Nathan Rabin, Critic to Watch

Nathan Rabin, who I commended a week or two ago for his review of Little Miss Sunshine, has a glorious post over at The Onion’s A/V Club blog alleging that Tupac Shakur is either the most over-rated rapper ever, or the second most over-rated. He writes:

2Pac reigns unchallenged as rap’s preeminent martyr, easily beating friend-turned-rival Notorious B.I.G, an infinitely better rapper and writer but a far less irresistible icon. Like most icons 2Pac’s appeal is inextricably linked to his mutability. 2Pac was everything to everyone. Wildly antithetical groups and demographics could each claim him as their own. To teenage girls he was the fantasy boyfriend whose thug-life exterior hid the sensitive soul of a guy who grooved to the cornball drama of Don McLean’s "Vincent" and filled spiral notebooks full of earnest poetry.

To feminists willing to look past the often virulent misogyny of his lyrics he was one of rap’s few strongly pro-choice voices and the creator of uplifting pro-women anthems like "Keep Your Head Up" and "Dear Mama"

To backpackers and black nationalists he embodied in his tattooed and sculpted body and often pot and liquored-addled mind the lost promise of the Black Panthers and rapped eloquently about politics and the everyday struggle.

To gangstas, aspiring, studio, fake and otherwise, he was the realest thug around, an O.G who died living the dangerous life he rapped about. As is far too often the case in hip hop his violent death was seen as proof of his authenticity, not a grim sign that his life and ethos had spiraled dangerously out of control.

Read the whole thing. I think he’s too hard on Tupac — "most over-rated ever" is an epithet you should reserve for someone who’s not really all that good, and Tupac was very good — but the insights are deep even if the tone is too harsh.

Rabin’s a critic I’m going to keep my eye on, perhaps someday tap for a probationary membership in Skull & Scones, the secret society of the Cultural Critics Association of America Organization. I’m scanning over his articles and posts of the lastmonth or two, and there’s a lot there.

His review of the new Mike Judge movie, Idiocracy, is good, though he over-sells the movie, which is good enough that it shouldn’t have been screwed over by the studio as it has been (the reason you’ve never heard of the movie is that it’s been screwed over by the studio that’s distributing it), but not as good as he says it is. It’s three stars, maybe, or two and a half. It’s no Office Space.

Even better is his review of The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, which I quote here in full, possibly in defiance of American fair use laws (it’s hard to be sure; the law is very vague):

John Lennon was a fascinating paradox: a utopian misanthrope. But there’s precious little of Lennon’s legendary crankiness on display in The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, a fawning hagiography that diligently shaves away the ex-Beatle’s rough edges and knotty idiosyncrasies. Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld stop just short of digitally adding a halo and angel wings to Lennon’s image. Their documentary gives audiences the St. John of the leftist popular imagination, a longhaired prophet of peace who died for humanity’s sins, reducing Lennon’s politics to hollow sloganeering and bumper-sticker slogans. A more critical documentary would undoubtedly have explored the contradictions inherent in the socialist leanings and power-to-the-people rhetoric of an insanely wealthy, egomaniacal pop star. Here Lennon gets a free ride in an account of his anti-war protests and consequent run-ins with the Nixon-era U.S. government.

At worst, the film feels like an unintentional parody of liberal documentaries that transform complex topics into elaborate cinematic peace signs. In order to justify their hyperbolic portrayal of Lennon’s extra-musical significance, the filmmakers elevate Lennon’s fuzzy utopianism to the level of a profound political philosophy and treat self-indulgent publicity stunts like Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in as if they were revolutionary pop art landmarks on the level of Warhol’s Campbell soup cans. The filmmakers assemble an impressive array of interview subjects (and also Geraldo Rivera) notable mainly for their narcissism and hero worship (or in the case of a now-tubby, suspender-and-floppy-hat-clad Bobby Seale, their unfortunate resemblance to Fred Berry of What’s Happening!! fame). Lennon famously claimed the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus." Leaf and Scheinfeld’s insufferable lovefest takes that quote to its logical extreme by unconvincingly trying to posit Lennon as a countercultural messiah, Jesus with an electric guitar and nasal whine.

He also has a nice interview, in this week’s paper, with Dick Cavett. It includes this anecdote of the first time Cavett saw Woody Allen, who became a friend of his, do stand-up:

AVC: What was it like seeing Woody Allen perform for the first time?

DC: It was astonishing, because I had never heard him before. The Tonight Show told me to go down and see this comic at The Blue Angel, and when I heard that he wrote for Sid Caesar when he was 17, I thought, "I want to make a friend of this guy, whoever he is." Saw his act, it was new, he was new to stand-up, hating most of it. He would stand with the mic covering his face or most of it, and he did his act, and it was one brilliant joke after another, just like a string of pearls. Every joke was better than any one joke that any other comic had in his act, and the audience talked mostly. We were there in a big ballroom, and there was a speaker, and he starts, and about two minutes in, the audience starts talking to each other. They weren’t listening, they tuned him out, except for me standing in the back. He’s a tough fellow and he took all that. He vomited a few times, he admitted.

Author: Dear Dexter

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