Newark under Surveillance: Highlights of the COINTELPRO files, and Confessions of an Undercover Cop (1988)

It’s a good time to think about surveillance and its history. We have a nakedly racist administration escalating and further militarizing the already cruel and counterproductive monitoring, harassment, and deportation of Latino/a people. Meanwhile, in the fraudulent name of national security, they’re trying to bar people (read: Muslims) from seven nations responsible for zero acts of domestic terrorism, as part of their New Crusades Theater-spectacular. One of the first things the Trump administration did was to round up data on which federal scientists were doing their fricking jobs by tracking climate change, and if native-born white U.S. citizens somehow still think they’re exempt from all of this, oh hey, they’re also checking IDs at exits from domestic flights.

None of this is normal, that can’t be emphasized enough. But neither is it a radical break from the grotesque U.S. history of internal domestic surveillance of radicals, people of color, queer people, etc. During the Obama years, the NYPD shamefully spied on the Rutgers Muslim Student Association, and as recently as last month continued to refuse to confirm or deny its possession of surveillance records. And don’t get me started on the PATRIOT Act and its travesties.

Congressional Democrats aren’t going to save us—the very day I’m writing this, eleven of them voted to confirm scumsucking racist mouthbreather Rick Perry to head a department he literally did not remember existed in the recent past, just the latest capitulation in a shameful month-and-a-half descent into Trumpism. The only hope for American democracy to survive this onslaught comes from two sources, in my estimation: first, the resistance that has galvanized millions of Americans to put their bodies on the line in streets, airports, town hall meetings, and elsewhere; there are more of us than there are of these jackbooted fascists, and if we can stay focused, angry, and active, we have at least a chance.

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Newark Liberty International Airport, 28 January 2017

Our second—and maybe more powerful—hope is the sheer ineptitude of the national security state. Nearly all of Trump’s appointments veer toward utter slack-jawed stupidity, Perry’s not alone: Ben Carson and his mushmouthed ramblings, Betsy DeVos and her delusions that HBCUs grew out of a “choice” in Jim Crow America, and most tellingly Michael Flynn, before he was deposed by his lying: the very man who was supposed to head the NSA tweeted fake news because he couldn’t tell the difference. And then there’s Steve Bannon, a man so desperate to be perceived as an evil genius that he misuses the term “deconstruction” (not synonymous with destruction, which is what he seems to intend for the administrative state) because it sounds like . . . wait, those smarty-pants professors that I thought we were supposed to hate, and whose earlier career as a director of dud rightwing documentaries was so pathetic that a recent Film Comment podcast compared it unfavorably to the cinematic works of Alex Jones and Dinesh D’Souza. I apologize for so many italics here, but just let that sink in, seriously. I actually saw his Sarah Palin movie, and while it made me fear his ability to pander to racist, nationalist chestbeating, I did not walk away awed by his intellect, to say the least.

All of which leads back to COINTELPRO. Continue reading

Newark Deserves a City Symphony: New Work: Newark in 3D (2009)

The city-symphonies of the 1920s and 30s defined both film technique and “the city” itself as representational space. Beginning with Manhatta in 1921, they swept across the globe: Paris, Berlin, Moscow, etc. When I taught a class on film and urban history last semester, we began with Manhatta—it’s short, legible but still open to discussion, and a good way to begin thinking about montage, mise-en-scène, and how cinema narrates urbanism (for one smart, if theory-heavy analysis of the genre as revealing “the temporal movements of urban modernity,” see Sarah Jilani’s 2013 Senses of Cinema article; a perhaps more reader-friendly, if NYC-centric, century-long overview from Jon Gartenberg can be found here as a pdf)

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The genre persisted in various ways after its heyday—if a basic scattershot canon might include Manhatta, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City , Man with a Movie Camera, and Bronx Morning, later efforts range from Brakhage’s Wonder Ring to Menken’s Go! Go! Go! and Lights, through the recently-departed Peter Hutton (some of whose work I caught at a recent Anthology Film Archives retrospective). I’ve seen Amos Poe’s 1970s no-wave films (great) and Hollywood crossover attempts (wretched), but not his experimental 2008 Empire II; David Bordwell makes it sound interesting, though.

Missing from all of this, of course, was Newark, skipped over by the city-symphony movement. There was Sightseeing in Newark in 1926, which I wrote about here and can be viewed here; it’s a great document of the city, and not devoid of creative flourishes, but really a little too stilted and postcardish to qualify as a city symphony. So, no Newark city symphony.

Until 2009. Filmmaking team Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno are probably best known for their documentaries, including the powerful Revolution ’67 and the education film The Rule (both of which deserve eventual posts unto themselves), but they’ve also made an eclectic array of fictional and nonfictional works—see the whole list here. Marylou is from Newark, Jerome has been here for decades, and they’re deeply committed to the city—so when the Newark Museum prepared for its centennial in 2009, it made perfect sense to commission them for a short cinematic celebration of the city.

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The result, New Work: Newark in 3D, finally gives Newark its belated city symphony, capturing the city’s vibrancy and beauty in gorgeously-composed shots featuring both its iconic architectural and urban-design highlights, and also the everyday vitality of the city in action. Continue reading

Blogging against Trump

This blog sputtered out and then died a few months back, and I’ve had a hard time finding inspiration to write again since election night. The things I like to blog about—films shot in Newark, archival discoveries, smut history, mostly—all seem inconsequential in the face of the national hategasm that gave us Trump, a probable slide into fascism where authoritarian kleptocracy is the best possible outcome, and the final exhausted death squelch of democracy in the United States (it had already been on life support for decades).

There’s so much I have to say about all of this, but there’s no real need for it here. I am disgusted by the white people—men, mostly, but a majority of women too—who supported this sputtering, slobbering monster, this racist misogynist clown who was born rich, spent his entire life showing open contempt for anyone lower on the social ladder, and then purported to represent ordinary Americans through a slogan so laughably stupid that even P.T. Barnum must be a little shocked that it worked. I’m appalled by the 81% of white evangelicals who supported a grinning sexual assaulter and showed they care more about fetuses than women, more about shaming the sexually active than making a better world. I guess it’s easier to legislate for the unborn—just come on out alive, then pray to Saint Herbert Spencer that you don’t die, until you do!—than to follow a Christlike way. If Barnum is probably laughing, Jesus must be pounding a final nail into his brain in despair, after seeing his message of love and socialism perverted for millennia until it finally helped spawn a leering Pharisee in his name. Continue reading

Newark’s Greatest Film at Fifty: Troublemakers (1966)

 

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These are scenes from the documentary Troublemakers, which I would declare, without any hesitation, the greatest film to come out of Newark. It’s many things at once: a vivid, tangible portrayal of life in the struggling Clinton Hill neighborhood; a clinical examination of what happens when “an interracial movement of the poor” moves from theory (read the 1963 document co-authored by Tom Hayden, who led the Newark Community Union Project that’s featured in Troublemakers, here) to practice; an expose of the structures and political systems that maintain inequality in America; a rare and valuable archive of black women’s activism; and a stark analysis of the dead end reached when democracy breaks down. It is, to my mind, one of the great films of the 1960s, one of the clearest expressions of a Left cinema in America, and also a striking, visceral depiction of Newark. Better than any other film or writing, it explains why the uprising of July 1967 took place.

The only reason that I haven’t blogged about Troublemakers during my three years of Newark film-blogging is that I had greater designs, of writing a scholarly journal about it. I’ve done archival research in Newark, Wisconsin, and NYU, and interviewed its filmmakers, Robert Machover and Norm Fruchter, as well as several members of NCUP and the film crew. So, I do still hope to develop that into something more substantive.

But for the moment, this supersedes it: we’re doing a screening at Rutgers-Newark to mark its 50th anniversary, with Frucher and Machover there for a discussion!

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To my mind, this is a MAJOR film event, and I’m thrilled to be involved Continue reading

Juice in Newark: O.J.-Made in America (2016) and the Hertz ad campaign (1975)

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One of the most exciting things about OJ: Made in America is that you can see our larger narratives shifting before your eyes: this isn’t the decontextualized story of Heismans and yards gained (we get those, but they’re not the center), but rather the life of O.J. Simpson writ against its real backdrop: Black Power and the athletes who supported it, from Muhammad Ali to John Carlos (but not, never, O.J.); LAPD violence from Watts to Eula Mae Love to Rodney King; the interplay of race, celebrity, and advertising that he navigated with as much if not more dexterity than he did the football field; and the ways the media, professional athletics, and even police collude to ignore and enable violence against women. Continue reading

The Sticky Floors of History at the Little Theater (Pornography in Newark, Part 4)

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The other month I wrote an article for Vice about the Little Theater, Newark’s last and finest theatrical den of smut. It was nice to share the story of Newark’s rich sexual and cinematic subculture with a much wider audience than this humble blog reaches, but it came at the cost of paring things down to 1200 words, sacrificing some of the history I wanted to present. I get it: Vice readers might be interested in the fact that men are still attending porn theaters and curious about what goes on inside; they are less likely, collectively, to hold a deep interest in the Little Theater’s development from ethnic grindhouse to multicultural cruising spot or its role in Newark’s cultural history. Continue reading

Sidney Lumet’s Newark Pitstop: Find Me Guilty (2006)

To the best of my knowledge, Sidney Lumet only ever shot in Newark once, and not, lamentably enough, for his remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria (whose Newark Penn Station scene I wrote about here)–a remake whose omission of Cassavetes from the credits still perturbs me.

Instead, it was for this Vin Diesel mediocrity:

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Now, I really enjoy Sidney Lumet as a filmmaker. I always think of him as the pre-Soderbergh, reined in by a classical Hollywood leash that prevented any wildly idiosyncratic swerves like Schizopolis or Bubble, but still committed to an almost experimental craftsmanship in his willingness, eagerness even, to jump genres. We tend to remember Lumet for his gritty NYC canon, but dude made westerns, musicals, a really good and overlooked British spy thriller (The Deadly Affair, y’all!), a romcom, etc.

Of course, they weren’t all good. Continue reading