Blue Pills, Big Plans: Diary of a Times Square Thief

Klaas Bense’s Diary of a Times Square Thief
Thursday, January 28th at 8:00pm
Ellice Theatre (587 Ellice)
Admission $5 / $2 DOC members + students w/ valid ID

An upper-middle-class Dutch collector pays $78 dollars on eBay for an old scrapbook, which turns out to be the diary of a man who moved to New York City in the 1980s with hopes of ‘making it’ but who slid down into the depths of Times Square life, each day documenting his decline in remarkably poetic, self-reflective text. The collector becomes transfixed, and decides to look for the author of the diary.

He leaves for New York, armed only the first names of the author and other secondary characters in the downtown melodrama. A place of employment is listed as the notorious Times Square Hotel. In those days, prompted by a housing crisis left over from the 70s, it was welfare central.

Guided by the words of the self-defeating bowery bard (“Concrete and phlegm. I was attracted to it all immediately.”), our amateur sleuth begins his journey, compelled to uncover the secrets of this anonymous hotel desk receptionist. Like the author before him, his journey is full of meetings with strange passengers, each one of them sad and sage-like in equal measure. He is obsessed with two questions: What is your greatest vice? What is your greatest regret? But all along it’s he who seems eager to confess something.

Times Square is one of the most famous (and most misunderstood) urban neighbourhoods in the world. It is immortalized in countless films and books that alternately romanticize and lament the area’s evolution, decline and corporatization, and what the ‘heyday’ is of Times Square depends on who you ask. For people of my generation, who associate Times Square with free cinema, the late 60s through the late 70s stand as the source of Times Square’s unique cultural imprint on the world.

While cinematically represented a hundredfold, those films that function as a bird’s eye view of Times Square nightlife – Lech Kowalski’s Gringo: The Story of a Junkie (in which the actors were actually paid in junk for appearing candidly in the film), Charlie Ahearn’s Doin’ Time in Times Square (footage from which is utilized in Diary…), and of course Richard Sandler’s Gods of Time Square (which played at Fantasia in 2004) – offer more than the freakshow myth propagated by those films that cater primarily to mainstream audiences. Violence and vice may be everywhere, but so are adopted family units, social codes, memories, pathos…and people. Says one interviewee: “When I was younger I used to view people as more disposable than I’ve come to realize they are.”

But Times Square has always been characterized as the last haven for ‘disposable’ people. And the myths build; they loom large over the real lives of real people who just happen to live in a shitty neighbourhood. Why are we so curious about the lives of petty thieves, junkies, prostitutes, those we perceive to be losers at life? Like the Dutch detective, we watch films, read books and day-trip. It’s nothing new; in the post-WWII era, pulp novels about drug-addicted jazz musicians proliferated (jazz in that time was equated exclusively with urbanity and deviancy), and of course these novels had their ‘educational’ counterparts – case studies and recorded first-person accounts of life on the street, life on the needle – compiled by psychologists, social workers and the clergy, that were hungrily gobbled up by upper-middle class readers.

Of course, this is a larger story than some moderately tweaked curiosity into fringe lifestyles. But we knew this when we set out on the journey – we knew that by going there, we would learn something about ourselves, and that’s what we really wanted all along.

– Kier-La Janisse


From Uptown Magazine January 28, 2010:
In search of lost sleaze
Documentary tries to track down a survivor of old Times Square

Before Mayor Rudy Giuliani Disney-fied New York City’s Times Square in the early 1990s, the area was ascribed a legendarily decrepit and yet dangerously appealing cult status.

Even people who never stepped onto the wet pavement outside the peep booths and foul grindhouses knew of the area’s seedy reputation through books such as Josh Alan Friedman’s Tales of Times Square, movies such as Cruising and via a frenetic soundtrack created by New York-bred punk acts such as The Ramones.

Just ask Klaas Bense, a Dutch filmmaker who used the purchase of a $78 diary on eBay to seek out the mythological place inextricably linked to a moment in time that no longer exists.

As one interviewee says in the hour-long doc, you’re not a true New Yorker unless you can remember which archetypal buildings were torn down to make room for the newly sanitized, family-friendly version of NYC.

The diary itself is a Polaroid-embedded composition book, full of reflective, often pessimistic entries detailing the exploits and eventual thievery of ‘John,’ an aspiring writer who moved from the provincial United States to this universal artist mecca in the mid-1980s.

Bense was fascinated with the would-be author’s dismal existence, and became determined to track him down by uncovering the surviving fringe-dwellers who are name-checked in John’s chicken-scratches.

In what would make a great double-bill with Abel Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks – a fevered and imaginative chronicle of the equally legendary NYC hotel – Bense gently prods the previous residents of a squalid Times Square flophouse, including an Italian-American crime-scene photographer and a former strip-show worker-turned- sex lecturer.

Despite some misgivings about whether John is still alive, Bense does track down the man whose quick-witted, off-the-cuff ramblings fascinated him for so long.

Just what John is up to should be kept a surprise, as it’s the very reason Times Square Thief compels for so much of its running time.

— Aaron Graham


~ by cineflyer on January 25, 2010.

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