book update


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archival experience I’ve ever had–they contain everything from early-1920s handwritten notes from T.S. Eliot to an unpublished Claude McKay novel!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

The Mystery of Cindy Sherman’s Newark Movie: Office Killer (1997)


Cindy Sherman is known for many things, but filmmaking isn’t generally one of them, and shooting movies in Newark really isn’t one of them. But hey, IMDB said it, so it must be true, right?

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Office Killer met with near-unanimous critical derision, and I will admit, I’m among the chorus of denouncers. I want to like it, I really do, but it never finds its footing, stumbling between comedy and horror but unable to commit to either, leaving it trapped in some bad 90s-irony limbo. Even the opening credits look like something you’d see on 120 Minutes one time and never again.


It’s nominally about meek-mannered Carol Kane wreaking vengeance on the workplace assholes around her at a struggling magazine, but Sherman isn’t very interested in the narrative and neither am I. It probably works best as a visual record of a specific historical moment; my memory of the mid-90s, as a provincial teenager stranded in small-town Midwestern hell, was the perpetually anticipatory quality of all the new technologies still shrouded in a near-mystical aura—we all knew that World Wide Web thing would change everything, but other than making naked pictures of Brad and Gwyneth available, it wasn’t yet clear how. The present was never quite fully there, the future always beckoning and incipient . . . or maybe I was just reading too much Baudrillard, which was new and exciting to me at the time (“I Was an Undergraduate Wanker”: my autobiography, vol. 1).

In any case, Office Killer shows the emerging incursion of things like email, a newfangled communication method that provides some central plot movement, and while the film mostly falls flat, it does tap into some of the excitement laced with a huge undercurrent of dread that brings vividly back the structures of feeling that I recall from that era.

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When it comes to the question of shooting in Newark, though, the film gets cagey. It’s a very set-bound piece, and this office could be anywhere:


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So could this house:


And that’s about it, other than a driving flashback that does look like some Meadowlands backroad.


The end-credit acknowledgments mention a few New Jersey things, but nothing Newark-specific. Googling around yielded little useful information for concretely locating the film in Newark. Producer Christine Vachon seems to have largely scrubbed it from her memory, barely mentioning the film in either of her two books (it gets a fleeting reference in Shooting to Kill, and another in her first book, A Killer Life—and mostly there to acknowledge that her company “ripped off” its title from Sherman’s film, which is otherwise wholly elided; bad call, by the way, since she also produced Velvet Goldmine, which in addition to being one of my favorite films of the 90s, seems like a way cooler production-co. name).


I did also come across her diary of the contemporaneous I Shot Andy Warhol shoot, which apparently began with one day in a Newark hotel (mostly wasted waiting for Stephen Dorff to get made-up as Candy Darling)—so that suggests some sort of Vachon/Newark connection, but doesn’t go into further detail (except to reveal that director Mary Harron “is getting nervous about Yo La Tengo. She has suddenly decided they are all wrong as the Velvet Underground,” which is almost unthinkable—what other band could do better?!).

Meanwhile, the uniformly negative reviews were of no use. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden called it “a crude, laugh-free horror spoof about a mousy copy editor. The San Francisco Chronicle said the film couldn’t decide what it “wants to be — slasher fest, social satire or revenge comedy — and ends up being an awkward goulash.” And a few years later Nathan Rabin complained for the AV Club, “Although it runs a mere 83 minutes, Office Killer, photographer Cindy Sherman’s disastrous debut film, still seems at least an hour too long.” The Newark Question, as it were, remained unaddressed throughout these complaints.

At this impasse, enter Dahlia Schweitzer: novelist, doctoral student in film, and, improbably enough, author of a new book-length study of Office Killer:


In the book, Schweitzer offers an impassioned, polemical defense of the film—one that I kept agreeing with as I read, until I remembered the actual film itself. But no matter; I don’t agree with Ray Carney that Cassavetes is the Second Coming of JesusWilliamJamesThoreauandEmersontoo, but I still enjoy his spirited arguments as to why some half-assed scene in Minnie and Moskowitz transcends Kubrick by briefly invoking him. Schweitzer’s analysis is more grounded than that; she very effectively situates Office Killer within Sherman’s evolving aesthetic projects, and also historicizes it—the film “could be a record of evolving work conditions in America … at its core, Office Killer is about the workplace and the real damage done there.” She also links it to anxieties about HIV/AIDS and contagion. I agree with all of that completely, though just as every film is an accidental documentary of its own making, every film is a rich historical record in its own way. I fear that Schweitzer is collapsing thematic richness into aesthetic effectiveness, or using the former to argue for the latter. But that said, I enjoyed disagreeing with the book more than I enjoy agreeing with, oh, formalist analyses of Godard’s Maoist films or whatnot.

The comparisons Schweitzer draws are to Working Girl, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and others. Again, it’s smartly argued, though I can’t help drawing up my own comparative list: dreary mid-tier filler flicks like Swimming with Sharks or SFW or Four Rooms or Albino Alligator or Chazz Palminteri and Cher in Faithful, stuff with Eric Stoltz in it, the listless Miramaximinimalism of my bored adolescence, the dull 90s that doesn’t condense into a screencap from Reality Bites. Maybe I’m taking it all too personally; why did I ever watch all of those? Point being, Schweitzer’s book is a lot of fun, even if one disputes the merits of the film itself. How she got an entire book on a maligned, mostly forgotten film published, I do not know, but it’s an impressive feat unto itself. And the reading of the colossally underutilized Jeanne Tripplehorn—playing, Schweitzer argues with fervor and without a distancing wink, an extension of her character in Basic Instinct—is fantastic. The world needs more of that sort of thing.

Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster covers almost every aspect of the film, from production to scene-by-scene breakdown to reception. You can read an excerpt at Jump Cut, and should. But what it doesn’t have is information on locations. So I emailed Schweitzer; why not, it’s really in the spirit of the film’s whole email-spectacle anyway. And she generously responded, but wasn’t sure. She did offer to reach out to Sherman herself.

Cindy Sherman, as it turns out, doesn’t remember where it was shot. Or at least, said she didn’t remember. Her life is assuredly busier and fuller and vastly more accomplished than mine, but at the same time, come on, I could show you exactly where I shot scenes from the camcorder-horror short Those Who Have Puked 25 years ago in elementary school in rural Alaska, so it defies belief slightly that she wouldn’t recollect where she made her one feature film. But considering how poorly the film fared, maybe it’s a sore spot. End result: no confirmation of its place of origin.

But Schweitzer, rising well above any call of (nonexistent) duty, persisted, and tried Christine Vachon’s office. Finally, someone from the office confirmed: Office Killer was shot in Newark (The exact words, from Killer Films: “”We do not have a record of the exact location…but it was shot in Newark, NJ..hope this helps!”). My deeply obscure quest, resolved at last!

So, in closing, a) you should pick up and read Dahlia Schweitzer’s book, and b) the one flickering shot of a cityscape comes during the very closing seconds of Office Killer, as the screen fades to black. I have no idea what or where this is, but I like to think, improbable as it appears, that it’s the ephemeral specter of Newark, haunting the film and waving goodbye.

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X-Rated Newark: A Place Called Today (1972)

I guess it made sense in 1972: let’s make a movie about America’s racial problems, we’ll juice it up with some softcore sex, and ride that enticing X rating all the way to the bank!

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Like so many seemingly brilliant ideas, it didn’t quite work out as planned, even if it did play alongside Cassavetes and The Godfather. But A Place Called Today holds a special significance in Newark film history, as the only feature film that I know of to be shot here in the early 1970s. It’s a clunky dud of a flick, but its location shooting vividly captures a city in transition, and it’s almost certainly the only mainstream-aimed X-rated film shot in Newark, at the exact moment that the very idea of a mainstream X film was evaporating rapidly (there would be Emmanuelle two years later, but that’s about it, unless you count, say, Inserts). While Newark is never named in the film—it’s always set in simply “the city”—it’s a surprisingly specific (if woefully distorted) retelling of Newark’s own recent political history, an aspect that’s gone completely unrecognized until now.


It’s also a film with several layers of deep personal resonance for me, though it took me a quarter-century to actually get around to seeing. More on that later.

Director Don Schain is something of an unsung New Jersey filmic sleaze merchant, best known for the Ginger films he made with his partner Cheri Caffaro. With A Place Called Today, he made his bid for relevance (beefed up with some naked bodies, but when has nudity not been relevant?), a ripped-from-today’s-headlines kind of affair about a mayoral election taking place in the midst of racial tensions. On the one side, there’s the crooked old white incumbent, corrupt and crony-ridden. Opposing him, the youthful black upstart, a promising attorney with a commitment to social justice.


At least, committed in the long run. In the shorter term, he’s secretly linked to a group of local black radicals who are terrifying the city with a bombing spree, the pact being that he’ll use them as foils, promise peace, win the election, and then . . . well, it’s not entirely clear that anyone here has an endgame, but Schain tactically distracts us from the finer points of backroom dealmaking with the periodic boinking (though even those scenes are full of speeches!).

All of this is pretty terrible. Unless he had some deep ideological aversion to Eistensteinian montage, Schain has little excuse for the endless scenes of didactic political discussion, shot almost exclusively in the most rudimentary shot/reverse holding pattern imaginable, as performers read off cue cards directly into the camera.


I’m too lazy to transcribe anything longer than “one day you’ll have to decide between what makes you happy and what you believe in,” but chunks of it are on YouTube, and here, I’ve cued it up for some real gems if you want a sample (“those pigs! those lousy rotten pigs!”)

Meanwhile, on the sexy front, the film aims for European sophistication but falls short of Harold Robbins at his most tepid. Jersey Chic? This exchange was worth typing:

“When you’ve had your first trip to Europe at sixteen, and your first diamond necklace at seventeen, what else is left?”

“And your first taste of sex, I believe you said, at fifteen? That hasn’t worn off, has it?”

“Point for you. Let’s hope it never does.”



Poor Lana Wood (Natalie’s sister) and Cheri Caffaro—neither were Oscar-bound, but just about anyone deserves better than having to deliver this with a straight face (Caffaro, to be fair, barely does). There’s also a reporter out to uncover the truth, and . . . well, that’s about it on the narrative front, though what makes him seductive enough to maintain concurrent relationships of both female leads will be an enduring mystery, since he mostly just offers banal political platitudes in the form of scrunchfaced angry exclamations; that, and sexist half-witticisms (“good secretaries are much harder to come by than good lays,” durrrrrrrrrr).


So, as a film, meh; among sexed-up racial potboilers of its era, Hurry Sundown and Night of the Strangler were worse, but really even Mandingo (hell, Drum!) is probably better. As a Newark film, though, wow. A Place never names the generic Everycity in which it’s set, nor do its minimalist end credits explicitly locate it, but this is all Newark, all the time, from City Hall to the Gateway Downtowner motel.

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We see the building of Gateway 2 above, the linked-above-the-street downtown business plaza designed to prevent visitors from having to mix with the hoi polloi. (This location was confirmed by Newark-history extraorinaire Mark Krasovic, and here’s a pic from this very morning to verify!)


And in a great lengthy scene—almost the only time it occurs to Schain that the camera can actually, y’know, move along with characters in what those highfalutin technically-oriented folks might call a “tracking” shot—our upstart candidate and angry-loverman journalist take a stroll through a residential neighborhood, off Fourteenth and Camden, according to a sign:

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Great cinema this is not, but the only film shooting here, it was. What’s really amazing—and which no one has noticed, as far as I can tell—is that A Place Called Today is a more or less directly straightforward (albeit clumsy and hamfisted) retelling of Newark’s own recent political history. Randy Johnson, positioned between black nationalism and conventional politics, is the Ken Gibson figure (Gibson was elected Newark’s first black mayor in 1970, a pragmatic progressive at the time but with support from the more radical local groups), and his underground ally (literally “Black Radical” in the end credits) even looks a bit like Amiri Baraka (“tear it down,” he demands of the system).


For that matter, incumbent Mayor Atkinson (old guy above, talking into the camera) doesn’t not sound (or act) like Addonizio.

All of which is kind of fascinating, and extremely problematic. Amiri Baraka, after all, did not actually plant bombs. In fact, one of his most ambitious political projects (detailed in Komozi Woodard’s A Nation within a Nation) was to build public housing, the Afrocentric Kawaida Towers whole ultimate failure in the mid-70s, after years of effort, helped spur his transformation into communism. Since he here blows up a construction site, Schain’s script is effectively inverting history.

Indeed, Schain seems to think he’s revealing some deep truths here, and probably imagined the film as a cynical expose, but cynicism demands a level of awareness that just isn’t in evidence here. To be fair, in Randy Johnson he does give us a complicated black character who resists both the painful racist simplicity of the roles Hollywood studios were still offering, and also the exaggerated reaction-formation ultrasupermachomen of blaxploitation, dominant at the time. Randy does get elected, and feels genuine ambivalence about the means it takes, and the film ends on that note.

Unfortunately, that’s after it traffics in some truly unforgivable racist imagery itself. The Barakaesque character behaves less like Baraka himself than one of his own characters, culminating in a grotesque, protracted rape/murder scene with a naked, struggling Caffaro. This is a recurring Schain motif, as Marty McKee notes–“Caffaro is stripped naked and degraded in all of her films directed by her husband, which adds a subliminal layer of grime to them.” Yet A Place Called Today goes beyond “mere” misogyny (as it were) to revel in hyperspectacular fashion in one of those most pernicious tropes in American history, that of the black rapist chasing after the white woman. It’s ugly, and mars a film that otherwise might be approached through a lighter, campier angle.


McKee, by the way, adds some interesting further comments on the film:

As for lovers working together, Wood met Smedley [our investigative journo] on this film and married him. In her autobiography, she claimed A PLACE CALLED TODAY was his first film, but he had in fact acted in several soft- and hardcore sex films prior to it and continued to do so after their wedding. He’s a dreadful actor, and Schain’s self-important dialogue really leaves him hanging. Wood trashed this movie in her book, though she claimed it was ruined in the editing. I don’t think it was edited enough.

While in 1972, X had not yet totally collapsed into signifying smut, the crossover is mildly noteworthy (and Lana Wood, you deserved better!). As well, an uncredited Harry Reems even shows up as an extra at the construction site where Caffaro gives a racy speech in support of the mayor (her father in the film).

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Quite a year for Reems—this in Newark, Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street across the river, and Deep Throat in Miami!

Alas, his charming presence wasn’t enough; Vincent Canby in the New York Times dismissed it as “boobish” and “softcore porn,” adding insult to injusry by including it on his Ten Worst Films of 1972, in fact singling it out as “the most horrible film of the year” (though his list also included Trouble Man and …And Hope to Die, both of which I dig; never did like or trust that Canby anyway). Variety didn’t like it, either; no one did. Film historians haven’t bothered returning to it; Kevin Sandler’s book about the X rating brushes it off in a footnote as “a relatively unknown exploitation film,” and that’s about it.

But it looms larger in my own personal recollections. Around seventh grade, I somehow chanced upon the mail-order catalog of Movies Unlimited, based in Philly. This was the early 1990s, in rural Alaska, where I would regularly beg my parents to drive me to far-flung video rental shops in search of such films as Pretty Poison and Hi, Mom, both of which I’d read about and wanted desperately to see (each took years to finally find; things were different then). While this was the boom years of the mom-and-pop video shop, and my fondly-remembered Wilson’s Wasilla Video had a selection of clamshell-cased exploitation flicks that would make contemporary VHS-fetishists quiver uncontrollably (I remember a sense of real dread upon renting Umberto Lenzi’s Man from Deep River—it seemed so forbidden), they couldn’t carry everything. So Movies Unlimited became my ticket to three of the four categories I was interested in: Ingmar Bergman, Hammer horror, and smut (Troma, the fourth, I could rent locally).

I vividly remember reading the short-paragraph description of A Place Called Today, which emphasized the sex and racial tensions—its only two selling points, really. I was already fascinated, in ways I probably couldn’t articulate at the time, with the look and feel of 1970s films, particularly those shot in cities (so radically different from the unpaved roads and forests of my own world at the time)—and with anything rated X, of course. But the back of the Movies Unlimited catalogs had a sealed-off section that you had to tear open to uncover a virtual encyclopedia of smut. X couldn’t compete with XXX. I poured all of the money I made mowing lawns, raking, etc., into ordering movies, but at twenty bucks a pop, I could only cover so much ground (being a latchkey kid who picked up the mail kept things under the parental radar). A Place Called Today was always near the top of my to-order list, but never quite high enough to take the plunge. (Meanwhile, even though I only saw a limited selection, I developed a fairly extensive knowledge of the early-90s adult film world, kind of a waste since it was at a relative nadir IMHO. But I knew a lot about, say, Randy Spears and Jon Dough and Deirdre Holland and Ashlyn Gere long before I ever saw their work).

Though I often save everything, to my great chagrin the single document from Movies Unlimited I still seem to possess is this—imagine the crushing disappointment of an eighth-grader having put a lot of work into this order:


Fastforward a couple of decades or so. A Place Called Today has floated through my mind on dozens of occasions, but I spent most of my twenties in Los Angeles, where the film choices are so abundant that some obscurity that doesn’t even look good perpetually receded to low-priority status. Then one day—now in my thirties, how time flies—living in Philadelphia, I’m walking through Mostly Books, a gigantic, cavernous book, movie, and record store just off South Street whose dusty ambiance dislocates you from the 21st century entirely as you get lost strolling through its disjointed rooms and aisles. And hey-o, what is that on a shelf but A Place Called Today, in a classic big-box format to boot! This is manna from video-nerd heaven (the film has never come out on a legitimate DVD, to my knowledge, though there are grey-market video-rips of it).

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But life is hectic and busy, or I subconsciously prefer anticipatory excitement to the real thing (or, just as likely, I realize that this thing is going to be a colossal disappointment when weighed against twenty-plus years of buildup), or I just forget. Anyway, it’s another couple of years before I watch it. South Street gentrification has resulted in Mostly Books heartbreakingly condensing itself into half of its old size, just as the invasion of horrid boutique shops had squished the great Hollywood Book and Poster shop on Hollywood Boulevard some years earlier. I’m living in Newark now. I’m tired after a long day, don’t really want to be mentally challenged, and somehow it clicks: tonight is the night for A Place Called Today.

And now I don’t know what’s left of the holy grails of my youth. Hi, Mom and Pretty Poison I own on DVD. Monte Hellman’s China 9, Liberty 37, probably my longest-held burning-need-to-see, I caught on 35mm at the Film Forum a couple of years ago. Like some low-rent Proust character, all I have left is the memory of cinematic desire. That, and some cool pics of Mostly Books, so where better to end than there?

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Proletarian Trash Cinema of Newark: Bride of Frank (1996)

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Look past its abrasive surface—maybe not easy for everyone, since it’s filled with gruesome violence, graphic sexuality, child-killing (and subsequent cannibalism), castration, onscreen defecation, snot-play, flatulence, and the use of a toothbrush to clean soiled underwear, among other atrocities—and Bride of Frank is a remarkable document of working-class expression. Shot deep in the industrial bowels of the Ironbound, it’s a direct manifestation of workplace boredom at a trucking warehouse, made on a zero budget and sometimes on the clock, making it something of a piece of resistance to the capitalist domination of our bodies and time, albeit probably not in the exact form Marcuse was hoping for back in the day when transformative politics actually seemed possible.


Or maybe Marcuse would’ve loved it; what do I know? In any case, it’s the shock value that acts as the film’s calling card, upping the ante on 1980s and early 90s splatter/gore horror cinema by embracing a literalism in which every seemingly hyperbolic statement is graphically enacted before us. “I’m gonna rip off your head and shit down your throat,” I’m gonna skullfuck you”: generally figurative language, but not here.


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In the history of grindhouse and exploitation film, such crassness very often collapses into (or is at least undergirded by) misogyny, and Bride of Frank is no exception; to the extent that it has a narrative, it’s about Frank, a homeless man living in a warehouse, seeking female companionship (“I want tits” is his, uh, metonymic way of describing his agenda, though given the rampant dismemberment in the film, maybe it’s not metonymy at all), with most of the encounters ending in the violent deaths of his would-be suitors.

But without denying the film’s fundamental misogyny, it would be reductive to limit its freewheeling perversity to just that; an encounter with a tough-talking neighborhood enforcer who interrupts Frank’s pee-break in an alley, after all, ends with Frank returning to his truck with a severed phallus in his mouth (which is never really explained, just tossed on the street to better be run over by the truck). Likewise, scenes with a transgender sex worker and a 300-pound woman not only end poorly for the women, but invite readings of transphobia and fat-shaming. At the same time, however, the characters can’t be contained by a flat reading that would deny them their agency; the prostitute exhibits some serious fierceness before Frank dispatches her, and the larger bodied woman takes real pleasure in her own body during an extended striptease. The film may or may not solicit derisive audience laughter, but she has her own agenda, and owns her scene, gloriously.

Further, everyone in this film is deeply degenerate, so there’s a certain leveling that goes on. The men at the warehouse have a rough camaraderie based almost entirely on discussions of their purportedly enormous dicks and threats/promises to fuck one another. The scenes of their banter are a little like Andy Milligan shooting a Cassavetes adaptation, and charming in their own corrosive way; the men, after all, collectively rescued Frank from the streets and gave him a home in the warehouse (even buying him a set of dentures), where he performs menial tasks to earn his keep. This seems to be essentially nonfiction, based on the enlightening if cough-filled DVD commentary track from filmmaker Steve Ballot (who worked as a dispatcher in the warehouse office), star Frank Meyer, and technical adviser Brent Butterworth, and while there are undeniably Grey Gardens/Wesley Willis-style questions about the exploitation of a star whose life experiences have left him so frazzled that he has difficulty speaking in full sentences, Butterworth insists on an interesting IMDB comment that Frank had a good time.


I’m reminded of Jane Ward’s new book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, although the warehouse workers are a multiracial group, and I also think of Anna Breckon’s thoughtful recent take on the “erotic politics of disgust” in Pink Flamingos (an obvious inspiration here), in which “bonds born of disgust enable alternative social arrangements” to those based on liberal foundations of empathy. These aren’t just empty theoretical concerns, either—for a powerful recent critique of the limits of empathy as a tool of political mobilization in light of the police murder of Sam DuBose, read Hari Ziyad’s great piece at Black Girl Dangerous. The “disgust-based socialities” that Breckon writes about are perhaps not what Ziyad is calling for, but they do represent an alternative to the prurient voyeurism in which

Relying on empathy means black people faced with horrific levels of police brutality must make white people “feel our pain.” It forces us to stream the bodies of our dead sons and daughters on a loop. It requires there to be dead sons and daughters in the first place. It always demands more spectacles of pain.

Bride of Frank is deeply problematic on many levels, and probably not a great basis for new modes of radical social organization, but it does make use of disgust in ways that differ from the modes Breckon and Ziyad critique. In their homosocial world of sexist class consciousness, these men do carve out a certain sphere of sweetness and intimacy, secured always by the violence of their rhetoric. They even dance at Frank’s birthday party; it’s cute, even if it ends in a murder.

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It also offers, to return to the original point, a vivid and utterly unique vision of Newark from its absolute ass-end, where the Passaic River swoops down to curb the industrial sprawl of the eastern Ironbound, and all things end in a tangle of highways and a bridge to Jersey City. Re-edit the film to strip away the Grand Guignol frills, and you get this visual essay on blue-collar Newark life in the mid-1990s:

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As a ridiculous postscript of sorts, I attempted to see how things had changed in Bride of Frank‘s neighborhood; while I thought I had figured out where the film was shot, the precision of my geography was slightly off, and I couldn’t find the actual warehouse (if it still exists). But this is clearly the right neighborhood, and 2015 looks a lot like 1996, as far as I can tell.

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Bride of Frank may not rank in mosts canons of neorealist cinema, but as probably the only film to take place in Newark’s industrial wasteland, it certainly deserves a place in the Newark film canon. It’s probably not for everyone (I didn’t even write about the muffled sound, and camcorder-shot visuals are perhaps an acquired taste), but for that evening when you’re jonesing for a disgusting film shot in a Newark warehouse, it may be the only choice!

Newark on the West Coast: Deadly Drifter/Out (1982)


A few years ago, at a Goodwill deep in South Philly, I came across this VHS tape . . .


. . . which then promptly sat on a shelf. I mean, it looked like some cheap Arlington Road knock-off, even if it did come out over a decade before that underrated gem of 90s paranoid cinema. Peter Coyote and Danny Glover are two actors I generally admire, but unlike, say, Harry Dean Stanton or Warren Oates, neither of them singlehandedly guarantees a movie will be worth watching.



What finally prompted me to watch the film was haphazardly catching the phrase “absurdist road film” on the back and noticing that it was not the cheesy 90s thriller its packaging promised, but from 1982—basically the tail end of the Seventies, and I’m a sucker for 70s road-trip narratives. I remember swooning over my discovery of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance my freshman year of college (the latter being the reason I majored in Philosophy, no joke!). All that sex, metaphysics, and hitchhiking, what’s not to love! Even this novel, which I bought in a church basement book sale two decades ago and barely remember, seduces me so easily with its very cover art.


And while you’d think aging would make me wiser, nope, I even inserted the most gratuitous Two-Lane Blacktop reference in the history of scholarly publishing into the acknowledgments of my first book. As much as I rant about nostalgia as a critical foundation of modern conservatism all the goddamn time, I’m guilty as hell of indulging in fantasies of a freer, less structured and disciplined time (though materialists take note, this isn’t pure reification—absent at the time were the intensified surveillance cultures of modern technology, the neoliberal enclosure movement that had already begun but exploded in the 80s, the dismantling of the welfare state and rise of debt as a disciplinary governmentality of the self, etc.—or perhaps the romanticist doth protest too much…).

Damn you, Jack Keroauc.


Deadly Drifter is clearly not really titled Deadly Drifter—someone glommed on fake new credits that would have embarrassed a pornographer with a camcorder in 1988.



It opens on a striking note: a man and a woman sneaking around some industrial building, peeping onto a scene of a topless woman threatening a tied-up man with a knife, and then throwing a stick of dynamite into the room and running. Think early Beth B., by way of the Weather Underground.

From there, it is indeed an absurdist road movie. Peter Coyote works his way west from Greenwich Village, through a series of scenes that play as skits, ranging in tone from outright comedy to surprisingly poignant wistfulness. Not everything works, and Danny Glover isn’t really an equal costar, showing up just now and then, but the film’s wandering, meandering style coasts on sheer ambiance even when particular scenes fall flat.

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The film moves through Lincoln, Kansas, Colorado Springs, Yucca Flats, Nevada, and ultimately to Venice, California. By the end, as Coyote reencounters his former cohort on the west coast, having reinvented themselves from guerrilla terrorists against the repressive bourgeois state to well-heeled New-Agers, it’s clear that we’re watching an official Allegory of the Left, but director Eli Hollander wisely inhabits an emotional space of loss and regret, and what could have played out as farce or caricature genuinely lingers. He’s great at situating bodies against landscapes, which comes through even on a crappy, fuzz-softened VHS copy.  Coyote helps, of course; dude can do just about anything as far as I’m concerned, but brooding is definitely a specialty.

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A quick note in praise of the great O-Lan Jones, the film’s secret weapon and unsung hero. In her varied artistic career that ranges from the stage to musical work, Jones has also appeared in numerous films, but generally in small and thankless roles (look at the number of times she’s simply billed as “waitress”). Deadly Drifter has gotta be one of her meatiest parts, and while it’s still a bit limited, she goes toe to toe with Coyote and holds her own. He’s given some cringe-inducingly sexist dialogue, and she bounces it back at him in unexpected ways. Watching this, you can’t help but wish she’d been given more, and better, film roles—I swear, I have imagined her into a bunch of 1980s L.A. postpunk movies like Border Radio and The Blue Iguana, but I guess it’s just that she should have been in them (maybe she could have made the latter one tolerable).

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Trivia side note: I attended a screening of the lost counterculture comedy Brand X last night at the Anthology Film Archives, and according to the filmmaker’s wife, who was there for a Q&A, the original cut had a scene with Sam Shepard (then Jones’s husband–she’s billed here as O-Lan Shepard) naked and smeared in peanut butter, and her licking it off him. The footage was removed at the insistence of Shepard’s agent when Hollywood came calling, and is now lost. That is what the hippies called a bummer, man.


And Newark (the ostensible subject of this post)? It shows up early on, as the second chapter in the film (the chapters count down).


Coyote and Jones walk through a vaguely industrial wasteland, until they’re accosted by a gang of ruffians who ask, “don’t you know these streets aren’t safe? Where’s your pass?” Apparently there’s a curfew in effect—“because of the riots.” When our protagonists ask what riots, they’re told, “the police brutality riots.”

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A skirmish ensues, and the duo flees. Exit Newark.


Deadly Drifter (a terrible title, by the way) began as Out, and Out began as a novel by Ronald Sukenick. Not nearly as remembered as the first-wave pomo heavyweight team of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, et al. (hell, Robert Coover is more famous), Sukenick was, nonetheless, there at the birth of the death of the novel. Out dropped in 1973, and unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t seem to have made it to paperback.


There’s a reason for this: it’s kind of a slog. Written as a formalist experiment, it comes in dense blocks of often-unpunctuated text.

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Identities shift constantly: “he wonders who he is/it doesn’t matter it’s all geometry what does that mean.” Except for women–in classic New-Left-man way, they’re all just one big undifferentiated mass of fuckability. You might read this as a critique of macho sexist culture, but that’s as thin an alibi as ethics in gaming journalism. Sukenick is pretty gross, really.

This all makes one appreciate the effort Hollander must have taken to streamline this into a (relatively) narrative film, and what a formal challenge of its own that was—though one can’t help but also wonder, why bother?

As part of his structuralist style, Sukenick begins to let the words give way to blank space over time. I am not sure this artistic gamble completely pays off, but the home stretch of the novel reads a lot faster than the early sections.


By the end, discourse has unraveled completely. I dunno, Gravity’s Rainbow did it better.


Curiously, nowhere in the book does Newark appear, which means it was added for the film. Why Newark? For symbolic effect, I suppose—if we’re doing an allegory of the Sixties, “Newark” carries metonymic weight—even more so than Watts, Detroit, or the other iconic sites of urban unrest—as the marker of “riot.”

That “riot” became a racialized term in the Sixties is undeniable, and Newark’s Blackness is another of its defining features, in both demographic reality and the American imaginary (where it means two vastly separate things). Yet the gang here is mixed-race, which I read (perhaps charitably) as Hollander consciously avoiding the typical racist urban narratives of innocent whites menaced by criminals of color. He’s still trapped in a problematic metanarrative, but then, this whole thing is problematic metanarrative. Il n’y a pas dehorstexte, y’know.

It also doesn’t look anything like the actual Newark, so I emailed Hollander to ask. He generously wrote back, and it turns out the entire film was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area, with Emeryville (at the time “truly a desert of chemical factories, industrial dump sites, and the like”) playing Newark. I’m impressed—maybe with that as foreknowledge it would be obvious, but while watching, I took it for a more expansive set of locations.

Thus Deadly Drifter joins Karate Kid and Gypsy in the odd canon of films with fabricated Newarks.


Meanwhile, La Crosse, Wisconsin makes a cameo in the book, but didn’t make the film. Too bad: I was born in La Crosse, and always get excited when it pops up in cultural representations (like James Ellroy’s Cold Six Thousand—very, very briefly).


In the kind of coincidence that seems in keeping with the film/book, the horrid VHS copy I have was put out by the mysterious Platinum Disc Corporation, housed in—yep!—La Crosse, Wisconsin! I had a longstanding fascination with this company way back in the pre-Internet era, when I’d find things like this public-domain horror collection and wonder why I never knew anything about Platinum when I lived in La Crosse:


…but I’d more or less forgotten about it years ago. Turns out, there’s still not much info. Who are these people? Why are they running a public-domain video company out of La Crosse? We are left, as in Deadly Drifter, with more questions than answers.

Sadly, Hollander also removed Sukenick’s fairly extensive cats.



Deadly Drifter seems like the kind of film that could find a new audience—restored to proper presentation as Out and distributed by, say, Olive or Milestone, and recontextualized as an experimental film rather than crap-looking political thriller, I think the people who watch Shirley Clarke or Fassbinder might take interest in this.

That said, I would ever so slightly miss things like this, the bracing wave of static as a VCR works to stabilize a cheaply recorded VHS tape. It’s an image that resonates aesthetically (and thematically) with the film itself. And a good note to end on—better, really, than Sukenick’s own closing notes:


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).


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:


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.


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.


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:



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.


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


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.


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…


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


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.


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


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…



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.


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.


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.


rewinding is bourgeois decadence

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.


(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):


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.


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!