Author Reveals The Dark Secret Of 'The Big Rewind' Movie critic Nathan Rabin chronicles the dark upbringing that he survived thanks to pop culture in his book, The Big Rewind. Now 33, Rabin is head entertainment writer at The Onion's A.V. Club. He says the secret about the memoir, written as a comedy, is that it's really about depression.
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Author Reveals The Dark Secret Of 'The Big Rewind'

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Author Reveals The Dark Secret Of 'The Big Rewind'

Author Reveals The Dark Secret Of 'The Big Rewind'

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Film critic Nathan Rabin has written a very funny book about his not-very-funny life. We're talking family breakdown, teenage truancy, an inept suicide attempt, a stint in a mental hospital, five years in a foster care group home, some sexual misadventures and mind-numbing jobs. He got his start in the film business working as a clerk at Blockbuster.

His story is about staying sane by connecting with pop culture and surviving to the ripe old age of 33 to be, as he is now, head writer of the A.V. Club, which is the entertainment section of The Onion.

His book is called "The Big Rewind," and he joins us from Chicago.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHAN RABIN (Author, "The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: This is - by the way, this is a story about your life, a memoir. So I should ask you the question that arises from any number of scandalous memoirs of recent years, how true is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RABIN: It is absolutely true. I actually just had dinner with my sister and some book-world people, and my sister marveled at how unexaggerated it was. She said our family has an unfortunate tendency toward stretching the truth, but that I was uncharacteristically honest in my depiction of myself and the world around me.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain the relationship between the songs or the movies that you write about in each chapter, a little bit of criticism, and the episode in your life that they connect to. What's the structure here?

Mr. RABIN: Well, the structure is that I basically take an episode or an era or a period in my life - I'm getting a little crazy with the synonyms there - and I find a book or a song or an album or a movie that I kind of use as a springboard, a filter to discuss it and how it kind of helped me understand the experience or was intricately linked to the experience. I tried to have a very eclectic group of pop culture touchstones, and I feel like that's very endemic to my generation, sort of the generation of Quentin Tarantino and "The Simpsons."

SIEGEL: One of the books that you write about, and this is in the chapter - it's a very understandable connection - it's in the chapter about your time at a mental hospital when you were a kid, is Susanna Kaysen's book "Girl, Interrupted," and then the movie with Winona Ryder that was made of that. The book was very meaningful to you.

Mr. RABIN: Oh, very much so. I kind of felt like she had the same experience that I did, which is very strange because there were decades removing it, and she was very upper-middle-class and went to one of the best mental hospitals in the world. And I went to one, yeah, that basically existed to make money, and it was kind of soul-crushing and dispiriting. But there was a sense of just this overwhelming emptiness and this idea that people were there because they had endured this kind of strange purgatory where kind of no life or joy or hope could possibly - it was kind of a black hole, an emotional black hole.

SIEGEL: I wonder if you could read from a passage in the book, when you write about Kaysen's book and then the movie that was made of it.

Mr. RABIN: Oh, sure, I would be happy to.

(Reading) The whole point of Kaysen's book is that her 18 months in the mental hospital are a season in purgatory. There is no redemptive arc, no life lessons to be learned, no glorious epiphanies. But in the film version, Kaysen's character learns valuable life lessons, engages in hardcore bonding with her peers, and ends the film older, wiser, and ready to face the challenges of life outside.

With intelligence, taste and only the best of intentions, writer-director James Mangold transformed a book that told the truth into just another Hollywood lie. When I interviewed Mangold, I asked him why he blunted the book's political message and feminist subtext. He told me that movies like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" had already covered that territory.

SIEGEL: It's a passage that suggests being a film critic and talking about Hollywood movies must be a perennially disappointing experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RABIN: Well, there's a passage in my book where I say, to be a film critic is to exist in a state of perpetual disappointment because every time the light goes down, you live in hope, and you want a movie to be good, and you want to be surprised, and you want to be entertained. And more often than not, that is not the case, but it is also to live in perpetual expectation and perpetual hope. So it's kind of this violent conflict that goes on inside every time you see a movie.

SIEGEL: Your story, the story of your book, it's very funny. It's very profane. It's also very dark, very dark. Do you ever expect to find a film that connects with adolescent dread and anomie as it really is, or depression or hospitalization in a psychiatric institution?

Mr. RABIN: Well, I think the piece of art that probably captures that the most is "Catcher in the Rye," and it is perhaps not coincidental that that has never been turned into a movie and probably never will be turned into a movie, and many, many people wanted to.

Jerry Lewis, actually, at one point really, really wanted to turn "Catcher in the Rye" into a movie but did not. And I feel like it's an emotional train that is foreign to most adults. It's something they forget. It's like there's an impossible gulf between when you're an adolescent and you see the world a certain way, and then when you become an adult, you can recapture it a little bit, but it's very, very hard to recapture whole. And I think that's one of the things that "Catcher in the Rye" did and why that means so much to so many people.

SIEGEL: Do you remember the two pieces of advice that your girlfriend's mother gave you?

Mr. RABIN: I do, indeed. They're - number one, is lower your expectations.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Number two is settle.

SIEGEL: Settle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RABIN: Yeah. I followed that advice throughout my life.

SIEGEL: Right now, you're writing for a very hip publication and Web site, The Onion, and you've already had your cable TV show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RABIN: Yeah, my poorly rated, mildly disreputable, basic cable, movie review panel show, as I insist it always be referred to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: This was with John Ridley.

Mr. RABIN: Yes.

SIEGEL: And now you have your memoir out at 33. Do you feel you've emerged?

Mr. RABIN: What took me so long? That's what... exactly.

SIEGEL: What took you so long? Where you've been?

(Soundbite of laughter)

No, do you feel that you've emerged from this dark adolescence, which featured, among other things, no mother, your father experiencing terrible illness and complete fall from social and economic position?

Mr. RABIN: Well, I don't trust happiness or contentment. I'm sort of a lifelong depressive, and I feel like my book - sort of the dark secret of it - is that it's secretly a serious book about depression sort of nestled within this very kind of insane, profane dark comedy.

I grew up, I always felt like I had kind of this Great Depression mindset, where I always thought that the bottom would drop out and that everything was going to disappear tomorrow, and it's taken me a really, really long time to get over that. But I've been with The Onion for 12 years. I'm really proud of this book. So I'm beginning to experience an emotion I believe you humans know as happiness and hope and optimism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And I know that all of those things will come back to bite me and will come back to destroy me in the end, but I'm trying to savor the moment. And I feel like I owe it to, you know, the 14-year-old me that just hated the world and was like a sentient ball of rage, to appreciate the fact that this book is being perceived and received the way I wanted it to and that a lot of people who've struggled with depression, mental illness, have come up to me and said they really, really appreciate that somebody writing about it and kind of destigmatizing it. And I feel like one of the things that makes depression so agonizing is that you feel like you're the only person in the history of time who ever went through these things.

So to have a book about somebody who went through these things and maybe worse, and yet seemed to have come out with a sense of humor and a sense of perspective, I think, is a powerful, powerful thing.

SIEGEL: Well, Nathan Rabin, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. RABIN: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Nathan Rabin's book is called "The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture."

(Soundbite of music)

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