Times Square

10/30/2011

U.S.A. / 1980 / English

Directed by Allan Moyle

With Trini Alvarado, Robin Johnson, Tim Curry

Still from 'Times Square'1980: Crime in New York City is ballooning, America is about to tumble into the dismal hypocrisy of Reaganism, and in Times Square, a wrecking ball sits poised, like a sword of Damocles over the peep shows, porn shops, dens of iniquity. Of course no one there is aware of it but outside, in boardrooms, campaign offices, and political assemblies, its doom is being, if not planned meticulously, at least proposed by a great many loud and obtuse, self-proclaimed liberal politicians – many of whom express their indignation from cushy lives in park-view apartments.

Atop one such turret is Pamela Pearl, a teenager feeling trapped in her sheltered, private-school existence. Dissatisfied with having to play the “zombie” in her everyday life, she finds solace in writing poetry, yearning for some great current to sweep through and carry her out of it. Her father is a mover and a shaker in the mayor’s office, well-known throughout the city for his feverish campaign to “clean up” Times Square and get rid of the indecency that plasters it. This is more a moral crusade than a vow against crime and exploitation, an issue of aesthetics that is aimed at making the place look presentable. The girl cuts out of one of his speeches crying, and winds up hospitalized for apparently having seizures, or perhaps the modern version of “hysteria.”

She finds herself sharing a room with Nicky, a tough and grizzled runaway who is the same age as her and there with the same condition as her, although headed in the direction of juvenile court for smashing a car, causing a public disturbance, and then resisting arrest. Nicky is an ebullient character made withdrawn by the hospital environment; a psychoanalyst comes in and asks her a series of trendy questions, which she deflects with scabrous ferocity. Pamela is immediately taken with Nicky’s freedom, her frankness, and her open rejection of authority. So when Nicky breaks loose en route to an appointment with her social worker, Pamela comes along for the ride, and together they borrow an ambulance.

“You afraid of drowning?” Nicky asks her new friend as they try to decide on where they will hide out, displaying what should be a red flag for privileged, button-down Pamela. They settle on an abandoned warehouse by the docks, a vast kingdom all to themselves, and soon they have transformed it into a cozily gothic lair. On their own they can style themselves as they wish, and at first they switch outfits, Pamela taking on Nicky’s loud, black-leather frumpitude, Nicky adopting a sinewy frock that looks like a light daub around her abuse-weathered face and massacred hair. The latter girl’s enthusiasm for being free from institutions proves an infectious boon, presenting infinite possibilities and strength for them. Meanwhile Pamela helps Nicky achieve sensitivity, telling her about how to live one’s life as poetry.

Meanwhile the hunt is on for them, but David Pearl, Pamela’s father is reluctant to get the law involved, presumably because it would be a  public embarrassment for him. Although everyone tells him Pamela went voluntarily, he refuses to believe it, and the incident is treated as a kidnapping. The third, absent-but-present member of the girls’ team is the radio D.J. Johnny Laguardia, who is only heard in the wee hours of the night. He is with them seemingly every step of the way, foreshadowing their meeting, beginning with a letter that Pamela writes to him at the start of the film.

Still from 'Times Square'Johnny’s voice drifts through the night in a near-croon. Situated somewhere between commercial ‘shock-jock’ and fugitive face of dissent, he holes up in the studio like a Byronic gargoyle, listening languidly to tapes of his program. Never losing the devil’s advocate preachiness, he goes from puck to genie, instigator to tireless supporter of the Sleez Sisters, and prefigures the D.J. character in Moyle’s Pump up the Volume (1990) who coaxes someone to suicide. He is also a reclusive and epicene counterpoint to Nicky’s fractious tomboy, but seems equally troubled by all he has seen. While Johnny taunts David over the airwaves, daring him to embrace the side of him”that prefers slime to plastic” he also encourages the girls as they step up their efforts.

Emboldened by being let alone to do as they please, they start to indoctrinate others remotely, through radio performances and public attacks. Their chosen targets: television sets, which they drop off the roofs of buildings, not caring who may be walking nearby. Their goal, of course, is not to scare or kill passersby, but to smash the stupor that guides people into moral binaries and causes them to reject uniqueness in favor of predestined roles. Together representing a “new iconoclast,” as Johnny puts it, they rail against “apathy, boredom, television,” and get recognition wherever they go. It is an inversion of the appearance-based billboard cults of personality because they are known through songs, destructive activity, and Johnny’s on-air pronouncements. Determinedly ugly and obstinately joyful, they also have the fugitive romance that sparks envy in those leading regular lives.

Pammy and Nicky are only valued by society (or actively reviled – in other words, eliciting of some sort of response) when they are paired together, their aggregate personality as the Sleez Sisters awakening a common denominator in people’s dissatisfaction, resonating, along with their appeals for destruction, across all sorts of cultural divides. While Pamela’s face is copied and distributed on signs and city buses, the two girls engender a wave of imitators who color black around their eyes, wear trash bags, and hurl televisions out of their windows.

The film uses as fuel elements of the environment of Times Square which might be misogynist, misanthropic, hateful even. Rather than merely celebrating them transgressively, it appropriates them, turns them into a joyful power, and holds them up as a reflection of what is misogynist, misanthropic, hateful about the Giulianis of society, the appointed cleaners who would wish to sanitize the place. With their back-up band they perform a song over the radio whose chorus sneers: “spick, nigger, faggot, bum” – words taken from Pamela’s father and then hurled back at him – “your daughter is one!” Taking sides with the people he and his ilk step over in their righteous cruises, she may be living in a dream, but no more than the reformers who imagine Times Square as being all degeneracy and no humanity.

Still from 'Times Square'When she discovers Johnny and Pamela hanging out in the warehouse, more an innocent sleepover with vodka thrown in, she fulminates in jealous and violated reaction, wrecking anything she can touch. Their nest has been breached, the last bond broken. “Take your Times Square trip – you’ll choke on it, you disgusting scumbag!” she cries, equating his enthusiasm for the colorful place with David Pearl’s hatred of it, both of which are beamed down from ivory towers and have no grounding in the reality. “You’re just visiting,” Nicky spits over and over – and it becomes apparent that it is Pamela, just as much as Johnny, who is the target of the tirade. Sadly she’s right – Pamela will inevitably return from the neverland they’ve had together, while Nicky will remain in the underground for life, the external fantasy of ignominious celebrity her only doorway to self-esteem. When Nicky feels trapped, everything conspires to oppress her. In her spiralling downward, she forces her way into the radio station to deliver a broadcast. She calls Johnny a “damn straight,” bizzarely assuming him heterosexual. A shifting collage of the cut-and-dry, anything that poses an obstacle to her gets boiled down with the normative, straight-laced anaesthetizers that try to extinguish her loud rasp. Working in a similarly unambiguous mentality, the film in fact elicits all sorts of ambiguity, just as she does. She never questions who she is, but from the beginning she is, externally, a puzzle, taking on and discarding self-altered modes (a Newsie-capped urchin, a sharp-suited impresario, a tempestuous punk teapot) in a bewildering fugue that rings as feckless as do the individual stereotypes themselves.

The opening sequence sings with in what will become the environmental overtones of the rest of the story. It is a montage, mixing one of its protagonists (Nicky in this case) with street scenes and the bustle of urban life, also setting her apart as a loner – in a way similar to Breaking Glass (1980) or Smithereens (1984) – but the bits of life in Times Square that it shows are so understated that it is clearly not trying to define or essentialize anything about it, besides the notion that there is a great deal of varied humanity swarming through it, at all hours. The moments are staged, but they are not meant to be isolating any remarkable, throw-away action or other, situating instead a humming, nocturnal patchwork that will become the core of the film.

While the environmental touches, rhythms, low-key snapshots of the film’s cultural moment never drop their lucid attentiveness, they also never overwhelm the story’s essence, which is in the hermetic world that the two girls inhabit together. The story progresses as one extended fantasy of society-flouting. The girls burn through and impersonate a succession of underground faces; as though falling through a costume shop, they become car window cleaners, card hustlers, bumbling muggers with vivid wigs. Nicky plays at being a pimp of sorts for Pammy, exhorting her to “hustle!” and pressuring her to become a dancer at a club called the Cleopatra. These episodic scenes could be shuffled around and have the same coherence as they do now. Their shifting roles, many of them the drippings of social pigeonholing and stigmas that have stifled both of them, the two invert and devour as an antidote to fear, shyness, and conforming passivity. A plainclothes policeman hassles them – “c’mon fellas, let’s see some I.D.” – and then chases them through a drab porn theatre, only to lose them in a tangle of fire escapes. The chase is another element in the storybook unreality, their passing as boys not to be meant literally but rather, to show how being unlawful is now so essential to who they are, as indivisible as society wants genders to be.

Nicky, as a character, doesn’t compromise herself in order to be palatable or assimilable, even to those she loves, but is capable of tenderness, as we see almost immediately in her adopting Pamela. The two of them together make no concessions to society’s demands. For a cinematic one, their relationship is very out of the ordinary, not because it is between two girls, but because it shuns everything, including kindness and comfort, only happy when at the periphery. With tones of sadomasochism, of identity-switching, of reshaping and rearranging their visual environment, it is the sort of profound connection that rarely appears on the screen. They encourage one another’s expression through poetry. Nicky writes a poem that she turns into a song: “feed me! I’m a damn dog now,” she sings, in cathartic embrace of her outcast status. She and Pamela are more complex, however, than just willful outsiders or renunciants, since they struggle for identifiability. Although they are supposedly on the lam the entire time, they are unbelievably public in their activities, somehow escaping detection. Nicky thinks that becoming a celebrity is the only way she can resist being subsumed, figuratively or literally killed off by a society that doesn’t want her, but can only pursue that goal in her own, deluded manner. If people sympathize with them, they will have succeeded, in no small way, in bombing complacency from within. The omniscient radio D.J. acts as a conduit, for better or worse, for their message. We feel he belongs to them alone, as he doesn’t really give allegiance to anyone else.

The film is a true introvert’s fairytale because of its reverence performance, not only as a means of escape, but a way of understanding oneself. The performative element in their relationship extends from the way that the two act out, for each other, their own roles, and into the public personae they create, which is at once exhibitionist and quite private. When Pamela makes her debut as a dancer at the Cleopatra, it’s one in a series of moments of ecstatic release; she begins awkwardly, and then starts to dance unselfconsciously, for Nicky alone – a riff on the usual, sexist power dynamic between the dancer and the “man she truly loves,” who is in the crowd. The fun she is clearly having infects everyone in the depressing little place, and they start cheer her on. She is a too-young girl in a ridiculous, frilled dress doing an artless dance, but her lack of pretense is something people find quite moving. Pretty soon she and Nicky are mainstays of the place, performing, enjoying themselves, unwinding there.

Still from 'Times Square'Times Square was slightly ahead of the mainstream in its palimpsest-chic mixing of materials and codes, as well as its incessant (but generally pleasurable) soundtracking, but besides these inconsequential merits, it does achieve a legitimate power and grace, beyond just being a camp artifact in the offing. Overdetermined dynamics (such as obedient girl/bad girl) are sifted through spectacular simplicity, as well as an overt refusal to make sense of routine or overdrawn archetypes, both of which get enormously muddled in an echoing well of disruption and absurdist innoncence. Aligning itself with its protagonists’ perfervid imaginations, the film gets deliriously out of step with the reality of the setting, as well as its own status as a mainstream picture. In light of this, its most stereotyped signifiers become poetry, its sheets of pop veneer a glittering cacophony of appropriation. The story is so escapist that it would be hard to consider its contrivances altogether heartless. Meanwhile the political sensibility is withering against institutionalization, liberal reforming, and television propaganda, but at the same time everything seems filtered through a combination of Pamela and Nicky’s eyes; a screen that is naïvely hopeful and brazenly cynical.

While punk is ephemeral, the underlying outcry that wore its physical form for a while is seemingly eternal, albeit in shifting forms. The styles persist because they ossify in a way that is independent of what they have signified. In a sense Times Square freezes and embodies the immediacy of a certain post-punk reflex, addressing the same dissatisfaction after aesthetics have dried up or started to look broken-in. It caters to time and place conventions (Talking Heads on the soundtrack, neon urgency in the frames) but these touches are purely linguistic, having only to do with the form of the film’s discourse and not its content, which runs deeper and down more eccentric avenues. Moyle, a director who invariably prefers a pop soundtrack over a score, understands well both the power and the limitations of using previously recorded songs, expanding on their emotive capabilities by making them the thematic and atmospheric heartbeat of a film. While Breaking Glass and Smithereens each focus on a woman trying to break into some kind of subcultural recognition, Times Square  is a more individuality-minded piece, showing two characters who take it upon themselves to become their own subculture, and become influential through the charisma of it. Naming themselves after sleaze, which suggests corruption from outside things, they are misleadingly labeling a relationship that is pure, unalterable, and theirs alone.

The film is neither a curt sentimentalizing of grubiness nor is it an exercise in evocative naturalism gone interestingly awry. It consciously tries to capture the place, flaunting its localness (even proudly stating at the end that all its scenes are location scenes) but imposes upon it a story that is unapologetically unreal, twisting the vérité into a carnival. So much of the film is constituted by fantasy, inflated like a child’s magical flotilla (home, retreat, and transportation all at once), that it resonates more compellingly and more authentically than an urban fable or 80’s “questing” story. There really is nothing quite like it. How effortlessly it makes a strip club like a treehouse hangout for two teenaged girls, an abandoned warehouse their magic, erotic decampment. The intention is not to idealize such wretched surroundings, but to let the girls use it as the palace of their romance and personal adventure together. It acts as an accepting and sheltering community for them, and while it is itself a sort of mainstream – submerged and loathed by a hegemonic mainstream – together the girls possess the strength to claim it in their own way, nurturing within it their outsider creativity.

We look for the inevitable transformation that Pamela’s father and the social workers and psychologists and the rest of the world to undergo where they embrace the two girls for who they are, and for the girls to be permanently liberated. We await heaving a disappointed sigh. Thankfully though, the neat conclusions never feel fully arrived at, thus not pandered to, and so become strangely satisfactory. The loose ends accelerate beyond coherence, in a truncated, pasted way, and remain incomplete. This suggests that the film’s viewpoint has less to do with changing attitudes and more with simply booting out the repression and, outside the Sleez fantasy, is more bitterly realist than some of its decidedly incredible qualities let on. Because it rushes to multiple conclusions at once, julienning itself into divergent slivers, the film’s ultimate sense of fulfillment lies more in the anarchic (in which unjust control is thrown off by the centrifugal force of revolution) rather than the Marxist (in which it withers and detaches on its own), a distinction which may be obvious from the start.

Pamela places Nicky, in an early poem written while they are sharing the hospital room, in line with the dinosaurs, a connection that gets revisited throughout the film. Nicky has a hero in Brian Jones, and other symbols of being fierce and genuine and shortlived. And perhaps the metaphor also extends to the film’s Times Square itself, soon to be fused to its epoch in fossil record by a spate of eminent domain seizures and all-around cultural warfare. The reformers are not to be rerouted, since this is a spot on the map they care about changing, and it is only a matter of time before it gets painted over. And, as per the near-satirical rumblings that suffuse Moyle’s Times Square, the transformation of the actual Times Square has long since been completed; today it is a blinding riot of consumerism, sealed inside a giant piece of Tupperware, its bounds girded by vertical infernos of neon and noise, its center swimming in light. The Sleez Sisters, like their stomping grounds (which have scarcely a decade before reformers would render it unrecognizable), are too appalling to polite society to be long for this world. As money takes precedent over creativity, comfort over freedom, their implosion is built-in. But it is, by necessity, more loud and brilliant than a million L.E.D. screens screaming in unison, their lasting thrall, like that of the dinosaurs, resolutely underground.

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