Saturday, February 07, 2009
"The Gods of Times Square"
I've just watched an amazing documentary called "The Gods of Times Square." For five years prior to 1994, a guy named Richard Sandler just walked around Times Square with his video camera, filming the preachers and the homeless people who virtually lived there before Disney swept them all away.
Besides just filming the routines and interactions in the area, Sandler does his best to draw these people out. What makes this documentary unique is that he doesn't ask them about their lives or their hardships. He doesn't approach these people from a political, social, or racial perspective. Instead, he just tries to get them to describe their religious beliefs, and he gets some amazing stuff on camera.
Some of the people are very uncomfortable about being questioned, either because they don't like to address complex issues or because they want to keep their message impersonal. Some of them also assume that he's going to make fun of them. But others simply spill out their thoughts in endless chunks, as though they'd been waiting all their lives for somebody to provoke them.
I don't know what kind of selection bias Sandler had when he picked his subjects, but most of the people are slightly insane. They're articulate and interesting, but you can very easily see the point where their logical, articulate thoughts slip away into paranoia and magic.
Other people -- particularly the Jews in the "Mitzvah Tank," the "white man is the devil" activists, and many of the calmer Christians -- appear to be more "fiery" and "driven" as opposed to insane, though there's no doubt a fine line between the two.
Things get VERY interesting when the fiery characters interact with the crazy ones. In the picture above, a street preacher is trying to get a "Jesus pledge" out of a man who says he's a "substitute teacher" who "raps with the kids" in the Bronx. The preacher is doing a straight-forward attempt at conversion, but the "teacher" keeps sticking his tongue out in a disgusting way and shouting "No, I can't say that...I love the carnal sins, I love Satan's kinky ways!"
Sandler doesn't seem to make any judgements about any of the people he interviews, though it's obvious there are some he likes more than others. He's particularly interested in James -- a recurring character who appears deliberately difficult and contrary when questioned -- and Jimmy, a shy, attractive guy who believes that Jesus lives inside him and will work through him to marry Madonna and release a hit album.
But somehow it's not a freak show. I found myself empathising with the tortured thinking of the crazy people and -- to some extent -- respecting the sheer drive and honesty of the straight-forward preachers. Part of this is because the documentary is completely without music or narration and somewhat crudely edited, with a very flat trajectory and no apparent purpose. It gets a little tiresome at almost two hours, but somehow it works. It feels more raw than most documentaries.
The most significant moment comes at the very end. Sandler is filming Jimmy, who is being gently harassed for money by a babbling homeless guy named Rog. Jimmy, for all his crazy convictions, seems almost sane and noble as he does his best to dissuade Rog while still being nice to him. Afterwards he turns to Sandler and says "Could we please put the camera away and just have some coffee and talk, like normal people?" And with this one statement he elevates himself over Sandler as well; he knows better than the filmmaker how awkward and artificial the documentary-filming process is. Somehow, for one second, he's more normal than anyone. If for nothing else, the entire film is worth it for that moment alone, and Sandler sensibly fades to black on that note.
Here's a clip that seems to have been cut out of the documentary (I haven't watched the "bonus" disc yet, so maybe it's included on there). This captures the overall style of the editing, but it's much more confrontational than anything in the actual film...Sandler and this woman (Brenda Milliner) are actually taunting. Either she somehow managed to push his buttons in a way that nobody else did, or he edited this sort of thing out of the film itself.