The Many Saints of Newark

I was not a regular viewer of The Sopranos when it was the big show to watch on HBO. I saw episodes but I have this aversion to most mob movies and shows. I can’t really explain it. The glorification of crime and violence? Maybe. But I did enjoy it when I saw a neighborhood or location that I know in an episode.

I suspect that is a common thing for all of you.  It happens for books too. I recall reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and being delighted that he was riding the #94 bus on Stuyvesant Avenue in Irvington, NJ just like I had done many times. His books were full of references to the Newark area that I knew intimately.

I met Roth very briefly once when his childhood home on Summit St. was being marked as a historic site. He lived there for his first 17 years. That dedication day, I walked over from my job at the nearby NJIT campus and he was standing outside. It was early and the press hadn’t really descended on him. I deliberately did not say or ask him anything literary. We talked about the Weequahic Diner.

The trailer for the prequel to The Sopranos story came out this month. The Many Saints of Newark will be in theaters and streaming on HBOMax starting October 1.

The film is directed by Alan Taylor and written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. It is a prequel to Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos. The film stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, and Vera Farmiga. But I suspect that a lot of attention will go to Michael Gandolfini who plays young Tony (Anthony) Soprano. I’ve seen him in The Deuce but this is clearly his big role. He is the son of Marcy and James Gandolfini, so there will be plenty of critics who say he only got the part because his father played Tony on HBO. We’ll see.

The film is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey. The 1967 riots in the city – which I recall all too well since I was living in the neighboring Irvington and my grandparents still lived in Newark – are a backdrop to the film. It was a turning point for the city, and the turn was downward. There was a “white flight” from the city after 1967. The film looks particularly at the tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities.

I’m no Sopranos expert but I don’t remember Tony’s childhood being a major part of the stories. But it is a good choice for the prequel because Anthony is growing up in a very charged time in Newark and America’s history. Anthony and I would be about the same age then.

I don’t know much about Jersey gangsters, but in the film, there is a move on the powerful DiMeo crime family in the city. Anthony idolizes his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, who influences the teenager in ways that clearly foreshadow his own mob boss Tony Soprano life.

posterThough the film is all about Newark, like most films, the locations are in many places, including some that stand-in for the Newark of 50 years ago. They started shooting in Brooklyn back in spring 2019 and then moved to Newark that summer.

Newark’s Branford Place was a focal point fixed to look more 1960s. There are lots of places I recognize just from production stills and the trailer. They remade the old Adams Theatre marquee, and redid the sign for Hobby’s Delicatessen to look as it had looked before. My parents took me to see Ben Hur when I was quite young at the Adams Theatre. I went to Hobby’s for lunch in my time at NJIT many years later.

Adams theater

I was doing some work the summer of 2019 in Paterson and caught them filming scenes at a recreated Satriale’s Pork Store there.

People obsessed with The Sopranos do “tours” of many of the locations. When James Gandolfini died, people left flowers on the driveway of the house used as Tony’s home which is near where I live now. So, Sopranos locations seem to have been a part of my youth and adult lives.

Here are some of the locations used that people tour.

The Sopranos home: Aspen Drive, North Caldwell
Christopher’s new house: Baldwin Ct, Fairfield.
Green Grove Convalescent Home is Green Hill Senior Living and Rehabilitation, Pleasant Valley Way, W. Orange.
Janice & Richie’s house: Westmount Dr., Livingston.
Livia Soprano’s house: Gould Street, Verona.
Johnny Sack’s house: Fox Run, North Caldwell.
Kearny Boat Launch: Bellville Pike at Passaic Ave.
Pizzaland: Belleville Turnpike, North Arlington.
Satriale’s Pork Store: 101 Kearny Avenue, Kearny.
Skyway Diner: Central Ave. & 2nd St., Kearny.
Harsimus Cemetery: Newark Ave., Jersey City
Bada Bing strip club: Satin Dolls, Route 17, Lodi.

I still see people taking photos and wanting to sit in the booth at Holsten’s Restaurant where the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos was shot. It’s on Broad Street in Bloomfield.

Mr. Softee

It doesn’t have to be a place that takes me back. I saw a shot of Anthony inside a Mr. Softee ice cream truck and immediately I hear its annoying constantly playing “music” as it wandered my hometown streets and showed up at our neighborhood park and at baseball games. I was a Good Humor ice cream truck customer, but the truck triggers memories.

The film’s title, The Many Saints of Newark, is a reference to the translation of the family name of Anthony’s uncle, Moltisanti. It translates as “many saints” which is surely a bit of Chase’s ironic, dark humor.

Will I see the movie? Sure, probably streaming on HBO. I won’t do any tours but I do like seeing those places on film. It is an odd kind of appeal since I can see those places in person any day. Somehow, seeing these places on a screen or a printed page somehow elevates them. Art imitates life.

Cinéma Vérité in Less Than a Minute

On December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers – Auguste and Louis – hosted the world’s first commercial movie screening with a paying audience. It was held at the Grand Café in Paris.

Their film, “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (“the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon” – commonly known in English as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”) was only 46 seconds long.

The title sums it up very well. It is a single static shot. You see a concierge at the end of the day’s work opening the factory gates and the workers exiting to the street. A few men have bicycles. A dog bounds out. A horse-drawn wagon comes at the end of the film.

It does not seem extraordinary today but it was exactly that at the time – beyond ordinary.

“Lumiere” means light and it’s a perfect name for these early filmmakers who were “painting with light” and exploring what might be done with this new invention. (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has a brought-to-life candlestick named Lumiere.)

The brothers were manufacturers of photography equipment. Their Cinématographe motion picture system was used to make their first short films which they produced between 1895 and 1905.

They had screened their short film earlier that year (March 22) in Paris for an audience of about 200 who were members of the “Society for the Development of the National Industry,” That was probably the first presentation of films on a screen for a large audience. The December 28 screening with about 40 paying visitors and invited relations is generally regarded as the launch of commercial cinema. Earlier filmmaking efforts, including Thomas Edison in America, focused on individual viewing of films rather than projection.

Those first 10 films were 17 meters of film stock and when hand-cranked on a projector correctly would be about 50 seconds.

Though the Lumiere brothers are important to film history, they weren’t really the ones who moved filmmaking into a commercial enterprise. Like Edison at first, they said that “the cinema is an invention without any future.” They moved on to experimenting with color photography. They would not sell their camera to other early filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès. They certainly did not see cinema as a possible new art form. It would take others, like  Méliès in France, to begin to film fictional stories and add their own special effects.

No Humbug on the Eve, Mr. Scrooge

“Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol over the course of a few weeks to get it published before Christmas 1843.

It is the story of a mean old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, who when confronted by his past and present life and a glimpse of what his future might be finds gratitude, kindness and the “Christmas spirit.”

The different film versions always get a run at this time of the year.  Alistair Sim’s Scrooge is considered to be the classic one.

In England, the film was released as Scrooge but as A Christmas Carol in the United States in 1951.

I will admit that my favorite version of the story as a child was the 1962 animated version starring Jim Backus as the voice of Mister Magoo.

Mister Magoos Christmas Carol 1962 from ROCKET SKY 3D ANIMATION SCHOOL on Vimeo.

This animated version is framed as Magoo performing a Broadway stage musical version of Dickens’ story.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Hunting the Halloween Blue Moon

We had our Harvest Moon at the start of October, and tomorrow we will have our second Full Moon of the month. This Full Moon is often called the Hunter Moon because it occurs during hunting seasons in many places and because a Full Moon offered better light for hunters.

But this particular Full Moon has some other oddities.

Back on the 16th, we had the year’s closest and largest New Moon. This Full Moon will be the year’s farthest and smallest one. It’s also a Blue Moon and appears near red Mars which makes for a nice Halloween Blue Full Moon.

Halloween was traditionally called All Hallows’ Eve because it occurs on the evening before the Christian holy day of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints Day (November 1). That’s why Halloween is celebrated on October 31.

This pandemic year has changed Halloween trick-or-treat traditions as going door to door is probably not a good idea. In my town, they will have an event at the community park where kids can come with parents by car and drive around the big parking lot, stopping at candy and treat stations. That doesn’t sound very appealing for kids.

There has been a movement to change Halloween to the last Saturday of October in the past so as not to conflict with school and work. Of course, this year a lot for kinds are schooling at home as parents are working from home or not working at all. This year Halloween coincidentally does fall on the last Saturday. By the way, that movement for a Saturday Halloween was started, unsurprisingly,  by the Halloween and Costume Association.

The next time we’ll see an October 31st Halloween Full Moon is in 2039, so you should plan to get your werewolf costume this year.

Werewolf, Full Moon, and Blue Moon all together send my thoughts immediately to the film, American Werewolf in London. I love this scary and also funny film by John Landis about two American college students on a walking tour of Britain who are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will even admit exists.

Be careful out there tomorrow night.

Cinema History and Bataille de boules de neige

When I was teaching film history, one of the stories I would tell was about the showing of the a film by the French Lumière Brothers called “Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat” (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). This 1896 film had a running time of 50 seconds. It shows a train pulled by a steam locomotive entering the train station of the French southern coastal town of La Ciotat, near Marseille. It is like most of their early films and is a single, unedited shot with no intentional camera moves.  The story – which I have since learned is a myth – was that when it was shown it so startled audiences that people jumped from their seats.

The American film “The Great Train Robbery” from Thomas Edison’s studio in 1903 also had a “shocker” shot of a gun fired at the audience. But audiences did not jump up in fear when they saw that gun fire.  Made 7 years after the Lumiere film, audiences had seen more films and were used to more sophisticated “effects.” This film was edited, had wide shots, close-ups, a matte effect, camera pans, multiple locations (in New York and New Jersey) and showed simultaneous action across multiple scenes.

I’m generally not a fan of colorizing black and white films, but recently one of the Lumière Brothers’ films was restored in full color and HD by Joaquim Campa. He used AI-powered software and there were frames interpolated to smooth the film (though the film’s speed remains unchanged). Here is the new version.

I like this “restored” version though film purists will say the original version (seen below) is the only version that should be seen. Considering that the actual “Bataille de boules de neige” (Snowball Fight) occurred in real-life color and that the brothers had no choice but to use black and white film and be silent, I imagine they would have been thrilled to see their film in color and with sound.

Watching these citizens pound each other and a passing cyclist with snowballs is a fun little moment from 1896 that doesn’t seem so different from our own time. Photography and cinema always change reality. Another French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, saw what the brothers had done but he took it beyond reality and created fantasies and special effects such as those in his film  “A Trip to the Moon” which in 1902 had many effects including footage in black and white but also scenes that had been “hand-colorized.”

The Sator Square

I came across a curious thing, the Sator Square (or Rotas Square) recently.  It is a word square that contains a five-word Latin palindrome (words that read the same forward and backward).

The earliest form has ROTAS as the top line, but later versions had SATOR on the top line and that became the most common representation. This 5×5 square has 5 words and 25 letters but it only uses 8 Latin letters (the consonants S, T, R, P, N and three vowels A, E, O).

R O T A S
O P E R A
T E N E T
A R E P O
S A T O R

S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S

I learned of this odd little puzzle from a puzzling film. The words (though not the square itself) show up in Tenet, the 2020 action-thriller-spy-fi movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Nolan is known for puzzling us and leaving audiences with clues and things not fully explained.

The Sator Square gives the film its title. The location of the opening sequence is at the Kiev Opera. Characters and companies in the film use the other words: A. Sator is a villain, Arepo the Goya forger and Rotas Security. What does it all mean? Nolan succeeded in getting me (and I’m sure others) to did into the Sator Square.

Let’s start with those Latin words. SATOR comes from serere meaning “to sow” and can be a sower, planter, founder, progenitor – a “seeder.”

AREPO seems to be more mysterious in origin. Possibly a proper name.

TENET is a verb (tenere) meaning to hold, comprehend, possess, master.

OPERA is not the singing we think of but a noun meaning work, care, aid, labor, service, especially the kind that comes with effort – see opus.

ROTAS is a plural noun meaning wheels and as a verb it means to turn or cause to rotate.

That’s the etymologies, but what is the meaning?

The Sator Square has in the past been said to have magical properties. Palindromes were viewed as being confusing and therefore more immune to tampering by the devil.

The square shows up in folk magic for an odd variety of purposes including putting out fires, removing jinxes, fevers and fatigue, and protection from witchcraft. Sometimes the words need to be written on a special material or written in special ink.  The Sator Square appears in Pennsylvania Dutch and Russian Orthodox Old Believer communities.

One interesting use of it comes from repositioning the letters around the central letter Ν (en) so that it makes a Greek cross which reads vertically and horizontally as “Pater Noster” which is Latin for “Our Father” – the first two words of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer.” 

The remaining letters – two each of A and O – are said to represent the concept of Alpha and Omega, which can be a reference in Christianity to the omnipresence of God.

I read that the square might have been used by early Christians who needed to hide their beliefs as a secret symbol to other  Christians. A Sator Square found in Manchester, England dating to the 2nd century AD has been seen as one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in Britain.

The Coptic Christain Prayer of the Virgin in Bartos says that Christ was crucified with five nails, which were named Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera and Rotas, and so the words entered the Ethiopic tradition as the names of the wounds of Christ. (In that Ethiopian tradition the words are altered to SADOR, ALADOR, DANAT,  ADERA, and RODAS and they are prayed on the knots of the prayer rope.)

To further complicate the story, or to show how the Sator Square spread, in the time of Constantine VII (913–959), the shepherds of the Nativity story are called SATOR, AREPON, and TENETON. An even earlier Byzantine bible says that the baptismal names of the three Magiin the Nativity story are ATOR, SATOR, and PERATORAS. Still, another version has it that the Sator Square was Mithraic or Jewish in origin.

What is Nolan up to in the film by using these references to the Sator Square? The most obvious connection seems to be that these words that can be read backwards and forwards have to do with his ideas of time and inversion, as things happen backwards and forwards in the film. After all, this is the director who first came to our attention with his film Memento. That film has scenes in black-and-white shown chronologically, and a series of color sequences shown in reverse order. The reverse order simulates for viewers the mental state of the protagonist who has short-term memory loss that resets approximately every fifteen minutes. The two sequences meet at the end of the film to make a kind of cohesive narrative.

Nolan loves these games. His films Inception and Interstellar are equally complex and confusing. There is already a book to help explain the puzzles of the new film: The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War. (I do like that the book has a Foreword and a Backword.) Should we need a book to explain a film? No, but in Nolan’s film worlds there is plenty to explore after and beyond the film.