Part of the 1980’s Project
People are generally nostalgic, especially my generation. It’s such a force that people become nostalgic for eras that existed before their birth, witness the water cooler status of a detail orientated television show like Mad Men. Most lovers of art or pop culture tend to have their “If only time machines existed” era that they would love to bear witness to: Paris in the 20’s, the swinging London of the mid 60’s or San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love to name some. Personally if I ever found Doc Brown’s DeLorean my destination as I hit 88 mph would be New York circa the mid 70’s to the early 80’s.
My fascination of the era is partially shaped by the gritty look captured on many films of the era, and perhaps it’s a little pretentious for someone with an upbringing in the safe confines of suburbia to be obsessed with a period in the city’s history that was so tumultuous, but fascination and obsession are inexplicable, and out of these circumstances arose great art that stands the test of time, be it in film (Martin Scorsese, the Blaxploitation genre, Sidney Lumet, etc.) art, or music. Of course, the CBGB’s punk rock scene and it’s many varied genres from straightforward (The Ramones) to artier (Talking Heads and Television) to glamorous (Blondie) come to mind, but there also was the advent of dance pop, disco and hip hop. Additionally, you had the Andy Warhol disciples, the Yankees under George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, the porno and grindhouses of 42nd Street, the Son of Sam, and a general unease which led to a city that seemed a hair away from exploding within itself.
It’s become a cliché to say that a city becomes a character of a given project, be it Baltimore in The Wire or San Francisco in Bullitt (or fill in your own), but it’s an apt description for the following two films which are direct products of their period and city. People often complain of films being dated, but I find such specific snapshots of an era, any era, to be nothing but an attribute.
Times Square (1980, Allan Moyle)
If Little Darlings (my review) and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains had a child, the result would be director Allan Moyle’s Times Square, an episodic teen girl journey in the seedy underground of the titular New York locale.
Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), is the daughter of a politician who is, appropriately enough, heading a commission to clean up Times Square. After using her as a presumably false example of a youth tainted by the uncouth tourist destination in a public speech, she snaps and makes a scene. Attempting to save face, her father checks her into a mental institution, where the poem writing insular girl meets her polar opposite in the form of her hospital mate, Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), a brash authority skewing, punk loving, homeless teenager. After the usual rough beginnings, the two bond, escape from the hospital and support themselves while living underground. In the process, they become folk heroes via a world weary DJ (Tim Curry) who tracks their journey and invites them on the show to taunt the politician father. The two girls instill confidence in the other, Pamela learns to be more independent while Nicky garners the self-confidence to channel her inner demons into art, and becomes the lead singer of a DIY punk band called The Sleez Sisters.
The movie is not plot heavy, which is mostly an attribute since it’s structure mimics the haphazard lifestyle of the duo, but relies on a few too many montage scenes that seem designed to sell the (albeit excellent) soundtrack featuring the likes of Roxy Music, Gary Numan, The Cure, The Cars and Talking Heads. This was a major cause of frustration as producer Robert Stigwood who wanted to push the soundtrack and director Moyle, whose focus was on the storytelling.
A lesbian subplot that would have explained the two girls drifting apart was also removed, as it stands, the film reaches its emotional apex when it becomes apparent that Pamela is just a visitor to this lifestyle while Nicky is bound for either superstardom or a life of being repeatedly in and out of mental institutions and alone. Her state of being mirrored by the stretch of Manhattan streets for which she calls home.
Night of the Juggler (1980, Robert Butler)
Though American by location and production, this Robert Butler directed thriller has a strong 70’s Eurocrime feel to it, sharing with many of those films humor both of the intentional and unintentional kind, a tendency to take things a step further than “good” taste would dictate and a blatant embracing of broad stereotype: here a smorgasbord of New York types get their due, be it Puerto Rican cabbies or boom box toting Bronx African American gangs.
Straddling the line between hard edged thriller and comedy of errors, Juggler concerns the exploits of a divorced ex-cop turned trucker (James Brolin) whose daughter is kidnapped on her birthday. The kidnapper (Cliff Gorman) who has mistaken Brolin’s daughter for the daughter of a successful attorney is so assured of himself, and yes, crazy, that he doesn’t believe it when either she or her dad try to tell him that he’s just a working class mook.
The comedy of errors aspect comes into play early when the daughter is kidnapped in Central Park and a chase ensues. The kidnapper steals a taxi, but gets caught in commuter traffic and a chase on foot follows. Later in the movie, Brolin has evidence stolen and is sidetrack by the corrupt policeman (an appropriately gnarly Dan Heyeda) whose career path Brolin affected in his former life in the police force. It’s pretty much a less comedic (though, still funny) version of the Bill Murray co-directed Quick Change. Symbolically the only people who seem willing to actually assist, or at least not directly stand in the way of, Brolin reunion with his daughter are all women: a stripper, a cab driver and a kennel worker.
Though no impressive visual stylist, Butler keeps things going at a good pace and balances the more intense and comedic moments well, like I said it’s very reminiscent of a Eurocrime thriller, so if that’s a genre you have fondness for, definitely check it out. James Brolin is a solid enough lead, very much an actor of his time and though he may be overshadowed by his more famous wife and more talented son, he possesses both intensity and confidence here, and as evidence from his cameo in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a sense of humor about himself. Cliff Gorman gives the film it’s more interesting performance as the misguided and mistaken criminal, he performs like an adult caught in perpetual arrested development and employs a whining patois similar to Vincent Gallo. He also pulls off admirably one of the more creepy development, as he becomes overtly smitten with his underage captor.
Much like the New York City of the bygone mid-1970s to the early 1980’s, both of these films seem lost in time. Times Square received a DVD release about a decade ago, but it’s long out of print. I sense a rediscovery is imminent as it’s getting a lot of notice via Zack Carlson’s book dedicated to punks on film Destroy All Movies and I recommend this very in depth and personal review of the film by Devin Faraci at Badass Digest. Night of the Juggler seems less likely to garner a big cult, though I’ve noticed it has its share of admirers amongst certain cinema bloggers. It’s never been released on DVD; I picked up my copy via Cinema de Bizarre, theatrically it was released by Columbia Pictures, so hopefully a company like Blue Underground may get around to a proper aspect ratio digital version one of these days.