"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Million Dollar Movie

There is a new book out from W.W. Norton, “The Times Square Story,” by Geoffrey O’Brien that looks like a keeper.

Over at Bombsite, O’Brien is interviewed by Banter favorite, Luc Sante, where the talk is about the old Times Square:

LS Times Square has been the madcap entertainment capital of the world since at least 1906. But there is a special potency to the postwar era. It seems like the one that will be engraved in collective memory; there’s an enormous subculture based on Times Square in the 1950s and ‘60s—books, videos, CDs, Psychotronic…

GO It’s the old seediness, the old sordidness, which has a completely different meaning now. Part of what changed in Times Square was the advent of hard-core pornographic movies at the end of the 1960s, which put the previous movies in a very different light. It’s as if everything up to that point had been a long, complicated tease and then finally the tease was over. The character of Times Square changed drastically in the ‘70s; by the early ‘80s it was a pretty scary place. It certainly was a different place to walk around in than it had been in the ‘60s. Having grown up in suburban Long Island, I had never seen anything like that. There was really a sense of, Oh, this is the culture I live in. This is what our culture is really thinking about underneath everything else: gigantic forms, enormous shapes, all the hot buttons being pushed, the beautiful unsubtlety of everything. At the same time, there were all kinds of strange subtleties to be discovered. I’m thinking about the movies I watched in the ‘60s, Italian horror movies, science fiction movies, all those spy movies that you and I both seem to have been marked by.

…LS Now, in a way, Times Square is everywhere.

GO Times Square was a kind of zoo of images which are available everywhere now. There is almost no more need for Times Square in the same way there was no need for porno theaters after video came out. You rent movies now about mad doctors dismembering people or people being held in South American prison camps or whatever your particular fancy is. So Times Square is everywhere in this sort of disembodied form, but without the smoke, without the hot dogs, without the peripheral population of people which made it human and which made it seem like part of the world. Now it seems like some weird hyperspace culture of self-replicating images.

LS That is the shape of the future. All of culture is disembodied. You and your 75 friends on the Internet who are interested in H0-scale railroads have never actually met. In city after city, whatever was the equivalent of Times Square is gone, though you can see its vague outline. I was in Seattle last month and realized my hotel was on what used to be that strip. You could tell because across the street there was still one pawn shop and one gun shop. All the movie theaters were gone.

GO I had a similar experience in San Jose, which has otherwise been dismantled and rebuilt as a theme park called Downtown San Jose. I went wandering and found a strip with some funky little stores that were selling bizarre memorabilia and old knickknacks. That general air of rotting paper is always a clue you’re getting near. The only beautiful building I saw in San Jose was a battered old movie theater, which I was told was the subject of a massive political struggle between the people who wanted to preserve it and the developers who wanted to tear it down. It had become the battleground for the preservation of some kind of ancient, sleazy, downtown culture.

The book is about the 1960s but I remember the Times Square of the early ’80s.

My old man lived in Weehawken for a year in 1981-82 and we often walked across 42nd street from the Port Authority on 8th Avenue to Grand Central on the East Side, where he’d put us back on a train to Westchester. I always felt safe with my dad but I remember feeling danger and unease every step of the way. I’ll never forget the signs for Kung Fu movies and the Porno theaters–what was the difference between X and XXX, anyway?–the hookers with bruises on their legs and the men looking at you with screwed up faces.

“The Times Square Story” is out now. Check for it.

One comment

1 Boatzilla   ~  Mar 23, 2011 6:13 am

Wow. Great post, Alex. I remember navigating Times Square with my folks or my Manhattan sis in the mid to late 70s and the crazy thrill I would feel. It was everything forbidden, dirty and tempting, but just out of reach. Later as a teen, sometimes with a friend, my ear would perk to the calls of "Trips, Cocaine, Ha-SHISH, fake ID," as we passed the creepy head shops. I kid you not. I had no idea what to do with such information, but I felt that whatever I may want someday, I could find in Times Square, like it or not.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver