In its pre-cleanup days, the Times Square area in New York City was a place of vague contradictions. There'd be creeps streaming out of the jerk-off palaces as the melancholy mop-up guy got ready for another swabbing of the booths. Down the street, at one of the broken-down but strangely opulent all-nite movie houses, Lady Terminator would be playing on a double bill with Killer Condom. Two crusted, white-bearded Night Train junkies could be heard further up, brawling over the last Pall-Mall. Fish-netted trannies patrolled the area, scanning men's eyes for the next "date." The latest issue of Knocked Up and Milky could be glimpsed through the cracked, pink neon-lit porn shop windows. And the best hot dog you ever had could be gotten for a song. It was gloriously filthy, America's Reeperbahn.
Then there would be the presence of those who thought they could save all the lost souls wandering dejected down the spit-spattered sidewalks. Nevertheless, religious zealots of all stripes still were unknowingly smeared with the same grime that coated 42nd Street. And it's these colorful, proselytizing characters that make up a large part of Richard Sandler's epic 1999 documentary The Gods of Times Square. For seven years, Sandler--who remains a practicing documentarian and acclaimed still photographer--roamed the area, pointing his camera towards his subjects and grilling them about their spiritual beliefs. In the process, he caught on camera a cultural sea change of tidal wave proportions.
He catches the Jews for Jesus hawking their dichotomous dogma. Militant blacks are emphatically out in force, screaming about how they are the real chosen ones, and how the white man was put here "to be the Devil on Earth." Hasidics hold fourth from a massive trailer that blasts klezmer music through the city air. A Christian semi-raps through his bullhorn, warning us that, come rapture, we're going to be "roasting on our roaster, while we're toasting on our toaster and we're coasting on our coaster" (remember, this was pre-2000, the Christian year of the supposed Armageddon). Jimmy, a personable, beatific rocker dude with a Madonna obsession (the singer, not Jesus' mom) confesses that the Son of God has already come back to Earth. An elusively poetic Muslim with a priest's collar and a bottle-bottom glasses dodges answers to the Eternal Questions. A homeless man, in one of my favorite segments, has wisdom to spare regarding the flow of energy and the fabric of life. A flamboyant, bow-tied older gentleman condemns the lack of spirit in the city. A long-standing hot dog joint has its final day in business, culminating in the owner's saddened, physically-challenged son's rendition of Springsteen's "Hungry Heart." And a hilariously, scarily, tongue-wagging, porn-addicted businessman mightily resists a disciple's efforts to rescue his hide from eternal damnation. The array of stubborn, gorgeous misfits here is dazzling, and long gone from Manhattan.
Daniel Brown's ethereal editing style transforms Sandler's arty portrayal of the Times Square milieu further into dreamlike territory, with musically-timed cuts of gigantic fashion ads, surreal electronic displays, and disturbing views of streetwise desperation. He makes an invaluable contribution to Sandler's heartrending mourning of an admittedly rough, earthy cultural touchstone destroyed by corporate (read: Disney) interests (one man, in a gaudy McDonald's t-shirt, applauds the change, but another--mayoral candidate Reverend Billy--invades the Disney store and brandishes a plush Mickey Mouse, labeling it a representation of the antichrist).
In the end, this is a personal journey documentary, as much as Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, for instance, or Michael Moore's Roger and Me. Its wholly original voice--part doc, part wild experimentation--places it easily in such company. Thankfully, there's no narration here, but we are guided by the personal, searching questions occasionally delivered by Sandler from behind the camera. The director/videographer remains a curious figure but that adds to the uniqueness of one of the most unforgettable documentaries of the 1990s (right up there with Crumb). Actually, it's in the pantheon of the 25 best documentaries ever made (here's my list: The 101 Greatest Documentaries). When I was programming the