Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Opening the Archives – A Birthday Present for Wonders in the Dark

Monday, September 12, 2011

Opening the Archives – A Birthday Present for Wonders in the Dark



Click here to visit The Complete Archive for Wonders in the Dark. The rest of this piece is a long, and perhaps long-winded, revisiting of that site's history - humor me, if you will. Or don't - but either way, check out the archive, as well as the more searchable Cinema/TV archive. Enjoy - these are my birthday presents to the readership and staff of Wonders in the Dark. The rest is just the greeting card, and we all know what you do with those...
Today, September 7, 2008, a new blog is born. The main thrust of this cultural endeavor will be the publication of reviews, which will examine films, theatre, concerts and opera. Several writers will be on board to bring the steaming excitement of Manhattan culture to the internet world. In the area of film, there will also be ongoing attention to classic and contemporary cinema by some terrific writers and a tracking of new DVD releases of art house product. As the site matures, it is also anticipated that pictures and photos will be utilized. This is a most exciting project and I am thrilled with the prospect of rewarding discourse by way of posts and comments. -Sam Juliano
So it began. With a modest, one-paragraph opening statement and a small band of supporters, Sam Juliano dipped his toe into the blogosphere. A dozen or so writers, two million views, and 2,000 posts later (we won't even get into the amount of comments) we must conclude that it was a mighty big toe, so great was the ripple effect it created.


Yet in those early days there was a homey atmosphere to the site. True, we didn't have Jamie Uhler leaping into conversations armed with Paul Weller lyrics and Heidigger notes, nor Bob Clark stirring up a hornet's nest with an intellectual defense of George Lucas, nor Dennis Polifroni posting orgiastic celebrations of his favorite films via Blackberry. There was no Maurizio Roca to explain his personal connection to the latest noir film in the countdown, no latest Getting Over the Beatles pop track to make your head swoon and feet tap, no weekend recaps of anime or science fiction. No Fish Obscuro. No Jim Clark double-features. No genre countdowns, or decade countdowns, or any countdowns. Not even a Dee Dee sprinkling her bold and italicized input through various threads. We didn't have any of those things - up to and including me.

But what the site did have was the passion and enthusiasm of Sam Juliano, the vast professional knowledge of Tony D'Ambra, and the bottomless resource of Allan Fish and his one-page reviews. For several weeks (and it would be another twelve days after the 8th before anything else was even posted), Allan's essays formed the core of the site. In a sense, they still do - entries for a forthcoming book unleashed day after day with bulletlike precision, peppering the page with insights, erudition, and excitement. Sam has covered this early period well in his one-year anniversary recap - by that point the site had already taken off.

And the rest of its core writers and commentators, with a few exceptions, had discovered the site. Jamie found it through a link on IMDb, around the time the 50s countdown was reaching its conclusion. Bob arrived at the outset of the 80s, just in time to ignite firestorms with his inflappable and entirely genuine contrarianism. Dennis, an old friend of Sam's, began visiting the website, varying between real-world references to Sam's wild side and laying dozens of comments beneath threads for The Shining and Jaws. Soon Maurizio Roca, Stephen Russell-Gebbett, Jaime Grijalba, and a wide cast of assorted fools, saints, and wackos came to join in the fray. Bob would later document these personalities and their various conflicts in an incredibly brilliant and perceptive "metapost" called "Whose Side Are You On?"


The answer to that question proved eventually to be nobody's - and everybody's. An interesting thing happened after all these commentators built themselves nests on the site's periphery: the head cuckoo soon invited them in the birdhouse itself. One by one, we leapt from the sidelines into the game and began to play. First it was a post here, a post there - Jamie's review of Inglourious Basterds, Bob's defense of Heaven's Gate, Maurizio's reviews of electronic music. But before long, these random outbursts became systematic in their expression. Each of us developed a niche which, rather than limiting us, allowed us grounds from which to explore everything else the site had to offer while still offering something of our own.

The model for this was, of course, Allan Fish, who a month into the site had begun its first great - and probably still greatest - enterprise, a decade-by-decade countdown. Humbly begun with a mere twenty-five films for the 30s, by the end of the exercise he was selecting and celebrating a hundred films for each epoch. When it concluded, some of us worried that Wonders in the Dark had jumped the shark (insert Jaws joke here). Where else could we go? As it turned out, a million different directions. The immediate answer was to do genre countdowns but to our surprise the site became a polyglot of series - Allan returning with his delightfully titled Fish Obscuro, while others ventured forth with Saturday Anime, Best of the 21st Century?, Getting People Over the Beatles, Jim's Film Finds, and the Sunday Matinee.

The organization of this mad outburst - there are, after all, only seven days of the week (two or three rather worthless as far as traffic is concerned) - could get pretty ugly behind the scenes, as I can personally attest. Yet somehow, through the contention and competition, a working routine was established, with different writers staking out different days of the week. A structure had been put in place, the enthusiasm was contagious, and the website continued to grow. We were on our way.


Well, so far I've spoken quite a bit about "we" and "us" but said very little about myself. Very well then. I came to the site perhaps earlier than most, though I didn't stick around right away. In the fall of 2008, still safely concealed between my online moniker (MovieMan0283, as some of you knew me then - and now) I was establishing myself as a blogger. In those days I was finding and exploring new blogs daily, and at first Wonders in the Dark was just one among many. I first noticed it around the time Allan was completing the 30s countdown - like many movie buffs, I'm a sucker for lists and was intrigued by the format, as well as the polls in which Sam encouraged readers to pick their own top choices.

I resolved to read the pieces and keep visiting the site, but that resolution fell by the wayside with other distractions and obligations. I seldom visited Wonders during this time, though Sam would occasionally venture over to my blog to leave a comment here or there. At first, I'm not sure I knew quite what to make of him - his enthusiasm was so loquacious and over-the-top I sometimes wondered if he was pulling my leg. What I think began to win me over was the dynamic between Sam and Allan; if I worried that Sam was being too generous in his praise, there was Allan to launch a tirade about Sam's effusion. And it worked both ways - when Allan tore us down for a contrary opinion or offered cautious, somewhat haughty dialogue under one of his pieces, Sam was there to pick us up, and if the attack was blistering he could even nurse us back to health.

The yin/yang dynamic between these two was irresistible and it was one of the ingredients that lured me back to the site again and again. Conversations under blog posts tend to be somewhat limited and occasionally sterile - a polite exchange of compliments, occasionally lively analyses or counterpoints, maybe an interesting sidetrack that lasts for a half-dozen comments. On the bigger, more active sites emerge ongoing dialogues which are, nonetheless, more about banter and/or oneupmanship than insight and expansion. Well, Wonders conversations were different. I'd never had any like them, either on the internet or real life, freewheeling discussions that turned one on to a million different reference points, infused with the personalities of their participants, often journeying far, far away from the original topic yet usually without getting lost in the thickets of minutia (indeed, the scope usually got larger as they progressed). I learned a lot this way, and had a whole lot of fun.


The tipping point for me was the spring of 2009, when Allan was about a dozen films into his 60s countdown. One evening I returned to the site and suddenly, compulsively started reading every review he'd composed so far for the decade. It was about the films themselves initially (this wild and exciting period still remains my favorite in movie history) and yet there was something about Allan's pieces, hard to put my finger on at first, which made them the perfect carrier for the films' energy, the perfect opportunity to dive right in. I ended up leaving comment after comment - and to my surprise, though some of these pieces were several days old (an eternity in the blogosphere, or so it seemed at the time), Sam returned to each and every one of them to engage with me. I was hooked, and despite various respites since, I've always been drawn back into the Wonders in the Dark tractor beam.

That summer, unprompted, Sam re-posted an entire essay I'd written for another site. This reproduction was quickly reduced to an opening paragraph and a link (the site was a semi-professional gig, and it seemed unwise to divert potential readers), but was then repeated for a different essay every week. I soon noticed that most of the traffic flowed in one direction - Wonders in the Dark was bringing readers to the Examiner website and not vice-versa. When my engagement with them ended the following winter, I wanted to repay Wonders somehow. So I moved all of the pieces over to Wonders in the entirety, and resolved to continue a series I'd begun there on this website. With the February 2010 kickoff for "Best of the 21st Century?" my writing directly for the site began in earnest.

By the fall, I had taken on two extra series, tinkered with the sidebar, and taken it upon myself to create some sort of behind-the-scenes order for the pieces pouring out from Wonders' prolific writers. The task was exhausting and occasionally, I had to admit, self-serving (some of my posts were little more than links back to my own blog, while my dictatorship of the schedule often came under attack). Little by little I began to extricate myself from the site, due mostly to real-world obligations and the decision to start refocusing my energy elsewhere. But there was also a sort of Wonders fatigue that had set in - I'd invested so much time and energy in the site over the past year or two, that I was beginning to weary of it.


The winter set in, and after it the spring. Much happened in my own life, and I was not visiting the site very often. Sam and Allan hooked me on occasion - how could I resist a "Top 3,000 Films" or the open-ended question, "Who is the greatest genius the cinema has ever produced?" (gee, but we don't think small over here)? But mostly I had other priorities.

Really, it's only been in the past few weeks that my contact with the site has reached fever pitch again. I will soon be penning some pieces for the musical countdown, and perhaps a few one-offs as well, but the real work has been behind-the-scenes. Since I first came to visit Wonders, my way of thanking my patrons was to attempt to put their ship in order. Wordpress does not have a very good archive to speak of - when I first visited, the only way to find Allan's previous countdown posts was to click on the month in question and scroll through backpage after backpage until I could find what I was looking for. So my first step was to set up an archive of the decade countdowns on my own site.

It was, in the end, a gesture that worked both ways: it allowed Allan's pieces to step out of the murk Wordpress had relegated them too, and gave readers the opportunity to see the big picture of his endeavor, and it also brought a lot of traffic to my site (and still does). Conscious of this fact, as well as that Sam was posting and boosting the audience for my Examiner pieces (lightly remunerative as they were), I tried to do what I could to return the favors. I added the Wonders archive as a page on my site, pushed the use of labels for authors and series so that readers could find material easily, and turned the sidebar (already initiated with eye-catching skill and organization by Tony D'Ambra) into a colorful display of the various personalities and topics on hand.


But one thing still bothered me: the convoluted process involved in searching out old pieces - even with labels, one had to backpedal through several pages and I worried that new readers might not have the patience to do so. It seemed to me that the entire backlog of Wonders in the Dark was a buried treasure. What if someone came to the site and wanted to know how many Hitchcock films we'd reviewed? (9, 10 total pieces - 2 were devoted to Psycho.) Or wanted to see Allan's early work without spending five minutes hitting the "back" button? Or wanted to see what we had to say about music, painting - even ourselves? What the site desperately needed, with its around 1,700 posts spanning three years, was a system of easily navigable organization.

So I started creating spreadsheets. Granted, spreadsheets are not particularly sexy. And with the unwieldly links taking up the left side of each table, and the right side limited in what it could show within a narrow column width, they are not particularly blog-friendly. However, appealing pictures and an explanatory intro took some of the edge off the aesthetic, and in terms of usefulness they were light-years beyond the previous system. So I put the nose to the grindstone and spent the past couple weeks - during which I was conveniently housesitting for friends, their cats the only other demand on my attention - cataloging everything ever written on the site.

It soon became a goal to finish it in time for the site's third anniversary and, apparently, I've done so. Not in as complete a form as I hoped; don't get me wrong - everything's there, but I had also hoped to create author pages and category nexuses. For now they'll have to wait. In the mean time, I've opened up two archive pages - each with several tabs. The first, the full and thorough archive of the site beginning with Sam's initial greeting, can be found at The Complete Archive.


In addition to a chronological listing of all the posts, mostly for curiosity's sake, this archive includes the option of viewing all non-movie pieces, split into "other mediums" (music, theater, even world events), and "metaposts" which are self-indulgent but fun (some are even among the best work I've seen produced on the site).

Then, probably of the most interest to present and future readers, there's the Cinema & Television archive. Here you mine the vast backlog of Wonders movie reviews (along with a few other approaches) to see what you missed the first time around. You can view the entries by subject, artist, nation, genre, or author of the piece - or you can take my personal favorite approach, and stroll through the history of the cinema by year. And I use "cinema" advisedly - quite a few of these entries are TV series, and since the line between these two mediums is blurred in Wonders countdowns all the time, I decided to follow suit and lump them together.

Peruse at your own pace, leisurely if you wish, or frenetically like those bungling young burglars racing through the Louvre and beating Jimmy Johnson's record of 9 minutes, 45 seconds. Like the site they document, these archives aren't going anywhere; they're here to stay.



To return to that first picture - a sideglancing reference is not enough - I watched that Louvre race again tonight on the big screen in New York, with Sam Juliano, Bob Clark, and Dennis Polifroni. (Halfway through the screen went black and stayed that way for several minutes, to our general amusement - "wonders in the dark," indeed.) Afterwards, our own "band of outsiders" settled into Sam's favorite table at a Chelsea restaurant were we ate, drank, and discussed movies and the blog. It's the third or fourth time I've met online friends and what always strikes me - after the initial awkward recognition (there's nothing like meeting someone for the first time after knowing them for years) is how easily we fall into the pattern of friendly conversation. One can sometimes believe that the people we meet virtually are not real connections, yet that bond, comradeship, and contention are all real after all. Put to the test of the external world, they not only survive, but thrive.

To the friends whom I've met through here, then - happy birthday. And many more.

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