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

Newark on film (sort of): The Rockford Files (1974/1979)

Well, not exactly cinema, and barely Newark…

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I don’t understand the appeal of The Rockford Files. 30% of its screen time consists of driving scenes across the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. That, I like; unfortunately, the other 70% is lightweight mystery fodder without any of the resonance of its cinematic contemporaries like Hickey & Boggs or The Long Goodbye or even Robert Aldrich’s muddled Hustle. Plus, James Garner is blandness personified. I just can’t stay focused on the guy. When he walks past a tree, my eyes wander to the branches.

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While The Rockford Files is the ultimate lazy-70s-L.A. show, it ventured twice to Newark, both times really randomly (perhaps for contrast—Newark being the anti-L.A. in many ways). The first came during season 1 in 1974, an unfortunately lengthy double episode called “This Case is Closed.” The plot—or rather, the half-assed gesture at a plot—involves washed-up guest star Joseph Cotten hiring Jim Rockford to investigate his daughter’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend, who affects an Ivy League demeanor—but get him down a few points in handball and “a New Jersey accent pops up—real gutter Jersey.” Continue reading

Newark on film: This is Newark, 1966

This is Newark, 1966 is a short industrial film that has left few traces;* the sole reference to it that I can find is a passing mention in the opening pages of Brad Tuttle’s How Newark Became Newark, which explains that it was funded by the Port Authority (which ran Newark’s airport and seaport) and ran on a loop at the Newark Museum during the city’s 300th anniversary celebration that year.**

As a booster film, it fails profoundly. While a male narrator drones on about Newark—New Jersey’s “greatest concentration of population and finance, that’s worn and blighted… but we have the spirit and vigor to grow and build anew”—the visuals reduce the city to set of sterilized skyline shots, mostly of corporate towers and new buildings that drive home why Brutalist architecture got its name:

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We see my own beloved home institution, Rutgers-Newark, along with our neighboring NJIT, expanding, and the sight there too, I’m afraid, is less than flattering:

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This is Newark celebrates urban renewal, boasting that Newark has undertaken more of it per capita than any of America’s other thirty largest cities; “in our time, 1/5 of our city will have been rebuilt.” It proudly presents new housing projects, including the Scudder Homes in “the old 3rd ward,” as one signal achievement:

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We also get shots of Branch Brook Park, the airport, and the port:

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What we don’t get is a single non-aerial shot of the city—which is one reason This is Newark, 1966 is such an inadvertently chilling film. It presents a city entirely devoid of a human population, where sprawling slabs of concrete replace the citizenry. I’m reminded of Edward Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, in which he links the new meanings of the postwar skyline opening shot to military newsreel films, where they became “inextricably bound up with social planning and control.” (He quotes General Marshall in 1944:  WWII “has seen the development of two new weapons: the airplane and the motion picture”).

The dangers of such an abstract approach to human issues is obvious—and if it isn’t, just ask Harry Lime (or whatever soulless functionary punches in the code for American drone strikes). The much-vaunted Scudder Homes, rather than solving social problems This is Newark only vaguely alludes to, were left to deteriorate, until their destruction (apparently preserved, in part, on YouTube) in 1987 (vigorously protested at the time—as Camilo José Vergara noted in a passionate New York Times piece that I highly recommend, the problems of high-rise housing projects were obvious by the 80s, but unlike the symbolically fraught Pruitt-Igoe projects that St. Louis tore down in the 1970s, Newark had no ready means to relocate displaced tenants).

Of course, it’s impossible to watch This is Newark without constantly thinking of that 1966—the year before the national narrative of Newark would change with the riots, popularly blamed then and still blamed now on the impoverished residents of the city rather than the racialized systems and structures of containment, disfranchisement, and state-sponsored violence that made the uprising a sociological near-inevitability. We live in a society that likes to assign Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” but never seems to want to actually read the damn words about what happens to dreams deferred. It’s tragic and infuriating—and banal triumphalist narratives about the glories of urban renewal like This is Newark, 1966 do little to help establish the much-needed empathy so absent from much of American history.

It is neat to look at even in its cold bloodless distance, though, I will give it that.

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* I know of the film’s existence only by fortuitous chance: I happened to mention my aspirations of blogging about Newark on film to my colleague Clem Price—who just so happens to be perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the history of Newark, as witnessed in the fact that the New York Times seems to consult him nearly every time they turn their attention to the city—and he generously loaned me a VHS tape bearing the exciting title “Films of Newark” (more shorts to follow!).

I’m also grateful to my colleague Mark Krasovic, another wonderful Newark historian, for subsequently hooking me up with a digitized version. I have very cool colleagues (who are also, to be sure, friends!).

** In the footnote to his brief discussion of the film, Tuttle cites “Newark Museum archives, box 98.” Now I’m curious what that contains…

3/10/15 edited to add: came across a newspaper clipping about the production of this while sifting through the Stanley Winters Scrapbooks at Newark Public Library. Less than revelatory, but what the hell, might as well throw it on:

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