book update


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

Just released as of December 2016 is Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representation in the 1970s, which I co-edited with Carolyn Bronstein. I’m really excited about this because it includes a bunch of essays from some of my favorite scholars, on topics including Desiree West (the first black female porn star), transfeminine and female-impersonator magazines, Peter Berlin and the gay porn archive, the magazine AVN and the adjustment to VHS, Bob Guccione’s failed women’s mag Viva, Shaun Costello’s wild hardcore Dickens adaption The Passions of Carol, the role of BDSM and fisting in the emergence of antiporn feminism, and a lot more! Plus an essay by Joe Rubin of the great Vinegar Syndromeand look at that cover!


Before that, I wrote these:

app strobs

Continue reading

Newark Deserves a City Symphony: New Work: Newark in 3D (2009)

The city-symphonies of the 1920s and 30s defined both film technique and “the city” itself as representational space. Beginning with Manhatta in 1921, they swept across the globe: Paris, Berlin, Moscow, etc. When I taught a class on film and urban history last semester, we began with Manhatta—it’s short, legible but still open to discussion, and a good way to begin thinking about montage, mise-en-scène, and how cinema narrates urbanism (for one smart, if theory-heavy analysis of the genre as revealing “the temporal movements of urban modernity,” see Sarah Jilani’s 2013 Senses of Cinema article; a perhaps more reader-friendly, if NYC-centric, century-long overview from Jon Gartenberg can be found here as a pdf)



The genre persisted in various ways after its heyday—if a basic scattershot canon might include Manhatta, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City , Man with a Movie Camera, and Bronx Morning, later efforts range from Brakhage’s Wonder Ring to Menken’s Go! Go! Go! and Lights, through the recently-departed Peter Hutton (some of whose work I caught at a recent Anthology Film Archives retrospective). I’ve seen Amos Poe’s 1970s no-wave films (great) and Hollywood crossover attempts (wretched), but not his experimental 2008 Empire II; David Bordwell makes it sound interesting, though.

Missing from all of this, of course, was Newark, skipped over by the city-symphony movement. There was Sightseeing in Newark in 1926, which I wrote about here and can be viewed here; it’s a great document of the city, and not devoid of creative flourishes, but really a little too stilted and postcardish to qualify as a city symphony. So, no Newark city symphony.

Until 2009. Filmmaking team Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno are probably best known for their documentaries, including the powerful Revolution ’67 and the education film The Rule (both of which deserve eventual posts unto themselves), but they’ve also made an eclectic array of fictional and nonfictional works—see the whole list here. Marylou is from Newark, Jerome has been here for decades, and they’re deeply committed to the city—so when the Newark Museum prepared for its centennial in 2009, it made perfect sense to commission them for a short cinematic celebration of the city.


The result, New Work: Newark in 3D, finally gives Newark its belated city symphony, capturing the city’s vibrancy and beauty in gorgeously-composed shots featuring both its iconic architectural and urban-design highlights, and also the everyday vitality of the city in action.


New Work isn’t online, but there’s a great ten-minute short about it (longer than the film itself!) in which the Bongiornos discuss Manhatta as an influence, with some comparative clips from both—even a winking tribute here, with the NYC skyline that opens the 1921 film hovering in the background, as seen from Newark.


You can get a great sense of the rich visual texture here, but you miss the interplay of sound and image. New Work runs to the strains of the Newark Boys Chorus School and the Cathedral Choir and bop narration from local poet Jon Curley, rolling out Newarkific verse about “Amiri B. and me” that perfectly punctuates the scenes and brims over with love for the city.

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You get the visual texture here, but you also lose the depth. It took me years to catch New Work—I kept missing its exhibition cycles at the Newark Museum, and when it did a run at the Newark airport (really innovative programming, discussed more here), I schlepped from terminal to terminal with my incredibly patient partner after flying home once on a loooong red-eye but wound up hopelessly lost. When I finally did see it, it was in my class, looking like this:


With handy 3D glasses passed out to the class, it looked amazing—we were already in Newark, but we were really in Newark! Best I can approximate, though, is this (there are also some great shots from its debut at the museum):


not quuuuiiiiiiiite the full 3D experience…

Now, one could criticize New Work for its rosy reverence toward Newark, a city burdened by many problems; without much representation of social ills and inequalities here, it runs the risks of playing into the hands of the gentrifiers and redevelopers who also want to make such problems invisible. And certainly from that perspective, the film reflects an implicit political economy of production in which the Bongiornos were commissioned by an institution that gave them artistic freedom but with a clear celebratory imperative. But I’m wary of pressing the point too much, for a few reasons. First, city symphonies were rarely if ever sites of oppositional politics; Manhatta is nothing if not fairly blithe in its applause for industrial development. In my class, we talked about how to read Menken’s Go! Go! Go! politically, and while the students agreed that there was something radical in her feverish jittery mode of looking that destabilized convention, her suspiciously white and bourgeois New York City played into a concurrent conservatism. More to the point, Newark hardly lacks for critique; this city has been shat on and willfully misunderstood since 1967, and so in local context, an up-with-Newark filmic narrative actually is oppositional to the dominant story of doom, gloom, crime, and decline.


actual Harper’s article, 1975, which concludes, “the city of Newark stands without serious challenge as the worst of all.” uh, take *that*, Detroit and Baltimore!

We can also contrast another film the Newark Museum sponsored, for the city’s 250th anniversary in 1966: This is Newark, 1966 was a cold and chilling aerial view of a city defined exclusively by urban renewal projects and an expanding skyline, voided of its black just-turned-majority. While much of New Work looks at structures, the Bongiornos also pay heed to people—it sounds an obvious point, but the impact is pronounced: here, Newark is a city built on the interplay of people and place, sound and image, skyline and street view. It’s warmer and more humanistic than the earlier film, by far.


I should note, I’m a bit of a partisan here: not just a Newark booster myself (though one concerned about social justice and extremely wary of “Next Brooklyn” tropes or the inexcusable “quality of life” police harassment of black and brown youth downtown so clearly intended to soothe the presumed anxieties of white middle class residents or potential ones), but also a friend or at least acquaintance of the Bongiornos and Jon Curley, too—whose books, by the way, are fantastic and themselves awash in Newarkphilia too.


“May the laureate’s soul city/gather its gospels of ghost spells/and make that Black Art, Black Magic,/the joint compound for the newfound/New Ark. In Ras Requiscat!” –“Slip Pages,” Hybrid Moments

While visiting my class, the Bongiornos discussed filmmaking, Newark, and their politics (on my final exam, more than one student quoted Jerome on the most pressing issue facing urban America: “poverty, poverty, poverty!”). They also shared a scene from their forthcoming feature The Black Monk, based on a Chekhov story. It’s an audacious experiment: much of the action in the 16-minute scene confined to a living room, with characters arguing about gentrification, poverty, and politics. Yet it works—if it’s a talky, didactic film, well, so was Waiting for Lefty as a play, and as an agitprop polemic it still forces the viewer to engage with the various positions (which shift over the course of the s scene). I’m excited to see how the finished film in its entirety works to expand the canon of Newark leftist cinema!

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I’m grateful to Marylou and Jerome for swinging by; I was really delighted to bring some politically-engaged working filmmakers to my class, and also to finally catch New Work–and in 3D, at that! It’s a really wonderful love note to Newark, and highly recommended next time it screens.

In accordance with my Blogging against Trump commitment, I’ve pledged to donate $100 to an organization fighting against the onset of fascism in the United States spearheaded by our racist, misogynist, popular-vote-losing authoritarian-in-chief every time I post here. For this one, a thematically relevant group is obvious: the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. You can become a member for extremely few dollars, and help support a group doing the important work the Democratic Party seems to have largely abandoned (a factor that, along with grotesque racism and sexism, led to the Trump catastrophe). Check out the Bongiornos’ work, and support grassroots activism against poverty!






Blogging against Trump

This blog sputtered out and then died a few months back, and I’ve had a hard time finding inspiration to write again since election night. The things I like to blog about—films shot in Newark, archival discoveries, smut history, mostly—all seem inconsequential in the face of the national hategasm that gave us Trump, a probable slide into fascism where authoritarian kleptocracy is the best possible outcome, and the final exhausted death squelch of democracy in the United States (it had already been on life support for decades).

There’s so much I have to say about all of this, but there’s no real need for it here. I am disgusted by the white people—men, mostly, but a majority of women too—who supported this sputtering, slobbering monster, this racist misogynist clown who was born rich, spent his entire life showing open contempt for anyone lower on the social ladder, and then purported to represent ordinary Americans through a slogan so laughably stupid that even P.T. Barnum must be a little shocked that it worked. I’m appalled by the 81% of white evangelicals who supported a grinning sexual assaulter and showed they care more about fetuses than women, more about shaming the sexually active than making a better world. I guess it’s easier to legislate for the unborn—just come on out alive, then pray to Saint Herbert Spencer that you don’t die, until you do!—than to follow a Christlike way. If Barnum is probably laughing, Jesus must be pounding a final nail into his brain in despair, after seeing his message of love and socialism perverted for millennia until it finally helped spawn a leering Pharisee in his name. Continue reading

Newark’s Greatest Film at Fifty: Troublemakers (1966)



These are scenes from the documentary Troublemakers, which I would declare, without any hesitation, the greatest film to come out of Newark. It’s many things at once: a vivid, tangible portrayal of life in the struggling Clinton Hill neighborhood; a clinical examination of what happens when “an interracial movement of the poor” moves from theory (read the 1963 document co-authored by Tom Hayden, who led the Newark Community Union Project that’s featured in Troublemakers, here) to practice; an expose of the structures and political systems that maintain inequality in America; a rare and valuable archive of black women’s activism; and a stark analysis of the dead end reached when democracy breaks down. It is, to my mind, one of the great films of the 1960s, one of the clearest expressions of a Left cinema in America, and also a striking, visceral depiction of Newark. Better than any other film or writing, it explains why the uprising of July 1967 took place.

The only reason that I haven’t blogged about Troublemakers during my three years of Newark film-blogging is that I had greater designs, of writing a scholarly journal about it. I’ve done archival research in Newark, Wisconsin, and NYU, and interviewed its filmmakers, Robert Machover and Norm Fruchter, as well as several members of NCUP and the film crew. So, I do still hope to develop that into something more substantive.

But for the moment, this supersedes it: we’re doing a screening at Rutgers-Newark to mark its 50th anniversary, with Frucher and Machover there for a discussion!

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To my mind, this is a MAJOR film event, and I’m thrilled to be involved Continue reading

Juice in Newark: O.J.-Made in America (2016) and the Hertz ad campaign (1975)


One of the most exciting things about OJ: Made in America is that you can see our larger narratives shifting before your eyes: this isn’t the decontextualized story of Heismans and yards gained (we get those, but they’re not the center), but rather the life of O.J. Simpson writ against its real backdrop: Black Power and the athletes who supported it, from Muhammad Ali to John Carlos (but not, never, O.J.); LAPD violence from Watts to Eula Mae Love to Rodney King; the interplay of race, celebrity, and advertising that he navigated with as much if not more dexterity than he did the football field; and the ways the media, professional athletics, and even police collude to ignore and enable violence against women. Continue reading

The Sticky Floors of History at the Little Theater (Pornography in Newark, Part 4)


The other month I wrote an article for Vice about the Little Theater, Newark’s last and finest theatrical den of smut. It was nice to share the story of Newark’s rich sexual and cinematic subculture with a much wider audience than this humble blog reaches, but it came at the cost of paring things down to 1200 words, sacrificing some of the history I wanted to present. I get it: Vice readers might be interested in the fact that men are still attending porn theaters and curious about what goes on inside; they are less likely, collectively, to hold a deep interest in the Little Theater’s development from ethnic grindhouse to multicultural cruising spot or its role in Newark’s cultural history. Continue reading

Sidney Lumet’s Newark Pitstop: Find Me Guilty (2006)

To the best of my knowledge, Sidney Lumet only ever shot in Newark once, and not, lamentably enough, for his remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria (whose Newark Penn Station scene I wrote about here)–a remake whose omission of Cassavetes from the credits still perturbs me.

Instead, it was for this Vin Diesel mediocrity:


Now, I really enjoy Sidney Lumet as a filmmaker. I always think of him as the pre-Soderbergh, reined in by a classical Hollywood leash that prevented any wildly idiosyncratic swerves like Schizopolis or Bubble, but still committed to an almost experimental craftsmanship in his willingness, eagerness even, to jump genres. We tend to remember Lumet for his gritty NYC canon, but dude made westerns, musicals, a really good and overlooked British spy thriller (The Deadly Affair, y’all!), a romcom, etc.

Of course, they weren’t all good. Continue reading

Curt McDowell, with Love and Leather


I’ve just finished a feverish four-day run of attending “Loads of Curt McDowell” at the Anthology Film Archives, truly a cinematic highlight of 2016 for me; I love McDowell’s work, and much of it is near-impossible to see, hence the exhausting commitment. McDowell arguably captured the queer, freewheeling sexual currents of 1970s San Francisco better than any other filmmaker, and the features and shorts included in “Loads” range from outright smut to ethnography, surrealism to musical to melodrama. It’s a beautiful, dizzying mixture, and I’m posting this fast and artlessly in the hopes of inspiring someone, anyone, to go check out the series as most of it repeats in the next few days.

As well, I’m posting some documents I came across in the archive on the very days of the screenings, a serendipity too delicious to pass up: Continue reading