Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Goodbye, Mr. Phipps" or "My Life With The AV Club"

One summer day in 1996 my pal Nathan came home from a trip to Madison with a stack of hard-to-find CDs, all-natural cigarettes and free alternative newspapers. While we listened to the CDs in his parents’ living room, I flipped through the papers. It was mostly the usual political ranting and ponderous stabs at art that I’d come to expect from college-town publications, but one paper grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. It was, of course, The Onion.

I’d never seen anything like The Onion. It was satire so well-written and straight-faced that it took me half an article to realize that it actually was satire. I spent the better part of the afternoon cracking the hell up and quoting lines at an increasingly annoyed Nathan, who had already read and had his own laugh at all of the articles.

Not long after that I started dating a girl who owned a huge stash of Onion back issues, sent to her by a friend at the University of Wisconsin. I started making a habit of dropping by her house when I knew she had violin practice so I could head up to her room and dig through the stack of homegrown comic genius uninterrupted. Somewhere around the middle of that stack, I launched my love affair with The AV Club.

If you’ve only come to The Onion in the internet age, let me explain the workings of the old print edition. In its earliest days, the paper was available only on newsstands in Madison, Wisconsin. (I believe it expanded to a number of metro regions and the internet some time in the mid ‘90s.) The front half of the paper featured the now-familiar satirical news articles and doctored photographs. The back end was dedicated to comics like Red Meat and Pathetic Geek Stories, Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column and an assemblage of pop-culture reviews, interviews and features known as The AV Club.

At first the sudden shift from the twisted comedy of The Onion to the funny but straightforward arts journalism of The AV Club was a bit jarring. Before long, though, the writing in The AV Club became every bit as revelatory to me as that of its flashier counterpart. I was 18 and just starting to think seriously about a future as a film critic. Up until this point, my only real influence was Roger Ebert. I read and re-read my local library’s scanty selection of Ebert’s film essay collections until I could quote them as readily as I could the films he wrote about. I learned scads about the craft of arts writing from those books, but it wasn’t until I discovered The AV Club that I saw film criticism as something I might actually be able to do.

The writing in The AV Club was briefer, more sardonic and generally less self-referential than Ebert’s. Ebert wrote thoughtful, passionate essays drawn from years of life experience and an endless font of cinematic knowledge. I loved reading it, but it was more than a little intimidating. The AV Club, on the other hand, was almost as brilliant yet still felt like something I could write myself.

Their reviews in particular struck me as utterly fearless. Their Happy Gilmore review, for instance, just read (and I’m paraphrasing) “Fuck golf, fuck Adam Sandler and fuck this movie.” That type of dismissive scatology is par for the internet course nowadays, but at the time I’d never seen anything of the sort. Likewise, I can’t say for sure that the AV Club writers coined the now ubiquitous practice of referring to all ill-conceived movie sequels as “[Movie Title] 2: Electric Boogaloo,” but I know I first saw it in their write-up of Lawnmower Man 2. (The review itself was just a non-verbal jumble of letters, another brilliant touch.)

I elevated the names of the regular AV Club contributors – Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, Scott Tobias – to my personal pantheon of writerly heroes. I’d even say their work played a big role in emboldening me to go out and grab my first paid writing gig. A week or two after graduating high school, I strolled into my local newspaper and asked the editor for a weekly movie review column. To my surprise, he accepted my demands, and my career was thus launched. In hindsight, my first reviews were a shameless, shoddy pastiche of Roger Ebert and the AV Club house style, but a fair number of people in the greater Sparta, Wisconsin area read them and liked them.

I’ve been writing about the arts professionally ever since – film, music, books and now theater – and I’ve never let The AV Club out of my sights. It’s grown along with me, moving from an afterthought for Onion fans to a stand-alone site to something of a pop culture juggernaut. Stephen Thompson’s expert editorial guidance gave the site its unique voice in the early years before giving way to founding writer Keith Phipps. On Phipps’ watch, the Club quickly evolved beyond its irreverent roots and became one of the web’s most dependable fonts of thoughtful, readable cultural analysis. The staff too moved beyond that early house style and developed distinctive voices. Nathan Rabin took a page from Roger Ebert and started to blend personal essays into his reliably hilarious film analyses. Noel Murray got even more personal as he used pop-culture as a jumping off point for insightful penetrations into American identity. Donna Bowman introduced a more scholarly tone that ripped open familiar entertainments and exposed the complex, fascinating inner workings that made them tick. (Her enthralling analysis of all five seasons of NewsRadio remains perhaps my favorite bit of pop culture writing ever.)

Heck, the AV Club comments section even led me to a vast network of online friends, many of whom I talk to nearly daily on Twitter and Facebook. Those interactions have confirmed for me that the AV Club attracts one of the wittiest, most intelligent fan bases on the web – in other words, people like me (he said humbly). I can’t think of another community that would have brought together so many people who can engage me in debates about the best David Bowie album (It’s Diamond Dogs, obviously), take my advice on what book to read next (some good Faulkner or Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter) or actually derive mild amusement from my jokes about Robert Altman’s Quintet.

Even though The AV Club brought us together, there’s a sizable contingent of folks who have drifted away from the site. There are a few who never miss a chance to denigrate the direction it’s taken in recent years. The standard roster of complaints holds that the writers spend too much time navel-gazing, that the site leans too heavily on side projects like podcasts and videos, that corporate sponsorships have tainted the arts coverage, and that the expansion of the writing staff has watered down the overall quality of the journalism.

I suppose I can see where they’re coming from, but I mostly chalk it up to the American tendency to attack greatness for not being perfection. For one thing, I know how hard it is for anyone to make anything like a living in the arts-writing world, and it makes me happy to see some of the good ones pulling it off. For another thing, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the AV Club world over the past decade and a half, but never anything that made me think the site was losing its luster.

When Keith Phipps announced last week that he was leaving his editorial position with The AV Club, it marked the undeniable end of an era for me, as it know it did to thousands of other loyal readers. As both an editor and a writer, Phipps steered the site smoothly through an era of unprecedented journalistic change, building it into a thriving online enterprise while hundreds of similar publications crumpled into obscurity. He leaves it in as strong a shape as it’s ever been in.

I don’t know what direction the site will take in Phipps’ absence, but I have faith that it’ll remain on the straight and narrow. Sure, not everything they publish is to my tastes, nor should it be. But so long as they keep producing inventories that guide me to previously undiscovered films and music, so long as they provide thoughtful, thought-provoking analyses of the artistic endeavors that color my world, so long as they run ridiculously engaging features like Will Harris’ incomparable “Random Roles” interviews, the AV Club will have a home in my bookmarks.

Goodbye, Mr. Phipps, and thanks for all you’ve given me.

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