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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3 thoughts on “Newark Hotel Microcinema: Blood and Love (2010) and Once in the Life (2000)

  1. This was interesting I have been wanting to do a shoot at the hotel but couldn’t see the historical artifacts still there – besides the awesome telephone booth.

    I do love the hotel sign on the roof.

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