Audaciously cramming the whole gloriously cruddy mythology into a swift few pages, The Times Square Story is a site-specific sideshow to The Phantom Empire, poet-essayist Geoffrey O’Brien’s entrancing reverie on the ways movies unspool in the unconscious. Once again, boundaries between life and art blur into druggy oblivion— a single book-length sentence that zips around photos of Times Square and the movies that gave it consciousness. This is what it might have read like if Molly Bloom got a chance to wander the old 42nd Street and catch some exploitation movies along the way.
A young man from the sticks arrives at Port Authority into a postwar bustle of gloved and perfumed women carrying parcels on some urgent mission, while “leftovers from an army of angry men” stand around ready to snap. Working as a delivery boy for a lab that processes the trashy movies that play the Deuce’s grind houses, the country kid finds himself among old carny hands and Benzedrine addicts desperate to keep up with audiences’ demands, which have shifted from boy-adventure thrills to blood and bodies before anyone’s noticed the ’40s have dissolved into the ’60s.
Nominally filming a treasure hunt movie, this crew is living an exploitation pic all its own, cast with speed-dealing gangsters looking to kill the kid, a former beauty queen who convinces them not to, the sex therapist she fingers for death instead, the screenwriter paid with the “doctor’s” drugs, and the therapist’s homicidal wife who might cure an alcoholic exmovie star with a sex-surrogacy session. They dream up other movies— “teenage bank robbers on dope . . . Martian superbrain operating from inside a cave”— until they and their fantasies fade, exhausted, into the dark streets.
A bit snazzy for O’Brien’s sleaze, Alexander Knowlton’s design does deliver one photo that melds especially well with the writer’s dream-history: Times Square looks like a giant X, a long-limbed body that embraces all comers. Exposed to daylight, she lies deadly still.