In blogging about films shot in Newark for nearly four years now, I’ve expounded at great length about the various pleasures of zero-budget filmmaking; sure, Kubrick and Hitchcock and Lumet shot here, but for me the real hidden treasures of Newark cinema are The Ironbound Vampire, Bride of Frank, and scrappy homegrown b-movie auteurs like Vaughn Christion and Bobby Guions. These are the works that best engage with Newark as Newark, and make inventive use of its spaces and ambiance.
But for all my Zero-Budget Newark boosterism, even I must occasionally concede failure at locating redeeming aspects in some of these flicks. Such as the following. I hate to kick a low-budget local film, because even a short YouTube video takes time and effort, and at some level I more or less respect anyone who makes any film (and isn’t also a Republican; in that case, it’s contempt all the way down, sorry; see below).
Here are my picks for Newark’s three worst. I’ve tried to find the redeeming qualities even here, though it got progressively tougher as I moved down the list. I ain’t sayin’ this is a great blog post, but I can confidently promise you this: reading about these films is more rewarding than watching them. You’ve been warned.
#3: A Dangerous Place (2012)
The basic idea isn’t bad, exactly: take Outbreak/Contagion and filter it through a medical corporate conspiracy, where the virulent new TB strain causing people to start hacking up blood and die might be coming from inside the very pharmaceutical firm that stands to benefit from holding the cure.
Put that plot into motion through endless repeated dialogue scenes in the same office room, and you have A Dangerous Place.
The film has its merits. When our heroine (whose job at the firm is never quite entirely clear, except that she has to sign some letter for the IPO and she’s wary) steps off an elevator onto an empty floor, there’s an effectively eerie sense of menace (I’m a sucker for the terror of ambient office space, so it might be partly just me grooving here).
And as a Newark film, this is the only thing I can recall shot on the north end of downtown, around Washington Park. The main office interiors seem to be shot at 1 Washington Park, now home of the Rutgers-Newark Business School and Audible, though for exteriors it moves across Broad street:
I like how this upward-sweeping shot stops just short of hitting a corporate logo; because I’m a dork, I finished the shot myself:
And hey, check it out: we are one short pan away from catching the Little Theater–truly it is the great tragedy of this film that the camera didn’t turn more; one quick glimpse of my favorite porn theater probably would have removed A Dangerous Place from this very list!
Just beyond the camera:
In any case, these rare moments when the film steps outside do contain some decent Newark footage, with a side of the city that, again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a film.
We also get a legit City Hall shot.
But then there’s this:
Nothing wrong with setting a film after 9/11. It was a tense, fraught time—though this undermines more than aids the film’s plot; I thought people were going to riot over amassing silly Cipro stockpiles in response to the minuscule number of anthrax cases at the time, so a bunch of people suddenly bloody-puking to death in public would probably cause something more than the slightly-concerned news reports we see here…
But in case the 9/11 traces are too subtle, the heroine lost her husband in the towers, and her young son makes this. The camera lingers on it for nearly two excruciating minutes.
Oh, and the husband’s ghost haunts their house, apparently just washing off his tower-dust now, in mid-2002.
We’ve gone from shrug-inducing, to sigh-generating, to tiresome, let’s go all the way to risible here in the last scene, as ghost-dad returns one final time to build a giant tower to the ceiling…
AND JUST IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, AS THE VISUAL EQUIVALENT OF AN ALL-CAPS SLEDGEHAMMER, HEY LOOK AT THAT PHOTO, IT’S THE TWIN TOWERS, GET IT????
Egads. How awkward. Just, no.
A Dangerous Place isn’t all bad. The Newark location footage is solid, and I’ve never seen a bad guy hock a bloody TB loogie then gargle dishsoap in a desperate effort to fend off infection—these are exactly the gonzo zero-budget moments of inspiration one comes to love, in watching these things.
But if the 9/11 chest-beating is bad, learning a little about director Gregory Corrado is even worse. Let me be clear, I looked him up because I wanted to like him—sure, his movie sucks, but as already noted, I respect every scrappy filmmaker who makes an honest go of it, regardless.
In a long, interesting interview with Camera in the Sun, Corrado talks about his various film efforts. But what sticks is that he began his film career directing ads for Jack-Kempian Jersey City Republican upstart Bret Schundler in the early 1990s.
Schundler was supposed to be the GOP’s Great White (naturally!) Hope, after getting elected mayor of Jersey City. But his rise to power was derailed after future groveling-Trump-sycophant governor Chris Christie appointed him state education commissioner and he—oh, oops, NBD—managed to flub the state’s application form for Race to the Top money, costing New Jersey millions in federal funds (how this failed to end Christie’s miserable self-serving career will remain an eternal mystery).
But since free-market enthusiasts in America more or less can’t fail, Schundler washed back up in Jersey City (after some time as COO at King’s College, the Christian school so pathetic it hired Dinesh D’Souza as president in 2010)—not having done enough to destroy public education in New Jersey, he was a “mover and shaker” in engineering some charter schools in 2011, one of which listed Corrado as founder.
That’s pretty much where my half-assed investigative journalism taps out, but it’s enough to situate the filmmaker within the orbit of Republicans who convert public resources into streams of private investment, or more specifically, transform vulnerable children into sources of profit-extraction for vulture capitalists. Oh, and his IMDB bio says his charter school was based on an MLK quote, because of course.
And that’s only the third-worst Newark film!
#2: Barely Legal Lesbian Vampires: The Curse of Ed Wood! (2003)
Pacing, this has not. Opening with about two solid minutes of voiceover narration set to ominous clouds, this is one of those cases where you really feel how long two minutes can take to pass. Bela Tarr, eat your heart out; cinema doesn’t get any slower than this.
And then Mr. Creepo shows up, to visit a cemetery and commune with the ghost of Ed Wood. But this isn’t really like Ed Wood at all, whose films in his heyday were pulpy, idiosyncratic fun and even, in the case of Glen or Glenda, deeply felt challenges to heteronormativity; if this resembles any Wood, it’s the sad plight of his alcoholic deterioration playing out across celluloid rot like the bumbling Love Feast.
Add about an hour’s worth of deeply perfunctory softcore lesbian sex scenes emanating out of an imagination midway between Beavis and Jean Rollin at his laziest, and you have Barely Legal Lesbian Vampires: The Curse of Ed Wood! in its entirety. With dialogue such as “Are you looking for a date? I could make beautiful nightmares with you,” what’s not to weep about? This is bad not in a manner that collapses the fourth wall and hails paracinematic spectatorial practices in the vein of a Wishman or Steckler or etc., but rather bad in that joyless, deflating way that inspires mostly itchy trigger fingers on fast-forward buttons. It’s just a dull slog of a movie.
At least the filmmaking team has a better story than the charter-school Republicans hawking dangerous places. Mr. Creepo’s story begins here, as recounted by Tom Brinkmann:
One of the stringers who wrote articles for Violent World was UFOlogist Tim Beckley, a long time contributing writer to such mags and tabloids as Beyond, Fate, Saga’s UFO Report, Front Page Disasters, Adult Cinema Review (editor for 3 years), Hustler (movie review critic), Sluts & Slobs, Beaver, The National Tattler, Globe, Unsolved UFO Sightings, Conspiracies and Coverups, UFO Review (publisher), UFO Universe, and a myriad of others … Beckley started out his offbeat odyssey at the early age of fourteen when he purchased a mimeograph machine and published a UFO newsletter called Interplanetary News Service Report, since then he has authored many a book on UFOs and the paranormal, as well as his articles for mags and tabloids. Beckley says that his article in the fifth and last issue of Violent World, called “Mexico’s Monster Babies,” was partially responsible for the mag’s demise as horrified wholesalers took it off the stands early and killed what few sales the mag had managed to get with the first four issues.
By the late Seventies, he was a common figure in porn-ad blurbs, such as Fantasex when it played Detroit in August 1977:
From there, he went into making smut (as he discusses in an interview about 80s porn film Driller), publishing about a million books on UFOs (do yourself a favor and just take a gander), and making some other cruddy no-budget horror films with names like The Sandy Hook Lingerie Massacre. Oh, and there’s even a connection to the Moody Blues, though I refuse to link to the most detailed article because it’s on a pro-Trump site, tragically.
Compared to this, director Tim Swartz is a bit of a slouch, though he’s got his own deep wormhole of work that includes everything from editing Conspiracy Journal to a purported Emmy (for what, I am not quite sure). As a filmmaker, his only other directorial credit is the 1997 family short MC Axe and the Firecrew, shot in Fishers, Indiana, about which I can find very little, though I guess this gives the basic idea? (MC Axe isn’t quite a lost film;
WorldCat lists five libraries as holding it [OR NOT–see postscript for a shocking expose of WorldCat’s list, and a trip to the Indiana State Library!!], all in Indiana; MC Axe himself appears to still be at it, playing 400 shows per year according to a 2015 promo video and a 2016 blog post. What a world!)
In any case, I can only hold Barely Legal Lesbian Vampires at bay so long here. Swartz does manage one lovely shot, a sunset pickup at a gas station parking lot. Most of the limited exterior shots look like Jersey City, but this does ultimately locate itself in Newark film history, with interminable bondage-lite scenes that make one long for the wild transgressions of a Fifty Shades movie, shot at QXT’s, probably the finest goth/industrial club in North Jersey.
How this place seemingly flourishes just south of downtown Newark, I know not, but it’s a happening scene. It’s not really my cultural turf (though I did get my first speeding ticket at sixteen while blasting NIN’s Broken EP, and my high school punk band did a truly awful cover of “Wish,” so, uh), but I kinda dig some of the recent videos of performances by Abbey Death and Kite—definitely keeping some old-school sounds alive.
At the very end, BLLV finally moves out onto the street, and hey-o, there’s Mulberry Street!
That was circa 2003; here it is in the current day—nice to see the club keeping tradition alive!
I stopped by for a few recent Friday happy hour karaoke nights, and while no one I spoke with knew about the film, the evening did drive home how deeply out of touch I am: I was expecting a combo of jukebox classics (Journey, Bon Jovi, etc.) and what I thought of as the big contemporary hits (Beyonce, Adele, Gaga). But nope, it was stuff like “Apocalyptic,” “Goodbye Mr. A,” and some Dierks Bentley song—all previously unknown to me—with a few wildcards like, uh, Pantera’s “Five Minutes Alone.” The fact that this was a song in which racist meathead Phil Anselmo growls the queasy lines “you used the complexion of my skin/for a counter racist tool”—words that I’m not sure actually mean anything, except in the context of Anselmo’s own gross sympathies–didn’t seem to bother anyone among the very multiracial crowd, so I just sort of nodded in confusion/bemusion. Overall though, a really good time! Just don’t drink the miserable kamikaze shot, believe me.
An hour and a half is a long commitment for a film whose sole redeeming moment is a snippet-view history of a club storefront from last decade. But Barely Legal Lesbian Vampires does at least have that, helping rank it above the next film, which lacks even such a desperately nominal claim to any quality whatsoever. #1 in the Newark’s Worst Films Canon is . . .
#1: Loose Ends (2006)
Here it is, rock bottom. We open with an inexplicably blurry skyline shot of sorts, and a quick exterior of a restaurant. Then we move into an apartment. Settle in, because we will never again leave it, for 110 minutes.
Doris Wishman often did this, but even something like A Taste of Flesh looks out the window a few times. No such luck here. All characters do is talk. Eric Rohmer did that, but his characters had good dialogue. This is interminable, unbearable; writer-director Curtis Green doesn’t want to be Rohmer or Wishman, he wants to be . . . Hitchcock.
The plot, such as it is, goes like this: roommates Darnell and Romeo meet Alex in the aforementioned restaurant at the start, and invite her home for an awkward dinner party, with Darnell playing hawkish wingman for the uncomfortable Romeo. At one point, he even pulls him aside to let him know, people are starting to talk, and he needs to establish his heterosexual cred—“I’m beginning to question you myself.”
Eventually, Romeo and Alex kiss, move into the kitchen, and: fade to black. A scream. Ellipsis.
Darnell insists the other, larger dinner party they had planned for the night stay on. “This is too devious, even for you,” Romeo gawks.
Hey wait does this sound familiar? If not, don’t worry, we have Darnell on hand to make one of the heavy-handedest allusions since Cameron Crowe dopily shattered the fourth wall with his screaming “GET IT, THESE ARE ALBUM COVERS!!!1!11!!!” shenanigans in the sadly pandering Vanilla Sky. “This reminds me a movie I once saw,” he muses.
Still don’t get it? That’s okay, we’re on the Good Ship Obvious here, and Darnell proceeds to explain the plot of Rope. Which you’d think might negate the point of this film, except thinking so would concede that there had been such a thing to begin with.
Then an inordinate number of people begin streaming into the apartment, and they talk incessantly. Sometimes they shout or cry. Loose Ends runs–I’ve mentioned, but let me reiterate–a staggering 110 minutes, and Andy Warhol’s Empire moves faster than these scenes. I’ve arrived at the Wittgensteinian terminal point of exegesis here, there is truly nothing more to say.
So that’s all pretty miserable, but what truly elevates this to Newark’s worst film ever, is the shocking twist ending: OMG THEY’RE GAAAAAYYYYYY!!!1!1!!1!!!!!!!
Who could possibly have seen that coming? Naturally, then there’s a shoot-out–gotta release that sexual tension somehow, and reassert straightness too.
Yes, a male/male kiss is to Loose Ends what a Lego 9/11 was to A Dangerous Place, and while that was obnoxious and pandering, this is risible and actively harmful. Three years before Loose Ends, Sakia Gunn was murdered in downtown Newark. A few years after it, Eyricka Morgan, a transwoman who appeared at the first Queer Newark Oral History Project symposium in 2011, was murdered in her home. 1950s Cold War-style gay panic may look silly and campy now, but it was harmful then, and this is devastating now. So as much as I want to support local independent black filmmakers, sorry Loose Ends, you fail, bigly.
The funny thing is, Rope itself was a supremely queer film. Indeed, as D.A. Miller observes in his classic essay “Anal Rope,” critical fascinations and anxieties with the film’s very perversity had been displaced into the formalist analysis that, as Miller so beautifully puts it, “indulges the appeal and propagates the repulsiveness of the film’s technique with a loquacity as little embarrassed by hermeneutic obligation as by fear of monotony,” until ultimately the technique itself “acquires all the transgressive fascination of homosexuality”–now that is an academic burn.
In that sense, Loose Ends is the perfect inverted reflection of Rope: a film whose sad, dried-up sexual imagination also plays out through its formal qualities, in this case the pathetic, lifeless, inert lump of hopeless cinematic nothingness that is this film. Heterosexuality has gone stale and bequeathed us this.
And for all that, I was still gonna buy Curtis Green’s next project, Biblical Stories for Today, vol. 1—so, thank your deity of choice that I listened to this podcast interview with him and learned that, after a born-again conversion, he also moved down toward Philadelphia, and the Bible stories weren’t shot in Newark, thus sparing me fifteen bucks and an hour of my life.
So, there it is: rock bottom in the Brick City. If anyone suggests a worse Newark film than these three, I’ll take it under advisement and surely watch the damn thing, but at the risk of losing what sliver of faith I have left in cinema or humanity.
NOTE: I’m still blogging against Trump until the rancid crook leaves office, making donations with every post. So this one seems obvious: to counteract the Mike Penceian homophobia of Loose Ends, the Newark LGBTQ Community Center is hosting its annual Dance-a-thon fundraiser next month. I’ll be dancing to keep the center afloat, so help me raise money–it’s an all-volunteer staff and board (I’m on the board), so 100% of proceeds go toward center operations. The Dance-a-thon link is here, and you can even help me meet my goal by clicking the “Honor” and punching in my name or just old Strublog. One way to resist Trump is to keep Newark welcoming and affirming to all!
POSTSCRIPT: IN SEARCH OF MC AXE AND THE FIRE CREW
Shortly after writing this post, I found myself in Indianapolis for a conference–site of a remarkable four of the five known holdings of Tim Swartz’s pre-Barely Legal Lesbian Vampires film, a work so obscure it is listed on neither Amazon nor ebay. Further, I was attending a reception at the public library, where one of the copies is held… or at least, allegedly held! Because it turns out that, upon inspecting their online catalog, there is no such listing. Neither is there at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
So, that leaves three, and I don’t know where Noblesville is and wasn’t about to bother with Heritage Christian School (though to be fair, when I was a scuzzy unshowered grad student living out of a minivan and doing research at the Southern Baptist Convention archives in Nashville, they were really friendly even though I was researching smut–I assume they assumed I was against it). But the Indiana State Library was only a 20 minute walk from my hotel, and right past the durn good Three Carrots at City Market, at that; factor in some desperation-level procrastination, and voila, here I was:
It’s a nice area, near the capitol, with an unexpectedly European vibe that leaves you wondering, what is wrong with these friendly midwestern people who elect sociopathic monsters like Mike Pence?
So, inside: the archivist I spoke with on the phone, and the one who politely handed over the extraordinarily rare tape, both seemed mildly amused by my quest, which I explained as briefly as possible, partly out of embarrassment over asking for a kiddie video. And then, suddenly, there it was:
As you can see, I oohed. I ahhed. I held it in my hands, positioned it just so against the lovely library backdrop, photographed it like the biggest dork in the world.
What I did not do, alas, is actually get to watch the damn thing; turns out the Indiana State Library no longer has any VCRs. Thanks, Mike Pence, you rat bastard.
In any case, there is zero doubt that actually seeing this thing could only be a colossal disappointment after all that (virtually nonexistent) effort. I mean, it’s some firemen singing and dancing for kids. I think I get the idea. Still: faraway, so close…
I was informed that I could get a card and check it out, so I leave that to Indianans of the future. For my part, I’m considering it a closed case for now; sorry Tim Swartz, Ivan Rogers’ place as my favorite Indianapolis filmmaker remains secure for now.