I became familiar with Nathan Rabin’s film criticism through The Onion and the A.V. Club as well as his excellent book My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man’s Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure. Rabin’s specific brand of film criticism blends a genuine love of film with heavy dose of ironic humor, with a dash of real scholarship. He has coined the phrase ‘manic pixie dream girl’ – a film trope that I still argue with other film geeks about, and he’s made a name for himself as a thoughtful and more importantly funny film critic. In The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, Nathan Rabin takes his reader on a hard, oft-disturbing journey through a childhood that can be euphemistically-labeled as “troubled” to a young adulthood that is marked by personal and professional peaks and valleys. His living with depression is also an important aspect of his story, and many of the passages are informed by his struggle.
Rabin’s childhood is a picaresque tale of a young kid, abandoned by his mother and living with a kind father who just couldn’t take care of children; he’s even placed temporarily in a home of a wealthy suburban family, but that situation quickly deteriorates. Rabin is also institutionalized and describes his experiences with a mordant sense of humor that doesn’t trivialize or dull the pain of the memory. He also writes of his time in an orphanage – those who are seeking an uplifting Little Orphan Annie story will be disappointed (and possibly traumatized), but he doesn’t write about is time there with a poison pen – as with his recount of his institutionalization, he writes of his time in the orphanage with a clear-eyed pragmatism, as well as compassion for his fellow residents.
And if Rabin’s bitter, it doesn’t show in the writing – and Rabin’s got plenty to be bitter about. It’s not enough that his childhood was so difficult – and thankfully, despite his expert use of humor, Rabin doesn’t make it seem madcap or Auntie Mame – but his life as a young adult wasn’t terribly easy-going either. Romantic relationships seemed difficult for Rabin, and he even bravely describes the time he went to see a doctor for erectile dysfunction. He also includes a bracing episode dealing with a girlfriend’s abortion.
All of this sounds like a very heavy book – and the subjects are heavy. But Rabin’s a humorist, and is able to inject humor into seemingly any situation he writes about. And leaning on the book’s theme of pop culture, Rabin also puts on his critic hat; his passage about his stint at the mental hospital for example, begins with his thoughts on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted which is unfortunately best-remembered as the 1999 Winona Ryder vehicle that made Angelina Jolie a star. He writes of how relatable Kaysen’s work was, and how surprisingly funny it is, despite the subject matter (Rabin could be talking about himself); in another passage, he writes of a time as a fledgling film critic having the late Gene Siskel suavely command him to switch seats with him; like many teens in the early 1990s, he also finds Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, as an inspiring outlet of pain and angst, but the adult Rabin is also smart enough to find cowardice in Kobain’s suicide (which as been too romanticized).
Another important part of Rabin’s life which takes up a good chunk of the last parts of the book is Rabin’s brief tenure as a TV star on AMC’s doomed Movie Club with John Ridley – a panel chat show with four personalities who talk about films. He writes about a Shylock-like producer who is riding on a crest of unwarranted and misguided confidence, and sweeps Rabin along with him. Despite his misgivings, Rabin writes of being dragged into the mess of a show. Again, as with his childhood experiences, Rabin isn’t bitter – he’s realistic and knows the show was bad. The other members of the panel show come off as very interesting characters – the titular Ridley comes off as the intellectual heavyweight, brought in to give the show much-needed credibility and gravitas; Anderson Jones comes off as a gregarious, kind fellow, hired solely to be the funny gay sidekick; but the most contentious relationship Rabin suffers through is with Zorianna Kit, with whom he’d trade insults and barbs.
To be honest, Movie Club with John Ridley would’ve been an interesting book on its own – not because the show was so interesting or important, but because it is a perfect encapsulation of when Hollywood doesn’t work – as a critique on show business, Rabin’s writing on his experience with Movie Club ranks up there with Sunset Boulevard or A Star Is Born. Again, all of this works because Rabin takes care to leave the bile out of writing.
The Big Rewind is a fantastic book that will be difficult for readers to put down – I started reading it on a lazy Saturday morning, and finished it by the evening. It’s a powerful book that shows the endurance of the human spirit, but isn’t soppy, saccharine, or maudlin like lots of memoirs tend to be (whenever a book cover as the word “inspirational” splashed across in big letters, I usually avoid said book). It’s a frantic and funny account of a life that could’ve been a contender for Greek tragedy.
Click here to buy Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture on amazon.com.