A documentary on religious zealots in the heart of New York
The Gods of Times Square isn’t so much a documentary in the traditional sense
as a meditation on belief. The specific nature of those beliefs is less important
to Sandler than the strength and abundance of them.
“The Gods of Times Square” is a good-humored, tolerant celebration
of New York City’s diversity and eccentricity
and of its incubation of sidewalk philosophers…
Bites of the Big Apple
About half way through The Gods of Times Square, director/documentarian Richard Sandler captures the defining parable of his film. A man is talking about the world as an apple tree. “An apple tree is leaves and bark, branches and roots, and apples,” the man says. “The world needs all of this to exist, as the apple tree needs it all to exist. But still, only a few can be apples.” Sandler is speaking to a Lubavitcher, a member of a pocketed sect of Judaism that believes their departed rabbi, Menachem M. Schneersohn, is the Messiah and will return to Earth. Is he likening the apples to Jews? Not really.
The Gods of Times Square isn’t so much a documentary in the traditional sense as a meditation on belief. The specific nature of those beliefs is less important to Sandler than the strength and abundance of them.
Sandler spent six years filming in Times Square, recording anyone who would speak to his camera. Not surprisingly, many who spoke had a message to sell and a faith to drive it. From fake ministers railing against the Disneyfication of the Square to black Jews preaching the fall of the “White Devil,” from Baptist evangelists rapping indiscriminate hellfire to the awkward mind trick of Jews for Jesus, Sandler’s lens captures the reasoned and unreasonable as they bring their version of “the Word” to the Square.
A few voices pipe up a more wholistic, tolerant view: James, the elderly black gentleman with the priest’s collar and copy of the Koran, open-mindedly answers questions with questions. Jim, the self-proclaimed indie-rock Jesus, believes he is destined to wed Madonna and move into international affairs using “her sphere of power.” The homeless man who sees the world expanding exponentially from the atom prefers to call it a “scientific,” not spiritual, experience. And there are more.
Sandler is on his own faith trip, plumbing the miraculous from these captured moments. He’s his own variety of religionist, and admits as much. But his worldview and his lens seem to embrace the whole tree and not any isolated part. He has Larry Clark’s knack for bringing us uncomfortably close to the movie’s subjects but achieves more intimacy in his close-up. Also, he doesn’t exclude the secular: In an evocative sequence of instants, Sandler records the final day of the Square’s last walk-up diner, and the family that must let it go. This lament for the end of the Square is his most traditional documentary gesture.
Sandler doesn’t provide answers so much as offer a ceaseless flow of questions. But that seems to be part of the point: More than anything, The Gods of Times Square is about the miasmic ineffability of the world. That the discussions of life’s deeper meanings happen against a backdrop of the omnipresent pop and consumer images of Times Square makes it all the more poignant.
The New York Times
Lawrence Van Gelder
The Times Square of legend takes a last loopy bow in Richard Sandler’s engaging documentary “The Gods of Times Square.”
In its foreground a study of urban theology as it examines the relationship of man and God in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Sandler’s film, opening today at Cinema Classics, has as its background the earth movers and cranes that transformed the seedy Times Square of yesteryear into the Disneyfied magnet for tourists and families of the new millennium.
At the same time, “The Gods of Times Square” is a good-humored, tolerant celebration of New York City’s diversity and eccentricity and of its incubation of sidewalk philosophers, like the homeless man who discusses Einstein and atoms while the camera seeks out a flashing sign that illustrates the lecture.
In this Times Square, street musicians play drums, violins, saxophones and clarinets; men dance; beggars shake cups; people sleep on sidewalks and in subway passageways; and enormous billboards of half-clad underwear models loom over the teeming sidewalks like the grotesque symbolic eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s sign in “The Great Gatsby.”
In his quest for religion in Times Square, Mr. Sandler examines the angry black Jews who rail against the white man and call for the lynching of homosexuals.
He encounters, among many others, the Jews for Jesus; James, the mystical, bearded old black man in his Panama hat and clerical collar who gives enigmatic answers to questions about religion; the Lubavitchers, waiting for the Messiah and driving the big van they call their Mitzvah Tank; and Jim, the 32-year- old man who eventually lays claim to being the second coming of Christ.
Before revealing this identity, Jim, speaking in 1993, makes a few predictions for Jesus in the coming year. “Starting 1994, he’s going to do rock, music, marry Madonna, going to be the biggest rock star that ever existed, get into international affairs,” Jim says. Jesus’ album is going to go triple platinum. “I’ve heard his demo,” Jim declares. And, he adds, “He’s not against smoking, by the way.”
A young Muslim raps about Allah. “Jesus is it,” says a woman. “All these other phony baloney gods, they’re worthless.”
An 82-year-old man talks about knowing Jesus. “I just know God,” he says. “That’s my hobby.”
But soon the construction cranes loom against the sky, and the family that owned the little hot dog stand nestled among the old movie theaters west of Seventh Avenue on the north side of 42nd Street gathers for a tearful farewell to the old Times Square.
Enter Mickey Mouse. Enter Dopey.
***** For those who never got the chance to enjoy the pre-Disneyfied Times Square in New York, “The Gods of Times Square” exists as the ultimate trip back in time with filmmaker Richard Sandler hitting the streets and talking to absolutely everyone who will stop in front of his camera to reveal what it was really like before Mickey Mouse pulled those cute little red shorts down around his ass and laid a nice, steaming log right in the middle of the city.
There is a theme here, however, and perhaps you’ve guessed it from the title of this film. Yes, religion is on the menu tonight and Sandler had no problem whatsoever in finding people to open up about their belief of choice, whether they’re casual believers, foaming at the mouth fanatics, or total space cadets with ideas that perhaps have been formulated by too much LSD. For example, Sandler talks, on a few different occasions, to a guy who believes that he in fact is Jesus and that heÍs destined to record a multi-platinum grunge rock album and marry Madonna. Yes, things were pretty interesting in good old Times Square.
This is one of the most entertaining and well-done documentaries I’ve ever seen. Sandler forgoes the usual isolated talking head interviews and boring filmmaker narration by simply walking up to people on the street and questioning them on the spot. Sometimes people even approach him. Whatever the case, what Sandler captures on tape is absolutely priceless.
The fun kinda comes to a halt for a bit as the last third of the film rolls around and Disney waves its big dick around Times Square, knocking down porno theaters and family run businesses. Yes, itÍs a sad thing to see porno theaters and strip clubs go, but what really got me was the closing of a family owned restaurant, which was to be passed down to the youngest, handicapped son. But now that the Mouse has taken over, this poor kid’s future has been blown to shit. You’ll feel like burning all of your Disney memorabilia too upon seeing the family telling a news crew about how they had to close shop with the young son, standing right there, bawling his eyes out. Fuckin’ Disney.
Anyways, from here on in we see that Times Square has cleaned up a bit, but the cast of crazy characters remains the same. No matter how much Disney tries to take control of that area, they can’t do away with the good people of New York City, nor their varied beliefs.
Whoooo-boy! When and if the big JC ever returns to Earth, the shit will certainly hit the fan. Actually, what I think will really happen is that Jesus will grab a video camera and shoot his own Times Square documentary so he can take it back to heaven with him to laugh his ass off for all eternity.
FROM THE DIRECTOR
The Gods of Times Square is a documentary about a rich culture of religionists (myself included) who are drawn to the electric buzz of this fabled human meeting ground. There, at the “crossroads of the world”, amidst it’s cathedral-like spires, we arrive to profess the creeds of wildly differing varieties of personal religious experience. I am a New Yorker who loves Times Squares’ diversity and grew up in the poolrooms, sideshows and arcades of the early sixties. I am comfortable there and people seem to come out of the woodwork to talk to me and my video camera about their deepest thoughts. I act as a “Zelig-like” catalyst for the preachers and mystics who are itching to talk about God, but also about the interrelation of religion, race, ethics, economics and politics. This talk of life’s deeper meaning happens against the backdrop of the omnipresent images of the pop and consumer culture. Marky Mark high up on a billboard is like Apollo, he stands astride the squares eastern gate projecting an image of human physical perfection. . Below a preacher rails about the necessity of a singular Religious idiom- a proposition I find quite absurd and wish to disprove. The resolution of the piece is found in the profound street wisdom of a cast of “ordinary” Joes and Janes.
The work has been shot over a six year period that has seen a radical transformation of Times Square. The Disney corporation’s purchase and renovation of the New Amsterdam Theater started a development roll that will end with a totally corporatized local landscape. Gone now are the Mom and Pop businesses, squeezed out by corporate greed. Gone too are all but the most strident of religious zealots. The Gods of Times Square thus records a time in New York City history when the place most identified with free speech and the soul of New York, changed from a democratic common ground to a corporate controlled soul-less theme park atmosphere. The former versions of Times Square offered it’s congregants a place to air their thoughts and blow off a little steam, to rant about God on the one extreme or buy sex at the other end of the Times Square spectrum. Now the choices are fewer, the prices are higher, the “sin” is gone. The fabled “white way” now hosts to the newest of Gods: Mickey, Minnie and Goofy on one corner and Bugs Daffy and Porky across the street at the Time/Warner store. God help New York!
Rotterdam Film Festival (WINNER! Audience award)
The New York Underground Film Festival
Conduit Digital Film + Gaming Festival
Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival
Chicago Underground Film Festival (WINNER! Best Documentary)
View the entire film at www.timessquare.com
THE GODS OF TIMES SQUARE
produced by GLASS EYE PIX and SCORPIO DOGS
produced, directed and shot by RICHARD SANDLER edited by DAN BROWN
full preview at urban desires.com