"The world is upside-down. With everything gone wrong. Everything's gone wrong," says an 82-year-old street preacher in Richard Sandler's film Gods of Times Square. "They're closing up the little shops and they want that big money. They're closing everything up in New York City."
Shot across the 1990s, the film focuses on the Bible thumpers and doomsayers of Times Square, and in the process gives us a wild and wonderful glimpse of a lost world. Times Square looks smaller and darker than it is today, sort of brown, as if stained with tartar. The buildings are mostly made of brick. They're not very tall. The sidewalks are busy, but uncrowded.
The New Yorker reviewed the film in 1999, saying it's "like discovering a box of old photographs. Here are the sidewalk preachers, pleasure seekers, and urban malcontents that populated Times Square before it was cleaned up."
The people in this world are crazy, passionate, filled with wild ideas. They tell stories. They sing and beg and stamp out the devil. They give mystical answers to simple questions. One shy young man believes he is the second coming of Jesus and waits for his moment to marry Madonna and become a rock star magician. Another man squats in the street outside Howard Johnson's and takes a long, lazy shit.
On the closing day of the beloved, lost Grand Luncheonette, the owner's wife says, "There's no room on the same block for Walt Disney's and [the Grand Luncheonette]. It's a new wave. It's a new world. It's over...It's finished. This whole way of life is over."
Reverend Billy is here, with his hair still black, preaching against "Mickey fucking Mouse." He goes into the Disney store and bellows to the tourists, "Mickey Mouse is the antichrist...and the Disney store is turning Manhattan into a theme park!" We see a new Times Square arise. The tourists flood in. People look cleaner, whiter. We know what happens next.
It's all gone. The buildings, the people, the spirit. All of it is gone. What happens to all that energy? Where does end up?