State of the Blog 2023

Introduction

Every year around this time, you hear some people saying some form of, “I’m so glad to have X year in the rearview mirror; Y year is going to be so much better,” only for the same shit that plagued the previous year to just follow on into the next. I have noticed less of that this year. The Western world is at the start of a wake-up call, with Europe & North America being forced into situations where inflation & energy costs are driving their populations into deeper poverty than previously experienced.

Yes, the Imperial Core will cushion even its poorest people from the actual brutality of the world, always a rod called “homelessness” used to keep them slaving away, caught up in the myth that through individual actions & labor, they will one day be set free. This is nothing new; it’s just that in 2022 the myths & propaganda were so blatantly obvious that they became farcical. The world we Westerners were born into was already broken, but they ensured we didn’t notice for a long time.

“What the hell does this have to do with your blog?” you might be asking. I am motivated to examine the pieces of art I feature on the blog from this continually developing understanding of the world. I choose the directors I spotlight because something about what I know of them tells me I will walk away, having increased that understanding, stretching my perspective to encompass more. I often look at contemporary American media as a way of critiquing the culture, trying to figure out why these things appeal to many people. My conclusion is usually that the United States consists of a population trying to numb itself to the reality of the human condition in the 21st century (the increasing number of opioid overdoses & deaths also speaks to this). The purpose of art should be to illuminate the mind, and we should seek out art that feels alien to us. That distance we perceive is our subconscious realization that this particular art speaks to an absence our own culture has cultivated. This distance can be geographic but also chronologic. People who lived through fascist regimes often reflect on what these periods of intense human evil did to their society. The United States is a fascist regime, so the insight of other cultures who have survived or are surviving them can help us make sense of the often incoherent chaos of daily life.

In 2023, PopCult Reviews will keep doing the things that work. However, we’re going to add some new things to expand our examination of media & culture. We’re going to dive head-on into reality, we’re going to take a closer look at art, and we’re going to search for clues as to what the human experience can be outside of the narrow cultural lens offered up to us Westerners. More details on these things a little later. I have included my favorite tracks from Spotify for 2022. Enjoy the listen while we look back & forward.


The blog in 2022

First up, I discovered the fun of playing with ChatGPT. That resulted in creating Oh, Hello, the Tabletop Roleplaying Game. I find it hilarious that this has 63 downloads so far, and I am curious if anyone has tried it out. Report back to me if you do through the comments. I also used the AI to sketch out the rough skeleton of a ttrpg, using the Apocalypse Engine ruleset, based on a combination of Indiana Jones, DuckTales, TinTin, and Talespin. I was deeply impressed with the character playbooks the AI was able to write up and might spend some time in 2023 laying out and revising what it gave me, then sharing it for free like I did with Oh, Hello.

I also used ChatGPT to generate outlines for some posts in November & December and was impressed. It took some revision prompts to get the outline where I wanted it, but when it came to sitting down and writing, having a framework made it flow much smoother. I was able to go deeper using those outlines. I plan on using the AI both here on PopCult and in some of my other online work for as long as they will let me. I look at it in the same way that I view a calculator. You need to know the basics before you rely on technological advancement, but this advancement also helps people get to the core of their work quicker. 

I posted 381 times on PopCult Reviews in 2022. It was one of my favorite years working on the blog, and we saw crazy growth. For comparison, in 2021, the blog saw a 14% growth in views, equating to 2,212 more views than in 2020. The total for 2021 was just over 18,000 views, the highest ever for PopCult Reviews.

If we look at 2022, the blog saw 115% growth in views, translating into almost 21,000 more views than in 2021. So the grand total for the year is just over 39,000 total views. That level of growth is nothing I’ve ever seen on the site. 

This always leads me to ask, why? By looking at the numbers, I see that many older posts are getting traction as their topics have popped back up in the cultural discussion or are continually points of interest for people searching online. I did experience a fortunate fluke with my review of the experimental horror film Skinmarink. I published this on November 19th, and it saw the fastest growth of any review I have ever posted, totaling just under 3,000 views for the year. It was just one of those cases of watching & reviewing something at the exact time it suddenly triggered the internet’s interest in the subject. At one point, I searched on google and found PopCult’s review of the film was on the first page when you searched both “skinamarink” and “skinamarink review.” Even without the Skinamarink review, I would far exceed any total I’d had in previous years. 

Speaking of my most viewed posts of 2022, here are the top twenty in descending order. 

  1. Movie Review – Skinamarink
  2. Movie Review – X (2022)
  3. Movie Review – Diary of a Mad Black Woman
  4. TV Review – The West Wing Sucks Part 1
  5. Movie Review – Into the Woods (1991)
  6. Comic Book Review – Ultimate Spider-Man Volumes 1 & 2
  7. Comic Book Review – Legion of Super-Heroes: Five Years Later Omnibus Volume 2
  8. Movie Review – For a Few Dollars More
  9. Movie Review – The Truman Show
  10. Movie Review – The Seventh Continent
  11. Comic Book Review – The Flash by Geoff Johns Omnibus Volume 3
  12. Movie Review – A Fistful of Dollars
  13. Movie Review – Benny’s Video
  14. Movie Review – Perfect Blue
  15. Movie Review – How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
  16. Movie Review – Where the Wild Things Are
  17. Movie Review – Madea’s Big Happy Family
  18. TV Review – The White Lotus Season 1
  19. Movie Review – Gallipoli
  20. Comic Book Review – Batman: Second Chances

Even among new content, it’s clear people are interested in niche topics and older movies that are getting rediscovered (see the Haneke and Leone interest). Typically, my comic book reviews dominate this list each year, which doesn’t bother me, but I was happy with how many film reviews were on the list in 2022. 


The podcast

2022 was the year Ariana & I really committed ourselves to the podcast. The first half of the year was spotty as we were still ironing out our living situation. By mid-May, when we finally secured the needed documents & and an apartment, we settled in, and the podcast came out much more consistently. As you can see by the graphic below, we definitely made a lot of content and are building a small but dedicated audience.

In 2023, Ariana has an idea for what will start out as a Patreon-exclusive series. Then, after 3 to 6 months, we will share those episodes on the main feed. The plan is that each episode comes with a unique piece of content that the listener can follow along if they view this extra piece. That idea likely will roll out in February, as she is working on it. It may be rough at first, but definitely one of those things that we will keep at, refine, and make into something special.

As for the main podcast episodes, we will stay consistent. I like having the dual review format, occasionally mixing it up with a Top 5 list or What We’ve Been Reading. I am working on brainstorming other segments to add to the ideas pool. I would also like to produce more complex episodes, like the silly intro to our Halloween episode in 2022. I have an even bigger idea for Halloween 2023 and Christmas 2023, but those are way off. For the last couple of years, I’ve had a concept for an April Fool’s episode, but it would involve a lot of writing in advance, sound effects, backing music, and “doing voices.” I don’t think it will be ready this year, but it will definitely be in 2024. Maybe ChatGPT could help me with that…


Changes to the blog

It’s never good to just keep something the same forever. Consistency is fantastic, but we should also seek to augment & tweak things to see if we like the change. That’s coming to PopCult in some small & big ways in 2023. 

The first new feature will be biweekly and is titled Looking at Art. Since I got serious about watching & studying film, it’s apparent that the best filmmakers aren’t simply inspired by other movies. They draw inspiration from music, literature, and visual art. My knowledge of painting, sculpture and associated mediums needs to be deeper, and I need to build that out. So part of that will be this series. I want to approach art not as an academic or someone looking to show off my intelligence but as a human being in the process of learning. More people should engage with paintings and not just let them exist as some elite form hidden away in museums, collecting dust.

The format of these posts will have three pieces: Questions & Observations I make about the work at first glance, background information on the artist & the piece, and a synthesis of these two things & how they inform my understanding of the work. As with anything on the blog, it will be tweaked and worked on. 

I hope this will spark at least one person’s interest in doing something similar. Contemporary Western media is so aggressive and lacks sufficient space to be contemplative. Much like being a worker in the United States, you are constantly hurried along & kept agitated/distracted, so you can never truly reflect. The problems in our societies have no hope of being resolved if we cannot sit in a quiet space and think. Paintings & sculptures can make that easier, providing a focal point. We can learn a lot about ourselves when we observe a piece of art.

The second new feature will be an exploration of Solo Tabletop Roleplay Games. I enjoyed the years I spent playing ttrpgs and attending the Origins gaming convention in Columbus. But the thing with so many “fan communities” in the United States is that personal grievance & ethical flexibility become standards. We often overlook the transgressions people have made because we “like the stuff they make,” and that’s just not palatable to me. Ariana and I still have a tiny number of people we consider friends in the ttrpg community, but it’s like with any industry in the U.S., lots of mentally unwell & broken people who have forgotten why they wanted to make a career in the thing they loved in the first place. 

I don’t want to participate in an ongoing group campaign, but I am interested in the growing solo gaming space. Often, these games consist of journaling exercises framed around some randomizing elements, but not always. As I keep stretching these writing muscles, some of the games I’ve chosen might help percolate ideas up to the surface that can be turned into other pieces in the future. I also think they will just be fun to play. Like Looking at Art, the Solo Roleplay Reviews will happen biweekly, alternating with the new art feature. My first game featured will be Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings. I am not a fan of vampire fiction, but I am always open to a well-designed game that could get me to like it, so we shall see soon. If you have made a solo RPG or know of one you think I should take a look at, let me know in the comments. I can’t promise I will play it, but I will undoubtedly take a read and see if it clicks. 

In terms of series in 2023, we will be kicking the year off with The Great American Documentaries, Volume I. I have been watching these in advance, and they are some of the best pieces of film I have ever seen & also some of the most challenging things I’ve ever watched. It’s reality without a filter beyond what the cameraperson points at and what goes down in the editing room. The work of the Maysles Brothers, Barbara Koppel, and more are featured in this first salvo of reviews.

I don’t want to make things too heavy all the time, so we will also be doing Overlooked 90s Movies Part 1 in January. I wrote up a list of films from that decade that don’t get a lot of praise but are talked about favorably by myself or others online. The first comic book review series of 2023 will be digging into Stan Lee & John Romita’s Spider-Man run, which turned out to be far more experimental & tapping into the zeitgeist of the era in incredible ways. Finally, a review of Better Call Saul Season 5 is incoming in January, with us wrapping up our viewing in February (look for an accompanying podcast episode that month with a review of Odenkirk’s Nobody as the second piece). 

As for the rest of the year, I have plans to explore African cinema far more than I ever have. We’ll also be doing some smaller series looking at the work of Black director Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, continuing our view of Linklater’s Before series, four films by Douglas Sirk, a survey of silent film masterworks, and more. 2023 on PopCult is about stretching our arms to embrace more of the world. A visit to the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam is likely coming in the spring with an accompanying post. Of course, there will always be surprises that I don’t even know will happen, and those are always the best part.


Changes with me

Now here’s the personal stuff. 2022 was the year it all clicked, and I realized I am neurodivergent, specifically autistic. I made a post talking in detail about it, On My Autism, that I think does a reasonably good job of laying out how I think & feel about myself. Every week I feel that I make a connection between how I think and my behaviors, understanding how autism has shaped who I am. Some days, I feel genuine regret about friendships I let fall to the wayside, especially during & after college, because I was so stuck in my own head & anxieties, unaware of why I felt this way. There were so many people that were so nice to me, and I just got tangled in a net of my own mental health issues. I never showed them the proper gratitude for their kindness. I could reach out to them today and pen some wordy letter about it, but I find that would be rude. They are living their lives, and I don’t want to intrude. 

I have a couple of people I plan on contacting in 2023 because I want them to know how they created a space for me to feel safe without even knowing it. We must actively let people know when they have been positive forces in our lives because the system as it exists is undoubtedly set up in opposition to that. We don’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps no matter how much we believe we do. People offer us a hand and pull us up. Some people get more help than others, which is unfair, so we need to ensure gratitude is shown so that more get lifted up.

In 2022, I participated in National Novel Writing Month and completed it. I wrote just over 50,000 words on a novel that is nowhere close to finished. Will I finish it? I don’t know. Will you ever get to read it? Probably not. I will tell you a bit about it. It sprung from my growing distaste for movies as a never-ending profit machine through franchises. The story is about two women: one lived in England and wrote a fantasy novel when she was in her early 20s. That woman killed herself, and no one has ever understood why. In the 1980s, a producer discovered this obscure novel and adapted it into a movie, trying to chase the Star Wars fervor. The lead actress in the film was in her early 20s and came from a reasonably famous Hollywood couple whose marriage fell apart. This actress stars in the whole trilogy and then gets brought back in her middle age when they revive the series. She eventually kills herself drug overdose, and no one really understands why.

What is ultimately realized through the novel is that at the center of this piece of fiction is an elder being akin to Lovecraft’s dark gods. This entity desires only one thing: to die. It can only accomplish this if all of existence is wiped out; to do that, humanity must be distracted into extinction. The entity wants our unflinching, ceaseless gaze upon it in whatever form it takes. As we peer deeper into it, the world around us fades away and people who try to pull us back are seen as enemies. Once all of humanity is watching, the world will fall into disrepair & oblivion. And then the dark god can die because we’re all gone. 

The novel is told in an odd way. I chose to present it as pieces of media surrounding the franchise, so I spent November writing fake interviews from around the time the first film came out, over a dozen film reviews from fictional newspapers voicing all sorts of takes on the picture, diary entries from the young actress in the movie, a treatment for the first film in the series, an outline for the movie storybook of the sequel, and then decided I needed to write the whole fantasy novel the thing was based on. I had a lot of fun playing as I wrote, and it helped me understand that’s what writing fiction should be for me, play. I stopped imagining an audience and just wrote what I would find interesting. This also kickstarted my idea generation, so I kept adding bits of story ideas or words I found interesting to an Ideas document I’ve been writing on since I was in college. In 2023, I want to start using this list to create some written work. If I feel good about it, I might share it in some manner through the blog.

In 2023, I would like to take at least one course through MIT OpenCourseWare or a similar free platform. I had been toying with a course on poetry mainly because that is one art form in which capitalism has zero interest. However, writing courses work far better as workshops which isn’t possible in this circumstance. I was looking at courses to build my knowledge in an area I don’t know too well. I was thinking of a 101 course in physics, chemistry, some facet of history, or whatever draws my interest. It would be something I did twice a week at my own pace. It’s good to know more about our world because we only get to be here for such a short time. I want to learn more about how it works, and maybe that, in turn, will inspire more writing or contentment in knowing things.

2023 was the first year I ever dropped acid. I did it twice; the second time, it was two tabs. I don’t think everyone should use LSD, but for people that want to, there should be ways to understand it before going into it. I had some people I could talk to beforehand who illuminated me quite a bit more than any piece of “drug awareness” in the United States ever did. I didn’t know that LSD trips could last up to 20 hours, but they told me before I took it. I am not a super social person, so the trips were done in the comfort of my apartment, listening to music that worked to keep me in a positive state of mind. 

The result was that it felt like a razor blade scraped away all the anxiety & worries that had plagued me for so long. It’s also a substance that I didn’t feel the pull to keep using. If I never drop acid again, I’ll be fine too. It caused a dramatic shift in perspective, an opening of the mind to angles of human existence that I clearly had been aware of but likely only deep in the subconscious. These are now a part of my conscious everyday thinking, and I have benefited from it. Not everyone needs LSD to get to that place, but it can help people like me. American society encourages the worst drugs while scaring people away from psilocybin and LSD. Used with the proper amount of education, care, & respect these drugs are a potent positive force. They aren’t supposed to be consumed alongside the more detrimental substances like alcohol or amphetamines. I believe that psychedelics, consumed correctly, could change the way societies function for the better. Though Elon Musk & Joe Rogan claim they have ingested and experienced psychedelics and are still raging assholes, maybe all it does is amplify and bring what is already there to the surface. 

2023 will likely be a year of triumphs & failures, as every year is. The most looming presence on the horizon is that of climate collapse. The world’s leaders are not concerned with saving the majority of humanity, just themselves. So, the rest of us are going to need each other. We could build a world where the wealthy & powerful are finally stuck on the margins. Or we could keep clinging to hyper-individualism and sink further into oblivion. I hope you’re here with me on PopCult to think about it all and try to make sense of our world.

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