book update

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I’ve written two books, and I suppose I’d be a damn fool not to promote them here, so:

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Perversion for Profit is based on my dissertation, and details the ways the modern Right has mobilized around a reactionary sexual politics, using pornography to help carve out its position beginning in the mid-1960s. To my mind, it’s equally about the failures of modern liberalism to provide a meaningful space for a progressive sexual politics, which helped cede phrases like “family values” to the Right and its monolithic vision. But liberalism doesn’t really sell–just ask Michael Dukakis–so “New Right” gets the subtitle’s spotlight. The book covers the Cold War, the pioneering antiporn group Citizens for Decent Literature, politicians from Nixon to Reagan to a Barack Obama cameo, the rise of “porno chic” in the early 1970s, the feminist antiporn movement, and more.

Obscenity Rules, on the other hand, uses legal obscenity doctrine, particularly the landmark 1957 Roth v. United States case, as a window into modern sexual politics. The focus is both broader and more specific than Perversion–the book charts the course of censorship and law from the colonial era, but its centerpiece is an extended analysis of the Supreme Court’s ambivalent handling of the case and the complicated questions it inspired regarding censorship, sexual expression, and the place of social mores in constitutional law. It’s not all dry doctrinal exegesis though, I swear–there’s also an extensive examination of the fascinating smut publisher Samuel Roth’s thirty-year struggle against obscenity law, in publications ranging from pirated versions of James Joyce’s Ulysses to an illustrated comic novella called Memoirs of an Hotel Man. Digging through the Roth Papers at Columbia University might be the single most exhilarating archival experience I’ve ever had–they contain everything from early-1920s handwritten notes from T.S. Eliot to an unpublished Claude McKay novel!

In any case, I don’t want to bloviate here, but just say “hey, here are some things I wrote!” I’ve linked to the publishers above, but I’d be honored if people checked them out from their local libraries. And since I sadly can’t kill capitalism with a blog, they’re on Amazon too, here and here.

Notes on the cinematic career of Rutgers University, Newark

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These images come from The Once and Future Newark, a short 2006 documentary produced at Rutgers University, Newark, and featuring Dr. Clement Price leading an historical tour of the city. I can’t even feign critical distance here, so I won’t try; in addition to being the official city historian of Newark, Clem is a friend and valued colleague (a telling story: when I arrived at Penn Station for my on-campus interview, he picked me up in his car, bought me coffee, and burned me a DVD of a local documentary! This was a guy who was appointed by President Obama repeatedly to serve on important historical committees, going out of his way for someone he might never even see again! Seriously, an inspiration). He’s been in Newark since 1968, and knows more about its history than anyone alive.

“I can’t think of a better place for a city,” Professor Price declares, and damned if he doesn’t make a convincing argument over the course of 26 really enjoyable and informative minutes. Obviously, The Once and Future Newark is by design a booster video, yet Price gently applies a necessary critical lens to the story; “race matters in America, and race matters in Newark,” he explains. Thus we hear about the segregated history of baseball in Newark, but also celebrate the Newark Eagles, 1940s Negro League Champions. We get histories of Penn Station, the Newark Museum, the Ironbound, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), and more. I even learned something about my own university: our Paul Robeson Center was the first academic building named after the great dissident performer! Take that, other Robeson buildings (j/k, any building named after Paul Robeson is awesome. Ours is just more awesome).

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So, if I sound like a booster myself here, that’s partly because I’m incredibly fortunate to be at a university whose mission I genuinely support (upward mobility is mostly fiction in American history, but as a university committed to first-generation college students, RU-N does act as a conduit rather than a factory for the replication of already-existing social privilege; this is not, of course, to suggest that it is wholly immune from the tragic neoliberal gutting of the public university that has led—with some undeniable faculty complicity, by the way—to such travesties as the overreliance on adjunct labor, but rather to say that within the current realpolitik of the public university, RU-N is, IMHO, very impressive. I’m not neutral here, of course). But it’s also because Clement Price is such a charming and informative narrator and host. Look, the film was nominated for an Emmy and won some other awards, and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. It’s got great images of past and then-present Newark, and I highly recommend it.

The Once and Future Newark raised the question: what about other films shot on campus in Newark? Well, here’s one obscurity, found on burned DVD in the Rutgers Library: Rutgers From the Inside, an utterly turgid 1966 short 16mm documentary. If the bleeding-red images look bad, well, we must simply deal with it, because this is the only copy I know of and I don’t think Criterion is likely to restore it soon.

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In this “view of the contemporary state university,” we mostly get white people in New Brunswick, doing old-school things like lecturing, using chalkboards, and dressing in suits and ties as undergrads. I like to imagine this is how my students see me…

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…though more likely it’s

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Rutgers From the Inside finally ventures to Newark for a brief segment, mostly to follow a white sociologist into “the ghetto.” It’s a bit cringe-inducing to witness the deeply problematic anthropological approach of the university to the “others” of the city—poor black people in public housing. I am reminded of something my colleague Steve Diner (former chancellor at RU-Newark) wrote about the history of urban universities—by the 1970s many had created “urban observatories,” a well-intended but unfortunate astronomical trope that emphasized the huge gap between campus and city. That said, visually there is a stark autumnal beauty to this scene even despite the horrid visual quality:

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I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond that framework, and indeed, in the new strategic plan that our new chancellor, Nancy Cantor, unveiled this week, civic engagement is highlighted as a central mission of the university. Now, civic engagement itself has a complicated genealogy, as Mary Rizzo recently suggested in a great essay that links it to the fallout of the culture wars, yet the projects underway now are striving to be substantively community-driven. The Queer Newark Oral History Project (with which I am involved) is collaborating on a bang-up series of on- and off-campus events throughout the month of October, and the incredible Newest Americans project looks slated to produce some exciting film work, among other media.

But the cinematic career of Rutgers University, Newark doesn’t quite end there. Hollywood has also come calling, at least once. Movies shot on college campuses are almost always bad, and frankly annoying to experience; as a grad student at UCLA, it seemed like a regular occurrence to encounter Vince Vaughn jaunting around campus on a golf cart and impeding your walk to class in the name of some irksome frat-bro comedy. But hey, considering how unbearably awful Ed Norton’s campus comedy Leaves of Grass is, at least the scenes in his Matt Damon gambling buddy movie Rounders (shot at the former Rutgers Law School building in 1998) rank relatively high in his campus filmography. The Newark footage is brief, but kinda neat, I guess:

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Okay, so they scrubbed it to become the generic City Law University, and diegetically, I think it’s set in New York (I even listened to the commentary track, but alas, the only insight it offered was that Ed Norton can be kind of a sexist prick), but hey, movies lie. It’s what they do. Also the Malkovich scenes have nothing to do with Newark, but just seeing him ham it up as a Russian gambler makes me laugh, so why not throw it in?

So, I think that might be it for the cinematic career of Rutgers-Newark, though I’d remiss if I failed to mention this recent music video by spirited undergrads, which I defy you to watch without smiling.

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dance routine outside the building where my office is!

FUN FACTS THAT I FORGOT TO MENTION AND AM TOO LAZY TO INTEGRATE IN:

  1. the original site of Dana Library was the Ballantine beer brewery—from which Harold Wechsler drew the title of his scholarly history of the university, “Brewing Bachelors” (seriously, props for that).
  1. when Frank Kingdon was heading the University of Newark (before its merger with Rutgers) in the 1930s, he supported Norman Thomas as Socialist Party candidate for president! That is somewhat unthinkable today. (also from Wechsler).
  1. If you can’t spot the sucker at the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker (words of wisdom from Matt Damon in Rounders).

Scenes from a screening in Newark

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Friday was the debut screening of the Newark Movie Mixtape, and it was a real delight: perfect setting, in the lovely Riverfront Park (where Planning Director Damon Rich and Riverfront Coordinator Chris Caceres are doing some really innovative programming, from yoga to Zumba to house-music dance parties to boat tours), a great engaged crowd who seemed to dig the clips (our one cheat, a Whitney Houston music video not shot in Newark but inescapably connoting it, drew some serious applause), and the visual resonance of Newark scenes on a big screen with the actual city skyline in the background.

A decent portion of the crowd stayed the whole, somewhat long duration, too–2 hours, 8 minutes in the final cut! I’d love to tweak and revise this slightly and screen it again sometime, though it might be hard to make cuts; the only real dud, to my mind, was a long and reeeeaaaaaalllllly dull melodramatic romance scene set in Port Newark in Matt Cimber’s 1968 kitchen-sink drama Single Room Furnished. I also got a few fantastic suggestions from people in attendance, including an episode of Sesame Street (!) I hadn’t known about. I’ll have to think it through; in the meantime, some cool (IMHO) shots from the screening:

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poorly lit action shot of my rambling introductory comments!

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father of our mayor!

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and finally, a few shots by Damon Rich–I especially love the cinematic bridge reaching for the real one!

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I’m very grateful to everyone who collaborated and supported this, and also to everyone who took a chance and showed up to watch it. Here’s to future screenings!

Newark Plays Itself: The Newark Movie Mixtape (2014), THIS FRIDAY IN NEWARK!

Here is something very exciting: a project in which I was involved (as co-curator, with Damon Rich, Planning Director and Chief Urban Designer for the City of Newark), screening this Friday (Sept. 12) at Riverfront Park in Newark, at sunset:

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It’s a series of clips, highlighting and celebrating Newark’s robust, surprising cinematic history. There are a variety of angles from which one might approach this: the simple pleasure of seeing Newark represented while sitting in a park in Newark; as a really neat visual essay on the evolution of the city over the course of a century (clips range from the 1890s—Thomas Edison pioneered the cinema right next door in West Orange, and filmed in Newark—through the 21st century, with the most recent coming from 2014); as a local version of Thom Andersen’s masterpiece of the essay-film form Los Angeles Plays Itself, minus snarky Didion-baiting narration; or just as an excuse to come check out the ongoing Newark Riverfront Revival.

I don’t think the expectation is that audiences will sit in rapt, quiet attentiveness as per normative bourgeois narrative filmgoing (at least, before texting destroyed it), but rather hang out, picnic, stroll around, comment, enjoy themselves. I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m excited about this, and hope people show up to check it out. There are at least a few clips I’m pretty sure you’d be hard-pressed to see anywhere else.

There’s a blog post with a “track listing” of sorts here (and also directions to the easily-accessible Riverfront Park), though I’d personally prefer to go in cold myself—there is, hopefully, a rhythm and logic to the ordering, but it’s definitely not temporally linear, so it swerves from the 1890s to the 1990s to the 1970s, which should be enjoyably unpredictable. It’s all done in a DIY spirit of just getting people together to have a good time and revel in cinematic spectacles of Newark, so as long as that happens, I’ll consider it a success.

Big shout-outs to Damon Rich for being the driving force here, Chris Caceres at the Riverfront Revival, my awesome Chancellor at Rutgers University, Newark, Nancy Cantor, for supporting ambitious if experimental forms of civic engagement, the History Department at RU-N for support, and Samantha Boardman for going way above the call of duty as editor. Hope to see people at the screening.

 

Rightwing Riot Theory, from Newark to Ferguson: The Riot Makers (1971)

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Q: What caused the urban unrest in Newark, 1967?

If your answer involves the systematic economic, educational, and political disfranchisement of black Newarkers, persistent housing discrimination, and constant, unrelenting police violence against people of color, well, that would put you in the company of such flaming revolutionaries as the New Jersey Governor’s Commission on Civil Disorder, the presidentially-appointed Kerner Commission, and that subset of the broader public possessed of some modicum of knowledge and/or empathy.

If, on the other hand, you attribute urban rioting to criminal thuggishness, the greedy desire to loot stores for luxury goods, unmotivated anti-white racial animus, or Communist conspiracies, there’s a good chance that—like the white folks in St. Louis currently brushing aside the unrest in Ferguson as “bullshit”—you’re a genuinely awful person, but I do have a film recommendation for you.

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Here is a short 16mm film made for law enforcers in 1971, to illustrate, as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service somehow puts it without affixing an asterisk to note that this is literally insane:

“how such riot makers as Vladimir Lenin, who stated that mass movements must be artificially created, influenced agitators during the 1960’s. It terms modern day activists ‘leninoids’ or graduates in social demolition and argues that Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, H. Rap Brown, and other agitators have been studying the tactics of Lenin and Hitler. The tactics of these 1960’s agitators included targeting specific groups for recruitment in urban areas (the poor) and on college campuses, where their aim was to monopolize student expression, create a climate of hostility, and incite crowds to riot. The film depicts the manipulation of urban discontent in Newark, N.J., and other civil disturbances of the 1960’s by using actual footage made by the news media and other sources. The film is designed to aid law enforcement personnel who are largely unfamiliar with the phenomena of violent social unrest.”

 

Setting aside the question of where one might find law enforcement personnel in 1971 who were unfamiliar with social unrest, violent or otherwise, this is actually a largely accurate summary of the film. It begins with a world-historical survey: Marc Antony overthrows Caesar with riots; 1789, Robespierre, and that damn Terror; LENIN! “the evil genius” who pioneered “exploiting every trace of discontent” as method; Hitler, then Rennie Davis and Students for a Democratic Society.

Wait, what? But here you have it, in irrefutable montage form:

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To be sure, not ALL riot-makers are communists–“some are compulsive revolutionists … others are modern-day nihilists.” Ah, so it’s a diverse crowd of criminal rabble-rousers!

Newark serves as a case study for the film. As our narrator explains, white college radicals like Tom Hayden showed up, carrying visions of violent Maoist uprisings. “To set the stage, minor disagreements were escalated out of all proportion.” “Routine arrests” were exploited to generate dissent; “inflammatory leaflets” were posted around the city.

Here is the film’s vision of an inflammatory leaflet:

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As crude rightwing propaganda, The Riot Makers hits all the required notes, fashioning a feverish, paranoid theory of history in which Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Tom Hayden, and H. Rap Brown all blend together into a unified mass of Evildoers bent on . . . well, doing something bad, that much is certain. As is to be expected, the film includes virtually no testimony from the black majority of Newark, and contorts itself into M.C. Escher lines of logic to avoid acknowledging the persistent, absolutely undeniable pattern of police brutality toward black Newarkers that made it seem so plausible arrested (and badly beaten) cab driver John Smith had been killed by Newark police that night in July 1967 that sparked the uprising. The Newark police had done a pretty good job of creating that “climate of hostility” before Hayden and the white radicals ever arrived in town, but this history is wholly absent from The Riot Makers.

So, this is Big Lie tactics at their most obvious, hardly exceptional given the four centuries of genocide-masking American triumphalism that continues to undergird our national narratives, aside perhaps from its oafishness. The Riot Makers does, however, contain some vivid footage of barely-post-riot Newark.

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I’m not sure exactly where this footage comes from—local television, presumably, though all we get from the credits is an acknowledgment to reporter Harry Stathos for “local assistance.” For that matter, it’s also a little unclear where The Riot Makers itself comes from. It was “Produced for Spectrum of Washington by Norman Bishop,” but unless my Google skills are failing me, there’s not much info out there about this organization. Narrator Fergus Currie is presumably not the composer born in 1961, so you’ve got me there, too.

So while the details of the film’s production remain murky to me, its intellectual (well…) genesis is more transparent. Based on a 1970 book of the same name by Eugene Methvin, The Riot Makers fits squarely into a somewhat under-recognized genealogy of victim-blaming that runs from the early civil rights movement (or even earlier, the labor movement) through Watts and Newark, and all the way to Ferguson in 2014.

Methvin worked his way up from rural Georgia to the Reader’s Digest, according to his Wikipedia bio (the best source out there, though I’ll bet this oral history taken in 2011 and held at the University of Georgia—which also apparently holds his personal papers, probably worth digging in—is pretty fascinating; edited to add: hot damn, it’s on YouTube!). In 1965 his article “How the Reds Make a Riot” won awards, and clearly Methvin saw how his bread was buttered.

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The Riot Makers expands the logic of that article title into bloated book-length form. Weighing in at 500+ pages, it begins with a long chapter on Newark. From the very opening paragraph, Methvin works hard to blame black Newarkers for their situation; his opening image is of two Newark police officers “haul[ing] a cursing, struggling Negro from their cruiser.” Because Hayden and his fellow provocateurs from SDS and the Newark Community Union Project created a “Reservoir of Hate,” as one section is called, local “resentment tended to focus on that handy lightning rod, the policeman.” The notion that this anger might be legitimate isn’t even conceivable to Methvin; though Ron Porambo later detailed the long history of police violence in Newark, to Methvin it is simply axiomatic that police are always right, and black anger is always unfounded.

Such claims echoed those of the John Birch Society, whose founder Robert Welch had published an essay (helpfully preserved by the King Center) in 1967, “To the Negroes of America,” imploring African Americans not to riot by telling them how good they had it (amazingly, its urge to “wake up, my misguided friends,” from the “shameless liars like M.L. King, foreign trouble-makers like Stokely Carmichael, perverted characters like Bayard Rustin” failed to resonate!). Indeed, the 1965 Bircher agitprop “documentary” Anarchy U.S.A. effectively anticipated Methvin in its communist-dupe outside-agitator analysis of the civil rights movement (the same line future Christian Right leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell were also parroting at the time).

Anarchy U.S.A. found a receptive audience among white Newarkers, as seen in this flyer:

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I doubt they had vegan food at Thomm’s. from the New Jersey State Archives, courtesy Mark Krasovic

Mark Krasovic also notes in his fantastic dissertation “The Struggle for Newark: Plotting Urban Crisis in the Great Society” that the New Jersey State Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association set up its own Committee of Riot Study and Investigation, specifically to exonerate the police from their violent show of force in Newark, which left approximately two dozen dead. To no one’s surprise, the 1968 report, The Road to Anarchy, blamed everything from (unproven, likely imaginary) black snipers to “inflammatory literature purportedly printed in China.”

Clearly there was a massive white audience for theories that would displace the anger and frustration of Black America, and substitute excuses for structural inequality that mostly relied on simply denying its existence, or engaging race through barely-coded dog whistles. This story has been thoroughly covered by historians, and just as thoroughly disregarded by most white Americans; it runs from “forced busing” to “welfare queens” to Ronald Reagan commencing his successful presidential campaign talking about states rights at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered while engaged in civil rights activism in 1964. It’s a history as plain as day to anyone willing to see it—but most (again, white) Americans still are not.

The relative subtlety (and I do mean relative, obviously) of this white conservatism that has structured both the modern GOP and the sad “centrism” that dominates modern Democratic politics eventually drove off the John Birch/George Wallace/etc frothing-at-the-mouth crowd, holding it to the margins of modern conservatism. But not before Methvin wrote one more epic, The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism, in 1973. It was more of the same, with chapters like “Plato: The First Totalitarian?” Methvin scored a positive review from a fellow high-strung anticommunist in the American Bar Association’s journal, but was brushed aside by Kirkus Reviews. Naturally, there was only one place for a crazy rightwinger to go: President Reagan appointed him to his President’s Commission on Organized Crime in 1983. Of course.

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the works of Eugene Methvin: bigger than a cat, and dumber too

The direct afterlife of The Riot Makers has been modest, at best. The film is extremely rare, held in only a few libraries and largely forgotten, as far as I can tell.

Methvin’s book, however, left a small but sustained trail, according to the highly imperfect but nonetheless useful Google Scholar. Looking at its few scholarly citations, one learns, for instance, that The Riot Makers was one of William Luther Pierce’s favorite books as he wrote his landmark racist hate novel The Turner Diaries (as revealed in a very interesting article by Rob McAlear).

But the true shock of following The Riot Makers’s trail is seeing it cited uncritically, as a reputable source, in peer-reviewed scholarship. Abraham H. Miller seems to have built a successful scholarly career upon attempting to refute the widespread social-science consensus on the origins of urban unrest. In articles published in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2001) and Terrorism and Political Violence (2002), Miller uses Methvin to support his arguments—in the latter article, apparently advocacy of even greater police countermeasures (i.e., violence), though he and co-athor Emily Schaen seem hesitant to say it quite so openly. As Miller rather huffily explained in recently bemoaning the existence of Black Studies, “Traditional scholarship is an exhausting and demanding business.” Yeah, apparently so. Sometimes you just need a shortcut, like citing a delusional paranoid journalist to make your, uh, scholarly point. Naturally, Miller, like Methvin, was rewarded for his work with a counterterrorism consulting gig at the National Institute for Justice.

And, to pull this back to Ferguson, where as in Newark nearly a half-century ago, a whole lotta white conservatives seem eager to talk about anything other than cops killing unarmed people of color or the sources of black anger, Miller currently contributes—seriously, for shame—to Breitbart. Though he hasn’t (yet—we can only hope) weighed in on the killing of Michael Brown, the Bircher/Methvin framework of blithely dismissing police violence persists—indeed, Breitbart’s typically terrible coverage invokes outside-agitator tropes, blaming “’outsiders’ from the city of St. Louis for causing the looting and rioting mayhem.” On another conservative site to which Miller contributes, we are reminded, as we always are, that “We know very little about what happened in Ferguson, so we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions about any individual, or group, or the nation’s psyche.”

Well, some of us know pretty well what happened: an unarmed black man was shot six times by a police officer. As Mia McKenzie reminds in a brilliant essay,

“This country has spent the last several centuries systematically killing Black people. Black death is built into the system. Black death, alongside Native American genocide, built the system. Yet, whenever yet another unarmed Black person is killed by police, it’s somehow our fault? We must’ve been threatening/drunk/holding a BB gun/maybe possibly shoplifted some candy? Because after 400 years of never needing a reason, they suddenly need a reason? No. No. They have never needed a reason.”

 

Look, The Riot Makers isn’t single-handedly responsible for the fact that 406 people on the New York Times could recommend this heartless comment, which perfectly reflects the utter lack of empathy for people of color that defines virtually the entirety of U.S. history:

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But it’s not irrelevant to that sad story, either. The overwhelming preponderance of violence in the Newark riots/rebellion, of course, was inflicted by state agents against black bodies. Whatever property has been damaged in Ferguson, it is again black bodies with bullets in them. It’s infuriating that media narratives devalue black life, engage in apologetics for violence against people of color (stolen cigars! scary hoodies! clearly they bear some blame for being shot and killed!), and efface the decades of mass incarceration and militarized policing that do vastly more harm than good, distributed, of course, along the lines of race and class that correspond perfectly to political power and the lack thereof in America.

The Riot Makers is part of this genealogy of fraudulent knowledge-production (or rather, deliberate ignorance and erasure), and perhaps the Methvin à Miller line is less important than, say, that from another Birch Society affiliate, W. Cleon Skousen, to Glenn Beck, but it’s all part of the same nexus. It gives us angry black rioters, led into a frenzy by malicious white radical agitators, without any recognition of the very real grievances carried by black Newarkers or people in Ferguson. It’s the perfect book and film for a country where George Zimmerman is now some kind of decontextualized celebrity, and the next unarmed black person shot by a cop will once again have his or her life scrutinized in a desperate effort to divert attention and blame.

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further reading for the truly masochistic

Kick Fast, Kick Newark: Moving Target (1999)

Last year, I was impressed by the unexpected historical resonance of Bobby Guions’ 2005 low-budget action-thriller Dinner with an Assassin, with its great opening scene on the roof of the Divine Hotel Riviera. So I thought I’d check out his 1999 debut, Moving Target.

Alas, a seller on Amazon to whom all b-movies titled Moving Target must seem the same sent me this:

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let’s just not talk about Billy Dee Williams being in this, it’ll make us all feel sad

Much love to Michael Dudikoff—as a kid, I loved American Ninja 1, 2, and 4 (the Dudikoffless 3 being redeemed only by the presence of the great Steve James), and I’ll still rep for Albert Pyun’s postapocalyptic Radioactive Dreams, but there’s no denying, by the 90s, Dudikoff was the poor(er) man’s Michael Biehn, cranking out dreary, formulaic dreck, and this Canadian gangster jam appears no exception (I got to keep it, with a refund, but not sure I’ll ever watch it, unless someone lobbies hard on its behalf). Also, this was the wrong movie.

Point being, it took me a while to get my hands on this:

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But wow, talk about being worth the wait: white VHS! I didn’t even know this was a thing (based on a quick google search, I’m not alone—600 people have watched this mystified dude ponder the immortal question “My Destroy All Monsters Tape is white. WHAT THE FUCK”). Is this the video-nerd equivalent of colored vinyl?

In any case, the film itself gets off to a slow start. Unlike Dinner with an Assassin’s location shooting, Moving Target opens with some extended indoor non-mortal combat.

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This turns out to be the Black Eagle Society, composed of the greatest taekwondo, kung fu, kickboxing, and other martial arts fighters in the world—all conveniently located in New Jersey! The choreography is so-so, but Guions cuts nicely around the un-landed blows.

Finally, the group leader explains to his gang, “there’s one thing we’ve never done: to kill a man with our bare hands!” They all agree, but of course it’s not really worth it to just throttle some wimp, the goal is “fighting a real champion to the death.” Just to sweeten the pot, our fearless leader offers a million bucks to whichever fighter delivers the death blow.

I, uh, think this plot may have been used before, in the approximately ten thousand film versions of The Most Dangerous Game that extend from proper adaptations to the lackluster sexploitation flick The Suckers to what I assume was Guions’ immediate inspiration, the recent (and pretty solid IMHO) Surviving the Game. But hey, at least this plot device finally takes us to Newark:

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The downtown beefcake shots are of affable actor Greg Maye, playing karate fighter Mark Kobain. He’s wooed into the Black Eagle Society, where, the leader explains, “we get together once a month, talk martial arts world, stock options,” stuff like that. Who wouldn’t want to join?

Alas, with that we’re back out of Newark, into the Jersey woods, where the hunt goes down, with little surprise as to how it ends. Guions grafts a strikingly tangential love story into the mix, primarily to include a tame sex scene and secure the otherwise all-male film’s heterosexuality, I suppose.

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Moving Target lacks the loopy charm of Guions’ next film, though I’m always susceptible to sheer let’s-make-a-movie moxie. There’s a really tacky scene where one of the fighters is called away from dinner for a phone call to be told he’s HIV-positive, apparently just to set up a risible one-liner in his later fight scene where he growls, “watch out, you don’t wanna catch AIDS now.” Ugh.

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On the other hand, Mark Kobain shows some feminist proclivities, explaining that “no means no” to a Mike Tyson-like member of the Black Eagle Society who boasts about his sexual aggression toward a woman who came to his room once. Plus, there are occasional shots of empty sets, another touch I always love:

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There’s not enough engagement with Newark to situate Moving Target in urban cultural history, though I imagine the backstory would be interesting—Guions thanks the Newark YMCA and even the Newark Police in the end credits. So, as a debut, it’s . . . a debut. the final fight scene does return us to a downtown Newark rooftop–something of a Guions personal flourish, since it’s the same way Dinner ends. Some decent skyline footage:

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Moving Target seems to have fallen mostly off the face of the earth—never released on DVD, and held only at two libraries (in Georgia and Los Angeles) according to the venerable WorldCat, with just a few IMDB reviews to mark its existence. Guions isn’t the most prolific filmmaker—he’s got just one more movie, the obscure 2010 thriller Blood and Love—but I’m gonna guess these DIY productions take some serious effort.

Also, pretty solid soundtrack by Newark’s own Rick Da Bro. I confess a lack of familiarity with his work, but he delivers classic mid-90s Wu Tang-style dirty beats, and likes to post food pics on his Instagram. I can dig that—though not Geno’s Steaks in South Philly, man, that’s the worst!

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collector-scum bonus pic

 

A Paul Mazursky Newark Cameo/Visions of an Airport: Harry and Tonto (1974)

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This is Newark Liberty International Airport, as seen in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974). It doesn’t add much to our cinematic archive of Newark, but since Mazursky just passed away, it seemed a fitting way to pay tribute.

To be honest, I’ve never loved Mazursky as a filmmaker. He made one great film, his first: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), easily my favorite Hollywood movie to grapple with the sexual revolution, and a smart, funny, sexy, genuinely humane take on the complexity of relationships, with one of the all-time great closing scenes in mainstream American cinema, IMHO (not sure how it plays out of narrative context, though).

Then a decade later Jill Clayburgh singlehandedly elevated An Unmarried Woman to near-greatness—and helped make partial amends for the infuriating Blume in Love (1973), with its ugly apologetics for George Segal’s protagonist despite his committing an aggressive onscreen marital rape. I can’t stomach Blume (except for the presence of Kris Kristofferson, who is watchable in every role he’s ever played, even at his most phoned-in), and I also mostly hated Mazursky’s second film, Alex in Wonderland, a horrid, Fellini-aping bit of navel-gazing-into-the-filmic-abyss. People I respect dig Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), but I find it trite and sitcomish, and then after that the rest of his films were uniformly bad except Down and Out in Beverly Hills (and I never saw his final film, the 2006 documentary Yippie {very much NOT about Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin}, though its sole IMDB reviewer liked it).

So that leaves Harry and Tonto—Mazursky’s third-best film. It’s basically John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, except with a cat subbing in for the dog, which is of course an enormous improvement. Art Carney’s Harry, displaced from his longtime New York apartment thanks to urban renewal, and single aside from cat Tonto after his wife’s death, road-trips across America, seeing his scattered children en route to Los Angeles. I’m a sucker for the cinema of wanderlust, and it’s got great location shooting in Chicago, L.A., Las Vegas, and Manhattan.

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While marred by some overly broad and sentimental scenes, especially early on, it’s mostly a sweet, low-key look at aging, family, and loneliness; a scene in the middle, with Carney seeking out a long-ago lover in Illinois and finding her in a nursing home with a fading memory, is probably the single best scene Mazursky ever shot after 1969. I wouldn’t have given Carney the Oscar for this, but I can see why I was outvoted by the members of the Academy.

Anyway, Newark: it’s where Harry initially tries to fly out, before settling for the road after refusing to put Tonto through the baggage scanner. Because I am one of those lazy internet people who pays less attention online, I accidentally called in the book rather than the DVD at the public library, and it’s actually LaGuardia there. But rest assured, the Newark location is confirmed by Mazursky’s DVD commentary track (which, alas, offers little insight into mid-70s Newark, his comment on this scene, in its entirety, being, “Newark Airport [lengthy pause]”)

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compare and contrast! my last time in the Newark airport (actually in search of an in-airport movie screening that didn’t exist…)

What can one say, analytically, about this in regard to cinematic depictions of the Brick City?  Well, primarily it’s a reminder of how many New Yorkers see Newark, I suppose: that place to catch a flight. Which is, to be sure, arguably better than other cultural narratives of the city (Riotville! That Place with Ever-Tweeting Neoliberal Superman Mayor!), but still, I’m gonna count this as a pretty underwhelming addition to the films of Newark.

It is, however, something of a masterpiece in the films of catdom. RIP, Mr. Mazursky, and RIP Tonto, too.

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Queer Newark updates

A few quick updates related to the Queer Newark Oral History Project, with which I am involved at Rutgers:

We’re planning an October historical panel on queer club spaces in Newark, through the lens of “Sanctuary.” It’ll happen in conjunction with a remarkable monthlong series of events throughout the city, ranging from art exhibits to a resurrection of the HIV/AIDS fundraiser FIREBall. So, building toward this, I’ve updated the Queer Newark bibliography that I maintain, with a new section on clubs and ballrooms.

As well, we’ve created a new document: a working timeline of queer clubs in Newark, from the 1940s through the early 21st century. It’s a rough, preliminary sketch, but we’re hoping it will be generative in drawing feedback, additions, corrections, oral history leads, and–most pressingly, at the moment–visual material for the panel. Queer Newark has been woefully under-archived, very much a function of the overlapping and intersecting axes of social marginalization that mark its history; bars, clubs, and ballrooms provide a local counterpoint to the homophile, gay liberation, and queer activist groups that played a central role in other cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia–but of course, the spaces of Queer Newark left less of a paper trail (that’s the great thing about formal bureaucracies, to any historian). As a result, whatever documentary trail is out there remains privately held–diaries, letters, photos, memorabilia, etc. We are very much hoping community members will be inspired by this project to share some of their holdings–and thereby contribute to the collaborative history we hope to facilitate through this project. (If anyone has leads, by all means, please let me know!).

Meanwhile, I’m also delighted that an article I had a hand in writing just appeared in a great upstart journal–QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, which just began publishing last year and has already delivered powerful theme issues on “the end of bullying” and Chelsea Manning. The new issue is about queer pasts and presents, and features this:

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Right now, a free pdf of the article is available at the QED site; if that disappears and anyone wants to read it, just let me know.

I’d never written a collaborative scholarly article before, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better set of collaborators: Darnell Moore is an astonishingly productive writer, scholar, and activist (I could get carried away describing his work, but examples: inaugural chair of the pathbreaking Newark mayoral LGBT advisory commission; author of a fantastic Advocate cover story, “Black, LGBT, American,” last year; editor at The Feminist Wire; a very long “and etc.”); Beryl Satter is an historian whose important book Family Properties has been foundational to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ongoing series on race, real estate, and reparations at The Atlantic (as he just again acknowledged, this very day!); and Tim Stewart-Winter, having written superb pieces on everything from the Castro to WWII conscientious objectors, has a book in progress about gay politics and race in Chicago, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I am truly privileged to count all three as friends and colleagues.

So, that’s what’s in progress. On a lighter note, I couldn’t resist this: the debut appearance of this very blog in a scholarly journal! I probably should have taken five extra minutes last year and come up with something less ridiculous than “Strublog,” but so it goes:

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