Medleyana, Year Six: The Future of Fates Worse Than Death

I made a key decision when I began Medleyana (six years ago this week!): I gave myself permission to write about whatever I felt like rather than covering a single narrow topic (the blog’s motto, “In praise of the eclectic,” was thus aptly chosen). I could not have predicted, for example, that a good chunk of my time would be spent covering old movie serials. Related to that freedom, and as an antidote to a phobia of leaving any angle uncovered I had developed in grad school, I accepted, even embraced, that I would not always be comprehensive in my discussion of every topic. Building up over time, each article adding to the big picture, the writer I have become has been revealed (to myself, not just to readers) over the past six years. This is, of course, normal for reviewers, who write about one thing at a time, but it was a new way of thinking for me. In retrospect, it was silly of me to think that I could do it any other way.

This is also the sixth year of writing Fates Worse Than Death, mostly during the summers. I originally started the series as a way of motivating myself to watch a few serials I had on DVD (while, at the same time, providing fodder for my blog). I have since bought many more serials for the specific purpose of writing about them, as well as hunting them down online (not to mention the books I’ve bought and checked out of the library to bolster my writing). I feel that I’ve graduated to “aficionado” status, but I wouldn’t say I’ve yet earned the right to call myself an expert. More than 250 serials were produced during the sound era, and I’ve watched and reviewed about 20% of them at this point.

However, I have watched enough that many patterns and similarities have emerged. Originality (as opposed to novelty) was not the primary aesthetic goal of the serials, so evaluating them individually is often a matter of judging the skill and artistry of filmmakers who were ringing changes on familiar formulas rather than breaking new ground. The question I face is this: should I continue writing about the serials in individual summaries, as most of the articles in Fates Worse Than Death have been, or should I condense and consolidate my coverage, while continuing to watch and research the serials? As I have frequently pointed out, I wouldn’t continue to do this if I didn’t enjoy it, and while I sometimes have criticism to level at the serials, I hope that my affection and interest in the genre and the era comes through in equal measure. If I am critical, it is because I am a fan who was been moved to think about what I am watching.

I also feel that I have written enough installments of this series to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my approach. There is a great deal of material already available on the production of the serials: the careers of the actors, directors, and crew members; the box office results and later television revival of the serials; and the places and people that often go nameless in the original films but have been identified over the years by eagle-eyed fans. I do not feel that Fates Worse Than Death is primarily about those things, although I touch on them occasionally. Nor does my work quite fit the nostalgic approach taken by many of the first-generation fans who grew up attending Saturday matinee showings of these films; as I have written previously, my own nostalgia is for the films and TV shows made in reaction to this material such as the Indiana Jones movies and The Rocketeer (I couldn’t really see the serials uncut until I was an adult anyway). Researching the serials (as well as the comics, pulps, and radio shows of the Golden Age) helps me to understand the influences that went into those works, but the serials are ultimately part of someone else’s childhood. On the other hand, I hope that I have more to offer than just snark.

No, I have come to find that my primary interest is in the form itself, in the way the demands of the cliffhanger and the weekly episode shape the story, as well as the way low budgets encouraged economy, from the use of recycled props and sets to the use of in-story flashbacks and that reliable staple, stock footage. One strength of this approach is that I have tried to watch as broad and representative a sample of serials as I could, taking on the serial as its own genre, not just as early film vehicles for my favorite comic-book superheroes or as an embarrassing cousin of the Western, gangster, or science fiction genres.

I also believe that there is room to explore the influences that flowed into and from the serials: the popular crime novels of Edgar Wallace, the fantasies of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the comic strips of Alex Raymond, for example. I’ve mentioned those names many times, and they keep coming up because of the repetitions of formula I’ve mentioned; again, I’m not the world’s foremost expert on popular culture, but I’ve learned a great deal from writing this series, and I hope to continue exploring those elements. (Because of the way I write installments of this series, I generally like to go into each serial as a blank slate, only afterward discovering what other materials I need to fill out my review; a more comprehensive approach would necessarily make research a greater priority.)

Similarly, as the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past every year, details from the serials that contemporary audiences took for granted become more obscure. A work that delves into those details, that separates fact from fiction and provides a clearer picture of everyday life in that era, the better to appreciate the flights of fancy, strikes me as overdue (Christopher Miller’s book American Cornball, which explains to modern audiences what used to be so funny about castor oil and other jokes that turn up in old cartoons and movies, is a model I have in mind here).

In short, I put it to you, dear reader, especially those of you who have stuck with Fates Worse Than Death this far: what would you like to see going forward? Would you read a longer work, partly an explainer about the serials and the world that produced them, partly a guidebook with selected reviews of individual serials? Or are the reviews themselves compelling enough that you would prefer to keep reading them? Are there specific serials or related subjects you’d like me to write about? I intend to keep watching them, but I don’t want the article format to become stale, for myself or for readers. If you’ve followed this blog or read Fates Worse Than Death (all available here), let me know what you think: comment here, or drop me a line through the Contact page or on Twitter. As always, thanks for reading!

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Medleyana, Year Five

CitizenKane

The author, hard at work producing fresh #content

I have been thinking about editors lately, and how necessary they are. It is sadly clear that editing isn’t the priority that it used to be, and I’m not just talking about writing online; finding an obvious error in a newspaper, magazine, or even in a book, and knowing that it was preventable is one of the sadder and more frustrating experiences that all readers have had at one time or another. Everybody needs an editor: another pair of eyes will frequently notice typographical errors, missing or misused words, and ungainly repetition that I have overlooked (it’s so basic, but I still get annoyed when I find I’ve used the same word twice in a sentence or repeated it too closely in a paragraph). I happen to think I am a pretty good proofreader of my own stuff, but nobody’s perfect, and beyond the question of my writing ability, when I’m self-editing I only see what I think I’ve written, mentally filling in words I’ve left out or correcting spelling errors without even noticing them. An editor sees what I’ve actually written and can go from there.

Of course, what I’m describing is really proofreading and doesn’t even get into the more active roles many editors take in shaping their writers’ work. For a couple of years I wrote concert reviews for the Wichita Eagle. That was instructional, but newspaper editing has its own set of conventions: I learned quickly that I couldn’t write four paragraphs of critique and then turn it around with something positive in the last paragraph, because newspapers “cut from the bottom,” and that last paragraph was the first to go if space was needed, undercutting my rhetorical strategy and making it seem like I had nothing positive to say. I also found that phrases in parentheses or set off by em dashes were easy to cut, so I learned not to put anything too important in them. As far as grammar or word choice, though, I don’t recall many changes being made to my prose. My concert reviews were submitted via e-mail, where they would be posted first online and then usually appear in the print edition a day later (as you may expect, it was the print edition that sometimes made cuts for space).

Needless to say, Medleyana does not have an editor other than myself. With enough lead time, I can let an article rest and come back to it with fresh eyes, seeing clearly what is actually there, but realistically I don’t always have the time to let things settle before I hope to post them. Being online, I can always go back and correct mistakes if I find them later, but beyond errors of fact or simple typos, I try to resist the temptation: once you start rewriting, you may never stop. That said, my experience writing and reading lead me to have great respect for the editor’s art and skill.

There is another way in which the passage of time helps my writing process: in the realization that I’ve perpetrated a cliché. Clichés are often the byproduct of hurried writing or the initial stage of the process in which I’ll put something, anything down on the page to get started. You would think that a hackneyed phrase would immediately jump out at me, but if it fits into the rhythm of the passages around it, it can be camouflaged, only appearing obvious later, once I’ve pressed the “Publish” button. Sure, I take out clichés if I catch them during the proofreading/rewriting process, but it’s the ones I don’t catch that I really remember–and importantly remember to avoid in the future. (Lest I be accused of vagueposting, I already cringe when I see the sentence “What’s a girl to do?” in my review of Disenchantment, and that was only two weeks ago. Blecch.)

Weak endings, judgments that later seem too harsh or not harsh enough, and arguments or turns of phrase that come to me perfectly formed the day after I’ve published are examples of similar phenomena. The realization that I’ve written something trite or half-baked is a powerful incentive to do better, and a single published example I regret is stronger in that regard than a dozen unpublished aspirations. Still, as I said, I try to avoid editing old posts, because down that road lies madness. I’d rather look forward and try to apply what I’ve learned from my successes and failures to the next thing I write.

On that note, it’s now been five years since I started Medleyana; my focus has changed over time, with fewer personal essays and more reviews (especially my series Fates Worse Than Death, about which I’ll have more to say in an upcoming article). Some of what I have written seems excessive to me now, especially in the early blog entries, which were often about subjects I’d been thinking about for some time before writing; the search for fresh material often doesn’t leave as much time for exploring things in depth as I might like. However, I know from experience that if I don’t keep a schedule, I might never finish anything, because there’s always more “research” to be done, always some other nugget of information waiting to be uncovered. (And of course there are months where I don’t post anything at all.) It’s true that I don’t publish as often as I did when I started, but I plan to continue, and I’ve already re-upped my domain registration, so I guess I’m committed. I have some fun articles planned already, and October is usually a fruitful month for me with plenty of Halloween-related topics to write about, so please continue to check the site (or subscribe)!

To all my readers, whether you’ve been with me from the beginning or just discovered Medleyana, if you’ve shared links to my posts, commented on a post, followed me on Twitter, or just read something you enjoyed: thanks.

Medleyana: Year Four

I’ve been thinking about Dungeons & Dragons lately: specifically, the period in the mid-1980s when I was most obsessed with the game. (This is a periodic thing for me: I don’t play anymore, but once or twice a year I get the itch to relive past glories.) I’ve been reading some of the adventure modules and other materials from that era, and one thing I remember is how much time I spent as a kid just reading those same books, poring over the pictures and the endless statistics and rules (well, the rules I mostly skimmed) and regretting that I didn’t get enough serious playing in. I felt like I was missing out. I’ve since heard from many D&D fans who in fact never played the game at all, either because they didn’t have friends who were interested, or they weren’t allowed to play by strict parents, or they just didn’t have enough free time.

I am certainly familiar with the daily ritual of examining gaming materials that would never see a round of melee combat, but my situation was a bit different: in those days, the writers at Dragon and Polyhedron (and, I dunno, White Dwarf I guess) put an awful lot of emphasis on the importance of developing your campaign. “Campaign” was the word for the ongoing game over the long haul, and in particular the interconnected skein of events, personalities, and long-term goals that transformed a series of disconnected sessions and small-stakes adventures into a sweeping epic like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Amber. A properly developed campaign was, it was hoped, the stuff of legends, the kind of immersive collaborative storytelling that years later would make players wistful as they recalled together, “Do you remember that night in Shanar, the one with the Halfling assassin?” “Ah, yes, I remember it well.” Sighs of contented reminiscence all around. It’s no wonder that the word campaign itself was borrowed from military jargon by way of wargaming: were not a group of players bonded together over time and shared experience in a manner akin to veteran soldiers?

Equally important, at least in the pages of Dragon, was your campaign world. It was fine to play in the World of Greyhawk, the default setting of most of the early published adventure modules (replaced later on by The Forgotten Realms and a number of other prefab settings), but it was assumed that you would only be satisfied with that for so long, and that at best such supplements were to serve as a springboard for your own Great Work, the Magnum Opus of any Dungeon Master: your own individual campaign world, one that you created, and sown with seeds for adventure derived from the unique geography, history, and culture(s) that you came up with. It all sounded very compelling, and just as importantly designing your own world from scratch gave you something to do during that time when you weren’t playing but you were leafing through the rulebooks anyway.

In middle school, I had a lot to learn about worldbuilding, Dungeon Mastering, and storytelling, but that’s not the point of this. No, the main thing I remember about my campaign, set in the world of Ix-Nay, was how it got harder and harder to get all four (and later three) players, including myself, together, until finally we were playing maybe once a year. No wonder Ix-Nay never had the breath of life in it! In roleplaying games, a setting isn’t really a world until it has been set in motion and players have been given a chance to explore it. So I felt that I was missing a key experience in any serious gamer’s career (and as you can tell, I took this calling very seriously indeed).

But here’s the thing: even though my campaign with my custom-made world and handpicked players withered on the vine, in retrospect I played D&D quite a lot. There would be random pick-up games with kids who would come and go, most of these sessions one-shots with characters who were never seen again. There was even a Dungeons & Dragons club at my middle school, held in the art teacher’s room. Sometimes I was the DM and sometimes the player. Sometimes you would be playing with people you didn’t even particularly like. The game experiences I had ranged from total party kills at the hands of rigorous (to a fault) DMs who had strong ideas about the integrity of the game, to freeform fantasies that included guest stars like Bon Jovi. I have a lot of memories of playing D&D (or the mutated offshoots of it we came up with ourselves). Yet at the time, snob that I was, I didn’t think those games “counted” because they weren’t part of my campaign. They were, at best, pre-season or exhibition games (to use the parlance of sports with which I was hardly conversant at the time).

It wasn’t until much later that I renewed my acquaintance with the Devil’s game from the player’s side and experienced some truly excellent Dungeon Mastering. I learned that developing a campaign is a two-way street, built upon the contributions of both Dungeon Master and players, and most of it all it requires regular care and feeding with weekly or biweekly sessions (ultimately I just didn’t have time for that kind of commitment, but I kept it up for a few years). Perhaps that helped put my youthful gaming in perspective: I could stop beating myself up about my “failed” campaign and embrace the fun and growth I had experienced in the “unofficial” side quests. They really hadn’t been so different.

All of which brings me to the changes I’ve gone through in the last year and how that has been reflected in this blog. This weekend marked four years since I began Medleyana, and as I always do at this time of year it’s time to set down a few thoughts about what I’ve done with it and where it’s going. I’ll be the first to admit that writing hasn’t always been the first thing on my mind this year: my work as a musician and teacher has kept me busy, and even “free time” doesn’t always equate to writing time if I really just need to recharge my batteries. (I won’t deny that the dreadful state of our politics has gotten me down as well.) I’ve also noticed that the majority of my blog posts have become reviews: it’s much easier to get the words flowing in response to a movie or a book or comic, and it makes it easier to stop when you reach the end of that topic, as opposed to the open-ended ruminations that Medleyana started out as.

At the same time, however, when I look back at the past year, I’ve actually done a fair amount of writing. Although there were some gaps in posting, I’ve averaged about two entries a month, and I can be proud of what I’ve written (revisiting my first year, it strikes me that many posts were filler, born of self-imposed deadlines). Among other things, I also completed the draft of a novel earlier this summer, an undertaking of at least the last four years or so (another one of those “small” projects that grew bigger as I went); it’s still in need of complete rewriting before it will be fit for any kind of public consumption, but being able to write THE END on it, even in the state it’s in, has been a real relief, and is perhaps one reason I can look at what I’ve published this year and be okay with it.

Ultimately, just as I learned when playing D&D, there is little difference between what I see as my “real” work and what I produce in the mean time: it’s all part of the process, and it takes just as much focus to write a good blog post as it does to complete a novel, the only difference being the length and the relative challenge of sustaining that focus over the long haul: the difference between a one-off adventure and a campaign, if you will.