The Old and the New
“Times Square is the music of the streets!” What does it mean for this film, a Robert Stigwood production (after Saturday Night Fever , Grease  and Sgt Pepper ) to take punk music (and its lifestyle) in this way, to affirm it, celebrate it? What does it become, and for whom?
Many current trends converge on Times Square. Films about musical styles and their milieu (disco in Saturday Night Fever), about mutually supportive female friendships (Little Darlings, 1980), about socially disaffected teenagers (Rich Kids, 1979) and, finally, movies trying to come to terms with movements of political revolt (A Small Circle of Friends, 1980).
The film will seem very strange to anyone familiar with the punk scene at any level. It is an antiseptic, middle class daydream – virtually a “Life, Be In It” health campaign that takes punk as the modern symbol of fun, energy and individualist achievement. On a basic level, it is poorly researched and blissfully ignorant of its nominal subject matter. Punk is confused with New Wave; fashion mistaken for rebellion.
The public image of punk presented here couldn’t be more different to, say, the associations attached to The Sex Pistols (Julien Temple’s The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, 1980). This Underground is full of nice, compassionate people; crime is milked for cute, comic effects; the friendship between Nicky (Robin Johnson) and Pamela (Trini Alvarado), and its subsequent popularisation through the so-called alternative media, carries not one trace of lesbianism. No sex, no violence, no scandal – in short, no transgression. The film gestures toward revolution in a total political vacuum.
It is important to understand just why Times Square ends up this way. It is the most recent episode in a filmic history that reveals a crisis in contemporary narrative cinema. Quite simply, Times Square wants to talk about the New, but stumbles when it finds it can only speak through the Old – old values, old perspectives, old forms. The film is in desperate search of a story and a viewpoint. Possibilities emerge suddenly and are just as quickly discarded – Tim Curry’s DJ is at one moment the saviour for the modern generation, and another the agent of establishment recuperation; Nicky, the more punk of the two girls, is at first offered as a blow against the repressive medical categorisation and institutionalisation of madness, but by the end becomes a classically coded case study in manic depression.
Times Square, exhausted by the effort to circumscribe the New, winds wearily back to the most conservative of resolutions – which looks pretty absurd in the context. The punk lifestyle as a subject is dropped, and the irreducible difference between the central characters is what really matters after all ... a handy ethical and narrative solution under the circumstances. So, Pamela in her dress slowly retraces the way to restraint and conservatism, while Nicky cuts free in a blaze of suicidal punk glory: returning us exactly to the opposition from which the film started – the same opposition it pretended, for a while, to be dismantling.
Times Square, in the end, is just another Family Romance, to give that Freudian notion its most general applicability. Meaning that everybody gets put in a definite, manageable place, identities are fixed and secured. This is what codifies the difference between the two girls: one has a father and the other hasn’t. Naturally, in the course of the story, Pamela’s father must be shocked by his daughter’s acts of rebellion, given a crash-course in human tolerance and understanding – but the family structure itself remains, and is affirmed.
Nicky, on the other hand, will take an eternal walk on the wild side – but she is not a threat to the social order. She functions as a celebration of Everyperson’s deep-down determination and spirit – she stands for The Individual.
An extraordinary modern mythology: the music of the streets, people called out of their homes to merge together in New York’s Times Square. Is this an image of collective anarchy, has the idea of revolution entered the Hollywood mainstream? Sorry, wrong number: as the camera cranes up and back, all these glorious Individuals disperse, each to their own, each one in place. The Streets are still part of The City; and The City still contains the energies that explode within it.
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© Adrian Martin January 1981