BLUE PILLS, BIG PLANS: DIARY OF A TIMES SQUARE THIEF

July 9th, 2009 15:59:00

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DIARY OF A TIMES SQUARE THIEF screens with TERRIBLY HAPPY in the same program on Thursday July 9th at 7:00pm in Salle J.A. de Seve, but plays afterwards as opposed to preceding it due to its 60-minute running time. DIARY OF A TIMES SQUARE THIEF is part of our annual Documentaries From The Edge spotlight series. It was an official selection at Toronto's Hot Docs and highly recommended viewing.

For full film details, images, and tickets, see the film page HERE


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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 TIMES 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

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DIARY OF A TIMES SQUARE THIEF plays Thursday July 9th with TERRIBLY HAPPY, in the Salle J.A. de Seve at 7:00pm, and again on Thursday July 16th at 10:05pm, also in the Salle J.A. de Seve.

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