The Gods of Times Square Richard Sandler (USA; 2004 – this is the latest edit; I believe there was an earlier edit )
viewed Bronx Documentary Centre, NYC; ticket: free; nb – on YouTube (at time of writing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0-BaBALfDY)
Richard Sandler’s ‘The Gods of Times Square’ opens with a subway sequence taking us into the 42nd St. Station that serves the Square. The series of shots: abstract travelling across and through the multiple reflecting planes of the intersecting car windows, create a sense of delirium. The opening section continues with a series of close ups of riders, and the feeling persists that we are hallucinating, witness to the stygian transit of ghostly tortured souls through a macabre underworld.
Then suddenly we surface out of subterranean gloom into the neon glare of the cinemas theatres and huge advertising hoardings that assault the senses and freeze consciousness.
Sandler’s documentary, filmed between 1994 and 2001 is built on a series of contrasts: sanity and madness, delirium and lucidity, black and white, the still and the frantic, scale – the human and the outsized, the momentary and the eternal, the saved and the damned. All captured by his repeated stoic cinematic peregrinations on the sidewalks of this New York landmark, penetrating the psychic reality of his chosen patch.
Central to the ‘The God’s of Times Square’ is Sandler’s singular methodology, the manner in which he has collected his material. It’s a film shot entirely from the hip. Night after night on the prowl with his camera the director goes out to shoot a film from material that can only be gathered from chance encounters. His guiding motif is the attraction of religious and quasi religious groups and individuals to the Square and its environs. This location, which at the time was not only a tourist attraction but also centre of the New York porn industry, provided preachers teachers ranters and ravers with the grist to the mill of their respective belief systems. ‘The Gods of Times Square’ is a singular expression on the paradoxes that define critical areas of American society: the primacy of religious belief in personal salvation existing side by side with the capitalist imperative of identity through consumption, both grounded in a dream culture of mindless oblivion. A symptom of a collective insanity.
Sandler walks and talks on his camera driven odyssey about the Square and its environs. His encounters range from one off confrontations to meetings with other regulars when their respective paths cross. Most of the interactions have an intensity that’s lent them by virtue their being ‘on the street’ and therefore publically ‘on the line’; but also by Sandler’s questioning. Sandler engages his street people and preachers with respect intelligence and humour (much of it purely visual exploiting frame linkage), whether he’s filming the raw hostility of blacks preaching the revenge that ‘Black Jesus’ is going to wreak upon white people or questioning the enigmatic dog collared man who calls himself ‘James’.
But along with the sidewalk material: delirium and wonder. The wonder is totally unexpected and comprises Sandler’s stunning representation of the natural world in the form of ‘The Square’ pigeons. Interspersed throughout the film a series of breath-taking shots of vast flocks of pigeons soaring planeing arching as one body across and through the frame of this eerie neon lit space. Life where there should be no expectation of life. In a strange way these shots called to mind the shots of stampeding buffaloes in John Ford movies. Despite everything a life force is in evidence.
The delirium: captured by Sandler’s camera and edited in as interpolations throughout the course of the film, is the environment of ‘Times Square’. It is represented as a fantastical interplay of ever changing light, reflection refraction through multiple planes. ‘The Square’ is in constant movement creating for the viewer the experience of continuous spectacle. Spectacle is the transmission of strong emitted streams of stimulae which as absorbed by consciousness overpower the mind so that only these images of the present exist. There is no past; no present: mind is trapped in the experience of the moment. There is no memory; all is forgetfulness.
Perhaps to some extent the advent of smart phone mediated access to social media has led to an internalisation of spectacle. Individuals now expose themselves to the continuous transmission of a stream of ever changing information that overwhelms consciousness and also traps mind into a continuous present.
But over and above the interplay of a million lights, high up in the sky are ‘The Square’s’ huge advertising hoardings. In contrast to the spectacle of light, these hoardings are immobile but explot the spectacle of scale. Represented on these massive canvasses are the almost naked forms of men and women, supersized images pretending to advertise undergarments but in fact flaunting an unrepentant strangely perfected sexuality that, at odds with the shoddy seedy actuality on sale in the adult shows and cinemas of 42nd Street, mocks the merely human. The psychic impact of these flaunted bodies is Olympian, they challenge the mortal gaze and the spectacle they offer suggests they are the real ‘Gods of Times Square’.
Sandler’s film seems to me to be a triumph of perseverance intentionality and stamina. He has gone out time and again over a period of some ten years and caught something essential about NYC. He filmed ‘The Gods of Times Square’ during a period of major transition when the patch was subjected to a complete change about from being a centre of the adult entertainment industry into an extension of Disneyland, a centre for family entertainment. Though of course the Times Square spectacle continues but now fronts out a different variety of consumption. Same Gods but another form of iteration.
So ‘Times’ Square has now been cleaned up. The human detritus yearnings and utterances rage and wisdom that characterised it have been swept away. However although the expressive features which were the subject of Sandler’s ‘Square’ are gone, my feeling is that they are simply repressed. The ‘Square’ hasn’t just gone away. Its insanity its life its intensity its urgency are simply for the moment submerged. In the vaults of New York’s psychic memory they lurk ready to when the time is right, to emerge and reclaim their place on the sidewalk.