Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: "Times Square" (1980)

HOLLYWOOD, Nov. 20 - Of all the films I had to slog through for last year's "Survival Of The Streets" essay, only 1980's Times Square eluded viewing. Netflix hemmed and hawed and never got around to sending it. Online stores weren't cooperative (Amazon starts used copies at $90). So when the Destroy All Movies promotional book & viewing tour swung through town I jumped at the chance to see this lost bit of Bad NY history in a proper theater setting. Before the show, director Allan Moyle said a few words, including that this would be the first time he'd ever seen his own film. Ever. The project had been taken over by its producers, and he'd never had the heart to sit through it. None of us knew exactly what to expect.

Times Square's Times Square snares two teenage girls - rich kid Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado) and street waif Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson). After meeting in a hospital, the duo run away, make a home in an abandoned dock house, and explore the grungy wonderland of midtown. The two form the band/gang Sleaze Sisters, who perform a proto-punk song (lyrics: "spic, nigger, faggot, bum, your daughter is one") on the radio show of a sympathetic DJ (Tim Curry). Teen girls all over New York follow their exploits, dressing in garbage bags and bandit eye grease. It's the best parts of a half-dozen great 80's films - Desperately Seeking Susan, Hardcore, Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains - only better.

The film keeps the girls out of too much trouble. They get chased through porno theaters but are never caught, and when young Pamela starts work at a topless bar, she refuses to dance topless (the script called for nudity, despite Alvarado being 13; she stayed clothed only after her mother stormed the set with a Bible). There are no drugs, no threats of rape. Even the strong overtones of romance remain suspended, forever unfulfilled. For a movie celebrating the slime of the Bad Apple, it's a very innocent story.

Pamela's politician father heads an embryonic Times Square cleanup campaign, complete with Milton Glaserish posters reading RECLAIM THE [HEART LOGO] OF THE CITY. Mr. Pearl isn't so much the villain as his campaign is, and the audience's sympathies are steered towards the "authentic" / "vibrant" take on megatoilet Manhattan. Here's a neat scene from the middle of the film, showing Pamela and Nicky cavorting down the forty deuce;

It's a Guys And Dolls moment in a Taxi Driver universe, a Disneyish romp two decades before any hint of an actual Disney Store (the real-life campaign to clean up Times Square, also kicked off in 1980, only declared victory last week).

The time capsule value of Times Square is fascinating, but it's Robin Johnson who steals the show. She's a 16-year old force of nature, rivaling Tim Curry's own star turn in Rocky Horror just two years earlier. Johnson struts, preens, pounces, and explodes, a preposterous Popeye voice emerging from a Joan Jett / Angelina Jolie face. The scene where the two girls swear a blood oath in the abandoned dock house - screaming each other's names into pleading echoes- produced a visceral reaction I didn't know I was still capable of. Over the course of the movie, finding it impossible to conceive of a universe where Johnson didn't go on to stardom, I convinced myself I was watching a young Leah Remini, perhaps performing under a stage name.

Afterwards, DAM coauthor Zack Carlson headed a Q&A with Moyle (I've known Zack since we toured together in '98, and thus suppressed a familiar twinge of jealousy - so far this year, other former colleagues have played at Madison Square Garden, walked on the north pole, and garnered a 4-star NY Times restaurant review; but who's counting?) Moyle fingered producer Robert Stigwood for the film's flaws. After the director was fired, many of his darker elements were removed, producing curious errors of tone and continuity. Squeamish about lesbianism, RSO deleted the explicit romance ("it wasn't like they were eating each out or anything. Just necking and stuff."). Stigwood, having made a bundle producing Saturday Night Fever and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, slapped an absurd Bee Gees song over the credits and called it a day.

This was more amusing than sad - Moyle repeatedly mourned the "corn" of the final product - until he implicated Stigwood in Robin Johnson's disappearance. Johnson signed a development deal with RSO. The film tanked at the box office, and she was kept from promising projects for three years. After a decade of bit parts, she wound up as the voice of a helicopter traffic reporter at local KFWB.

Someone asked about Johnson's whereabouts now. Moyle told us she was alive and well, living in Florida and operating heavy construction machinery. He also said that she occasionally channeled a several-thousand year old being, in the vein of Doonsbury's Boopsie Boopstein. The audience laughed, perhaps thinking he was joking, and when he made clear he was quite serious on both counts, laughed even harder. It was a sad end to the night, and an intriguing one. When does someone make the movie about her life?