The Montclair Film Festival always has a strong lineup of documentaries, including many produced by local filmmakers. These two were filmed in the neighborhood of my youth.
I grew up about a half-mile from the Passaic River. As a kid going to day camp at the Paterson YMCA (Growing Up in the 50’s: Ode to the Y), I used to canoe on the river where we would stop and swing from the overhanging branches and jump in. It probably wasn’t so clean then either, but it was about 1960 and we didn’t know all that much about pollution, didn’t know that the fact that we couldn’t see the bottom might be representative of some toxicity. As an adult, the Passaic River has always been seen as untouchable.
American River is about two people who kayak the length of the Passaic. They start in Mendham where it originates as a small mountain stream and go for four days until they hit the end, a Superfund site in Newark. Along the 80 mile route, they head north past the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, past the Little Falls and the Great Falls. The river then does a U-turn and heads south past Passaic and Rutherford and Kearny before dumping out into the Newark Bay. Mary Bruno, one of the kayakers and the narrator for much of the movie, grew up in North Arlington, also not far from the banks of the Passaic.
The Great Falls in Paterson (A Day by the Falls) is the most majestic site the river has to offer. It also is a turning point, the river leaves the rural and suburban for good and becomes full-on industrial along its banks. The Falls powered the monster that nearly killed the river. It was the potential of the falls that Alexander Hamilton saw and planned to harvest to create in Paterson America’s first industrial city. It was, of course, those industries and their successors that used the river as a dumpster.
The movie is full of landmarks from my past. They even come ashore for a lunch at the iconic, and now deceased, Paterson hot dog joint, Libby’s. The closeness to me made this documentary an engaging and almost emotional experience. It won’t resonate the same way if you’re not from around here. But there’s a reason this film is called American River and I’m sure there are others who will see parallels with other rivers that maybe they grew up within a half mile of.
There’s a good deal of history in the script, especially the history of the two biggest cities the Passaic passes through, Paterson and Newark. Some of that history is ugly, but the movie isn’t. In fact, the river looks outright beautiful, and not just in the bucolic upstream areas.
One All the Way
A short about a hot-dog crawl. A what? Way back in the beginning of the 20th century a Greek immigrant street vendor in Paterson created a mobile feast called the Hot Texas Weiner. It never really caught on too far beyond the borders of Paterson, but for those of us who live in this area it’s iconic. The Hot Texas Weiner is a deep fried hot dog topped with mustard, chopped onions and beanless chili sauce. None of the aficionados call them Hot Texas Weiners, we just refer to them as hot dogs all the way.
This documentary short follows a group of three older Patersonians as they head out on hot dog runs, consuming one each at four or five stops per trip. None of these places are new and one of the best of them, Libby’s (my family’s favorite for at least three generations) has since gone out of business (Last Call at Libby’s). Another of my favorites, the Hot Grill in Clifton, is still going strong. We meet some of the guys who founded and manage these places, most of whom are also of Greek ancestry. And we hear about the intrigue involving the sauce, recipes which, if written down, are kept under lock and key.
Any movie about the Hot Texas Weiner is also a movie about Paterson. The guys on the crawl talk about the city’s decline and how that led to the closing of some beloved hot-dog peddlers. One is nearly brought to tears when he looked at the site that used to be Falls View (hot dogs of course) and has since been downgraded to a Burger King. Turns out he proposed to his wife in Falls View.
This is a movie of particular local interest, but if you are like my wife, married to someone who loves their hot dogs all the way, and you wonder how someone could eat something like that, this movie has all the answers.