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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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

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

Pornography in Newark, Part 3: Hello, Hardcore!

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I had intended to write this a while ago, but then got distracted writing a piece on Utah’s asinine declaration of pornography as a public health crisis last month; that ran on Salon, which has a vastly larger audience than this humble blog, but the truth is, I find writing here more fun. So, back to Newark. Continue reading

Kick Fast, Kick Newark: Moving Target (1999)

Last year, I was impressed by the unexpected historical resonance of Bobby Guions’ 2005 low-budget action-thriller Dinner with an Assassin, with its great opening scene on the roof of the Divine Hotel Riviera. So I thought I’d check out his 1999 debut, Moving Target.

Alas, a seller on Amazon to whom all b-movies titled Moving Target must seem the same sent me this:

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let’s just not talk about Billy Dee Williams being in this, it’ll make us all feel sad

Much love to Michael Dudikoff—as a kid, I loved American Ninja 1, 2, and 4 (the Dudikoffless 3 being redeemed only by the presence of the great Steve James), and I’ll still rep for Albert Pyun’s postapocalyptic Radioactive Dreams, but there’s no denying, by the 90s, Dudikoff was the poor(er) man’s Michael Biehn, cranking out dreary, formulaic dreck, and this Canadian gangster jam appears no exception (I got to keep it, with a refund, but not sure I’ll ever watch it, unless someone lobbies hard on its behalf). Also, this was the wrong movie.

Point being, it took me a while to get my hands on this:

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But wow, talk about being worth the wait: white VHS! I didn’t even know this was a thing (based on a quick google search, I’m not alone—600 people have watched this mystified dude ponder the immortal question “My Destroy All Monsters Tape is white. WHAT THE FUCK”). Is this the video-nerd equivalent of colored vinyl? Continue reading

Industrial booster cinema on the brink of post-Fordist dystopia: Camera Eye on New Jersey (1960)

One post begets another, further down the wormhole into the history of Newark’s cinematic representation: investigating John Dunnachie, director of Sightseeing in Newark, led me to this exciting periodical, inside of which was an ad for Henry Charles Motion Picture Studies, where Dunnachie served as VP:

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Camera Eye on New Jersey (Public Service Electric & Gas Co., Newark)” caught my eye. Surely such a marginal film wouldn’t be available anywhere, though, right?

Well, bless Rick Prelinger and his crazy ephemeral-film preservation work, because there it was on the Internet Archive, even looking pretty vibrant.

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Camera Eye (I can’t stop humming Iggy Pop when I think of this title) is mostly an undistinguished, if professionally done, industrial booster film from 1960, with a barebones semi-narrative in which a bunch of corporate dudes get together to discuss the burning question, where should we locate some new plants?

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The answer, of course, is the Jerz: #1 producer of chemical products, 4th in electrical machinery, “fifth in miscellaneous manufacturing,” and high-ranking on a list that drones on a bit interminably. A major selling point is “modern, rapidly growing” Port Newark:

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Continue reading