I never really thought of John Sayles as a New Jersey filmmaker. I grew up watching his work, and my immediate geographical associations run the gamut: Texas, Alaska, Florida, Harlem, Roan Inish, Matewan. But then there’s Lianna. And the Secaucus 7, though their movie was shot in New Hampshire. As Alvin Klein put it in the New York Times in 1991, “No matter their actual locations, most of the seven films that bear the imprint of Mr. Sayles, who was been acclaimed as ‘the godfather of independent film makers in this country,’ are permeated with the look and feel of New Jersey.”
Somehow I’d just never noticed (full disclosure: until moving to the east coast a decade ago, I’d never really contemplated New Jersey much at all, it was just sort of an abstraction with a turnpike in my mind, and that detail mostly courtesy Paul Simon). But I also haven’t spent a minute thinking about Baby It’s You (1983) since seeing it around early high school. It’s not a great film; it bears the traces of a struggle between an independent director and a studio, but they’re less like an attractive scar than a pothole in a road. It is, however, pure New Jersey maximalism, all diners and shore dates and “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” bridge shots.
Rosanna Arquette never got the career she deserved; blame generalized Hollywood misogyny or the more specific toxicity of Harvey Weinstein, or who knows what other factors. But she’s great here, complicated and charming and genuinely interesting; Sayles has always been one of the better male filmmakers for rich female roles (though Arquette’s underappreciated high point is Mike Hodges’ moody little 1989 thriller Black Rainbow, in my opinion). Vincent Spano, I can mostly do without; gangly and faux-macho aggressive, he’s basically the proto-Adam Driver, and I don’t mean that as praise. But he fits the bill for pre-feminist 1960s New Jersey, so I guess he’s well cast.
Anyway, the two of them flirt, and fight, and break up, and graduate, etc. It’s got a strangely lopsided structure, but one that allows Arquette’s Jill to go off to college and mature (which reminds us how rare it is to see characters evolve in any film), even if we lurch through a few false endings along the way.
So, okay then: John Sayles made a 1960s teenage romance, and mostly avoided nostalgia and exposed some of the barely-contained male violence that governed heterosexual relations of the era, and it’s a pretty solid movie but he would go on to make better ones. But where’s Newark in all of this?
IMDB lists a slew of New Jersey locations, and I had my doubts; it’s mostly a decent resource, but not always well sourced on the details, and there’s an airport scene here that might have confused someone and led to a mistaken entry.
But dig a little, and Sayles himself confirms it. From the 1999 book John Sayles: Interviews:
So that seems pretty definitive, but I’ve gotta admit, I can’t place Newark here (I’m also not sure it says as much as about class or democracy as he wanted it to, though his other films make up for lost ground there). Some shots from Baby, It’s You:
That last one is almost surely not Newark, but really a beautiful shot.
In the process of digging around for info, I also managed to unearth this, from the Asbury Park Press (December 13, 1984).
I don’t even remember being aware that Sayles had shot the video (though the connection helps explain the weird anachronistic Springsteen songs on the Baby It’s You soundtrack, glaringly out of place in the otherwise period-specific film), but it really is fantastic, both intimate and panoramic in a way that embodies Springsteen’s style, and a tremendously powerful song in the way it packs trauma, anxiety, and despair into its anthemic lift—while our current political moment gives good reason to subscribe to an Adorno-like scorn and distrust of mass culture, this still feels like a subversive comment on American identity. Also, I think that’s Newark Bay in the very first non-Bruce shot of the video! (compare here)
I’m not sure if Newark returns again—we get a whole lotta Jersey going on throughout, and forgive the obnoxious YouTube time bar, I’m cribbing screencaps lazily here.
So, a lesser film from one of the best American independent filmmakers of the era, and one of the most iconic music videos of all time: not a bad haul for the Newark film archive!
Sayles took a quick shot of the Newark skyline on his blog while driving home in 2011–hello to you in Hoboken, good sir!
Finally, still doing my Blogging against Trump thing and donating with each post here. This one seems like a good opportunity to support independent leftist filmmaking–lookin’ at you, Third World Newsreel. Tax-deductible donation page here, if you want to join me–women-of-color-led documentaries are about as close to the anti-Trump as cinema gets, and their track record goes back for nearly a half-century of great work.