Medleyana: Year Three

Well, another year of blogging has passed, and that means it’s time to write a “state of the blog” post again. I can tell this has been a busy year for me, at least based on the gap between posts earlier this spring. As I said then, I’ve given myself permission to not write unless I have something to say, but I still find the discipline and structure of blogging helpful for making myself finish things. Speaking of finishing, I’m finally nearing the end of a project that has taken a lot of my writing time and is probably the number one reason I haven’t posted as frequently in 2016 (more on that as it develops).

I suppose I don’t really have much to say in comparison to previous yearly summaries, but as always I want to say “thank you” to those of you who subscribed, commented, and shared links to Medleyana. I appreciate the feedback and fellowship. And in that spirit, I’d like to turn outward and recommend a few other online sources that I rely on and enjoy.

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First off, I still follow Philip J. Reed at Noiseless Chatter; like Medleyana, Noiseless Chatter covers a wide range of topics–whatever Philip and his guests feel like discussing–so it’s hard to point to a representative sample. Philip recently wrapped up a long, intensive dive into ALF, the television series about an alien puppet who lives with a suburban family and eats cats (seriously, I was never really a fan of the show, but Philip goes into much greater detail). Other articles have provided thoughtful looks at popular culture, the creative process, and heavy topics like mental health and suicide prevention (Philip’s response to the death of Robin Williams, and the dialogue that followed, is one of his finest moments, as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve followed Medleyana for long, you’ve probably seen me mention Noiseless Chatter before, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?

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I’ve also recently been taken with New Orleans-based Swampflix, a movie review and discussion site run by fellow Dissolver Brandon Ledet, among others. Swampflix casts a wide net in its reviews and articles, including up-to-date releases and older films going all the way back to the silent era, “from the heights of art cinema to the depths of basic cable schlock.” That’s a mandate I can get behind, and it’s just as much fun to read about films I’ve seen to get the writers’ insights and perspectives as it is to browse their reviews to get recommendations for new things to watch.

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Like many sites these days, Swampflix has also spun off into a podcast. I’m not a very regular listener to podcasts–I enjoy them, but it’s not quite a habit for me–but I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to. Another podcast I’ve found entertaining and informative is We Love to Watch (formerly Listen To Our Podcast), by Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran (in addition to their website, they’re on Stitcher and iTunes). They cover a variety of genre and exploitation movies, as well as a few higher-profile selections that dip into those areas (like Deliverance). They’ve also sometimes covered the same movies as Swampflix, giving an interesting range of opinions and perspectives (like when they both covered 1981’s Possession, a bizarre and unsettling film I also caught up with earlier this summer).

I would be remiss if I failed to include the blog of Rick Kelley, aka Luddite Robot, whose coverage of film is deep and always well-researched, and who doesn’t shy away from the political implications of works, even while acknowledging their power (he’s right on about the flimsy allegory of Metropolis, but it’s still one of my favorite films).

Finally, I also want to recommend fellow Dissolver Zack Clopton’s Film Thoughts. Zack is a true “monster kid,” a fan of all kinds of horror and genre fare, as well as a collector of monster toys and action figures. He both writes knowledgeably about a wide range of movies (his “Director Report Card” series is a highlight) and reflects on what those movies have meant to him in his life; Zack’s affection for the genre shines through in every post.

Thanks again for a great year!

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Hi there! Wow, a month and a half sure flies by, doesn’t it? But I think I’ve given Pee-Wee Herman the top spot for long enough. More long-form content will appear on Medleyana soon, but in the mean time I haven’t been idle. If you missed it, you can catch up on Tune in Next Week, my ongoing series at The Solute in which I’ve been writing about the 1939 Buck Rogers serial one chapter at a time (and the most recent installment of which was just published yesterday). With only two chapters left to go, I’ll soon have a little more time to write over here.

Another project that has occupied me this spring is putting some more of my compositions on my long-neglected YouTube channel. I haven’t posted everything, but the pieces that are up represent a good cross-section of my output, including some of my ragtime piano, wind band, and electronic compositions. The big one is my symphony Carnival of Souls, recorded by the Wichita Wind Ensembles Professional Band in 2012.

If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to subscribe to Medleyana and/or follow me on Twitter to get instant notifications of updates and announcements. Thanks!

Medleyana: Year Two

A year or two before I began Medleyana, I idly mentioned my interest in starting a blog to a friend. “No one reads blogs anymore,” he said. That gave me pause, but eventually, I went ahead and started anyway, and the result is this blog, now two years old, give or take a day.

Within the first six months of blogging, I realized that a lot of my articles started with a reminiscence such as the one above, with the rest of the article enumerating the reasons the other person was wrong. I quickly found that as tempting as that rhetorical device can be, I needed to use it sparingly, lest the entire blog become a giant exercise in “staircase wit,” a compendium of the things I should have said, if I’d only had the presence of mind. (Of course, if I argued as vociferously in person as most people do on the internet, I’d have no friends left, online or off-.)

So, as I celebrate Medleyana’s second birthday, I don’t bring up that friend’s offhand comment to prove that he was wrong. In fact, in many ways, he was right: the time in which a blog could amass a large readership just by being out there is long passed. This summer has proven to be something of a reckoning, not just for bloggers but for all kinds of “long form” writers on the internet.

In addition to the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, “free-form” radio station WFMU’s Beware of the Blog ceased posting; as of July, both exist online now only as archives of past content. I’ll admit I wasn’t a regular visitor to WFMU’s blog lately, so maybe I’m part of the problem, but when I first discovered it I spent quite a bit of time browsing its posts and downloading files from its collections.

Looking at it now, its mixture of original articles and reposts of unusual tapes and records, comics, and other found oddities are a good example of what the web used to be like as recently as ten years ago. Industrious writers with scanners and mp3-editing software could clean out their closets and share whatever weird stuff they found with the world instantly. It’s not just that the early internet was less commercial in nature (although that’s certainly part of it–Beware of the Blog was a volunteer-driven affair): it was countercultural, picking up the habits of reclamation and subversion that had driven the alternative press in the ’80s and ’90s. And it went both ways: like many of the blogs and websites that emerged around the turn of the century, it developed a culture of users (both writers and commenters) that gave it an identity. In the past, I’ve compared online forums to bars or coffee shops that are always open, and that was especially true of the websites that attracted regulars, “where everybody knows your name.”

The passing of this ethos is part of what Vox editor Todd VanDer Werff laments when he calls 2015 “the year the old internet finally died:” now there’s so much emphasis on social media and going viral, it’s harder to create a website with an identity that is a destination, rather than a source of memes and videos to share. The content is often no less quirky than before, but the context is quite different: instead of being part of an ongoing discussion with a community of writers and commenters (something The Dissolve excelled at), each picture or link is encountered as part of the reader’s Facebook or Twitter feed; to the extent that it has any attribution, it’s more like a brand than a source to return to (one reason a lot of these meme-mills are radio stations). According to VanDer Werff, writers of longer articles (what used to be the expectation for writers and journalists) are in trouble unless they can also provide the quick hits that generate clicks.

Of course, Medleyana isn’t really playing on the same turf as The Dissolve (or the A.V. Club, or Grantland): it’s just me, not a staff of writers, and it’s a labor of love, not a job. But the landscape has changed for bloggers, as well: the same month that The Dissolve and Beware of the Blog shuttered, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote about the world he remembered before he was sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for his writing:

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

Again, I’m not sure I have much in common with Derakhshan; it’s hard to read his comments and not feel that he mourns the influence he once wielded as much as the changing structure of the internet. And while he isn’t wrong about the changes in the way we exchange ideas online, there are simply more people writing then there were before, making it harder for individual voices to stand out. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post didn’t say anything about people not writing blogs anymore, after all.

More seriously, Derakhshan goes on to point out how commercialized and homogenized the dialogue is when it’s in the hands of corporate social networks like Facebook: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex–and secretive–algorithms.” Those algorithms tend to emphasize what users have already shown that they like with their clicks and upvotes, contributing to the echo-chamber quality of such networks. That’s a fair concern, and one shared by many observers: that the internet will become more like television, with a fragmented but largely passive audience, faced with an infinitude of choices, but less likely to be challenged by different perspectives.

Ultimately, while my readership is not large, at least not in comparison to the heyday of the form, it has been growing: this summer’s Fates Worse Than Death has been a success, at least measured in comments and discussion (some of which have taken place, yes, on Facebook and Twitter). This year I stretched myself more to post on a weekly basis, and I experienced and learned about some fascinating films that I might not have been motivated to explore otherwise. And just personally, I’m pleased that I was able to stay on my self-imposed schedule with some late nights (and a few very late nights!). I’d probably try to keep this series going all year round but for two factors: first, it’s too time-consuming, and I would burn out if I tried to keep it up for much longer; second, I have other things I’d like to pursue as well. To those of you who may have found your way here for coverage of serials, I hope you’ll check out some of the other topics. And rest assured that I’ll still be covering them in one way or the other.

Finally, thanks for visiting, and for reading. If you’ve taken the time to comment, or contacted me personally, or if you’ve shared one of my articles, know that I appreciate the feedback. If there’s anything I can to do to improve your experience in the coming year, or you have a suggestion for a topic you’d like to see covered, or you just want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to comment, send me an e-mail through the contact page, or find me on Twitter!

P. S. And keep writing!

It saddens me to say that The Dissolve, my favorite site on the Internet for the last two years, is closing up shop. The whole thing happened rather suddenly, but has been confirmed by an announcement from Editor Keith Phipps. I’m saddened to lose the insights of Phipps and the other writers for the site, but I’ll also miss the lively discourse among the commenters and the general culture of sincerity and encouragement. Despite The Dissolve’s official focus on movies, subjects under discussion often ranged widely both in the regular articles and in the comment sections. There are at least four articles on this blog that got their start as comment-section projects (my Lovefests on Addicted to Love and Cowboys & Aliens, my Scarefest on The Visitor, and my tribute to former Dissolve writer Nathan Rabin, Guardian of the Gods). That’s not even mentioning The Solute, the site launched as both a tribute to and an extension of its parent site. I’ll continue to post over there, and if the current influx of commenters over there is anything to go by, it may well end up being a continuation of the lively forum we had at the Dissolve; I invite you to read wallflower’s memorial, which eloquently sums up the feelings of so many of us.

R.I.P. The Dissolve, and good luck to its staff as they move forward.

Je Suis Charlie

Je-suis-Charlie

I wasn’t a reader of Charlie Hebdo, but I’m as shocked as anyone by yesterday’s terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine in Paris, a premeditated shooting that left twelve dead. Like many of the people around the world who are responding to the attack with expressions of solidarity, I’m horrified by the concerted attempt to shut down free expression through intimidation and violence.

France is arguably the cradle of free speech in its modern form, given expression by such Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Beaumarchais, but it is also more vulnerable to terrorism than the United States, both geographically closer to the Middle East and home to a much larger Muslim population than the United States. It goes without saying that radical Muslims are a small minority, but relations between the majority and minority cultures in France are fraught. (I’ve spent some time in France, mostly as a child, so I’ll limit recollection of first-hand events to recalling that I was advised not to speak English loudly or be seen reading English-language newspapers on the Metro: during the 1980s, a period of tension with Iran, it was considered wise not to advertise your Americanness, although I’m sure I could hardly help it.)

Situations in the U. S. and France are not exactly comparable, of course. Still, it is striking that the attack on Charlie Hebdo happened on the same day that I read about Kirby Delauter, a Maryland politician who threatened to sue his local newspaper for using his name and likeness without authorization because it was publishing stories about him that he didn’t like.

To be fair, Delauter’s threatened lawsuit (a suit which would be laughed out of court, if he could find a lawyer willing to pursue it at all) is hardly in the same category as a shooting spree. However, it reveals a similar mindset, a hostility to the free press and its tendency to print truths or opinions outside of the subject’s control, and the message to writers is the same: don’t stick your neck out. (To his credit, Delauter has apologized for his comments.)

It’s a mindset revealed in the wake of last year’s massive Sony hacks and the subsequent withdrawal of the studio’s comedy The Interview (which depicts the fictional assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un) from wide release. There are still disagreements over whether North Korea was actually behind the cyberattack, but the fact remains that the authoritarian country was happy to take credit for it and that it is still a place where open criticism of the Dear Leader is grounds for imprisonment or execution.

In both the case of Charlie Hebdo (which regularly ran cartoons skewering Muslim fundamentalists, including irreverent depictions of Mohammed) and The Interview, one could argue that the humor on display is tasteless, even offensive. It is especially offensive expression that needs protection, however: articles or cartoons that offend no one hardly need protection, do they? In any case, the magazine’s staff were fully aware of the risks they were taking (having been the targets of threats and arson previously) and felt the threat itself was reason enough to keep pushing: as editor Stéphane Charbonnier (who published as “Charb” and was among the dead) told Le Monde after another threat in 2012, “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”

It is tragic that such words now form Charbonnier’s epitaph, but if they are remembered and taken seriously, we can learn from them. Those who attacked Charlie Hebdo believe they are sending a message, but the clear meaning is the opposite of what they intend: the answer to offensive speech is more and better speech, and participation in civil society, not bullets and intimidation. Perhaps that sounds naïve, and is easy to say from my relative safety in the U. S., but it is a principle worth standing by. As one of Charlie Hebdo’s own headlines read, “Love is stronger than fear.” In the wake of these attacks, Nous sommes Charlie.

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Medleyana: Year One

Apparently, this is who I am.

Apparently, this is who I am.


Wow, it’s been a whole year already! Medleyana became a part of my life so quickly that it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t trying to shape my thoughts into blog posts on a regular basis. In a lot of ways, this has been good for me to undertake, even though it’s been a lot of work. I probably should have started blogging a long time ago: there’s a big difference between having a thought and putting it in a form for others to read. There is often research involved, and it’s surprising how many leaps in logic one can make that only come to light when trying to write an idea down or explain it to somebody else. As someone who often reaches conclusions by intuition or lateral thinking, blogging has kept me honest and forced me to support my opinions in a more rigorous way.


The reality of blogging has also been different from my expectations. I at first conceived of Medleyana as mostly an essay series, one entry building on another until I had gotten all of my thoughts out, presenting an overarching argument made from many angles. I quickly realized that most people, including myself, don’t read blogs in that way: the format lends itself to browsing, with the expectation that not all readers will be interested in every subject a writer chooses to explore (especially true for a blog like mine, tackling a variety of subjects), and each entry needs to be able to stand on its own rather than building directly on its predecessor (not that I haven’t had some threads running through). In some cases I’ve responded to current events or arguments, but mostly I don’t consider Medleyana to be a “headline news” kind of blog; perhaps that is something to consider expanding into in its second year.

Overall, although some entries didn’t quite get where I wanted them to go, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made as a writer, and I’ve proven to myself that I can stay on a schedule (most of the time). I’ve also found it necessary to branch out in search of new subjects to write about, after exhausting most of the things that had been building up inside, the ideas that drove me to start blogging in the first place.

Fates Worse Than Death, for example, my exploration of movie serials, was a product of happy circumstance: I had a few serials on DVD but was having a hard time committing to watch them. So, like so many bloggers before me, I began a series, thinking that the summer would provide the free time to watch them with the side effect of providing a little content for the blog. How wrong I was! It turns out that watching and writing about a four-hour long movie, even on a biweekly basis, is rather time-consuming! As I often tell my wife, I don’t really take on big projects anymore: I just take on projects that I think will be small, and wait for them to expand! It has been an enjoyable process, however, and I’ve even made some friends in researching and discussing this material (and I still have plenty to look at for next summer!).

The most surprising development of the last year is how quickly I have been able to find other outlets for my writing, including The Solute (for which I will have some pieces upcoming, I promise!) and The Wichita Eagle. I’m also still awaiting publication of The Lost Worlds of Power (now expected at the end of October) and I’ve got a few other projects in the works. Some of them are larger in scale (so maybe I exaggerated when I said I never take on big projects) and might demand more of my time. My goal is to keep posting at least once a week here, but after proving I could do it for one year I’m going to be more forgiving of myself if I don’t, and I’ve got an ample backlog of material for anyone who gets impatient for more reading.

Finally, if there is one thing I appreciate from readers, it’s feedback. I have a general idea of readership through the number of “hits” this site gets each day; I can see what search terms are leading readers here (and frankly, some of you should be ashamed of yourselves). I’m aware of which posts are the most popular (for the record, it’s “Instruments of Death” by a long shot), but unless I hear from you, I don’t really know what you think. If you’re reading this, why not consider commenting and letting me know you’re there? If the commenting system is too restrictive or you just prefer to remain private, drop me a line through my Contact page. Criticism is as welcome as praise, as long as it will help me make this a blog that you will want to keep reading.

To all of you, thanks for a great first year.

Dole/Darko ’88

I used to be a real pack rat when it came to newspapers (used to, I hear my wife saying).  While going through some boxes that had been at my parents’ house for about twenty years, I found quite a few papers and magazines that I had saved for one reason or another: historical value (“Clinton Sweep,” read the headline of the Wichita Eagle the day after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election) and souvenirs of places I’d been, but also stories that seemed dramatic or exciting to me, and which, in those heady days, I thought might be the basis for a dramatic work.  I was very much under the spell of contemporary dramas like David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China; it seemed that any out-of-the-ordinary story might have sufficient conflict or resonance to turn into an opera or play.  I was fairly susceptible to any kind of cultural theory that came along, so my early thoughts about aesthetics were a jumble of second-hand Marshall McLuhan, Peter Sellars, and Gilbert Seldes, cut liberally with the provocative Dadaism of the Residents and Frank Zappa.  At one point I set a few comic strip texts to music, partially as an exercise, but also believing that “mass media” sources were the natural successor to the communal folk sources that had informed the classical tradition from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.  Don’t get me wrong, those are still areas of interest to me, but like a lot of teenage “artistes” I was trying way too hard.  In any case, my own subsequent experience, not to mention the flood of shallow, hacky biographical operas that became trendy after Nixon‘s success, showed me that it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and not every news story held a grain of dramatic truth waiting to be turned into poetry.

One article I found that I still remembered vividly appeared in the Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, October 15, 1991: “Odd Tales of UFOs And Sen. Bob Dole Visit Russell, Kan.” by staff reporter (now WSJ editor) Kevin Helliker.  The disappearance of four women from Russell cast a spotlight on local writer Donna R. Butts, who had published a book about her contact with space aliens (and who was among the missing). According to her book, the Second Coming would begin as soon as Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who grew up in Russell, was elected president and moved the White House to his hometown, among other apocalyptic prophecies.  Members of Butts’ group of believers included local art teacher Gertrude “Trudy” Furney, whose public sculpture of the Seventh Trumpeter from the Book of Revelation sat (and still sits) in Russell’s Lincoln Park.  According to Rural Kansas Tourism, the sculpture (now popularly known as the Angel in the Park) “was constructed in 1988 to symbolize a turnaround of the local economy and a new beginning.  The artist’s idea was to portray that when the angel blows the 7th trumpet, better times and new beginnings were ahead.”

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It was apparently not unusual for the sculpture to be interpreted in more literal terms, however: according to Helliker’s article, the disappearances set off a wave of anxiety.  “Students at Bickerdyke Elementary School, located across the street from the Seventh Trumpeter sculpture, swore they saw the angel’s trumpet move.”  Psychologists were brought in to counsel the panicked students.  The public library was overwhelmed with requests for Butts’ book, and UFO sightings in the area spiked.

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I didn’t live in Russell, but the atmosphere of expectant foreboding described in the article felt familiar.  In the fall of my freshman year in high school, a brilliant light on the horizon convinced a number of people in my hometown that the Second Coming had arrived, or so I heard; it was the lights from the football stadium for the first home game, seen through an unseasonal haze.  There was a lot of that going around in the late 1980s and early ’90s, enough that director Richard Kelly’s decision to set his spooky 2001 film Donnie Darko on the eve of the 1988 presidential election felt weirdly appropriate.  In hindsight, this story, and several others that I collected, pointed to a convergence of two trends that would go mainstream in the 1990s: interest in UFOs and paranormal activity, and millennial fundamentalism.  The popularity of The X-Files gave a boost to the former, and the political ascendance of the latter is a reality that is still with us; in both cases, the Internet’s ability to connect like-minded people surely contributed to the trends.  The fact that “rational explanations” were forthcoming–pranksters confessed to faking UFOs with road flares tied to helium balloons, and the four missing women had undertaken a pilgrimage to Israel without telling anyone–makes it conveniently easy to dismiss the whole thing, leaving aside the question of why people get swept up in these manias in the first place.

Donnie Darko, 2001

Donnie Darko, 2001

I don’t have an answer to that, at least nothing that would go beyond the volumes that sociologists and philosophers have already written.  Perhaps, in addition to my dramatic ambitions, I was simply trying to make sense of the data, like that other famous clipper, Charles Fort.  Fort spent years arranging the “damned facts,” weird happenings and sightings culled from newspapers from all over the world, into his four books; the cumulative force of his observations asserts a loose philosophy of skepticism toward both unsubstantiated myth and scientific orthodoxy, putting his faith in facts without jumping to conclusions about how they fit together.  The Internet has made it both easier and more difficult to follow the weird happenings in the world: easier because we have greater access than Fort, sitting at a table in the New York Public Library, could have imagined, and more difficult because of the sheer scope of the information available.  Ultimately, the lack of a definitive conclusion is what makes this sort of story less satisfying for dramatic purposes than we might desire: we’re left either exaggerating the reality of the aliens’ presence, as in a Hollywood blockbuster, or dismissing it altogether, as most outside observers would.  The ambiguity and misdirection, the need to believe without being able to prove anything, was something The X-Files would get right, for the most part, and as Donnie Darko would demonstrate, sometimes the most captivating aspect of a case like this isn’t a story at all, but a mood.

And with that, I leave you with Donald Erb’s 1969 composition The Seventh Trumpet, appropriate mood music for this article.