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!
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.
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:
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).
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).
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?