The Gods of Times Square: Bites of the Big Apple

Bites of the Big Apple

Fantasia doc The Gods of Times Square chews on a variety of religious fruitcakes

About half way through The Gods of Times Square, director/documentarian Richard Sandler captures the defining parable of his film. A man is talking about the world as an apple tree. "An apple tree is leaves and bark, branches and roots, and apples," the man says. "The world needs all of this to exist, as the apple tree needs it all to exist. But still, only a few can be apples." Sandler is speaking to a Lubavitcher, a member of a pocketed sect of Judaism that believes their departed rabbi, Menachem M. Schneersohn, is the Messiah and will return to Earth. Is he likening the apples to Jews? Not really.

The Gods of Times Square isn’t so much a documentary in the traditional sense as a meditation on belief. The specific nature of those beliefs is less important to Sandler than the strength and abundance of them.

Sandler spent six years filming in Times Square, recording anyone who would speak to his camera. Not surprisingly, many who spoke had a message to sell and a faith to drive it. From fake ministers railing against the Disneyfication of the Square to black Jews preaching the fall of the "White Devil," from Baptist evangelists rapping indiscriminate hellfire to the awkward mind trick of Jews for Jesus, Sandler’s lens captures the reasoned and unreasonable as they bring their version of "the Word" to the Square.

A few voices pipe up a more wholistic, tolerant view: James, the elderly black gentleman with the priest’s collar and copy of the Koran, open-mindedly answers questions with questions. Jim, the self-proclaimed indie-rock Jesus, believes he is destined to wed Madonna and move into international affairs using "her sphere of power." The homeless man who sees the world expanding exponentially from the atom prefers to call it a "scientific," not spiritual, experience. And there are more.

Sandler is on his own faith trip, plumbing the miraculous from these captured moments. He’s his own variety of religionist, and admits as much. But his worldview and his lens seem to embrace the whole tree and not any isolated part. He has Larry Clark’s knack for bringing us uncomfortably close to the movie’s subjects but achieves more intimacy in his close-up. Also, he doesn’t exclude the secular: In an evocative sequence of instants, Sandler records the final day of the Square’s last walk-up diner, and the family that must let it go. This lament for the end of the Square is his most traditional documentary gesture.

Sandler doesn’t provide answers so much as offer a ceaseless flow of questions. But that seems to be part of the point: More than anything, The Gods of Times Square is about the miasmic ineffability of the world. That the discussions of life’s deeper meanings happen against a backdrop of the omnipresent pop and consumer images of Times Square makes it all the more poignant.

The Gods of Times Square

At J.A. de Sève Cinema, July 29 at 9:45 p.m.

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