I was scrolling through my Google Reader a little over a month ago, and among the links and pictures pulled together from all around the internet, there was only one post that was all text. It was from 'Tom Sutpen,' founder of the blog Gunslinger, and he was asking for help.
Tom, who had been running his brilliant collection of images, observations and cinema lore for seven years, had "run out of ideas" and asked how he should continue. Even though I'd only been following the blog for a year or so, a real, physical ache materialized in my chest as I was reading, and a nagging sense of loss persisted for the rest of the night.
I didn't know Tom or his co-writers personally and I'd never commented—and, after all, it was just a bunch of pictures, right? So what happened?
Gunslinger—short for Charles Mingus' dictum that, "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats"—began as a one-man operation in October 2004.
The early fare was a mixture of low-res movie stills and news commentary—this was the autumn when the Red Sox won the World Series and George W. Bush was re-elected. Tom says these entries were "more or less random," but a unique order would soon emerge. Bit by bit, he developed a format, organized by groups of images in series, and realized that "if I kept moving in what appeared to be this inexhaustible direction, I could, through the presentation of images, shoehorn the entire world into that blog."
In the intervening years, he succeeded about as well as he could have. The now-popular 'Seminal Images' and 'Artists In Action' series were only the first examples. Today they're joined by 332 others, with titles like 'Artists and Animals,' 'Nuns Gone Wild' and 'Hierophants of Hip Hop.'
I was most interested in "When Legends Gather," a series that depicted often mismatched celebrities in odd situations. A vacant Leonard Bernstein posing with a mortified Patti Smith. Francis Ford Coppola teaching Akira Kurosawa how to use a polaroid. That sort of thing.
One night, I spent over an hour going through them. It was a brief education on the history of Hollywood's social network, cherry-picked for those shots that summarize decades in an instant like Judy Garland's wrinkles.
After I talked to Tom, I started to wonder if maybe this was the way I was supposed to read Gunslinger—a section at a time, straight through. In his view, he said, "It's all about what emerges from the accumulation of images... often in ways I didn't intend." Of course, he's right; history is more than a series of images, and if you weren't there at the time the gaps can only be filled in with a combination of these cherry-picked instants. It's not enough that Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer's eyes seem to brighten after the bomb has droppped; you also have to see his rival Edward Teller's gaze begin to dull and sag over the years.
These were just my favorites. Tom comments that "anyone visiting the blog can, and very often has, projected onto Gunslinger their own notion of what it is, and then see whatever they've seen in that light. It's oddly interactive in this sense."
It's the same with the famous personalities the blog depicts. "It is very rare," he says, "that you can find someone who admires the work of a certain individual who can't tell you something about said individual that has little-to-nothing to do with the work." As casual observers and especially as 'fans,' we hone in on the aspects of a celebrity that we relate to, the same way I identified with some of Gunslinger's series and not others.
Maybe it was with this in mind that Tom wanted to "start a dialogue with those who actually get what we've been doing here for the last seven years." In other words, with the people who found something personal and applicable in at least one of the series, regardless of the other 332.
As I began to follow some of the series, it started to feel like I was following a friend's blog. I appreciated the images, of course, but also the trends in Tom's and his co-writers' tastes, the actual as well as implied series, the times when I thought, "isn't that just so Tom." And so, inevitably, I was disappointed and confused when one day I signed onto my Google Reader and found that my friend had moved on.
It's strange to admit that you feel a personal connection to a site that has so much to do with celebrity, but Gunslinger is the anti-TMZ, the anti-Gawker, admitting that the fantasy films portray has grown threadbare and using all the same usual suspects to celebrate that flimsiness.
When I reacted so immediately to Tom breaking the fourth blog-wall, it was probably this fantasy being broken; he wasn't just Gunslinger's eclectic founder, he was also a person with other things on his mind -- and one starting to feel the burn of all this showmanship. He didn't do anything wrong; I'd just had him pegged for a character he wasn't.
After he posted the 'Dialogue,' comments poured in with support; after a few days the blog was back up and running. Tom simply says that the "comments have, let us say, had their impact."
But maybe he could have expected them. Gunslinger has shown in picture after picture how overwhelming it can be to see uncharacteristic behavior from people we think we know. By the time Tom surprised his readers, they'd been primed for it for years.