Note: This was written as part of The Dissolve commentariat’s tribute to Nathan Rabin.
In a recent piece, Nathan Rabin reflected on a vicious review his memoir received, which baselessly took him to task for snark and cynicism.
Although this particular review didn’t have much ground to stand on, he (rather generously) concedes:
I realized I sometimes used humor, or at least jokiness, as a crutch so I resolved to be more nakedly sincere and open in my writing. And though I retained an interest in the world of snarkitecture, and kept a subscription to Snarkitectural Digest, the only magazine that covers homes constructed solely out of nasty cynicism, I vowed not to be the person described…
This, to me, is Rabin’s work in miniature, and what has always stood out about it.
He can write a blistering, hilarious pan of a truly bad film – as could Roger Ebert, the critic I think he resembles more than anyone else working today – but there is a distinct lack of nastiness. In the “daddy blogging” piece linked above (which, c’mon everyone, read that thing, it’s fucking unbearably adorable), he cites the birth of his son as an event that changed his “brain chemistry itself,” making snark “a luxury [he ] couldn’t afford.”
I believe him. But I also think that his work has always been defined by a certain generosity, a hope that even a terrible film or book might have insights or redeeming aspects, and an empathy totally missing from much of the “discourse” that passes for online criticism, which all-too-often boils down to a punchline in search of a foil.
In short, he’s never been out to tear things down for the sake of a cheap laugh, and his (often inspired) jokes tend to land because they take the side of the underdog. Like Ebert, he sincerely wants the thing to be fun and enjoyable and smart; the knives only really come out when there’s bad faith on the part of the film. This might not sound like much, but it’s been important to me – as a reader, as a film-watcher, and as someone who shares this foundational approach. Reading Rabin’s stuff, I’ve often felt that he was putting into (far better) words what I would’ve said, but even more than that, putting them into a context to which I’m deeply sympathetic. There is very little condescension, and an unabashed glee even when things go off the rails. Pop culture, I would say, is supposed to be enjoyable. You wouldn’t know this if you read many other folks; you couldn’t possibly ignore it if you read Nathan Rabin.
I first became aware of Rabin through the My Year of Flops series, which also serves as a wonderful testament to the very things I’m trying to get at here. Indeed, its central conceit – revisiting films that were roundly rejected, to see how they hold up now – encapsulates much of it. Going to bat for MacGruber, I’m Still Here, Freddy Got Fingered, and Heaven’s Gate takes a certain amount of chutzpah; being willing to sit through Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction, The Beaver, Mr. Wrong, and Santa Claus: The Movie represents an almost unbelievable commitment to the benefit of the doubt. (To say nothing of Foodfight!, a film I still haven’t quite forgiven him for introducing me to, despite it producing one of the single funniest reviews I have ever read.) But in all of these cases, and so many more, Rabin’s prose works and the jokes land because of the underlying sincerity. There’s an affection for the material, and for the medium, even at its nadir. It’s only things like Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, which traffic in the banality of evil, that really get the full brunt of his righteous, and profoundly well-deserved, indignation. This is a lesson I take to heart – to quote one of our great cinematic prophets, you should be nice until it’s time to not be nice.
In his non-film writing – specifically the excellent, Washington Post-panned memoir The Big Rewind and the strikingly empathetic and generous You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me – he exhibits the same fiercely democratic spirit that I admire. The former uses pop culture artifacts as insights into a tumultuous childhood; the latter examines fandom and cultural outsider status through the lens of Phish and Insane Clown Posse. Once again, there is a desire to make connections between disparate elements, to mine the generalized pop culture landscape for the moments of personal revelation and connection. I’ve kept using the word “empathy,” but “personal” is another word that should be emphasized; throughout his writing, Rabin zeroes in on how it felt, where he was, what it meant. This has been useful and insightful to me.
After all, our connections to the songs we love, the films that speak to us, the books that resonate are deeply personal. We bring to them all sorts of baggage, and sometimes they help us sort it out. Sometimes they don’t; in fact, sometimes they confuse us even more. But art is relational, and experiential. It’s a borderline cliché but it’s true – you can hear a bit of a song, overhear someone making a joke you enjoyed 10 years ago from a film you forgot you even saw, and you can be transported. You can learn things from art in a way no other form of expression can approach. That’s why we keep doing it, even though it has, at best, nominal value to the world at large. Rabin gives voice to this, and recognizes that even the throwaway moments can have pretty profound meaning.
The flip-side of this is that art also builds community. Film creates community – communities of reference and understanding and insight, and cheap gags, and gleeful chuckles when they fuck it up. From Simpsons jokes to lists of cinematographers, we can recognize a tribe of sorts, and feel like we have a place. Like very few others, Rabin sees this connection between the individual experience of pop culture and its wider social impact, the way our minor obsessions move from solipsism to shared joy. It’s a valuable contribution to a conversation that will always go on late into the night.
I think part of the reason that so many of us relate to Nathan Rabin’s work is for its sincerity and that basic recognition, that he doesn’t stand apart but rather is an active participant in the conversation. Yes, he’s better than almost anybody at amusingly framing things, and yes, his grasp on arcane references is almost troubling, but his work is always approachable, drawing connections between high art and the lowest art imaginable.
So this is what I’ve learned from him, give or take: be enthusiastic, be sincere, and have the intellectual courage to enjoy Freddy Got Fingered on its own terms. I find these lessons valuable, and aspire to incorporate them into all the things I do. (Maybe the first two more than the last.)