Industrial booster cinema on the brink of post-Fordist dystopia: Camera Eye on New Jersey (1960)

One post begets another, further down the wormhole into the history of Newark’s cinematic representation: investigating John Dunnachie, director of Sightseeing in Newark, led me to this exciting periodical, inside of which was an ad for Henry Charles Motion Picture Studies, where Dunnachie served as VP:

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Camera Eye on New Jersey (Public Service Electric & Gas Co., Newark)” caught my eye. Surely such a marginal film wouldn’t be available anywhere, though, right?

Well, bless Rick Prelinger and his crazy ephemeral-film preservation work, because there it was on the Internet Archive, even looking pretty vibrant.

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Camera Eye (I can’t stop humming Iggy Pop when I think of this title) is mostly an undistinguished, if professionally done, industrial booster film from 1960, with a barebones semi-narrative in which a bunch of corporate dudes get together to discuss the burning question, where should we locate some new plants?

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The answer, of course, is the Jerz: #1 producer of chemical products, 4th in electrical machinery, “fifth in miscellaneous manufacturing,” and high-ranking on a list that drones on a bit interminably. A major selling point is “modern, rapidly growing” Port Newark:

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Of course, let’s cut to brass tacks: “the history of labor relations here is one of stability and maturity,” which is to say, this may not be the open-shop South, but those crazy days of the CIO and wildcat strikes are behind us now. New Jersey is also “largely a state of private homes,” basically code for white/middle-class in the racialized and classed political economy of the United States at the time. (when confronted with the American fetish for single-family homes, I am always reminded of something James Baldwin wrote in The Devil Finds Work, which I read as a college freshman and has always stayed with me: that the “European dream of America” that grew into the American dream was “full of envy, guilt, condescension, and terror, a dream which began as an adventure in real estate”–and, of course, ended there too).

The NJ scenery ranges widely, but Newark—HQ for the state Chamber of Commerce (now located in Trenton—somewhat refuting the city’s famous claim that

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–gets some prominent screen time. In addition to the port, we get some street footage, the airport, and best of all, a great scene capturing the construction of the downtown Prudential tower, with a “put the New in Newark” banner:

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Camera Eye emphasizes the industrial virtues of New Jersey: dense transportation networks, research facilities at Rutgers and Princeton, good housing stock, and plentiful recreation opportunities like that famous shore where Billy Joel characters were meeting.

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It only barely alludes to some of the real draws, though– “labor is skilled and plentiful,” our narrator again reminds us, but the fact that Newark and the surrounding Meadowlands could be used as a gigantic garbage dump goes unsurprisingly unmentioned (Eileen Maura McGurty has written about later efforts to “transform Newark’s economy by using garbage to build on the Meadowland’s muck”—and their utter failure).

I’m not sure if Dunnachie himself shot Camera Eye, (see postscript, below) which is simply credited to Henry Charles Studios of Edison, but it does exhibit some of the minor playfulness of the earlier Sightseeing in Newark—I couldn’t help smiling at this basic-but charming transition

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and this scene has a placid quality that made me think—no joke!—of Ozu.

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As industrial films go, Camera Eye lacks the flair of, say Alain Resnais’ Le chant de Styrène, but that’s a high bar to meet. It’s crisply shot and energetic enough to sustain its half-hour length, even as it propagandizes for corporate development of the sort that, while relatively more benevolent in its bubble of midcentury American empire than today’s Randian Koch-bros fanatics, is still unlikely to benefit most of New Jersey—poor people and people of color are conspicuously absent from the film’s representation of happy middle-class life. (We also get some sense of the insular Mad Men world of turn-of-the-60s corporate life during a long, leering Atlantic City scene of the Miss America pageant—“here’s a picture I think you’ll enjoy,” our narrator confides, cutting to young women in bathing suits; he even repeats that line a few scenes later when ice skaters appear).

Where was Camera Eye on New Jersey shown? Well, one of its few online traces is a September 1960 article in the Red Bank Register, announcing its screening at the New Shrewsbury Country Fair—the same day Patrice Lumumba assumed power in the Republic of the Congo (paging Billy Joel again—I see all sorts of potential for an updated “We Didn’t Start the Fire” here…). Otherwise, I doubt it was seen much between then and whenever it popped up on the Internet Archive.

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While no great shakes as a film, in the context of Newark’s cinematic history it’s a useful reminder that those rare Kubrick and Hitchcock titles are unrepresentative; much of the city’s—and surely other cities as well—filmic history resides in these ephemeral booster and industrial films, whose modest (but not negligible) aesthetic merits pale in comparison to their simple value as historical representations of time and place–one already rapidly fading even as Camera Eye rocked the Country Fair; the shift to a postindustrial economy was afoot in Newark well before 1967.

And now I’m stuck with this horrid mashup in my head of Iggy Pop covering Billy Joel, what a terrible thing this post has caused.

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Postscript: while paging through the issue of Business Screen that led me here, I also came across this ad for Lewis Studios in adjacent East Orange. The Newark Board of Education apparently sponsored the films The Retarded Child and Helping the Blind Student–both, as far as I can tell at a glance, lost. At least, so far…

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Postscript #2, 16 July 2014: Rick Prelinger himself weighs in the authorship of the film: ” I don’t know if it was shot by Henry himself or by Jack, but the sequence showing the young women looking at the Prudential construction site argues for Henry, as that’s one of his customary tropes. I’ve always had a soft spot for CAMERA-EYE, which is made in the peculiarly alienated style we’ve come to associate with industrials but almost so alienated as to dip into self-parody. Perhaps I’ve looked at it too many times.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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