The Gods of Times Square

The Gods of Times Square
US 2001

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 Richard Sandler than the strength and abundance of them. He 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 holistic, 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.
(Dylan Young)
www. hour.ca

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 its cathedral-like spires, we arrive to profess the creeds of wildly differing varieties of personal religious experience. I am a New Yorker, and like most natives who loved Times Squares’ eclectic beat, we saw the place as magic on Earth, an island of sanity in a Puritan culture. As a teenager in the early sixties, I gazed into the adult world through the looking glass of Times Squares’ poolrooms, sideshows and arcades. There was racism and classism all over 1960’s America but in the Times Square of that period those diseases were treatable with a mixture of one part high culture and one part low culture: Shakespeare on forty-third street and a circus side show on forty-second.

Thirty years later when I began this project I realized that my lifelong interest and involvement in religion would find expression in this fondly remembered place of youth. I discovered that The Gods of Times Square was to be a eulogy. I caught the funky old square just as the clean machine of corporate entertainment business was swallowing it. Times Square’s ever-present religionists would traditionally come to this human crossroads to rant their opposition to the sins of the secular life. Then in 1994 Disney moved in with their own pantheon of Gods and fake myths. The place was ‘cleansed’ of pornography and prostitution. Amidst these fundamental changes most of the religious zealots stopped showing up.

People seem to come out of the woodwork to talk to me and my video camera. I function 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 standing astride the square’s 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.

Times Squares’ church-like shape is defined by huge neon monoliths at either end. Number One Time Square is the alter, the place where hundreds of thousands of boozy supplicants usher in the first moment of a new year, a calendrical march that started with the birth of Christ. Maybe the attraction of preachers and missionaries to this ultimate town square is the cathedral-like shape of the space itself. If Times Square is a church then like all churches it offers redemption and resolution. The resolution of The Gods of Times Square is found in the profound street wisdom of a cast of “ordinary” Joes and Janes who define the content of everyday life itself as spiritual.

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 Theatre started a development roll that will end with a totally corporative local landscape. Gone now is the Mom and Pop business, squeezed out by a real estate gold rush. 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, soulless 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 and sin on one extreme or play pinball or pool or dance with a young woman 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 plays host to the newest of Gods: Mickey and Minnie and Goofy on one corner and Bugs and Daffy and Porky across the street … God help Times Square!”
(Richard Sandler)

Richard Sandler
USA 2001, 114 min, video, engl

Explore