BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC While the popular narrative cheers New York City’s revival in the 1990s, lovers of fringe cinema bemoan Times Square’s transformation from the sleazy world capital of grindhouse cinema into Disney-Come-To-Manhattan. Tonight’s Video Vault resurrects the Times Square our parents warned us about, the former glamour hub of the Big Apple, whose blinding lights were illuminating a semi-lawless open air market of unconventional sex, hard drugs and many other things not on sale in the suburban mall. These three exceptionally rare films tell the story of the street (affectionately called “The Deuce” by its denizens) from the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders who together help exhume a world that today is as long gone as the Wild West.
CHILDREN OF TIMES SQUARE (1986, directed by Curtis Hanson, 94 minutes, U.S.)
FLESHPOT ON 42nd STREET (1972, directed by Andy Milligan, 76 minutes, U.S.)
Andrew’s Video Vault at The Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA.)
By the 1980s, Times Square held a place in the id of conservative Bible-loving Americans as the most degenerate pit of Hell on Earth, a place where all the people corrupted by the hippies’ ‘If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It” philosophy went to turn crustily into heroin-addled prostitutes. It took a certain kind of motion picture to top their own expectations and fears, and Tim Kincaid’s knockout ’80s berserkathon Riot On 42nd Street is just that type of film. Shot in a post “Beat It” world, Times Square is riddled with Michael Jackson fashion flare-ups everywhere: tough guys wearing striped headbands, tight afro mullets and a score that is an endless repetition of Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It’ guitar solo. The off-the-rack “Thriller” fashions are blinding enough but, Kincaid delivers action and violence with the titillating impact of porn (and after all, he is also known as Joe Gage, a well-known gay adult film director infamous for a trilogy of influential ’70s features).
It’s a low-budget, but not a no-budget production, which in this case means it’s not bad to look at, the camera is where it needs to be and everything is well-lit, but they seemed to save money by not rehearsing the actors. There is some martial arts action so inept it turns nearly surreal, and the wildly mustachioed lead John Hayden still works regularly on TV, his line readings are so impossibly stone-stiff he makes Steven Seagal seem like Robin Williams. A battle within a family over an aging 42nd Street theater leads to slow-motion machine gunning, slow-grinding strip shows and an inadequately-staged beheading. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be completely disoriented by a film too over-the-top to play anywhere but in bustling Times Square.
Made-for-TV movies are part of an ephemeral genre that tends to escape the notice of film lovers. Children Of Times Square is a NBC production, and it is of more than idle interest if only because it was written and directed by Academy Award winner Curtis Hanson (L.A.Confidential, In Her Shoes). It’s expertly mounted and although its “Kids At Danger” formula is followed to a T, every detail along the way reveals a special talent is at work. When a young kid leaves his infant step-brother home alone to attend a rock concert, a stepdad blow-out leads him to jump a bus for Times Square where he becomes part of the crew of teen drug-runners. And it takes him less than a week! A future networking exec, no doubt. We tour Times Square’s real locations with cops and little Artful Dodgers and before long the late Howard Rollins Jr. appears as the smiling and malevolent Fagin. An Academy Award nominee himself, it’s forgotten today what a stir was caused when he first arrived on the scene.
He’s undeniably brilliant here, running his kids like a swell scout master, then delivering cold retribution on a moments notice. The fact that Rollins really suffered through his own demons seems eerily on display in this performance. This could have been a kitsch-filled goof, yet even as the story’s machinations are obvious the performances and details won’t leave you unmoved. Wonderful percussive score by Santana drummer Michael Shrieve as well. Closing the night is perhaps the most accessible of the films of the infamous Andy Milligan, “The Fassbinder of 42nd Street”.
Fleshpot on 42nd Street, from 1973, is life on The Deuce from the inside. Laura Cannon is Dusty, a real vintage Barbara Stanwyck type, a hooker and thief just trying to get by on the street. She moves in with her friend Cherry (Neil Flanagan), a very plain cross-dressing prostitute growing old in a young drag queen’s world. They flop in bars and talk about their lives until Dusty is swept off her feet by a down-home Staten Island guy named Bob. Bob is played by “Bob Walters”, a pseudonym for the man most of us know as Harry Reems, the Burt Reynolds-ish star of Deep Throat and hundreds of 70s and 80s porn films. With fleeting shots stolen of the streets of Times Square, Fleshpot’s shortcomings — bad camera placement, casual racism and general misanthropy, occasional incoherence — are overcome by the fact that his films channel that weird, shameless milieu of dirty, piss-soaked old Times Square.
It gives the film a personal stamp more vivid than just about churned out in films today, the ones meant to play successfully in a theaters from coast to coast. Part of it is a film made by and for people who lived and worked in the neighborhood, regional cinema from one of the craziest, most vibrant neighborhoods in the world. Whatever Millgan’s reputation comes by, how daringly unappealing his characters and situations can be — although tonight’s Fleshpot has some of his sweetest moments. For me, their unappealing qualities are part of their cranky appeal. Milligan wasn’t making populist entertainment; his foul-minded dramas weren’t meant to be seen anywhere but in those dilapidated old theaters, with their dilapidated old audiences. It’s art from a geezer too surly to come to you, you must humble and submit yourself into his world.