Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Wednesday, August 20, 2021

Thanks to a subway investigation further up the line, I was forced to abandon the 1 train last night and emerge into Times Square, to walk from there to the West 50s to meet a friend. Pretty much the worst-case scenario as far as traversing uptown.

As I dodged tourist after tourist on the jam-packed sidewalks while disdaining the overabundance of Vegas-style eye-sparkling signage, I vaguely wished for a reversion to the Times Square of old, i.e. the 1970s-80s version that was a crossroads of sleaze, crime, and deprivation. It’s a lament that all New Yorkers conjure up from time to time. The theory is that, as scuzzy and blighted as the district was back then, at least you didn’t have to put up with the out-of-town hassle that’s currently in your way and making you late.

It’s faulty logic, of course. Because for all the annoyances that the present “Crossroads of the World” holds, they’re nothing compared to what you’d used to get while walking along 8th Avenue:

That charming little scene of swarm-pickpocketing comes from Charlie Ahearn’s Doin’ Time In Times Square, a raw and unfiltered collection of video from the bygone days that sobered up at least one forlorn romantic:

…In 1986, the Wild Style director set up camp at an apartment on 8th Avenue and 43rd, where he lived with his wife and toddler son. He was so enthralled by the action on the street below that he’d film from his window. That’s basically all Doin’ Time is - a series of soulless encounters that were never supposed to make it to film and thus are all the more enthralling. It’s a plot-free parade of depraved humanity (intercut with actual home movies, like footage from his son’s birthday) with as little self-consciousness as possible. Because those who dance to hip-hop, rob, assualt and and wail for God’s help below had no idea they were being filmed, I’m more likely to trust Ahearn’s vision of Times Square (note that it was filmed after crack hit, so it could very well have been a nastier time than that which Stone and Friedman rhapsodize). But still! “People who are nostalgic about this crack-infested spot that was Times Square in the ’80s have to, you know, really examine their brains a little bit,” says Ahearn in a supplemental extra on the DVD. Consider me examined!

I suppose it’s a bit much to want a return to the nadir of twenty years ago, all for the sake of a less-impeded walk. But is it so wrong to hope for a magical reappearance of some skanky street hustler one night, whose mere presence would clear out a wide swath of Midwesterners clogging up the pavement?

by Costa Tsiokos, Wed 08/20/2008 10:49:40 PM
Category: History, Movies, New Yorkin'
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I went to see Woody Allen’s latest opus, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the other night.

Based on Allen’s recent fare, I was expecting an above-average night at the movies, but with the by-now customary shortcomings in comprehensive plotting and structure. And I was right: The character studies were pleasant enough, the cinematography was full of enough pretty people (big hello there to one of my favorites in that category, Penélope Cruz) and places to keep me engaged — but ultimately, the story delivery fell short of anything even remotely satisfying.

One thing I wasn’t expecting, and was particularly let down by, was the use of a voiceover narrator. This cinematic storytelling technique is doing a slow-creep spread throughout movieland, and its appearance in this film exemplifies why the trend should be stopped:

…The use of an omniscient narrator telling the story [is] a technique infinitely more common (for obvious reasons) on the page than on the screen: Books tell us stories, while movies are supposed to be all about showing them.

Another reason voiceover narration in film is more often than not obtrusive is because it’s frequently applied after-the-fact to films that have clarity problems – or films that are perceived by doltish studio execs as having clarity problems, as with Blade Runner – which is clearly not the case here.

Still, I have mixed feelings about Allen’s implementation. Allen’s most famous use of a narrative voiceover was his own character Alvy in Annie Hall. So, at first, I kept expecting one of the characters here to eventually be revealed as the narrator. Even after I gave up on that, the technique is problematic: Along with the multiple POVs, it’s the main mechanism keeping us from direct identification with either Vicky or Cristina, let alone Juan Antonio or Maria Elena.

I wouldn’t cite Annie Hall as a prime example of the voiceover. Alvy Singer was relating his life story, and his insertion into the onscreen action was appropriately limited. I would point more to Husbands and Wives as an Allen precedent; even though in that film the narrator was an active agent in the storyline (as a documentary filmmaker), he really wasn’t there for much other reason that to tie together the context.

It might have worked in Allen’s previous efforts, but not here. And that failure rate seems constant — the other late high-profile application was in Little Children, with a similarly disappointing result.

To me, this type of omniscient narration in a movie is nothing more than a crutch that makes up for a lack of better-executed scripting and pacing in a movie. It results in spoon-fed storytelling that does do what a film is supposed to do: Illustrate a story with inline words and pictures, not with help from a detached voice-from-above.

by Costa Tsiokos, Wed 08/20/2008 07:59:04 PM
Category: Movies
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