t be mean for the sake of begin mean, don’t be glib for the sake of being glib. Don’t just dismiss entire genres outright.
You’ve worked in newspapers, books, television, and online, which medium do you think has the most opportunities for young writers?
I would definitely say online. Print is dead. I don’t think The Onion will be a print publication in years to come, I don’t think The New York Times will be a print publication in three years time and that’s not a reflection on the publication itself it’s just a reflection on print as a medium. I feel really blessed that I was able to start off at a time when I would literally cut and paste the newspaper onto cardboard and then take it to the printer but it’s over. There won’t be this hierarchy where print is above and online is below that because there won’t really be print anymore. I’m an old motherfucker, when I wrote this book I got 4 stars in Rolling Stone and it meant a lot to me that I was able to go to Walgreens and buy a copy of Rolling Stone and flip through the pages and see holy fucking shit Rolling Stone gave my book 4 stars. That was amazing, that meant so much to me, but I don’t know if Rolling Stone is going to be a print publication three years from now. I’m 37 years old and I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of different cycles in this industry.
I’d like to think that it will kind of revert back, things have gotten so obsessed with the new and the current, and click-bait, and pandering to what everybody is already experiencing and are interested in. I feel like there will be a move back to things that are slower, more substantive, longer, and will give audiences an opportunity to process and digest. I feel like the iPod that takes the whole of music and reduces it to song by song by song and it’s interesting but at the same time I have a record player because I like to listen to albums. There’s something very beguiling that for 20 minutes I’m going to listen to what Nas or Kris Kristofferson or Belle and Sebastian or Jimmy Buffett want me to listen to this extended thing as one piece of vinyl as one something that demands my attention for an extended period of time and hopefully that will happen with the media as well. There will be this exhaustion that everything has to be sexy and current and hip and 23 words long followed by a 17 image slideshow. I’d like to think that the pendulum is swinging the other way.
Do you still enjoy watching movies or are you constantly critiquing?
Oh fuck yah! Fuck yah! I felt like when I started writing for the AV Club back in 1997 I’d be like oh man I don’t want to see a movie when I got home from work, I see those all the time, I just want to watch TV, but I fucking love movies. Thinking about them and analyzing them just adds to my enjoyment of movies. Music is different, I’m not going to be writing about music as much, but I feel like there’s something nice that now when I go to a Phish concert I can just enjoy the experience and be there in the moment and not think about how does this fit into my work or what does this say about the book. I can just experience pure pleasure. I feel like I’ve got to a point now where I don’t have to write about everything, I don’t have to be the expert, I can just be somebody who likes things and one of the things I like most in the world is movies…and also cheese.
Do you have any final advice for people who want to become film critics and not end working as a hotdog vendor at Wrigley Field?
(laughs) hey, that’s a reference to my memoir. My advice is to just experience everything, see as many movies as possible, love it, passionately embrace it. Write as much as you can for as many people as possible, develop your voice, write for the love of writing and for the love of movies, and for the love of expressing yourself. Don’t do it with a mind towards how will this feed my career or how will I make a living from this because those are going to be an impossible goals for a lot of people because there aren’t a lot of jobs but if you love what you’re doing and you’re passionate about it, and idealistic, and do it with integrity than doing it will be its own reward.