Times Square

This film from 1980 takes place largely in and around Times Square, and so has some choice footage of NYC at the time. It’s a rather strange film, which is now considered a feminist, lesbian classic because it concerns two runaway girls (one of whom, the butch one, looks and acts a lot like Runaway Joan Jett) living on the street together in Manhattan.

One of the reasons that the film is interesting now is that it presages the changes that would be made to Times Square more than a decade later. Pamela Pearl, played by a young Trini Alvarado, is the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, who has made it his mission to clean up Times Square. “I’m a liberal,” he says, but nonetheless he has his limits, and simply cannot abide by the “x-rated” nature of Times Square, where he won’t allow Pamela to go see a film.

Pamela, however, is drawn to the seedy side of life, and runs out of her father’s speech to a development commission on Times Square. So dad does the normal rich dad thing and has her committed to a mental hospital. There, she meets Nicky, the butch Jett-esque bad girl, who we meet earlier in the film when she plugs in her amplifier in a random back alley and starts jamming on her guitar in the middle of the night.

Pam and Nicky become fond of each other, and eventually run away together. Thus begin their adventures on the streets of New York. Nicky takes them to an old disused warehouse at the Chelsea Piers, which they make into their home. They run various scams and street jobs to earn money, which is portrayed as great fun. Anyone who has ever lived on the street, or just lived poorly, will see through this sunny caricature. Their warehouse squat is mysteriously free of rats, and these two teenage girls spending all their time on Times Square are not once accosted or even propositioned by anyone. When Nicky takes Pam to get a job at a strip club (Trini Alvarado was thirteen at the time of this film) Pam tells the owner that she won’t take off her clothes, she’ll only dance – and the owner agrees, saying “I like that, gives the joint some class.” Right.

Pamela Pearl on Times Square

The girls start a punk band called The Sleez Sisters, and their cause is taken up by a sympathetic, if rather creepy, radio DJ played by Tim Curry. Curry reportedly filmed all his parts in only two days, but received top billing because he was a star at the time, and the only well-known actor in the film, although there is a great early appearance by Steve James in one of the street scenes.

What is interesting about Times Square is that it is largely a celebration of the strange, perverted, decadent culture of late 1970s Times Square and New York, rather than a moral, vigilante-ain’t-gonna-take-it-anymore reaction to it. In this way, it’s unique among the New York films of the era. In contrast, The Exterminator, released in the same year, shows Times Square as a hellish den of iniquity, a haven for sadists and pedophiles. I’ll leave it to historians and those who were there to determine which is the more accurate portrayal.

In addition to great street shots (including the infamous Hotel Carter) Times Square also has a good soundtrack of punk and New Wave songs. At the time, the soundtrack was actually much more successful than the film itself, and is now a collector’s item. It features two songs from the Sleez Sisters themselves, which they perform in the film, including “Your Daughter Is One.” Although the overall message of the song fits with the left-leaning politics of the film, the lyrics are probably not something that one could get away with anymore. You can hear the song in this promotional video for the Times Square soundtrack.

I also couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the days when radio mattered, and a DJ might capture the attention of a whole city and call out all the punk kids for an impromptu concert played atop a theater marquee in Times Square. I suppose today it would be organized through Facebook or Twitter. A Times Square Spring!

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