Destiny-land
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I feel like I committed the perfect crime. For 100 days Helium.com promised their members up to $3 for every 400-word article they wrote. So I cranked out nearly 300 quick articles, and now they owe me about $900.

But of course it wasn't that simple...

Helium tried to make it harder by adding a rule that the pay-out would decrease if the articles' "quality score" averaged any lower than the top 15% — but there was a loophole. They'd only perform that quality check after three people wrote about the topics. So all I had to do was review things so obscure that no one else would ever review them.

Some of the things I wrote about?



Even individual songs could be reviewed — so I wrote up Egyptian Shumba, the forgotten 1963 single by a girl group called the Tammys. I wrote about a made-for-TV movie about Gilligan's Island. I reviewed Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.


I mean it — they were paying $3 for reviews of anything. The forgotten spaghetti western Django. That web site where I bought my calendar. The films of Annette Funicello. Molly Ringwald's 1987 movie with Robert Downey Jr. If you could name it, you could write about it.

"Topkapi is the name of a village in Turkey. But it's also the name of a 1964 comedy starring Peter Ustinov...."
Unfortunately, there were more nerve-wracking rules. Helium wouldn't pay me anything unless I also submitted my ratings for 300 pairs of their own stories. (And the quality of those ratings would be judged by a secret invisible algorithm that you couldn't see.) But I gave it a shot, and early on the site indicated that I'd passed the rating threshhold.

So then it was back to reviewing more bad TV shows.

There was one other very tricky rule. At least 25% of the 300 articles had to be on topics that other people actually were writing about too. I couldn't finesse this one, so I scoured the site for 75 topics so trivial that there were exactly two articles, both of which I could beat when the "quality" was assessed.
And then it was back to reviewing bad movies.


After I'd written 75 really-good articles, I'd play it safe. I'd write 225 more articles, nearly all on topics no one would ever want to write about.

In fact, the hardest part was dreaming up enough obscure things to review after I'd used up the first 200 most obvious ones. Were they really accepting reviews of comic books? I reviewed the bound collection of issues 1-6 of The Irredeemable Ant-Man. And then I reviewed issues 7-12.

Ultimately it was like my brain exploded, spewing out a written record of every wasted hour of my childhood. It was like a leftover homework assignment from high school — "Review every TV show you've ever watched." It was like a mid-life crisis gone horribly wrong...

At its best, I was cataloging a lifetime's worth of guilty pleasures. I reviewed that Peter Lorre movie I watched when I was six. Books I read as a teenager. The Garbage Pail Kids movie. Star Trek V - VII.

And then something strange happened. I'd spent 150 hours of my life living with this project, and developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome — a horrible sympathy for the people who'd churned out mediocre entertainment in lifetimes gone by. I think it was when I was describing the plot of a 1927 silent movie.
Alonzo quarrels with the circus's owner, and strangles him with his double-thumb... Safely back in his circus wagon, Alonzo lights a cigarette with his feet. As he pulls it to his mouth with his toes, the dwarf makes a strange observation.

"You are forgetting that you have arms."

44-year-old Lon Chaney had spent his entire adult life acting out morbid stories with grotesque makeup, and that melodrama was one of the crowning achievements of his life. And I felt another pang of bittersweet nostalgia while writing up the 1955 TV show starring the actor who'd played Long John Silver.
"It was the last year of Robert Newton's life, and he'd earned a roguish reputation in real life as an unpredictable alcoholic. But he brings a real delight in his final star turn as the reckless one-legged pirate, fussed over at the Cask and Anchor tavern..."

I'd originally begun including biographical information about the actors' lives just to pad things out. But now I was really beginning to feel for them.
By the time the musical was released, Oscar Hammerstein had already died... To add new songs to the film, Richard Rodgers wrote both the melody and the lyrics.

Caroline Ellis is nearly 60 years old now, but she still reaches out to any fans who remember her youthful stardom on the Bugaloos in 1970.

Devo's founder Gerald Casale was 57 years old when he released a strangely nostalgic solo album. "There was a time when time was on our side," he sings... "Now it's too late. That time has passed us by."

Maybe I was beginning to wonder if it all meant something, when taken as a collection — a secret history of the 20th century, as seen by me.

33-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. performed in one of the first starring roles ever for a black actor...in a heart-tugging story that was written by Kurt Vonnegut.

Paul Winchell created a popular children's show called "Winchell Mahoney Time," but the studio later destroyed all their tapes of it in a bitter dispute over syndication rights.

William Shatner was 73 when he recorded Has Been... In one chilling, two-minute track, Shatner even whispers his memory of finding his wife's body drowned in a swimming pool after accidentally combining alcohol with valium.

They were all snapshots of someone's life, and every moment I'd spent watching it represented a moment in their life that they'd spent creating it.

Just three years before the group's only album was released, 24-year-old Linda Perry had been singing on the streets, and had already struggled with substance abuse.

J.D. Natasha was just 16 years old when she recorded Plastico. But her first album became her last album, and "Plastico" stands as a stark wail at the start of a career that never was.

To pad out the film still further, the producers included a ten-minute sequence in which live monkeys re-enact "Cinderella."

What does it mean? I'm almost afraid to ask. Maybe pop culture is a broken mirror, and if you look at it too long you'll go insane.

But even if that's true — at least I was there to pick up the pieces, and sell them all to a web site for $900.


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