Wednesday, July 17, 2013

5 Years: The Complete History (more or less) of Lost in the Movies, 2008 - 2013


I began my journey on July 16, 2008, in a small-town public library in New Hampshire. At the time I knew so little about blogging that I worried about my computer being able handle Blogger's format. False alarm after all, but somehow I prefer this particular genesis anyway: the image of a neophyte blogger sitting at a public computer, excited yet not quite knowing what he's doing or where it will lead.

The past five years have been fairly tumultuous and my blogging has often reflected that. Despite numerous changes in format, approach, and output my blog - initially titled The Dancing Image but renamed Lost in the Movies about nine months ago - has been an anchor for me, an always-welcome port in the storm. I'll tend to skirt over most of the geographical relocations and personal/professional adjustments of the past five years to focus exclusively on the evolution of my blog, but certainly my work was part of a larger pattern.

Not a fan of navel-gazing? Let this serve as fair warning: excessive belly-button lint ahead. That said, I suspect many bloggers (and even some non-bloggers) will enjoy this lengthy read; perhaps it will remind them of their own evolution, inviting a warm, maybe bittersweet, sense of nostalgia. The blogosphere is still very young today, but the past half-decade has brought many changes and much experience.

Links are sprinkled throughout this piece; think of it as a long hallway with many doors to be opened and explored. For that reason and because it's so damn long, you may want to read in installments. Or not.

Let's begin...






First Steps: Up to Summer 2008

My first post was a dual review (appropriately enough for a blog which loves to compare/contrast in numerous ways). It reached both far back into movie history - to the Lumiere short films - and right up to the present day (I rented Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind from the new release section of the video rental store; yes, there were still video rental stores at this time). I was very nervous about putting my work out in the open and purposefully self-deprecating about my pretensions as the millionth movie blogger (or so I was told).

The site looked something like the picture above, although this happens to be a recreation. For the rest of this retrospective, I found actual archived pages on The Wayback Machine, a nifty website enabling an otherwise impossible scouring of the past. There's something vaguely dishonest about the way websites shift their appearance without keeping records, but sites like Wayback can remind us how much has changed beneath the radar. One thing I've always fought is the blogosphere's tendency to focus on immediacy. I've tried to keep the past alive by highlighting my own archives (and actively exploring others).

I began blogging not to find an audience, which seemed implausible, but simply because I couldn't resist. Having discovered the movie blogosphere about a year earlier, when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day, I noticed that many of the most acute tributes and observations were from personal bloggers rather than conventional journalistic outlets. While I did not regularly follow any blogs, the idea of having a public platform was intriguing and so the blog option hovered in the back of my mind, bound to rise eventually.

When I launched The Dancing Image (named after a racehorse appearing in local news at the time, whom I've a personal connection to), I'd been writing about movies for years, but not in any organized way. As far as I can determine, my first review was scrawled for my own personal purposes in a notebook sophomore year of high school. I reproduced the review online for a recent series: it covered Taxi Driver, and I suppose it accurately represents my teenage preoccupation with movies. A few years later, I wrote assigned essays on Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Michael Collins which I also reprinted here.

Shortly after writing those pieces, I opened an IMDb account using MovieMan0283 as my online tag, evolved from several earlier online usernames (my first-ever Internet comment had been on the Yahoo! Saving Private Ryan message boards in the spring of 1999). Comments shifted to message board conversations, and I became something of a regular. By 2007, I was also posting short two-or-three sentences reviews on Facebook.

In the spring of 2008, I left New York where I had been failing to find steady work. Simultaneously, I launched a rather quixotic yet motivating challenge, perhaps to distract me from more sobering matters: I watched my entire video collection (VHS and DVD) in chronological order between January and the end of June, stretching from The Birth of a Nation to Once. This gave me the fuel to begin blogging in some roundabout way, although it would be a while before my preference for classics actually made itself evident in my writing.

Following a Pennsylvania wedding in early July, I renewed my Netflix account and opened a queue to chronologically explore a canonical master list (to give you a sense of how sporadically I've dipped into this queue I'm only in the early fifties now). The first disc was a collection of pioneer shorts, including works by the Lumieres, Melies, and Edison. Simultaneously, I went to the local rental store where I'd worked after graduating high school (the store would close within the year) and rented Michel Gondry's latest movie. My blogging moment had arrived. And so I jumped in.



Look Ma, I'm Blogging: July - December 2008

My personal resolution: to blog every day. I made it through nearly 100 posts in this fashion, before taking a one-day break and then escalating the pace. Initial reviews focused on recent films like I'm Not There, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and of course the ubiquitous The Dark Knight (for which I ended up penning four posts). In '08 I published occasional theatrical reviews (namely Pineapple Express, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Burn After Reading, W., Quantum of Solace, and Milk). However, this feature - the lifeblood of most movie blogs - would be sporadic and in fact decreased over the coming months and years. I threw my chips in as what might be called a classic movie blogger (although my coverage of bona fide classics was sporadic too); that is to say, I wrote about what I saw. What I saw was all over the map and timeline, and mostly on DVD.

Within a couple weeks of my first post, I began my first series, "The Auteurs", which in fact only covered one director's oeuvre (D.W. Griffith) although it served as a harbinger of many commitments to come; no matter how I might grind my teeth as a result, I could never resist the allure of an ongoing project - indeed, even as I write this I'm in the midst of two suspended series. Following this first self-assignment came several more, including a "Twin Peaks" episode guide, a very dedicated 2008 election series, and a brief yet intensive overview of films about Hollywood from the 1950s.

Memes were the key to first attracting readers and commentators (and oddly enough, while the traffic was far lower, the comment count was much higher five years ago than it is today). On August 1 I responded to my first meme, initiated by Piper of Lazy Eye Theatre (one of many, many very active bloggers who eventually disappeared). I answered the question of which double features I'd program in detail, in the process engaging with classic films which I hadn't really had the opportunity to discuss yet. This resulted in the first comments on The Dancing Image, a milestone in my own mind - with the (also-defunct) cinexcellence my first-ever commentator and the (still-active) Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films as #2; as she presciently put it at the time: "We try harder."

Thus began my involvement with the larger blogosphere. I'd already noticed that my young blog had appeared on several blogrolls I'd admired (namely Erich Kuersten's and Glenn Kenny's) but it was the feedback that confirmed for me that I wasn't merely talking to myself. As I initiated the Twin Peaks series, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder (a consistent commentator for the first few years) showed up, and during a DVR-of-TCM marathon in September, when I reviewed Kiss of Death, Force of Evil, Stage Door, and Road House among others, Tony D'Ambra of Film Noir (another consistent commentator) also made his first appearance. I also kicked off my own first meme in August, a riff on the double-feature theme, asking which "Holy Grail" films my readers most wanted to see; it received a healthy response, and inspired a later post to boot.

I kicked off my election series in mid-October, and after my guy won I focused on wrapping up my various ongoing series. December offered an opportunity to go a little slower and more in-depth; I posted a spur-of-the-moment cultural polemic (written during a long session in the same library where my blog was born, during an extended power loss in my neighborhood) and a long-prepared musical sequence round-up, among other matters. At the end of the year I took a much-needed respite. All of my series were completed and I had an open road ahead. Where would I go with it?


Sophomore Slump: January - March 2009

A quick note on presentation: when I first introduced my blog, it had no pictures, no sidebar, no jumps. The entire post was shown on the front page, I hadn't a clue how to upload images, and the only other feature on the blog was the modest exhibition of my "name", that is to say "MovieMan0283" as I was known for almost the entire first 12 months of my blogging. However, I'm a filmmaker by nature and training so the how is just as important to me as the what. It wasn't long before I began experimenting with Blogger's format.

The first picture went up with The Virgin Suicides in late July, and I retroactively added pictures to the previous posts. The name of my blog was "The Dancing Image" and I wanted to live up to the latter part of the title. For the first nine months, I didn't know how to do screen capture. Every image was found via a Google search, but I sought something unique and striking for every post. My first actual screen-cap was for an update of my Astaire-Rogers post, and I gradually came to choose the frame myself rather than finding something someone else had chosen.

I also widened the margins of the blog from the initial stingy column (too much as you can see above - I've since found a happy medium). And I added pictures to the sidebar in a kind of half-hearted attempt to make the blog more visual. I was essentially hemmed in by Blogger's format at the time; only in 2010 did they introduce more flexible, imaginative templates - but we'll get there eventually.

The early months of 2009 saw more sporadic posting than usual; in March, my pace picked up but I was not satisfied with the outcome. Meanwhile, I had moved to Boston and begun steady work - a new era was beginning in my life, and with it an itch to turn my film-writing in a new direction. There had been a few significant developments, namely my first forays into discussing The Wind in the Willows (with a teaser, a reprinted essay, and a fresh review of my favorite adaptation), which would eventually spawn one of the most popular features on this blog. I also had a couple interesting posts exploring the "mumblecore" phenomenon. Mostly, though, I was spinning my wheels.


Proclamations and Wonders: April - May 2009

In April, I made the first of many proclamations. I held to some parts of it better than others. The immediate result was a couple months of some of my strongest posts. Most notably, a meme I initiated called "Reading the Movies", which resulted in numerous responses including some high-profile bloggers. (This period also produced what remains, rather oddly to me, my most popular post to this day: a round-up of 40 favorite movie characters.)

Perhaps most significantly of all, I discovered Wonders in the Dark, a movie blog curated by the passionate and ever-bickering Sam Juliano and Allan Fish. I paid tribute to the latter's decades countdowns by rounding up his picks in one place, and over the following months and years I found myself ever-increasingly drawn in to the Wonders orbit. If you want to understand, or begin to understand, the personal dynamics of these years, read this astute character analysis of the various participants (and keep in mind that many of the folks featured in this chart are no longer speaking to one another). I myself wrote about my enthusiasm for the site in a piece composed for its third anniversary.


Examining the Options: June - October 2009

In the spring of '09, my mother sent me an advertisement she'd spotted: a website called Examiner.com was looking for writers. Offering a penny per hit, it provided several opportunities in film, including "Indie Film Examiner" for which I applied. I was accepted in the position and received $90 over the course of six months, hardly a hefty load; yet in retrospect it was a worthwhile experience. Those double digits remains the only income I've ever earned from writing about film - meanwhile there was no real supervision of how I approached my specific topic. Despite my supposed purview I wrote extensively on non-indie subjects, focusing during that summer on classic films screened at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH where I took the bus once a week after work.

Without any prompt, Sam Juliano generously linked to my Examiner pieces on Wonders, which at least doubled, probably tripled or quadrupled, the traffic and hence the income from my writing on the site. Meanwhile, as I focused on my semi-professional gig, my work for my own blog fell off. For about a year, between June 2009 and June 2010, I barely wrote anything at all for The Dancing Image. I compiled a directory for my first anniversary, and posted a YouTube link to a favorite 80s series, but that was it. My work was concentrated on the Examiner. I was hosted at several sites as well, writing pieces on 25th Hour and The Life & Death of Peter Sellers for  the "Counting Down the Zeroes" series at Film for the Soul; I also created my first video essay, "Directed by De Palma" for the Cinema Viewfinder Brian De Palma blogathon. That particular piece remains my favorite of anything I've ever posted.

In late summer I reviewed several Visconti films (including my favorite, Rocco and His Brothers) screened at an MFA retro, covered a brilliant Argentinian film I happened to catch at the Maine Film Festival, and wrote up some contemporary art house releases like the German film The Baader-Meinhof Complex and the documentary For the Love of Movies (as a follow-up, I conducted my first-ever interview with the film's director). I also wrote a think-piece, a harbinger of things to come, on the notion that the internet might provide competition for Hollywood. Meanwhile, I tried to get more systematic as Examiner, reviewing one classic (like The Lost Weekend) and one independent new release (like Mutual Appreciation) each day, but this approach yielded few results and didn't last a week.

I began to turn my attention elsewhere.


Open Season for Blogging: November 2009 - January 2010

Increasingly I felt the need for a) a central nexus and b) a place to deposit more ephemeral, trivial posts - which seemed both fun and necessary to maintain readership (by this point, comments had begun to drop off and I found myself reading other blogs less; aside from my addiction to Wonders in the Dark, my blogging was becoming more isolated from the general blogosphere). It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to start up a new blog, which would feature both original, generally brief pieces and links to more substantive essays on both Examiner and The Dancing Image, which would remain uncluttered by ephemera. Thus The Sun's Not Yellow was born, titled after a non sequitur in a Bob Dylan song.

I was visiting friends in New York for my 26th birthday when I launched my new site and made a resolution to myself: during the following year, aside from earning a living, my energy would be devoted to expanding and experimenting with my online presence - I would be a blogger first and foremost. The next twelve months saw a complete transformation on how I blogged, what I wrote about, and how often I posted. Having set my targets as trying to make blogging pay, increasing the number of sites I ran/wrote for, and tailoring more pieces to readers, in fact I would abandon the profit model, consolidate my work on one site, and pursue mostly personal/esoteric interests by the time this "blogging season" ended.

The Sun's Not Yellow kicked off on November 1 with no fewer than four posts, short, snappy, on diverse topics like an anti-drug cartoon remember from childhood and a quote from David Copperfield. The output slowed a bit after the first day, but I posted frequently in November and December; simultaneously I tried to develop more consistency and organization as Indie Film Examiner, experimenting with several weekly schedules, offering exhaustive directories of interesting Boston screenings, reviewing random independent films like Frozen River and The Girlfriend Experience and some theatrical releases like Pirate Radio and Antichrist (I was the only person at the screening, oddly enough).

Meanwhile I set up a new series that would eventually find its home elsewhere: "Best of the 21st Century?" in which I attempted to view every film I hadn't seen yet on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They? list of acclaimed 00s cinema (I would make it through the first 100 before ending the series). This introduced me to several films I liked quite a bit (The Flight of the Red Balloon) or even loved (Syndromes and a Century). Early in the New Year, that latter film would result in my first visual tribute, a post consisting only of screen-capped images. What has since become my primary blogging approach was brand new to me back then; inspired by the work of Ed Howard and Jeremy Richey, it felt liberating.

Less liberating was my work for the Examiner, which was becoming a chore and distraction; concerned about their revenue payout and frustrated by an inability to communicate directly with editors I eventually cut my ties and moved all of my archived content to The Sun's Not Yellow and Wonders in the Dark, where Sam had generously allowed me to link an Examiner piece every week. I now had several concerns: how to take up the "21st Century?" series again, how to continue engaging with contemporary cinema, how to earn money doing so, and how to officially become not just a blogger but a disciplined film critic.

My solution was to introduce yet another blog, essentially biting off more than I could chew, though I enjoyed it at first.


Three's Four's Company: February - May 2010

Today, in 2013, my one and only blog is known as "Lost in the Movies." This is confusing to explain, but my first blog of that name was not a direct ancestor of this one. The site you are on right now was once called The Dancing Image; I took the name "Lost in the Movies" from my abandoned blog because I liked it - in the end, it was the only thing I liked very much (aside from some of the individual reviews).

When that other Lost in the Movies launched in late February 2010, its purpose was simple and clear: to give me a regular reviewing platform for new releases in theaters or on DVD. It had not escaped my attention that most blogs followed this format and I wanted to challenge myself as a critic and keep myself relevant. I started with a bang, reviewing Oscar contenders like Avatar, Up in the Air, and Inglourious Basterds before settling into a routine of reviewing new releases (like How to Train Your Dragon) on opening weekend, and new DVDs (like The Blind Side) in the middle of the week.

Meanwhile I installed an Amazon advertisement on the sidebar. It yielded no revenue and looked clunky. Fellow blogger Tony d'Ambra, in a memorable e-mail, mentioned this aesthetic hiccup but also advised a number of steps because he thought I was overextending myself: 1) consolidate all my work on The Dancing Image, which established high traffic and visibility, not on these new sites, which should be shuttered as they diluted my presence; 2) change the name of my main blog to "Lost in the Movies" which he saw as a stronger title; 3) register that domain name to protect it.

At the time I did not express interest in these options. Since then I have taken him up on every single one, though it took a quarter-decade in some cases.

While focusing on my new digs, I had not abandoned my old homes. The Examiner stint was over, but I was beginning to write regularly for Wonders in the Dark itself, renewing my "21st century?" series and posting every week or every other week for the rest of the year, my one constant in the midst of massive change. A cross-posted piece on The Hurt Locker launched this new endeavor and gave me an official perch on a site I'd been rabidly reading and commenting on for the past year. Meanwhile, The Sun's Not Yellow continued as a directory for all my work but also as a platform for random, eccentric stand-alone ventures which in the winter of '10 were becoming increasingly visual (collected screen-caps, multimedia mixtures, juxtapositions of word and image, and poster collections).

The Dancing Image remained my most popular blog, however stagnant its output. I saw my first blog as the place I'd reserve for my most ambitious pieces, which could then sit atop the page for weeks or months while more frequent, simpler posts went up elsewhere. Thus I used The Dancing Image for my second annual round-up of the blogosphere, my response to a film preservation blogathon, and a nostalgic line-up of posters from my moviegoing childhood. But for the most part I wasn't really creating any ambitious pieces, despite numerous ideas. My self-imposed reviewing schedule left no time.

Five months into my juggling act, a month after replacing one ball and introducing another, I finally let all of the balls drop and took a break.


Heading Home: April - December 2010

For two months I let my three blogs hibernate, updating only the biweekly Wonders series to cover 21st century films like The Gleaners & I and The Lives of Others. Meanwhile, I focused my energy on unfinished projects: some of them had been simmering on the back burner since the blog began. So far I've discussed the external evolution of my blogging, but there's a subterranean stream there too - not just the results, but the dreams: the projects I'd conceived, begun, or abandoned while writing quick reviews. The most ambitious of these projects has still never been realized: a massive canonical undertaking exploring a hundred-fifty or so great films, in which I offer multiple posts on each subject (something like a trailer edited to an unrelated pop song, a visual tribute of screen-caps, a historically-researched overview of production, an elegant prose synopsis of the story, and finally a freewheeling impressionistic essay conveying my own personal, visceral response to the movie, serving to climax the series).

I eventually realized "The 150" was an impossibility without investing years of preparation but back in the spring of '10, I thought it was one of several projects I'd use my "time off" to start up. It wasn't, but I did tackle every other piece under consideration. May and June were spent researching or preparing for big posts: an in-depth series exploring The Wind in the Willows, an essay examining the sixties motifs in Field of Dreams, and my take on Star Wars Episodes I-VI after watching them back-to-back in story order. As these links show, I eventually completed all these projects albeit not before wearily giving up on them, and coming perilously close to abandoning my blog altogether.

What saved The Dancing Image (if not The Sun's Not Yellow and Lost in the Movies)? Blogger.com, actually. At the exact moment I was planning to call it quits, Blogger finally loosened up their template and introduced more options. Dazzled by new possibilities, I completely revamped the layout of the blog, toying with everything from column size, sidebar display, and header (introducing the galloping-horse banner which would serve as a sort of logo for the next few years). Even more excitingly, I was able to add stand-alone pages that weren't posts, easily accessible via tabs on the main page: I relocated my directory, added a sprawling picture gallery to replace the smaller images crowding my sidebar, and organized a collection of "Top Posts" where I highlighted my own strongest work.

All dressed up, now I had to figure out where to go. So I renewed the projects I'd abandoned and initiated some new ones, alternating between my latest "21st Century?" entry and a fresh essay or visual tribute each week. Come autumn, I established a routine that held strong for about six weeks: each day of the week was devoted to a different type of post (meanwhile, three series were cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark). Almost everything was illustrated with lush, extra-large screen-caps; the blog felt very alive to me at the time.

If my blogging had a golden age, this was it, exhausting as it may have been. This overview is long enough already, so if you're interested in a more in-depth description and round-up of what I wrote, you can read the "Fall" section of "2010: The Year of the Blog", published a few months after this period ended. I'll just say that I recall a genuine feeling of freshness and excitement, similar to an Indian summer day or a Russian spring, as I threw myself into discussing and illustrating movies with a mixture of adventure and discipline. It was unique and pleasurable, and I doubt it will come again.

About a week after my 27th birthday, once again spent in New York, I stepped back and slowed the pace. Having embraced my role as a blogger with gusto, now it was time to look elsewhere for satisfaction. But what role would The Dancing Image play in my own personal, professional, and creative development going forward?


Running on Empty: January - April 2011

As my commitment to blogging wound down, I was engaged by the Patch website to write a few pieces, including an interview with local hosts of a film-review show. Oddly enough, I did not reprint the interview as a blog post (and apparently the website has deleted it). Looking back, it could seem that this was the point at which I finally found a steady toehold in the writing world (the work was infrequent, but paid better than Examiner) and left behind the professional confusion of my mid-twenties. Instead, that interview was the last time I earned any income for writing. I went in another direction entirely.

During one of the stormiest winters in recent Boston history, I worked a 60-hour commission-only sales job (not including my 2-hour commute). Against this intensified, heightened backdrop, my life changed. This became the moment I'd been waiting for, the excuse to switch gears entirely, which doesn't really concern us here. What is relevant is that blogging finally seemed to have outlived its purpose. I thought this meant it need to be left behind, but eventually I realized I just had to change that purpose.

Initially, I struggled to maintain my blog. Between my various sites over the years, I'd never let more than a week or two pass without posting something. In the winter of '11, that something was my ongoing series Remembering the Movies, which gathered critical quotes, trailers, images, and occasionally my own thoughts to look back on films that had been released this particular weekend in movie history.

When I quit my job on April Fool's Day and began planning what would evolve into my move to California, I tried to inject my work with some new energy. But this fell flat. I found myself doing odd, perhaps revealing things like posting (unattributed) screen-caps from an experimental, autobiographical short film I'd made years ago. I was being inevitably pulled in a certain direction, one of reflection and transformation. One evening, walking about town, I resolved to cut all ties with the past and move forward. This was more effective in some areas than others, but one area where it was most total was The Dancing Image, at least for a while.

On April 25, the morning after that evening, I hung up my hat, announcing the closure of The Dancing Image. And I meant it. That I eventually returned is perhaps less significant than the fact that I did not post anything for four months, the longest dormant period in my blogging history by about three and half months. When I did return, I would take my blog in a new and telling direction.


Video Dreams and Long Goodbyes: September - December 2011

For the first three years of The Dancing Image, my username was MovieMan0283. I offered no personal information for ten months, until concluding one of my more popular posts with a picture of a book autographed by Andrew Sarris, using my first name. Shortly after this, I linked to my Examiner pieces, thus revealing my last name. I would later sign my pieces for the first Lost in the Movies, perhaps under the presumption that this made me a real critic (a goal that didn't interest me much once I stopped covering new releases, oddly enough). But my username remained a pseudonym on the site and in comments. When I returned to blogging on September 1, 2011, this was the first thing to change.

I reopened The Dancing Image while housesitting for friends in, you guessed it, New York, where many of my previous blogging transitions took place; meanwhile I re-embraced Wonders in the Dark after taking a long break, extensively organizing their archives and offered a new series called "Fixing a Hole" to cover movies not yet discussed on the site. In some ways, I had been using my time off to fall back in love with the movies. A perhaps ill-advised shopping spree added many DVDs to my collection and without being obliged to write about what I was watching, the joy of cinephilia felt more immediate. Before returning to the blog, I had begun a new project (following a failed attempt at screenwriting, interestingly enough). My cousin's birthday was approaching, and as he was over in Afghanistan I figured he would enjoy having something to watch, or maybe a guide to what to watch.

As kids, we used to love all the clip shows on TV - the Oscars, the AFI specials - which offered enticing glimpses of movies we hadn't seen. Why not create something like that, but undiluted: pure clips, laid out chronologically, using my own collection as a template? Once I decided to share the series online, it was split into thirty-two separate chapters, each with a contemporaneous song over the closing titles (revealing details of the featured films). I designed each post with a carefully-chosen screen cap, evocative titles, and some words to set the mood. I created a separate webpage, cleared of cluttered sidebars and other distractions, with a black backdrop and eventually I changed The Dancing Image's design itself to a black background to better highlight the sharp images I was posting (this didn't work so well with text, but looked quite nice for the series, and ended up lasting a year).

My "32 Days of Movies" series began with the silent cinema on October 1 and concluded with the digital cinema on November 1, my 28th birthday. Combined with pieces on Wonders in the Dark, this made October my most prolific month ever; I'd returned with a vengeance. Meanwhile, "60 Years of Cinema in 40 Seconds", a montage I'd created as a climax for one of the "32 Days" episodes, was linked on Huffington Post and elsewhere, garnering several thousand views in a few days (sadly, none of these views appeared to lead viewers back to the series itself; it remains one of my least visited blog features). I also created a video tribute for one of my musical countdown entries; all this video work seemed to justify my return to blogging (despite wanting to move forward on other fronts) - if I wasn't making films quite yet, at least I wasn't dancing about architecture anymore.

When plans for my California departure were pushed back once more, I decided to use the additional time to start writing again, conceiving a new series called "The Big Ones" to cover canonical films I hadn't discussed yet. While it resulted in some pieces I'm very proud of (including a lengthy analysis of the various narrators in Citizen Kane), this is where the trouble began. I was trying to be too thorough - both "The Big Ones" and "Fixing a Hole" were evidence of this tendency - as if I had to tie up every loose end before starting anew. Writing the series became a chore. Meanwhile, there was personal conflict with other bloggers, and a nagging suspicion that I should limit myself to my own blog and stop trying to have my cake and eat it too by posting regularly on Wonders. I finally withdrew to my own castle and raised the drawbridge - focusing on putting my own little fiefdom in order.

By the end of December, I was once again prepared to take a step back, but this time I was wise enough not to claim this was anything other than a temporary break. Anyway, my short return had cleared the way for a new approach to blogging, in which I blogged not as an end in itself but to create a platform for my grander projects. In a sense, "32 Days of Movies" was a dry run for filmmaking (it certainly gave me more practice with editing than I'd had in years) while also offering a warning - my ever-growing readership was not necessarily going to translate into video views.

There would be time to consider all of this later, but for now I had other concerns. On Leap Day, 2012, I got in my car around 4:45am and drove to Los Angeles.


A Blogger Without a Computer: May - October 2012

"I thought it was all over." That's how I began my first post of 2012, after a four-month hiatus. It was a stressful week on all fronts and the temporary disappearance of my blog, still a mystery to me, made it worse. And yet, in some ways, I was ambivalent about its re-emergence. Here was my old enabling friend once again, tugging at my sleeve, whispering in my ear, tempting me away from new endeavors for the familiar comforts and frustrations of discussing other people's movies instead of trying to make my own. Given events, I decided to start blogging again but resolved not to let the cart lead the horse. The blog would reflect, promote, and ensure my other efforts, not impede them. As always, the results were mixed.

Over the summer, I posted sporadically, my viewing and hence my writing often guided by themes or subjects I was considering for future projects (such as Raymond Chandler's work as presented in The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye); meanwhile my screenwriting was at a standstill. Around August and September, as my creative writing re-ignited I also prepared a month's worth of blog posts with the idea that I'd have a steady output without lifting a finger, restoring attention to my blog in anticipation of using it as a platform for a short film.

To ensure content, I reviewed every film I watched. Brief, sometimes clumsy pieces resulted, as I got back in the habit of writing regularly (my selections were mostly determined by my roommate's DVD collection, including everything from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Blood Diamond to The Last Unicorn). While these posts were being published, I worked on the following months' output, kicking off two new series (an episode guide to "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and a film-by-film countdown of my favorites list posted the year before) which I promised to finish way ahead of time. They're still incomplete, of course.

I also wrote a spontaneous response to David Denby's "death of cinema" piece which offers a snapshot of my views on the state of cinema, not something I'd discussed much in my work of recent years, yet an all-important topic (for over a year now, I've wanted to write a piece called "Making (it in the) Movies" about public and personal perceptions of filmmaking, the film industry, and the future of film - but I don't feel I'm in the right place to tackle it yet). Anyway, this essay resulted in more comments than any other piece in Dancing Image history, mostly due to two or three participants. It was a great discussion.

Meanwhile I began casting and preparing my first online short. Logistics were uncomplicated, yet Murphy's law still prevailed. It should probably be noted that I did not own a computer for my first seven months in California (or even a smart phone for the first three), relying first on the public library for internet access, and then eventually my roommate's PC. He generously left it with me when he moved off to the jungles of Belize, but since I needed a Mac to edit my upcoming project, I bought the cheapest I could find online and all sorts of technical problems ensued, further complicating my work.

I suppose this is off-topic but that's just the point: by this time, blogging was no longer isolated from my other activities but enmeshed with them. My blog had been either reduced or promoted, depending on how one looks at it, to a cog in a much bigger machine. The cog needed some remodeling, however, to better serve its purpose and so I felt the time had come to fully reinvent The Dancing Image for the first time in two and a half years. And I had to kill it to do so.


Best Face Forward: November 2012 - January 2013

By the morning of my 29th birthday, The Dancing Image no longer existed. In its place was a completely revamped blogsite now titled "Lost in the Movies" with a new banner (a still from one of my favorite films, Fists in the Pocket, which would be the subject of my first video essay a month later) and a slider atop the page highlighting random pieces from the archive. I decided to register the domain name and extend my presence in social media under the new moniker, most significantly opening a Twitter account which I used only occasionally for the first few months.

I also created two narrated video essays by mid-December, both essentially last-minute, including a critical mash-up of Modern Times for Wonders in the Dark (my first piece for them in nearly a year). Everything felt like preparation for the short film, from the video essays to some of the visual tributes (like a Hollis Frampton film inspiring my own movie and an Indiana Jones scene evoking my nervousness). I posted a trailer on December 19, and finally just before midnight on New Year's Eve, the first chapter of my short film premiered online. It was uploaded in its entirety on January 14.

I've already written about the making of Class of 2002 so I won't rehash it here, but its relation to my blog and my blogging history is certainly relevant; that I will discuss, briefly. As mentioned earlier, growing traffic over the years has not yielded many views on any of my videos. This short film was no exception and only after beginning to write about the film rather than just silently putting it up did I receive any responses. It seems that just using my blog as a platform is not enough; I'll have to actually enmesh any future films with my actual blogging to generate any interest. I'm not yet sure how to use this knowledge going forward. Having recently emerged from an image-driven century, we may be entering a century where people prefer actively reading something than passively viewing anything. This is interesting.

As for how my blogging history shaped my filmmaking, this particular film - about a young man recalling the tragic lives of classmates after graduation - was influenced far more by my personal life and perceptions of society than my cinephilia, which is a bit surprising to me if not unwelcome. I do think the activity of blogging informed the narration while I wrote. Certainly, composing hundreds of essays over half a decade kept my hand in, writing-wise, even as I was seldom pursuing fiction. More directly, my sporadic penchant for video essays/tributes/montages, etc. definitely informed my approach to this particular project, which was essentially a fictional video essay.

Ultimately, the Class of 2002 endeavor is both the the culmination of my blogging, and an exception to it - the logical outcome and yet it sticks out like a sore thumb. Given my fears of a negative or (even more) indifferent response, I can't complain about the positive feedback I received or the fact that strangers watched my video. On the other hand, I don't intend to seek recognition for my work through conventional channels (film festivals, production companies, etc.) which appear either too expensive or completely closed-off. So the internet is it, really; any success I achieve will be through its free-for-all avenues. The marginal response and negligible promotion of Class of 2002 (in the context of much higher traffic and visibility for the blog in general), is troubling food for thought which I'm not yet sure how to digest.


Taking to Twitter and Embracing the Image: February 2013 to the present

After devoting a month solely to promoting my short film, it seemed time to move on to the next step. What would that next step be? Among the many lessons learned: I should engage more with other bloggers and like-minded individuals, and I need more of a footprint online. So I began, as I like to euphemistically put it, "flying the bird". That is to say, I began using Twitter in earnest.

At first I thought I'd have trouble figuring out what to say. Well, of course, that wasn't an issue (although limiting my stream of consciousness to 147 characters was). What surprised and gratified me most about tweeting, though, was the sense of community and interaction. It was what I'd felt initially in the blogosphere, a feeling that seemed to disperse over time. For example, I'd often wondered why memes had suddenly disappeared as a blogging phenomenon after being so popular for years. Or why my comment count had gone down even as page hits went up. The sense of the blogosphere as a public square had vanished over time; perhaps those attitudes and behaviors, the sense of exchange and exploration, had largely moved to Twitter. Blogs are now more like houses lining the square, sometimes with open doors, sometimes not.

The constantly-updating, information-sharing stream of Twitter also inspired me to take a more diaristic approach to my tweeting, and my blogging in turn. (Also, the appearance of Tumblr, which I'll probably get into eventually, has promoted the image-first vocabulary I frustratingly sought on blogs a few years back.) Right away I found a new way to keep my online presence active and interesting even when I didn't have time to write extensively: use my blog as a visual diary of what I've been watching, reading, or listening to. The selection of screen-caps, at least, offers a creative approach more attractive and engaging than a mere list, so most of the posts on Lost in the Movies for the past few months have been visual. Meanwhile, perhaps because of Twitter or the growing image count (or less charitably, possibly because of spam-referrals), my traffic quadrupled in March and has remained at those levels since then. As ever, I don't know what I'm doing right and when I consciously attempt something it usually fails. Go figure.

Because I was introducing myself to new people via Twitter, and perhaps because I was guilty about coasting through the spring rather than crafting more ambitious content, I began highlighting past pieces, about 120 total, in mid-March. This anticipated the blog's fifth anniversary (for which I created the colorful new banner) and here we are, that archive series now completed, my self-reflection at its conclusion.

What comes next?


Falling into the Future

If the above has taught me anything, it should be "don't make predictions." Nonetheless, I'll offer a few cautious statements about where I'd like to see this blog go.

First, I'm still not satisfied with the presentation. It is too vertical and restrictive which I would like to fix (though it seems Wordpress has better options). When people arrive at Lost in the Movies, I want them to choose any direction to go in, to truly explore the site. This is more true now than it was in the past, for sure, but there's a long way to go. I'd prefer a collage look rather than a newspaper column for the front page, without eliminating helpful tools like widgets. Most of all, I want a sense of interactivity and interconnectivity to permeate this platform. I'll have to figure that out someday.

As for content, I will continue the visual diary approach as it's easy to maintain, fun for me, and apparently popular with readers. This will keep me posting on a regular basis, even if I'm unable to engage in more ambitious endeavors. But I don't want to become too lazy and let this enjoyable yet ephemeral approach take over in the long run. It should be one tool among many. In an ideal world, Lost in the Movies would be a constantly shifting circus of imaginatively laid-out image-driven pieces, video essays and original films (perhaps with slippage between them), analytical essays digging deep into all sorts of movies and capsules conveying reader-friendly inspiration to seek something out, and impressionistic mixed-media collages fusing all these approaches; in other words, unpredictable and stimulating to all the senses.

Meanwhile, I want more interviews or explorations of fellow low-budget filmmakers, I want to start going to movies regularly at the local $2 second-run theater, I want to feel that I can sit down when I like and compose a review in an hour or less on a film I've seen recently or long ago. Because I'm a stickler about unfinished business, but also because the ideas still intrigue me, I want to finish the series I've left hanging, and I also have ideas for new ones - including formal analyses of three movies per year stretching back to the twenties, highlighting the development of film style over time (including mainstream, not necessarily style-conscious stuff like The Hangover) on both the microcosmic and macrocosmic level. However, I need the courage to see a project to its end before putting up the first piece in a series; this would result in less pressure and more completed projects. Of course, I tend to be impatient, publicly commiting myself before I've done enough meticulous planning. So it goes.

Finally - and most importantly - I want this blog to facilitate rather than impede my filmmaking. A case in point: I had already taken today off from work so that I could focus on screenwriting, having recently come up with an idea that could work for a low-budget feature (only if I start working on it right away). Yet here I am, at 6pm, not just blogging, but blogging about blogging - and about how I use this to avoid the tougher path of filmmaking. You need a sense of humor when confronted by such a situation, but also common sense and sometimes I have to wonder.

If there's a theme to this long, meandering memoir it's in the hide-and-seek between the satisfaction I get from blogging and the greater ambitions that call to me from afar, inspiring both restlessness and fear (yet fueling some of the strongest work I've done online and elsewhere). Sometimes my work here has helped me approach my goals, and many other times it has wrapped me up like a security blanket and given me ways to evade the challenges I'll face by reaching beyond my comfort zone.

And that, in many ways, is what this blog has been: my comfort zone. That's not necessarily a bad thing: we all need a place to which we can retreat and call home, the "Dulce Domum" that Kenneth Graham wrote about so evocatively in The Wind in the Willows precisely because he hadn't really gotten to know it himself, at least in any permanent sense. In those spaces we feel good about ourselves, despite what the world may say (or not say); we are allowed to reconfigure our identities to suit our own needs vs. the overwhelming consensus of mass culture; we can experiment, practice, fail, convert even failure into something interesting. These places are necessary for anyone seeking creative achievement. But they can also become traps.

Because ultimately this comfort is only useful as a shield in battle; with one hand we must guard ourselves and with the other attack all obstacles in our path. And so I have to make sure that my site is a sword too.

• • •

Well, that's my blog - or, I guess, despite my reservations about putting it in these terms, me. Thank you for coming along for the ride, and I hope you stick around or feel free to return after long absences. I would like to shout out all fellow bloggers and commentators by name, aside from the few I mentioned above, but then the list would be endless so in short, let me just collectively thank everyone.

And now there's still a few hours left in the day, and I'm going outside. Perhaps to finally pick up my pen and exercise my creativity after long delay. Or maybe just to relax and enjoy everyday life (that vast iceberg of experience which remains beneath the surface of this seemingly comprehensive overview, hidden but perhaps dimly visible in shadow). Hopefully I'll do both.

Wish me luck.

14 comments:

Jon said...

Happy Anniversary Joel! This is quite an achievement and thanks for the recap.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Jon. Here's to five more...

Mike said...

Reading this makes me want to make my own movie blog, haha. Really though, congratulations on 5 years, an achievement worth celebrating when one considers all of the bloggers that fell off the face of the earth. This is a testament to the quality material you put up on this site. Good luck on future projects, whether it be blogging, screenwriting, directing, or just watching movies...

STinG said...

Well, here's to your five years.

I am unaware if your first goal with this blog is to provide a recommendation to any hungry movie-goers or to incite discussion in the cinematic realm, but you have done both for me.

Stumbling upon your blog little over a year ago has inspired me to reignite my blogging about films in a more open environment beyond facebook and also to expand my already vast cinematic horizons. You singlehandedly introduced me to Yasujiro Ozu, Zhang Kia-Je, Robert Bresson and the Quay Brothers and I now cannot get enough of them.

For a month, I could not continue any book I was reading because I wanted to look into every nook and crany of your blog.

And once you had completed Class of 2002, I had gotten off my ass with the several screenplays I had written and forced myself to make another short film after a dry spell for a whole year. The result was Check (written and shot within ONE day).

It would be an understatement to say you were my literary inspiration. You inspired me to go new and different directions in how approached film, in critical, creative and leisurely forms, the whole nine yards, when I was just in a period of my life of de-volving from a man who loved movies and wanted to dedicate his life to them to a couch potato who only had dreams...
I evolved because I read your works.

Thanks for that and may you keep rolling...

Doug Noakes said...

Joel--This is one of the most intelligent and objective essays on how the positive and negative features of blogging. By the way, I'm much older but I started about the same time as you did at blogging on a now non-existent site.

I'm sure the sheer amount of energy and film knowledge you absorbed and conveyed will create more opportunities for you in whichever other realms you wish to go towards. Your impressive and almost encyclopedic efforts are much appreciated. Thanks.

Sam Juliano said...

God what a passionate and comprehensive sizing up of one of the most distinguished and laudable stints in the history of film blogging, and I'm proud to say I both know and enjoy a very fruitful with the erstwhile author, who I have met on several occasions in NYC. Well, you've come full circle my friend, and you've done more work over a lengthy period than any other blogger I have ever known. You are a stand up guy who will produce and contribute to any subject that catches your fancy, and I can never thank you enough for all you've done at Wonders in the Dark, chronicled here on this moving presentation. Our site could never be what it is or has become if not for your meticulous tagging and organization or for the incomparable sponsorship of some many projects right up to the present day where you continue to provide the shorts in the annual voting thread. Your effervescence, support and appreciation for how the past informs the future by way of association and lasting friendships has helped facilitate the continuity and the concept of team work. Your three blogs are an oasis for the movie lover, and what with your incredible tenacity and determination to keep this avenue flowing even with a film making career waiting to break loose, it's a monumental continuing achievement. To be sure, when one factors in your travel and re-location, not to mention the stint you had at Examiner (one I remember well, and appreciate the kind words from you on it) it's been a roller coaster. Five years have raced by, and you've amassed an enviable archives by any standard of measurement, and along the way have greatly enriched the friendships you've made and the sites who were graced by your involvement.

Happy Five Year Anniversary my very good friend! You are truly one of a kind!

I will; be honored to post this link in the top spot on tonight's MMD. It deserves that and so much more really!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Sam. Writing this post seemed to me incredibly narcissistic & trivial when I finished it and I was kind of embarrassed by it. I'm glad to see you and others took something valuable from it and makes me breathe a sort of sigh of relief after beating myself up a bit over it (especially because it consumed an entire day I'd set aside for screenwriting instead).

Wonders is an inseparable part of my blogging history, and if anything I under-reported it here, but figured I'd written a lot about it elsewhere (including where linked). It fulfilled a bi need for me that my own site alone never could have, primarily a need of community with both the pleasure and the pain which that brings. Writing this brought back memories of the pleasures particularly, those times when, to paraphrase Wordsworth, to blog was very heaven. ;)

Joel Bocko said...

I've often wondered what was in the water in 2008; it seems like so many blogs I follow/bloggers I communicate with started up right about then. I still remember the excitement of putting my words out there for the first time.

Thank you for the encouragement too, it means a lot coming from someone with more experience and wisdom than myself; its very easy to get discouraged out there haha.

And it's nice to see you, Sting, and Mike here in these comments as you've been among the most frequent commentators on the blog in the past year. Many regulars have come and gone, some have returned or will return, or pop in every now and then (and I'm the same with the blogs I read too, drifting in and out of their orbit). While I never want anybody to feel the obligation to comment, it's also nice hearing feedback from others and you guys have provided encouragement in that sense too. Thanks.

Joel Bocko said...

Wow, without dismissing the wonderfully nice things others have said here and elsewhere, this may be the greatest encouragement I could ever receive - to feel like my own efforts have had an impact on someone else, not just in terms of appreciation but inspiration. I can't thank you enough for offering me that supreme compliment.

As for the goal of my blogging, perhaps self-protectively I often finding myself formulating it in selfish terms: expressing myself regardless of whether I find an audience (initially) or serving as a promotional platform for my film work (eventually). But if pressed, with the emphasis on what I hope to offer to others, I'd confess that my highest aim is to excite and motivate others to feel like the world of cinema is vast and demanding, but also democratic and egalitarian, and that this could potentially extend not just to the sometimes snobbishly-guarded realm of cinephilia but to the even more fiercely and dramatically elitist world of filmmaking.

Thanks again, man. You and the others here have really made my day!

Joel Bocko said...

That certainly wouldn't be a bad idea, Mike! I think many a valuable movie blogger got their initial start commenting on another blog.

As I said to Sam below, I was a bit embarrassed to spill this much ink on my own blogging at first, and haven't been back to the site in a few days, only noticing this afternoon that you and others had left comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this, and more importantly the blog in general. Hope there will be more to enjoy in the near future.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Well for once ;) Sam didn't exaggerate! Indeed a massive chronology. Congrats Joel.

We have had our moments I know. My arrogance and obstinacy, which I now regret, were largely to blame. Our political differences were also an issue, but it was your writing about politics and economic issues that bought me to your blog in the first instance. Even if I disagreed on certain issues, I was impressed with your engagement and with the quality of your writing. I sort of wonder whether you missed a calling with your later focus on film.

All the best for the next five years, but always health and peace.

Tony

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Tony, both for the kind words here and your influence over the years. Differences, to be sure, but even at the moments where I hated your guts I had to respect you! And as this piece shows, your input played a big role in how this blog evolved.

As for politics, as my own views continue to evolve I may features some pieces here which connect the dots between the larger flaws in our political/economic/social system (particularly the lack of opportunity and mobility) with the way this is manifested in my own field of interest, films and how they are made.

Future political pieces may be holistic in this sense and indicative of a personal viewpoint which increasingly identifies with what might be called a "left", but one libertarian in orientation: that is to say less inclined to see institutions as potential vehicles for redressing inequalities than as progenitors of those inequalities in the first place.

With film and society both, I sense the future of innovation and connectivity lies outside the elite corridors of power. Exciting times could be ahead...

Stephen said...

This is very interesting, MovieMan, and there are little signposts along your journey that I remember too.

I hope you continue and are able to write as long as you have the love of it.

When it comes to Class of 2002, again, make films if you like making them. If monetary success/film-making career path is not the be-all and end-all at the moment then you can just concentrate on honing the craft.

Anyway, the film showed that you have talent.

Good luck with everything!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Stephen - you've definitely been a fellow traveler going way back. And as ever, I appreciate your feedback on Class of 2002. Here's to your own formidable tenure in the blogosphere - with many more years to come for both of us, I hope! (P.S. isn't that early Wonders site screen-cap a trip?!)