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archival experience I’ve ever had–they contain everything from early-1920s handwritten notes from T.S. Eliot to an unpublished Claude McKay novel!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.

Newark Hotel Microcinema: Blood and Love (2010) and Once in the Life (2000)

Bobby Guions has yet to find great acclaim as a filmmaker, but one title no one can deny him is this: dude is inarguably Newark’s foremost chronicler of hotel-based cinema. Namely, one hotel: the Divine Riviera (or as the place likes to call itself, in something of a disavowal of its rich if perhaps unprofitable history, simply the Hotel Riviera).

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When I saw his 2005 film Dinner with an Assassin, the historical resonance of the opening scene really grabbed me; I still love this shot so much that I’ll just go ahead and recycle it here:

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Guions’ 2010 follow-up Blood and Love is effectively a remake of Dinner, something of a baffling decision, since I’m not aware of the earlier film having been any sort of runaway smash success, but one that allows us to revisit the hotel and linger at even greater length on its interiors.

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I write that last sentence with love; I am a sucker for hotel films. I loved Last Year at Marienbad for years before I even saw it, having come across a description of its “baroque, lugubrious hotel” somewhere as a kid—still one of my favorite phrases in the history of language. From the bloated Hotel, birthed by that bizarre late-1960s moment when the La Brea tarpits threatened to overrun Hollywood and turn the studio lots into parking lots, when a pervasive feeling of barely latent dread added a layer of filmy sweat to all the sad, desperate cinema, to Jennifer Jason Leigh sneaking through the sordid hallways in the unjustly forgotten late-80s thriller Heart of Midnight, and past Paul Bartel’s perv-utopia Private Parts (1972) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dreamy recent Mekong Hotel, I love ‘em all. Okay, not Wim Wenders’ execrable Million Dollar Hotel, but I blame Bono for that and prefer to pretend it never happened; let’s discuss Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore instead, please. Or, hell, Psycho and its sequels, each of which I enjoy in their own steadily-decreasing way. I think it’s got something to do with the collective, drifting, anticipatory quality of being in a hotel, that liminal, always-in-between state they carry. That, or the ever-present undercurrent of voyeuristic prurience (certainly a staple of hotel cinema), wondering what’s going on behind that door.

Feverish reverie aside, Blood and Love must be the most pared-down hotel film since Chantal Akerman made Hotel Monterey with no people or dialogue or plot. Essentially the entire thing is set at the Riviera; an opening bathroom-assassination scene is technically set elsewhere, but I’m pretty sure it was shot on site, too.Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 5.31.33 PM

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After that, our antihero takes a new job: taking out “a target . . . a woman,” he’s told. When he sends a disaffected look, his new client asks, “Is that a problem?” Of course not; he’s a professional. “Good. I guess there isn’t room for emotions in your world. I kind of envy you,” client-dude replies, exactly the way people talk in the real world, setting the pay at ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Apparently Guions never saw Austin Powers.

In any case, our assassin slips into his target’s life, tailing her to the hotel where she’s staying and revealing that the daily labor of the hitman in 2010 involves such brilliantly unexpected and foolproof tactics as bugging the hotel lobby payphone.

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There’s a cold austerity to Guions’ mise-en-scene; where his earlier films Dinner with an Assassin and Moving Target had an energetic goofiness, this time the relentlessly bare-bones narrative and flat acting constantly threaten to simply collapse into incidental movement in what’s really, at its heart, a documentary about the feel of hotel space.

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…which is not a diss; Blood and Love may not achieve the action-movie velocity Guions presumably aspired to, but it taps into some of the same balmy, palpable sense of historicity that you get walking through unpopulated hallways of old and unfamiliar buildings.

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Like that—from when I got lost wandering the Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan last year en route to an interview. You can feel the lost time just looking at it.

Now, again, some Proustian sigh is probably not Guions’ intended effect. At a few points the film takes on the look and rhythm of those early-90s erotic thrillers about lust and surveillance, always with Andrew Stevens (or John Cassavetes’ son as a replacement for the {even more} budget-strained, before he got all classy as the director of things like The Notebook), and always shot indoors.

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But like his earlier films, Blood stays pretty chaste; it might look and feel like an exploitation film, but a vastly more demure one than its predecessors from the big-box VHS days. At the 46-minute mark, we finally get a second fight scene, and there’s a little desultory action at the conclusion, but the real climax is when Guions opens the film up geographically, taking us up to the hotel roof.

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Okay, we’ve been there before in Dinner with an Assassin, but no kidding, it’s a little breathtaking when the claustrophobia lifts (and actually a little reminiscent of when Chantal Akerman’s camera reaches the top of the Hotel Monterey and suddenly presents us with a New York City skyline shot in her own hotel film). We just get ever so slight a Newark skyline this time.

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Of the plot, there isn’t much to say. “My life didn’t start till I met you,” Drake the Assassin tells Gail the Target, once they inevitably fall into not-quite-torrid romance. Meeting him where he stands, she declares back, “I have no one, no place to call home.” A random tossed-in bad guy—Assassin of Lapsed Assassins, let us call him—gets to deliver the line, “Drake, I’m coming for you,” which made me burst into applause. It all ends poorly for the client . . . and perhaps for others, though I won’t spoil it.

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Sadly, Blood and Love does not seem to have found much of an audience. I don’t think it ever got picked up for real distribution (you can buy a DIY DVD-R or stream it on Amazon), and reviews are few and not terribly flattering. I assume by remaking Dinner with a white cast, Guions was trying to break out of the ghettoization of black cinema that continues to mark our deeply racist society, and stars Peter Burke and Gabrielle Loneck are attractive and endearing enough; though neither have gone on to do much, it’s easy to picture him as the Christian Grey stand-in a Fifty Shades knockoff. The audience he was almost surely not trying to draw was the sort of pedantic wanker who might describe their spectatorial practices as “paracinematic,” but, well, here I am.

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Perhaps because it never opens up even as much as Dinner did, Blood and Love is imbued with a lesser sense of specifically Newark history proper, though it is almost certainly the definitive film of record on the inside of the city’s most historic hotel. Certainly it engages with the Riviera more substantively than another film shot (in part) there, Laurence Fishburne’s Once in the Life, the actor’s debut—and thus-far swansong—as director.

Fishburne swings for Spike Lee—witness the doing-of-the-right-thing title sequence—

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–but lands firmly in the glut of post-Pulp Fiction mediocre crime dramas. Think Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, or that awful Flypaper flick that I hadn’t thought of in over a decade until ransacking my mind for the perfect comparison point.

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Okay, that’s a little harsh; it’s a heartfelt film about loyalty, brotherhood, and addiction, based on Fishburne’s own play and possessed of some powerful scenes that don’t look like third-rate Tarantino lifts. But for all that, alas, not only is most of the film shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn, making it somewhat incidental to my Newark-film blogging, but on the director’s commentary track, Fishburne simply mutters once about “Jersey.” Ah, New York solipsism, you persevere even as your city slides into an unlivably expensive and utterly uninteresting eight-million-person boutique cupcake shop. That said, Fishburne grabs some nice shots.

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Anyway, Fishburne does set a brief scene at the Hotel Riviera, though it’s not particularly clear whether it’s diegetically set in Newark or he just got a bargain on shooting permits. Note the renaming, hmmm…

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Of course, Fishburne having been in The Matrix and Bobby Guions being a local independent, it’s no surprise that it’s his film the actual hotel capitalizes on—though to what impact, I am unsure. In any case, there’s memorabilia in the lobby:

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There’s also a tribute to Father Divine and his wife. The desk clerk noted that there are also some historical artifacts stored on site but not immediately available. I wrote more about the history of the hotel in regard to Dinner with an Assassin, and at the back of my brain I can’t help thinking it would be a really cool event to do a film screening with Guions for a Q&A, followed by an historical panel and exhibition of whatever Father Divine-related material is stored there. Of course, it might also appeal to an audience of one, but if anyone wants to run with the idea, have at it.

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Also, Fishburne might get the poster in the lobby, but hey! That’s the phonebooth from Blood and Love!

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And to conclude, a brief photo montage of the Divine Hotel Riviera, Newark’s most cinematic hotel:

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Spectral Jayne Mansfield in Newark: Single Room Furnished (1966/1968)

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It’s like 24 Edward Hoppers per second as Jayne Mansfield takes a late-night urban stroll here. I’d love to locate this scene in Newark, to use it as an argument for a romantic approach to the city that is almost never taken by its various cultural representations. IMDB even lists a sole location for Single Room Furnished, and it’s the ol’ NWK.

Alas, I don’t think this is Newark. Single Room has a convoluted production history, sutured into the very structure of its bizarre opening, in which one distributor logo (Crown International, they of the delightful “drive-n cult classics” full of suburban lust and ennui, and occasional straight-up surrealism) is followed by an awkward introduction from the ever-slimy Walter Winchell (!!), and then after that another logo, before the opening credits.

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Most of the film is a mutating kitchen-sink drama in which Mansfield plays three roles, or perhaps rather some multifaceted Eternal Feminine thing of the sort that always seems to be projected by male authors: a working-class teenager, a sultry Southern belle gone to seed, and what kinda seems like Mandy Moore circa 2004.

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All of this transpires in the settiest of all sets, a series of drab sterile backdrops conspicuous only in their lifelessness, like the movie was shot after hours at a third-rate TV studio with most of the set props locked in storage. Which, maybe it was (it was based on a play, and remains trapped in stage-to-screen stiffness); as far as I can put together the backstory, it was filmed in 1966 but interrupted by Mansfield’s tragic auto-accident death, after which it was clumsily padded out with . . .

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. . . a nearly unbearable 20-minute sequence at Port Newark.

I was so excited to hit verifiable Newark, and a rarely filmed section of the city too, that I jammed a five-minute clip from this into the Newark Movie Mixtape last year, and you could feel it suck the life out of the crowd. Charlie and Flo, two characters who bear the narrative weight of having suddenly and jarringly displaced Jayne Mansfield mid-movie, make painfully awkward and protracted attempts at flirtation with a level of ineptitude unseen since my own adolescence.

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Highlights include Charlie qualifying a statement about the effects of saltwater on the skin with “not that you got a leathery face, Flo, not at all.” When they make goo-goo eyes over the question of whether fish stink, he notes, “maybe we don’t smell so good to them either.” “I bet you coulda been a poet,” Flo swoons. Well, maybe a guest on Dr. Demento, at least.

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We reach a fever pitch of desire when Flo asks, “Charlie, where do clouds come from?” It’s like Marty crossed with the Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles.”

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In any case, the film’s Newark coverage is limited to the port, Newark Bay Bridge in the background, and “Rock Point,” which I’m not sure about. Later Charlie and Flo try a date, sort of, at which she gifts him…

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…a dead fish. Which does indeed stink. “Guess it defosted in my purse,” Flo sheepishly explains. I got nothin’.

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I won’t spoil the outcome of their blossoming smelly romance, but at one point Mansfield walks by. Or rather “Mansfield,” since it’s like a less convincing version of the posthumous Bruce Lee in Game of Death, head turned rigorously away from camera, driving home the space between Jayne Mansfield and the Newark shooting (though Mansfield herself was a regular in town back in the 50s, before urban renewal razed the swinging nightlife scene she partook of with Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason, Abbot & Costello and other stars, as documented in Michael Immerso’s book about Newark’s Little Italy, the “Vanished First Ward”).

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This is where things get a bit unclear to me–even Wikipedia can’t piece together the film’s chronology, claiming it was briefly released in 1966, pulled, then “officially” distributed in 1968, in one of those classic “citation needed” moments. I assume it was doctored in the interim, with the Newark stuff crammed in; this shot sure looks posthumous. It’s presumably a solvable question, but not one I have the mojo for right now (further info welcomed, BTW).

Things get all intense, or at least tragic, back in the star’s narrative, after this grueling interlude. We even get a gun.

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Then it’s finally over—a long 93 minutes.

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Though poor Mansfield would of course depart the Silver Screen with her untimely passing, director Matteo Ottaviano, something of a grindhouse Gatsby, would refashion himself Matt Cimber and leave a zany cinematic legacy. We’re done with Newark here, but if you’ll indulge me a quick survey:

After Single Room Furnished, he first helped bring hardcore pornography to American screens, with some of the pioneering “white-coaters,” Man and Wife and He and She (both 1970). I find the genre unspeakably dull, but it was a necessary framework in establishing the (totally non-prurient!) “socially redeeming value” that obscenity doctrine of the era mandated. From there, Cimber backslid into softcore, with a now-lost 1971 VD-comedy (!) adaptation of La Ronde that’s documented on the always-reliable Temple of Schlock. Another lost film (maybe never finished) from a few years later brought Harrad Experiment author Robert Rimmer back to the screen. But by then, Cimber had moved into the blaxploitation market, like Candy Tangerine Man (1975), tale of a Hollywood pimp with a double life as a middle-class suburbanite, which has fantastic location shooting in the dirty old Sunset Strip and would make a great double-bill with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (which was shot right down the street and nearly concurrently, in what Cimber calls “sleazetown” in an interesting little interview).

His dreamlike 1975 psychological horror film The Witch Who Came from the Sea has striking scenes of female desire that still leave a certain breed of grindhouse-lulz bros uncomfortable (I walked out of a screening at Exhumed’s annual 12-hour marathon a few years ago when the opening scene of Millie Perkins seriously scoping out exercising men on the beach generated too many loud yuks from the crowd, who were clearly going to watch it as camp and thus kill its mood; still irritated by that–and from a generally respectful crowd, too, which is hard to read as anything but an expression of some gendered dude-anxieties {which the film helps amplify–the beach scene is merely a start}). Definitely recommended.

Anyway, by the 1980s Cimber took a turn for the turgid—dreary fantasy/action flicks, and a drab bid for the mainstream with the Mario Puzo adaptation A Time to Die (1982), which has all the panache of a TV miniseries and a score that Ennio Morricone might have composed in his sleep. I will rep for the notorious Stacey Keach/Pia Zadora/Orson Welles incest bomb Butterfly (1982), which I can’t help but enjoy (based on a James Cain novel, after all), and also the same year’s pairing of Zadora and Telly Savalas go-nowhere Vegas flick Fake-Out (Nevada Heat in its dollar-store DVD incarnation), an unlikely remake of Cimber’s own blaxploitation film Lady Cocoa (1975).

At a certain point, Cimber turned his attention to TV, where he created GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, before returning to film for the 2006 Holocaust drama Miriam, which earned a few unfavorable reviews (check the opening line at the Village Voice!), before apparently disappearing from the face of the earth (yes, I tried to see it; probably for the best that I failed).

And to think that it all began (sort of) in Newark!

Postscript: this film seemed to haunt me for a while, as when I went into a random South Philly thrift store last year and saw this. RIP, Ms. Mansfield, clearly you left a mark on this world…

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Ferguson/Newark/Gender (/Chicago/Brooklyn/etc.): a semester of smut and symposia

Oh dear: we’re a fourth of the way through 2015, and I haven’t posted a damn thing; it’s an internet desert up in here.

The reality is, I’ve just been overwhelmed to the point where blogging, the whole point of which is to be a fun mode of writing (in contrast to the soul-killing slog of generating publishable scholarly prose—or maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve had a few rejections lately and had thus toiled fruitlessly on the apparently unpublishable), has felt more like a burden. But I also have a backlog of Newark films to write about, so here’s a clearing of the pipes, mostly an excuse to post some cool images.

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We kicked off this semester at Women’s & Gender Studies by bringing Pop-Up Museum of Queer History founder Hugh Ryan and Vice photo editor Matt Leifheit to Newark to discuss the life and art of David Wojnarowicz—a great presentation that finally got me reading the copy of Wojnarowicz’s book Closer to the Knives, which I’ve had sitting around for nearly a decade.

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Then there was my run of smut-related events. I was honored to have an essay (“Queer Smut, Queer Rights”—okay, kind of on the nose, but I must have been in a terse and bitter state when I wrote it) in this new collection, New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, edited by Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant, with great pieces by people I really dig, like Carolyn Bronstein and Mireille Miller-Young. Lynn and Shira have been getting the word out in ways that put my own pathetic promotional efforts to shame, including a nice interview (albeit one saddled with an awful clickbait title—though isn’t everything these days) in Salon.

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I also got to venture to DePaul University in Chicago to give a talk sponsored by the American Studies Department, which had a poster I loved dearly and was the first time I’ve ever been introduced with a reference to OMGcatrevolution, courtesy department chair Amy Tyson.

Next, I participated in a panel, “Documenting Sex: Passionate Collections,” at the NYC Porn Film Festival in Brooklyn. Our discussion of archives may have lacked the flair of the Tila Tequila sex video (also screening at the fest!), but it drew a surprisingly packed house, with a cool and engaged crowd, so kudos to Richard John Jones for planning and executing a rockin’ series. Also, there was a fun article about it in Brokelyn, with one of the only pictures of myself I’ve ever liked. Mostly because of Priapus letting his stuff hang out above us.

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(Apparently the Godz of Lulz have spoken, since we also made it into Mashable, with another delightful shot, albeit one that forces a certain contrast between physique models and panelists):

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For reasons beyond my comprehension—okay, “filling dead air,” I believe—radio station NJ101 interviewed me about why New Jerseyans looked at so much porn during a snow day. I mean, I spend my time in archives and have no idea why people do anything, but I tried. “Maybe people in New Jersey were more disappointed by the failed snowstorm and needed something to compensate” was the best I could do.

(Finally, thanks to a Google Alert that rarely goes off, I also got to see my debut in the Latino media, in an article about average penis size. Okay, it just quotes something bland I said to the Temple student newspaper several years ago, but whatever, I was all, “hey, I’m famous” for a good fourteen seconds).

One thing that brought me great delight was collaborating with Women-in-Media Newark, which ran a remarkable Women’s History Month film series (as they do every year). I had long hoped to do a screening of Janie’s Janie, the early 70s feminist documentary that I wrote about a few years ago, and last year we were set to do it with W-I-M and the Ironbound Community Corporation (whose origins are documented a bit in the film), until a really unfortunate fire at the ICC derailed it. So kudos to Pamela Morgan at W-I-M for sticking with the idea, because the series opened with this at Aljira in downtown Newark, and drew a big, enthused, eclectic crowd. Everyone from Janie’s daughters to the singer of the theme song (who performed it!) was there, and I introduced the film and moderated a panel with Peter Barton, the co-director, Nancy Zak from the ICC, and artist Alyson Pou. The whole thing was pretty exhilarating.

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Lastly, the WGS symposium: Ferguson/Newark/Gender had been planned for early March, then canceled because of a tragically misplaced snowstorm. It was a colossal bummer—presenters had flown out from Pittsbugh, L.A., and elsewhere, and the non-event was heartbreaking.

It took some serious juggling, and not everyone was able to make it back, but we still held a rescheduled version yesterday. Check that amazing poster, courtesy Christina Strasburger and Eric Ortiz.

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I’m hardly neutral here, but I thought it was pretty great. Nyle Fort and Darnell Moore offered brilliant comments on the need to expand current resistance narratives beyond police brutality to the less visible, but daily, state violence against people of color, with Moore pushing the crowd to really begin imagining how a liberated black future might even look. On the second panel, Elizabeth Parker from the Puerto Rican Community Archives at the Newark Public Library spoke on the politics of preservation and historical memory, I talked about a lost gay left in Newark that hasn’t been written about much, and Kwame Holmes delivered a fascinating new analysis of the sexual politics of urban crisis and riots, which left black sexuality itself trapped in a structural queering of sorts. I’m not doing justice to the complexity of any of this (there’s some great live-Tweeting of it courtesy Andy Lester at the Rutgers-Newark WGS Twitter), but my head is still spinning from it all. It was an honor to be involved with such important activists and scholars, and I’m profoundly grateful we were able to pull this off after the disheartening cancellation last month.

Some pics, courtesy Tim Stewart-Winter (who generously moderated the second panel):

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And with that, I’m caught up at last–Newark film blogging to resume shortly, finally!

Prelude to a 33 1/3 Book That Wasn’t: The Insane Clown Posse, The Great Milenko

A couple of years ago, Mary Rizzo and I, caught up in a fleeting obsessive fervor for the Insane Clown Posse, decided to pitch a book to the 33 1/3 series. It wasn’t my first try; I’d pitched Terrorizer’s foundational 1989 grindcore album World Downfall as a forgotten social history of 1980s Los Angeles in 2007, probably mostly because I was living in Miami at the time, sad, and missing L.A. That one got nowhere (deservedly, I’m pretty sure); this time we made the long shortlist (which drew a few snarky comments, including one that insisted the book better be written by actual Juggalos), before being cut (for a list that I must confess still strikes me as pretty bland).

I’m not sure whether the below intro is any good or not; glancing back over it now, parts seem kinda rote and others maybe pretty swell. To put it in context, we knocked it out over two extended happy hours, not really expecting it to get even as far as it got. Maybe we made it to academic-ey, though that seemed the direction 33 1/3 was going. Probably real Juggalos would have been pissed as hell at two posers narrating their scene–though I still think the book would have reached a new audience for the series.

In any case, I figured, what the hell, I’ve been too busy to really blog lately, so why not post this instead of letting it rot away on my hard drive? Thus, voila: the introduction and book proposal for our would-have-been volume on The Great Milenko, sent out 4/30/12, responded to with really commendable speed, and ultimately rejected quite politely and humanely by publishing director David Barker–so kudos to the 33 1/3 folks, even though it didn’t work out. Please forgive the wonky spacing–it’s pasted from a Word document, and WordPress for some reason adds spacing. Without further ado:

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The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 Introduction: What is a Juggalo?

It had been five years since the “Cop Killer” controversy, nearly fifteen since Tipper Gore first heard Prince’s female-masturbation fantasies in “Darling Nikki,” hell, forty since Elvis first swiveled those hips, and in 1997 the media needed a new source of moral outrage.

Wearing demented clown makeup, their legions of fans assuming an identity as Juggalos, the Insane Clown Posse (ICP), a cartoonish KISS-by-way-of-GWAR rap duo created by Detroit natives Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, better known as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, had become the folk devils du jour, with everyone from Bill O’Reilly to indignant music critics complaining about the violence and misogyny in their lyrics.

The critics were not wrong, exactly. By track three of The Great Milenko, their major-label debut and defining album, the ICP had already “fucked three fat bitches,” by their own account. Bodies fell, sometimes decapitated, sometimes blasted by gunfire, as when Violent J encountered a hostile sheriff in “Piggy Pie.” “I grabbed a shotgun/and blew his fuckin’ tongue out the back of his cranium,” our narrator proudly recounts. Later on in the album, J and Shaggy explain their wooing tactics in a dating-show skit. It differed a bit from the old dating manuals; “to get your attention in the crowded place,” Shaggy offered to his paramour, “I’d simply walk up and stick my nuts in your face.”

So why would Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of family-friendly Disney, release the album and then pull it from shelves almost immediately? Clearly, aesthetic merit was neither the goal nor the significance of The Great Milenko. Yet as a cultural document, it tapped into social strains of great magnitude, especially racial tensions and class fault lines that go overlooked if the canon of 90s music reduces to the favorites of the tastemaking classes.

Beneath the cartoonish imagery and childlike obsession with nutsacks and flatulence, the ICP used rap to express the frustrations of the dispossessed white working-class youth. With their faces painted as clowns, and their stage effects centered around shaken soda, the ICP was able to cohere a subculture that associated so completely with the group’s lyrics, mien, and ideology that they defined themselves through a new identity—Juggalo, suggestive of the mysterious magician-jester figure whose shiny metallic visage leered at the listener through its one non-bruised eye on the album’s cover art.

The Insane Clown Posse sprayed their audiences with Faygo, the cheap Detroit soda pop that made Pepsi appear a marker of class status in comparison. The Great Milenko even sounded like Faygo, sticky sweet and sugary, revved up on its clanging guitar chords that hung in the air for measures on end, fizzy keyboards that never washed across the mix but erupted out of it like unseemly belches, carbonated with huge airy drums that would have done a hair-metal ballad proud. The ICP had cranked out four albums now since their first EP in 1992 sounded as if it had been recorded in mud, and producer Mike Clark pulled out all the stops this time, polishing the sonics in a bid for the brass ring.

The group needed all the studio polish it could get, because nobody would confuse Shaggy or J for skilled rappers. With flat rhymes and delivery, the ICP’s appeal was not the verbal dexterity of a young Chuck D or the fire-spitting vocal urgency of Ice Cube. “Back like a vertebrae,” J declared early on Milenko; the metaphors more or less ended there. That left puerile rhymes about bodies and hygiene; mulling over the question “What is a Juggalo,” Shaggy offered, “A fucking lunatic/Somebody with a rope tied to his dick/Then he jumps out a ten-story window/Ohhhhhhhhh.” Perhaps the hanging open vowel proved too tricky; the verse ended there.
Nevermind, it was not, nor Me Against the World; Loveless or Bee Thousand either. The ICP spoke not to the experiences of the hip, college-educated kids and critics who attended CMJ, listened through lo-fi fuzz to basement 4-trackers, and cheered on Buffalo Tom’s appearance on My So-Called Life. Instead, it hailed the kids raised in trailer parks, whose anger and frustration would make Korn and its nu-metal imitators huge—the kids who cast their first votes for Jesse Ventura as Minnesota gubernatorial candidate not because he represented a third-party challenge to the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of the fake two-party system, but because he used to wrestle for the WWF. In short, the primarily white kids who didn’t feel much benefit from the “wages of whiteness” that maintained racial hierarchies across American history. We like to think of the 1990s as a witty, urbane decade, with Jerry Seinfeld’s neurotic irony, Ross wooing Rachel, Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of sex. The ICP’s Dark Carnival was the decade’s dark underbelly.

The story of the Insane Clown Posse is the story of postindustrial whiteness at the end of the last century, a movement that lives and dies in the Midwestern towns that are coastally ignored as fly-over land, the Rust Belt corpse of what once called itself the Heartland. Other bands emerge from key music-industry cities like L.A. and NYC, or suddenly-hip ones like Seattle or Omaha; in Milenko’s liner notes, the ICP gave “props to the clown towns”: Cleveland, Flint, Toledo, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Grand Rapids, and the thriving metropolis of Grass Lake, Iowa. A sadder cartography of urban decline could hardly be charted. The rock canon historically fetishizes certain iterations of working-class white masculinity, from Elvis through Springsteen through the Drive-By Truckers. Overlooked and erased are the “bad subjects” that scholars John Hartigan and Matt Wray analyze as “white trash,” those figures who exist at most as the objects of scorn or ridicule, but mostly go unremarked upon, passed over in embarrassed silence. Dreadlocked and mealy-mouthed, the ICP embodied white trash as precisely as any given guest on the much-maligned Jerry Springer Show.

For a generation of hip, progressive, underground rockers and scenesters, this was the era of riot-grrrl, of third-wave sex-positive queer feminism. Kathleen Hanna, agent provocateur of that movement from its early zines to its defining band, Bikini Kill, reclaimed language constantly in her fiery harangues of the sexist patriarchy. Fat bitches needed empowerment and self-love, not the slimy gropes of some assholes in facepaint. In this world, the ICP was the enemy.

Fifteen years later, however, the lines would be redrawn, as a culture of voraciously commodified amnesia devoured the 1990s as nostalgia. Relocated to New York City from rainy Olympia, kitschified through her post-Bikini Kill band Le Tigre, in 2012 Kathleen Hanna helped design the set for a performance-art piece about the ICP and white masculinity staged in Greenwich Village, bastion of hipness since Norman Mailer had first fantasized about becoming a White Negro a half-century ago. Violent J and Shaggy were suddenly hip, or at least hip jokes. Jack White recorded a song with them (co-written by Mozart, why not!), and the video for the song “Miracles,” off their 2009 album Bang! Pow! Boom!, had become an internet meme, featuring, as it did, questions about basic science, including how magnets worked.

What had happened? Well, a lot, including two decades of neoliberal depoliticization of both the proletarian and educated classes. A central contention of this book is that The Great Milenko, as an album, contains both the tensions of 1997 and those of 2012. It speaks to uncertainties and anxieties about race, culture, and class; that it does so in a discernibly less articulate manner than, say, The Coup or Bruce Springsteen or even fellow white Detroit rapper Eminem, makes it no less significant as a cultural text and document. A million people bought it. When they listened, they heard no directly political messages in a conventional sense; Shaggy was no Rage Against the Machine telling them to join the Zapatistas. Yet the messages that they heard were compelling, speaking to a sense of disfranchisement, couched in caricatured tales of violence without hope and a mythology of death and despair.

From bad subjects to snicker-behind-the-back hipster icons, the ICP trace the cultural discourse about whiteness, working-class identity and postindustrial life. Not that the ICP or the Juggalo Nation gives a fuck about that. For their legions of fans, the ICP is a family, a term that must be understood within the cultural politics that spawned the group—Detroit in the 1990s, gasping for air and jobs in the wake of the giant sucking sound of factories racing out of town; the nation since Reagan, as “family values” reigned supreme, spearheading a reactionary, intolerant political agenda that attacked the ICP even as it mirrored many of their ideals. Expecting and receiving no less than complete loyalty, they asked, “How long will the Juggalos be down with me?” The appropriate answer: “Down with the clown till I’m dead in the ground.”

At its inception, the ICP feebly attempted to locate itself within gangsta rap culture, originally standing for Inner City Posse, only later arriving at Insane Clown Posse. If theirs was a failed whiteness, it was also a failed blackness, a confused hybrid of racialized tropes, which fit with Detroit’s particular location, in which working-class whites and blacks lived cheek by jowl, reacting to the same macroeconomic processes that shipped their jobs overseas. It was no utopia; race riots greeted the Great Migration that first sent black workers into the city seeking jobs and an escape from brutal Southern white supremacy during World War II; they recurred when the promises of the Great Society in the 1960s remained mere promises and the dream deferred indeed exploded. The Great Milenko rarely addresses these tensions directly, but is haunted by them throughout in songs that speak the exhausted frustrations of folk who live in the Kafkaesque web of bureaucracy, where a parking ticket takes hours out of a workday to deal with, and where the power dynamics are understood best in simple expressions of us and them: the rich and the poor. Black and white go unspoken but everpresent, if perpetually confused. Even the album’s title obliquely echoes Milliken v. Bradley, the infamous 1974 Supreme Court decision that severed the suburbs from the inner city, effectively killing the promises of Brown v. Board of Education by blocking metropolitan school desegregation forever. Milliken came from Detroit.

In fact, racial categories were more confused in the 1990s than an increasingly “color-blind” society was willing or capable of admitting. Nobel Prize-winning African American novelist Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton America’s “first Black president.” Yet while he knew how to pander to a Baptist church, this “New Democrat” destroyed the lives of untold single mothers, disproportionately young Black women, as he “ended welfare as we know it”—a brutal new economic regime that Republicans had long aspired to. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” Clinton’s campaign anthem insisted—but Fleetwood Mac’s heady coke dreams were rapidly giving way to Midwestern meth-teeth and inner city mass incarceration; “tomorrow” was a mandatory minimum and a job at Wal-Mart. With the party that once represented poor and working-class hopes rapidly disintegrating into GOP-lite, political apathy seemed reasonable. Hip-hop scholar Eithne Quinn notes the shift from militant, political gangsta rap of the late 1980s to passive G-funk by the mid-90s. Politics had to be articulated obliquely; the old systems and structures no longer made sense.

This was the sociopolitical context as J and Shaggy cultivated their fanbase. Fascinatingly, and a clue to their ability to inculcate devotion in listeners, the ICP squarely places themselves on the side of the losers, the powerless, the weak. The Dark Carnival is not only the expression of a Juggalo mythology, but the Bakhtinian inversion of the social order. The low will rule. The weak have power. The ICP acknowledges and affirms this age-old social desire. The fact that their devotees listen to their every word is the secret reason for the fear they engender. Their lyrics are no worse than their contemporaries, but the fact that they can get people to listen. That’s the issue.

Mea culpa: We are not Juggalos. We are simply interested in listening to and taking seriously the voices of this subculture and placing this phenomenon within the sociocultural ruptures and all-too-elided angers of its time and place. Unlike most authors in the 33 1/3 series, we do not claim masterpiece status for The Great Milenko. What we do claim is cultural significance, and we insist that the two claims not be conflated, as they all too often are.

That said, it must be noted that in 2011 when we saw the ICP perform at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, it rocked. Like, totally, balls to the wall. Faygo-spiked hair, nearly getting stomped on in a mosh pit, ninja-ninja-chants ringing in our ears, rocked.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Provisional Table of Contents

 

Intro: What is a Juggalo?

With their fourth album, 1997’s The Great Milenko, rap duo the Insane Clown Posse shifted into the national spotlight when it was quickly dropped by its major label due to its descriptions of violence and profanity. But for the legions of ICP fans, known as Juggalos, Milenko further crystallized the subculture, as suggested in the track, “What is a Juggalo?” “What is a juggalo?” asks the pair, and then answers, “He ain’t a bitchboy/He’ll walk through the hills/And beat down a rich boy.” Creating an identity around this music, the song defined the band’s major themes: a bitter comedic sense of social marginalization that is soothed through connection with others in the same position. Yet, such desires were married to homophobic and misogynistic lyrics that generated media outrage, which helped to obscure the larger social significance of the ICP during a time of urban disinvestment and political abandonment as the working class was largely written off by both major parties. Introducing the group and album, this opening chapter lays out the major themes of the book.

 

Ch. 1: The Cultural Politics of Postindustrial Whiteness, or How Many Times?

In “How Many Times,” the Insane Clown Posse offers a repetitive mantra that speaks the frustrations of the white working class in response to life’s small, daily indignities. From dealing with bureaucratic red tape to being panhandled, the song adopts the point of view of those who failed to share in the purported prosperity of the economic rebound of the 1990s. At the same time, omitted from a Black narrative of urban decline and cultural opposition expressed through rap and hip-hop, the white working class amassed anger over its sense of disfranchisement with little political outlet. Few places could be a better setting for this kind of cultural expression than Detroit, Michigan, its deindustrialized landscape a physical reminder of these broken social contracts. This chapter locates the ICP within the context of postindustrial Detroit, tracing the rise of the band from its inception as the Inner City Posse through early releases like Beverly Kills 50187, and on to the culminating release of The Great Milenko, its major label bid for national recognition.

 

Ch. 2: “Family” Values:

When discussing the relationship between the ICP and their fans, each party uses the same word: family. Utilizing various methods to create a Juggalo world, including albums, low-rent spectacles at their shows, comic books, a wrestling federation and the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, known as the Juggalo Woodstock, the band is clearly tapping into a deeply felt need for social connection that undergirds all subcultures. However, the use of the word family to describe this group in the midst of 1990s discourse around “family values” is telling. Positioned against both the Christian cultural conservatism of groups like Focus on the Family, which privileged one monolithic blood-and-marriage vision of “the family,” and the cynical, ironic appropriation of the nu-metal Family Values music festival tour, the ICP uses family sincerely and emotionally. This self-selected, supposedly open community offers its members connection to others, but does so through replication of the gender and sexual hierarchies of the wider society. The ICP’s admittedly problematic homophobia and misogyny have received an inordinate amount of media attention, with pundits like Bill O’Reilly railing against the group. Yet, this ignores the larger social world in which the ICP’s family rhetoric exists. On “Down With the Clown,” J and Shaggy virtually beg listeners to pledge Juggalo loyalty until they’re “dead in the ground.” Cartoonish and inane as Milenko sounded to outsiders, its verses, skits, and carnival mythology resonated deeply with its fans, who enthusiastically made the pledge. Looking beyond the knee-jerk dismissals and admittedly accurate and necessary critiques from progressive opponents and critics governed by conventional aesthetic rubrics, this chapter reconstructs the affective investments solicited by Milenko for its actual fans.

 

Ch. 3: Juggalo Nation

When we spoke with a 31-year old man with “Juggalo” tattooed on the back of his neck outside a Philadelphia Psychopathic Records show starring Twiztid, we asked what had gotten him into the ICP. “When the label tried to get rid of The Great Milenko, I had to hear it” was his response. The album crystallized the group’s self-positioning as anti-corporate rebels, who pioneered a DIY movement that looked nothing like the monopoly on “DIY” that punk claimed for itself. Yet as the Juggalo juggernaut evolved into a branded empire marketing everything from shoes to the ICP’s two feature films (one a western!), a more unexpected shift transpired: the ICP went from the most hated band in the world to being welcomed into the inner sanctums of hipsterdom. From performance art pieces about the band to the near-daily “discovery” of the ICP by another freelance journalist, the ICP’s place in the popular cultural hierarchy has seemingly been reversed. In this concluding chapter, we consider the relationship between these two trajectories which began with The Great Milenko—the national growth of the ICP’s fanbase and the cultural upcycling of its image. Questions of cultural and social capital undergird both, as the fans hold their outsider status as a badge of honor while the cognoscenti embrace white working-class culture to prove their cultural capital.

Approximate date of completion: one year from contract.

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Marketing Plan

Given the recent upsurge of interest in the Insane Clown Posse outside its fan base—from Saturday Night Live’s parody of the band’s viral video for the song “Miracles,” to a partnership with Jack White—we feel that our book would have a wide range of potential readers, including those who have heard of the band, but don’t know much about it; those who are interested in studies of whiteness, class and postindustrialism; and, we hope, fans of the band and its music, which, as we show, is a large and extremely loyal subculture.

Both authors would be willing to promote the book vigorously. Academic conferences, especially the Popular Culture Association, American Cultural Association, the Experience Music Project, and the American Studies Association would be venues to engage readers who are both scholars and educated music consumers. Strub and Rizzo have both presented extensively at such conferences and are confident that they would be able to organize panels or lectures at these national meetings. Additionally, targeting specific Midwestern regional association meetings, such as the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference, would be a useful way to reach a base of readers who may be drawn to the geographic focus of the book, which considers working-class whiteness within the specific location of the greater Detroit area.

As this suggests, we see this book as having potential interest for college-level classes, especially those in American Studies, cultural studies, contemporary American history and sociology. For example, Rizzo, who has taught American Popular Arts and Public Life, 1940-Present several times at the University of Minnesota, as well as Gender and Popular Culture at The College of New Jersey, would use this book in these classes as a case study that shows how popular culture can be a window into contemporary issues of whiteness, class and masculinity.

Strub, a former music critic for Popmatters, would utilize his connections to this site to have the book reviewed. Strub is also an active participant in online music message boards, another means through which to bring the book to the attention of an ideal audience: individuals who are already interested in music writing.

Rizzo, with her expertise in nonprofit event organizing, would use her national connections, gained through her current work in the public humanities and public history, to promote events at cultural centers, universities, bookstores, record shops, libraries and elsewhere, where both authors would discuss the book. We feel that such events, spread throughout the northeast where the authors currently live, and the Midwest, where both authors have lived previously, would be an ideal method of connecting the book to academics who would be encouraged to utilize it in their classes and with general readers interested in music.

The authors are also interested in promoting this book through Juggalo websites and events. Having begun the process of interviewing fans of the band, we expect that we would be able to connect with the expansive infrastructure that Juggalos have created. From Juggalobook, which is a Facebook for ICP fans, to several band fan pages on Facebook, the opportunities to interact with the band’s most ardent listeners are extensive.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Relevant Competing Books

With titles like ICP: Behind the Paint and Insane Clown Posse and Their Dark Carnival, the few books that would directly compete with ours can be summarized as biographies geared for fans. Their focus is the personal stories of Violent J, who wrote Behind the Paint, and Shaggy 2 Dope, as well as the band’s rise from Detroit to national fame. While such books get rave reviews from Juggalos on Amazon, they are not likely to be read by a broader audience, or, certainly, to be assigned in college classes (indeed, Behind the Paint is nearly 600 pages long and mainly available through Hatchet Gear, the Insane Clown Posse’s online store).

 

The Great Milenko, however, brings a critical cultural and historical perspective to the diverse sources we use to tell our story, including media coverage, historical artifacts and interviews with fans and, we hope, members of the Insane Clown Posse. In this regard, our work is more likely to be seen as a complement to other cultural studies music analysis. Wayne State University Press’ MC5 Sonically Speaking: A Tale of Rock ‘n Roll (2010) and The Stooges Head On: A Journey Through the Michigan Underground (2011) both examine influential Michigan rock bands and their relationships with the tumultuous political and social milieus of the 1960s and 1970s. Our book would proceed similarly, centering the Insane Clown Posse and The Great Milenko within their geography and historical context, while also carefully attending to the album itself, from lyrics to sonic texture.

More broadly speaking, we see this book situated within the field of whiteness studies, which, as a growing body of literature, attends to the historical construction of white identity. Matt Wray’s Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006), for instance, shows the mutual constitution of racial and class identity, and informs our analysis. Particularly useful is the work of John Hartigan who, as an anthropologist, has productively studied the lived experience of poor whites in Detroit in books including Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999) and Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (2005). With this specific geographic context, Hartigan’s work undergirds our understanding of the meaning given to the Insane Clown Posse in the city of its birth, and with its legions of fans.

As a rap group, the Insane Clown Posse has to also be understood within the history of hip hop culture, in many ways the defining soundtrack of America since the 1990s. Excellent academic works such as Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (2004) by Eithne Quinn, inform our method. Quinn’s book is a multifaceted exploration of the politics and economics of gangsta rap through the figures of several of its most famous musicians. Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005), is a more popularly written work, but with its extraordinary breadth, traces the development of hip hop out of the Bronx in the 1970s into its ascendance as mass popular culture. Yet even in this definitive history, the Insane Clown Posse is not mentioned (though, it should be noted, a number of rappers have performed at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, including Ice Cube, Method Man & Redman, and Busta Rhymes, suggesting the group’s desired connections with the culture). As white rappers, however, with a primarily white audience, the ICP hasn’t received attention from scholars of hip hop, a gap that our book seeks to fill.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Comparable Books In The 33 1/3 Series

Having read about a dozen books in the series between the two of us, we think the closest model for what we hope to accomplish in The Great Milenko is Nicholas Rombes’ Ramones volume. While we love the narrative-memoir aspects of the Let It Be volume, the musicological detail of the Murmur one, and the fan-reminiscence/oral-history qualities of Bee Thousand, Rombes’ effort to situate the album in the cultural landscape and social politics of the mid-70s most closely approximates the approach we plan to take. We particularly appreciate the way he weaves together his analysis of the album with this contextualization, such as the discussion of punk’s convoluted politics and the complex, troubling use of Nazi imagery—this is exactly the sort of cultural/textual ambivalence we seek to mine in looking at the Insane Clown Posse’s simultaneously reactionary and oppositional stance.

As academics who also blog, write music criticism, and participate extensively outside (and also within) the Ivory Tower, we’re excited about the new, more explicitly scholarly direction of the series, and feel very well-positioned to write at that register while still including the fans and popular readership. With that in mind, another good precedent is Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces volume. While we don’t aspire to Bruno’s brilliantly idiosyncratic organizational structure for the book, his situating of Costello’s music and ill-chosen personal behavior against the backdrop of both British and American racial tensions is one of the strongest contributions of the entire series, we think, and another model of sharp, incisive analysis integrated seamlessly into consistently engaging music writing, such that it appeals to both scholarly and general audiences.

In short, the previous 33 1/3 moments we most seek to emulate are the ones where cultural criticism is delivered rigorously enough to satisfy the criteria of scholarly inquiry, yet deftly enough to remain accessible and engaging to readers with other interests and backgrounds.

 

tallying notches

I have been a failed blogger of late, letting this thing linger unattended for far longer than I’d have liked; this semester has kinda swallowed me whole. But just to keep track of some things I’ve done elsewhere, a quick rundown:

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The brand-new collection Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, edited by Leila Rupp and Susan Freeman and published by the University of Wisconsin Press, has a great set of essays by a bunch of historians whose work I admire immensely, so it’s a thrill to have a piece of my own, “The New Right’s Antigay Backlash,” included. The title of my essay, however, pales in comparison to several of the others–with the indisputable highlight, IMHO, being Ian Lekus’s “Queers of Hope, Gays of Rage: Reexamining the Sixties in the Classroom.” Seriously, I wish I had come up with that.

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Then there’s this mysterious LP, which led Mary Rizzo and I to write a two-part investigation of Moms Mabley, historical memory, scholarly wish-fulfillment, and internet knowledge-production at the Public History Commons–“Moms at the Myth,” part one here, part two here. This one was a lot of fun to write.

Marc Stein is one of my favorite historians, so seeing him give a talk in Philly last month was a real treat. Wrote about it here, in an essay called “Queer Sex in the Archives,” at the hip new history of sexuality blog Notches–and Marc’s latest article, related to his talk, just appeared in Radical History Review, scrutinizing the continued absence of the Philly-based 1960s periodical Drum from homophile historiography. Highly recommended!

Finally, I was honored to have Perversion for Profit favorably reviewed by the great Rebecca Davis in the Journal of Women’s History, alongside other important new books by Carolyn Bronstein, Elizabeth Fraterrigo, and Carrie PItzulo, and apparently I made my national television debut on an updated version of the History Channel’s History of Sex, which exists somewhere out there in the digital wasteland but I can’t quite bring myself to look (pretty sure I’m better on a keyboard than in front of a camera, in every way). But most important, we at the OMGcatrevolution tumblr only just learned that we’d been cited in the Sydney Morning Herald many months ago–now that‘s the kind of thing that I can revel in!

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On a much sadder note, however, my friend and colleague Clement Price, whose image graces the very post below this one, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this month. It’s a colossal loss, to Newark and everyone whose life he touched–a group which, judging by the wake and funeral held the other week, was nearly immeasurable. This blog would probably not exist without Clem’s influence; it was he who got me started watching Newark films, loaned me rare works like the Sightseeing in Newark VHS that opened my eyes to the city’s rich cinematic history, and regularly provided pointers and insights when I had questions. It’s a minor example of Clem’s impact, but a perfect example of his generosity and warmth. There’s an extensive list of articles, obituaries, and tributes to him here that show just how far these qualities reached. He will be dearly missed.

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!