Baby It’s Newark: A John Sayles visit, with a little Bruce Springsteen too, even!

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.

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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.

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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.

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But dig a little, and Sayles himself confirms it. From the 1999 book John Sayles: Interviews:

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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:

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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).

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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)

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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.

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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.

 

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The Backroom at the End of the World: Goodbye, Flash Video (Pornography in Newark, Part 5)

Flash Video left this world as it entered, largely unnoticed. Aside from listings in online directories, I can find no discussion of it whatsoever, not even a Yelp review.

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Which is a shame, because it was a nifty little place, one of the last independent video shops in Newark, and it deserves some celebration, even if, alas, posthumously. {NOTE: some explicit images in the form of video boxes contained here!} Continue reading

The Yaku and the Undefeated (2017)

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The monk is in town to avenge his brother, though because he’s taken a vow not to kill, he brings a team of assassins along. Only a young couple can stop them, though it’ll involve interrupting their reunion date, which begins with a roll in the hay and a strange discussion of the restorative powers of, uh, “male proteins.” Such is the setup of Vaughn Christion’s The Yaku and the Undefeated, which would sound convoluted were I to fully explicate the circumstances of revenge and defense at play but which unfolds in a nicely streamlined manner from one fight scene to the next, as some seeming moral ambiguities are headthwacked into clarity, villains are dispatched, and a restaurant reservation may or may not be broken.

Vaughn Christion is Newark’s longest-working filmmaker, and I’ve written at length about him before, so I won’t rehash except to say Yaku carries the torch he’s long held, blending pulp action-thriller and martial arts like a 70s grindhouse double feature condensed into a single film. I mean that as praise, of course—it’s possible that some folks attending other screenings at the Newark International Film Festival, where this proudly premiered today at Newark’s Cityplex, might have more highbrow tastes, but let ‘em have their Merchant-Ivory knockoffs or global middlebrow whatevers; this is good cheesy fun, without a hint of ironic distance, and I salute everything about that. Continue reading

The Zebedy Colt Teenage Sex (?) Scandal

Continued from “My Own Private Zebedy Colt

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One of the heartbreaking things about writing any scholarly article (beyond the near-certainty that virtually no one on earth will ever read it) is having to chop content to hit word-count limits, which happens to me every time. Perhaps I’m just verbose. In any case, GLQ has a generous limit of 11,000 words—but by the time I was finished revising “Sex Wishes and Virgin Dreams,” I was at some absurd level in the 16,000 range. Something had to give, and there weren’t that many adjectives and adverbs. Continue reading

Russ Meyer in the Archives

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A few years ago, I thought it would be fun to post some short archival-encounter quickies, but alas, my enthusiasm sometimes snowballs into verbosity, the ostensible quickies took as much effort as full posts, and I guess it trailed off, after an expose of a night with Fassbinder, the gay-leather mag Star Wars review, antigay jerks with eggs in 1980s Wisconsin, and some unearthed 1970s New Jersey lesbian cat poetry.

So, to flare that old archive fever back up, and tersely at that: Continue reading

My Own Private Zebedy Colt: From Mondo Video to GLQ

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I first discovered Zebedy Colt in early 2002, at Mondo Video back when it was located on Vermont just north of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles’s rapidly-gentrifying Los Feliz. It wasn’t Colt who drew me to Farmer’s Daughters, but rather the mind-blowing (to me, at least) presence of Spalding Gray in a particularly grimy-looking hardcore film.

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Alas: this was before easy streaming or downloading of movies, and some rat bastard kept the tape checked out so long that I had moved into the neighborhood, right across the street, but Mondo Video then moved out (after its transgender mud-wrestling matches on the rooftop and huge poster of Osama bin Laden sodomizing George W. Bush in the front window apparently violated both the terms of its lease and the increasingly hip-genteel community standards), to a stretch of Melrose Avenue far east of anything Aaron Spelling ever put on TV, before I ever saw Farmer’s Daughters.

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Newark’s Worst: Scraping the Bottom of the Local Film Barrel

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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.  Continue reading