Newark Meadowlands or Bust: Swamp (1971)

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The only good thing about the COVID-19 era at a mass social level has been the recalibration of the political real, as the left wrenches certain things from decades of a neoliberal death-grasp on the possible during which the role of the Democrats was to tell us to always ask for less. Now rent and debt cancellation, forms of universal basic income, demands for free and accessible healthcare, serious decarceration and immigrant-detention reduction, and community mutual-aid projects all seem at least tangible. Verizon keeps giving me free extra data because we’re taking back the internet as a public utility eventually and they fucking know it. We may for now be saddled with Zombie Joe Biden instead of Bernie Sanders, which is a full-scale national tragedy, but the basic ethos of #NotMeUs is here to stay, and this awful coronavirus has helped establish its necessity.

Compared to this, streaming movies seems epiphenomenal. Indeed, I’ve been blogging about films shot here in Newark since 2013, but it’s tapered off dramatically since Trump took office, as I’ve escalated my political engagements, to the detriment of spending time writing about, uh, Ironbound Vampire. But it’s got to be said: the COVID streaming explosion has been wild. From the Spanish Film Library suddenly unearthing a previously unknown Jess Franco film and putting it up for a mere few days, to the appearance of Dziga Vertov’s 1918 debut Anniversary of the Revolution, it’s been a head-spinning proliferation of rare, amazing, and time-sensitive viewing, too much to ever keep up with.

It’s minor, but it’s exciting; the internet has felt like one huge digital chain restaurant since Facebook Zucc’d the online public sphere, cleaning up the sleazy Old Times Square weirdness of the Angelfire years and offering us no-nipples-just-hate-speech monotony. Right now, at least for film nerds, it feels alive again.

So you get things like the Holt/Smithson Foundation’s Friday Film series, which I only know because of a great write-up by Ava Tews for ScreenSlate today. How ephemeral are these things? In this case, a 24-hour run, seven of which have passed as I type. I’m throwing this up in haste, to kickstart a personal blogging revival, and because . . .

Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s Swamp (1971) was almost shot in Newark. If you think about the ridiculous historical over-municipalization of New Jersey, it could have been shot in a more sprawling Newark, so you know what, close enough! Think of it as Newark regional film.

Anyway, Nancy Holt is best known for her large-scale land art, though being something of an artworld philistine, I knew little to nothing of her work. Some of her more famous stuff is based in Utah, where the huge Sun Tunnels interacts with the open landscape, but look, I’m just cribbing from her Wikipedia here, which is worth reading. Her unfinished Sky Mound is also here in North Jersey though, which is where she was from. Robert Smithson did similar earthwork art, theorized the “non-site,” and, my personal fave, drafted but never realized Towards the Development of a “Cinema Cavern”, “a design for a theater to be built inside a cave with spelunkers as the intended audience.” I find these folks aesthetically agreeable, if far removed from my own cramped, squalid, and urban sensibility.

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Swamp bears a great title and for six minutes consists of Holt, self-confined behind a Bolex camera, following Smithson’s verbal guidance as they wander somewhat lost through a dense thicket of reeds somewhere in the Meadowlands.

Not much happens. “So much of it is out of focus,” she exclaims. “Try to pick up that body of water back there,” he suggests. “Where is it?” “Uh, directly in front of you.” They try to avoid overly wet ground and getting stuck by plants.

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Later, as a climax of sorts, they find a clearing. “Keep it low, don’t want too much sky,” he says, and in either imbalance or possibly resistance, she seems to consider panning upward to the sky before thinking better of it. Then it ends.

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When the Ontario experimental-arts organization Pleasure Dome held a 2014 Holt screening, they called Swamp “a tragi-comic game of obstructions and calculated aimlessness, [and] an allegory for human myopia and the failure of technology to navigate nature.” I can’t do better than that. When the camera swishes over the reeds and they blur (with added digital artifacting on the Vimeo version but hey, this new streaming boom is something of a free-for-all and it would be churlish to gripe), I can’t help thinking Stan Brakhage wasted his time on all that scratching—here’s the same effect naturally! And when they fail to get anywhere, capture whatever “nature” they sought, or really do much, there’s something of a micro-Aguirre by way of Godot here, modulated for calmer and less Kinskian futility.

Ultimately, it’s a modest but rewarding little film, and while I’m not really giving myself time here for (or maybe creating excuses to avoid) any kind of rigorous formal or thematic analysis, what really haunts me is the film’s imperiled nature, and here we can return to Newark.

What looks idyllic in Swamp is in fact bound by the detritus and runoff of modernity. New Jersey’s Meadowlands are scenic but squished in among the encroaching sprawl of industrial North Jersey on most sides and New York City to the east. Various parties have attempted to use them for dumping, landfills, incinerators, and other outsourcing of local pollutants for many years.

In fact, as Stephen Marshall shows in a very informative article at Urban Habitats, the Meadowlands once reached Newark—until the city punishingly developed the entire southern third of the region. What was once “a large complex of tidal, brackish, and freshwater wetlands” gave way to:

Additional portions of the Newark Meadows were similarly reclaimed during the 1920s for the expansion of Port Newark and the construction of the original Newark Airport. These land-making projects elevated the wetlands by using a combination of fill: dredge spoils from Newark Bay, Newark garbage, and excavated fill from the construction of Newark’s skyscrapers and subway system. Between 1914 and 1974, the Newark Meadows portion of the Meadowlands was totally filled in and covered by the Port Newark/Elizabeth marine terminal, Newark Liberty International Airport, and the New Jersey Turnpike

Here’s the Newark Meadowlands in 1896, vs. today’s Meadowlands region, entirely in Hudson and Bergen counties:

I’m no expert on North Jersey ecological history, but a Journal of Planning History article by Eileen Maura McGurty rounds the picture out, showing how Newark continued attempting to build a “city renaissance on a garbage heap,” as she evocatively calls the repeated efforts to fill the Meadowlands with solid-waste treatment plants and the like.

All of which is to say: in another, less earth-obliterating version of the world, Swamp might have been shot in Newark. It offers us a counterfactual Newark, with fewer acrid fumes, less choked by concrete and asphalt and, even this very week, airborne chemical toxins. Perhaps less of a “Brick City.” Newark’s borders kept it bound in as pointless towns like East Newark spread, while it chased the Meadowlands out through the grim procession of ecologically disastrous development.

Probably it could not have been, nor is the monochromatic bramble of Swamp particularly utopian itself. But it offers at least a chance to rethink Newark, or at least, that’s what I took from it.

Stream it here for the next several hours, or perhaps Google your way to a bootleg later if that vanishes.

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I’ve taken eight million pics of the Meadowlands while riding New Jersey Transit trains through them to NYC, and now this is the one I can find. I haven’t been to New York in over five weeks, since the lockdown, and I can’t wait to be back. I think of the 2003 Wrens album Meadowlands every single time. Every time, not exaggerating. It’s perfect (synthesize it with Swamp and you get: “Greener grasses fade from where you wind up [the camera]”; yeah, I dunno, it’s late). Listen to the Wrens, practice ecosocialism, destroy neoliberalism, and stream as many of these fleeting films as you can. We’ll get through this, and sorry Robert Smithson but we will pan up into the fucking sun, zoom in for an extreme close-up, and then send Donald Trump and Joe Biden there in a rocketship and celebrate when we watch it explode. Swamp Part 2: The Revenge.





2 thoughts on “Newark Meadowlands or Bust: Swamp (1971)

  1. Good Morning Whitney! Hope you are doing well. Thanks for another rocking blog post. I dared last Saturday to finally leave my neighborhood (I’ve been working from home for over a month now – gosh, I miss Manhattan) and went to Ironbound for food shopping. The Portuguese wines and products are great there.Don’t know if I mentioned this before but, the Sunday before everything went to shit and we entered this Alien Contamination/Andromeda Strain/Outbreak mood, I also went for a lil’ walk to see some of the locations you’ve written about like the Little Theater, etc. Can’t wait to go back. I continue to tremendously enjoy your writings.  Thanks for sharing Javier

    • Javier, thanks–that makes my day! Really glad you got to scope out the remnants of the once-glorious Newark smut scene before we went to lockdown. Glad you’re well and here’s to a more open world sometime soon (I haven’t been to NYC in nearly two months, miss it terribly though I know there’s not as much right now to miss…)

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