Another column that I love, without reservation, about the 1980 film Times Square. This movie captures so much of the romance I had with punk as an idea, as a fantasy, about how to be in the world. Your daughter still is one, for real.
If they treat you like garbage, put on a garbage bag. If they treat you like a bandit, black out your eyes.—Nicky Marotta, Times Square
Winding through the streets of New York City, a teenaged girl in a leather cap and a pin-covered leather jacket drags an amplifier on a luggage cart, stopping outside a disco to plug in her electric guitar. When a clubgoer tells her she’s shit, she smashes the club owner’s car and clashes with the police who appear to take her away. Obviously, she’s the hero of this teenage rock’n’roll adventure.
Set in 1980, Times Square is a love letter to a tarnished city in transition and, in particular, two girls’ romance with punk rock rebellion and each other. But while Times Square is a coming-of-age film, and uniquely (for both 1980 and now), one that features an implicit queer relationship, it is also a treatise that targets the image of a coherent social space, perpetuated in the urban discourse of revitalization, as a fantasy that harbors its own spatial politics, regulating the mobility of certain bodies through vectors of class, gender, and sexuality, including our Sleez Sisters. Since its disappointing theatrical release, Times Square has since become a queer cult classic, with its adolescent fantasy of independence, decadence, and breathtaking girl-girl intimacy. Which isn’t to say the film is without fault – continuity errors trigger magical haircuts, studio decisions hamstring the queer quotient of the girls’ relationship, and the narrative threads go slack on more than one occasion. The film’s stymied potential is a source of frustration for me and, according the commentary track by both director Alan Moyle and actor Robin Johnson (who played the amazingly tough but tender Nicky), those involved in its making. Nonetheless, Times Square is an important archive for a downtown gone Disney, and for its portrayal of a realistic, but also mythic, girls’ love story that burns with a punk rock passion. Slouching toward downtown, Times Square is, as the film’s tagline suggests, about a poor girl who becomes famous, a rich girl who becomes courageous, and who together become more than friends, but it’s also about much more.
Politician’s daughter Pamela Pearl (given life by the wonderful Trini Alvarado) is sent to a psychiatric hospital for an unspecified nervous condition, diagnosed after she abruptly, and publicly, runs out of her father’s press conference for the revitalization of Times Square. Pammy despairs of the machinations of her father’s crusading campaigns, including his glib use of his daughter as an anecdotal device for his announcements of what he calls an urban “renaissance;” and she finds herself achingly powerless in the grip of the multiple contradictions underlying his suffocating appearance of civility and safety. Bereft, without purpose or passion, she floats through the film’s introductory moments like the zombie she claims to be – an imperfect monster, undead and unliving – in a letter penned to late-night radio DJ Johnny LaGuardia.
At the hospital for neurological testing, Pammy shares a room with runaway Nicky Marotta, the prologue’s guitar-wielding girl, who is being held for her outbursts – staged seizures, she confides, to keep her out of juvenile detention. Their initial connection is staged in a series of small encounters that serve as the foundation for their mutual fascination. The roguish Nicky eats from Pammy’s get-well bouquets and burns cigarette holes into the curtained room divider; quiet but quick-thinking Pammy speaks up for Nicky during a doctor’s condescending examination. Intrigued, Nicky tears a page from Pammy’s diary while she sleeps. Under the tent of her antiseptic sheet, she reads, with growing, palpable wonderment, a poem Pammy’s written about her: “Your ribs are my ladder, Nicky / I’m so amazed, I’m so amazed.”
Positioning himself as the voice of the subterranean layers of the dark city, radio DJ Johnny LaGuardia seems to be, at first, Pammy’s answer – but her true salvation comes in the form of a punk rocker with both a troubled past and a dream of becoming more than this. With her boom box blaring the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” Nicky lures Pammy out of the hospital with a devilish grin and a shimmy of her hips, stealing an ambulance for their wild escape through the city. In an abandoned pier on the Hudson River, the two girls craft a home for themselves, nesting with their dumpstered furniture and scavenged linens, fashioning clothes from scraps and garbage bags, throwing televisions from rooftops and dancing in the streets, in a romantic bohemia of a shared life underground. Screaming each other’s names and christening themselves the Sleez Sisters, Nicky and Pammy promise to prevail against those forces conspiring to keep them apart. Sealed in blood drawn with a switchblade knife, the girls make a pact to call on one another when in need. And with all the feeling of a girl madly in love, Pammy kneels before an unsure Nicky and asserts her devotion. “Everything you do, or you say, is poetry. At least I think so.”
In staging this queer, punk rock romance in the streets of the city, Times Square is a film about the political and ideological character of public space, among other things. At a press conference, under a banner shouting “Reclaim Rebuild Restore,” Pammy’s father David Pearl asks, “The question we want to ask ourselves today, especially those of us with children, is this: do we want to live in an x-rated city?” His proposals, including the shutdown of the porn theaters (the sites for both commercial and noncommercial sexual exchanges outside of the norm), mirror those real-life developments for the gentrification of Times Square, reconceived largely as a series of attractions for incoming tourists while displacing a range of residents deemed unsightly. In particular, his proposals to contain the visible presence of perverts and other “x-rated” persons are challenged by his daughter’s rebellious dalliance with queerness and multiple forms of public sexuality.
There’s no denial that the city can be dangerous, but there’s danger also lurking within the imagined security of home and hearth. David Pearl’s stated goal of the preservation of “family,” and the protection of the “children,” is belied by his daughter’s dramatic defection (as gleefully pointed out by DJ LaGuardia). Refusing this patriarchal order of protection because of its costs, including the certain death of a deadening domesticity, Pammy wryly notes that, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire is where you go when you don’t want to be eaten for dinner.” Escaped from under the patriarchal thumb of her father, whose touted liberalism becomes a source of hypocrisy, Pammy becomes the self-assured “foxy Miss Pearl,” a founding Sleez Sister. And in a letter written to DJ Johnny LaGuardia, which he reads on-air, Pammy crafts her own declaration of independence, “Dear Daddy, I am not kidnapped. I am me-napped, I am soul-napped, I am Nicky-napped, I am happy-napped. We are having our own renaissance.”
In an attempt to discredit their newfound underground fame, her father issues press releases insisting that Pamela is ill, requiring medication, and that Nicky is unstable, a danger to herself and others. In particular, Nicky’s gender and class status as “white trash,” those markers that contain and constrain her mobility through the world, code her as a criminal to Pammy’s father, her sympathetic but concerned social worker, doctors and of course, law enforcement. Her status as a teenage juvenile delinquent thus makes her hyper-visible to the disciplinary apparatuses of the state, which then attempt to regulate and confine her to particular places, and practices, of surveillance and control. In response to this barrage of accusations, the girls pen the song “Sleez Sister Voodoo.” Live on LaGuardia’s radio show, the girls perform their proto-feminist contestation of the father’s attempt at a patriarchal restoration of spatial order and social control. Draped in disgust and scorn, Pammy interrogates his vision of a “safe” public and supposedly “seamless” social cohesion, identifying his gentrification campaign instead as an excuse to deny certain social groups a right to the city at all: “You want to make Times Square as cold as your icy eye? Why do you want to punish people who aren’t like you? You know, at home, I’ve heard you use the following words: spic, faggot, nigger, psycho. Well, I just want you to know, your daughter is one.”
Having been so thoroughly disempowered by the confines of social conventions, together these girls imagine a different world where power dynamics are transformed in their favor. Becoming the Sleez Sisters allows the girls to imagine themselves in more enabling ways, permits them entry into another, public, world. David Pearl’s plans exemplify a fear of cross-class and cross-racial contact, and imagine the city as a perilous realm of uncontrolled and chaotic sexual license. Of course, for the girls, this is what makes the city alluring. Here, in these fleeting moments, their implicit queerness bestows upon them an outlaw status, defying gendered and classed limitations on mobility and identity. One particular scene shows the girls happily wandering the crowded sidewalks of Times Square, dancing to boom-box tunes, holding their own against the mostly-male denizens slouched and smiling in doorways, and running, giggling, through sex stores under neon signs flashing “XXX Peep Shows” and “Live Nude Girls.” Stopping under a theater marquee advertising a screening of House of Psychotic Women, the girls spot some graffiti on a missing persons poster, featuring a school photograph of Pammy herself, on the side of a bus: “No sense makes sense – the Sleez Sisters.”
Surprised, Nicky notes, “Somebody’s taking our name.”
“Maybe they want to be like us.”
“Yeah, it’s like destiny, man. More sleeze sisters!” Enthusiastic, Nicky pens a black bandit mask onto the photograph of the now unfamiliar stranger known as “Pamela Pearl.” These brushes with imitation and adoration occur with more and more frequency, and the girls find themselves with a cult following, thanks in part to LaGuardia, who regularly airs their public statements, angst-ridden poems and angry punk songs. The Sleez Sisters thus become the inspiration for listeners’ fantasies of independence and self-theatricalization, embodying a radical alternative to prescriptive norms and imperatives about “appropriate” femininity and heteronormativity. Girls write in to the DJ, who has fashioned himself as a mouthpiece for Sleez, Inc., urging the girls to stay strong, to never come home, to refuse to settle for an ordinary life.
On the commentary track, director Alan Moyle is bitter that the studios not only forced a sellable soundtrack onto Times Square, but also dampened the queer promise of the girls’ relationship, removing scenes charged with erotic possibility. (Also in the original unpublished script by Jacob Brackman is a scene in which Nicky pulls down her pants to show Pammy a tiny “P” and “N” amateurishly tattooed on her abdomen, a permanent marker of their wild romance.) But in one of the film’s more memorable moments, the girls’ queer desire is amplified in what constitutes a public act of playing dress-up for each other’s pleasure (and also suggests the queer possibilities of similar scenes in bedrooms all over). Nicky encourages the self-conscious and shy Pammy to audition as a not-topless dancer at a seedy topless bar called the Cleo Club, after all other schemes (scamming three-card monty and mugging, badly, rich businessmen) to raise cash fail. In this scene, the erotic performance of butch-femme underlines their dynamic. (Backstage, Nicky tells a nervous Pammy, “Look, I’m brave, but you’re pretty. I’m a fuckin’ freak of nature!”) Nicky’s hair is slicked back, and she wears a men’s blazer with her usual swagger; Pammy’s costume, on the other hand, is a fantasy confection of chiffon and lace. The listless bar patrons, used to the regular rotation of equally listless dancers, can’t be bothered to watch Pammy’s inaugural turn on the runway, until Nicky’s adoring devotion at the edge of the stage inspires Pammy to dance, feelingly, enthusiastically, for her girlfriend’s clear delight. Under the bright lights of Nicky’s affections, Pammy’s transformation is striking.
But like matching puzzle pieces, the girls complement one another’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and Pammy reciprocates by encouraging Nicky to claim her own (sexual) public persona. The unusually subdued Nicky hesitatingly reads a poem to Pammy on bended knee, in which she growls “I’m a damn dog” – dangerous, perhaps, but devoted. (“I can lick your face / I can bite it too / My teeth got rabies / I’m gonna give ‘em to you!”) Urged on by Pammy’s insistence, she agrees to set the poem to a punk rock tune and perform with the Cleo Club’s house band The Blondelles (who seem to be dressed, throughout the film, for a psychedelic airport lounge). Standing at the edge of the stage, Pammy acts as her greatest fan as Nicky, under the rock-star alias “Aggie Doomed,” struts and crawls her way across the stage. Dressed in a ragged black satin coat with fur tails and sequined details, she aggressively stakes her territory.
In the sympathetic but also vaguely sinister role of a male impresario grooming his own guerilla girl group, DJ Johnny LaGuardia encourages their meteoric rise to subterranean infamy in order cultivate his own place in their urban mythology. Reveling in a romantic individualism, he is blind to the considerable costs of this path. It is here that their romance, like a candle burning too brightly at both ends, begins to falter; Nicky’s hopes for greater celebrity clash with Pammy’s uneasy sense that they’ve lost track of themselves in this romance with marginality. Both girls are sympathetic in articulating their divergent takes on the issue of their cult status. Deathly afraid of falling victim to the apparatus of state surveillance and bureaucratic control threatening to swallow her whole, Nicky places faith in the public nature of celebrity: “You can’t disappear if you’re famous.” But skeptical of Nicky’s plotting to do something even wilder than dropping televisions in order, she says, to build on their “trademark,” Pammy begins to reconsider a life constructed in pursuit of infamy.
After an argument with Pammy about their future together (or its lack), in a heartbreaking scene set to Patti Smith’s “Pissin’ in the River,” a minimalist dirge about obsessive love and self-destruction, a devastated Nicky destroys their home and burns their shared journal. In front of a crooked and broken mirror, she smears black bandit make-up across her temples and eyes. Mirroring their vandalisms of the missing persons posters, this act suggests that Nicky is herself feeling disappeared, gone missing from the only life she’d found worth living. Drunk, drenched, and utterly distraught, she staggers into the radio station, threatens the DJ (“You fuckin’ little straight!”), and demands that her plaintive cries be broadcast live: “I never told you everything. I never said the stuff I should. I was going to tell you, I never thought I could. Find me! Help me! Save me! Can you hear me? Pammy, I’m calling you, Pammy!”
The climatic concert stages a utopian scenario, in which the girl who was once a fan becomes instead, or also, a star. Pammy rescues Nicky, just as she blood-pact promised she would, and steals her away to her father’s office in the middle of Times Square, among the porn theaters and teeming storefronts. Calling all the local radio stations, Pammy announces an impromptu, and illegal, midnight show in Times Square. With kitchen scissors, plastic bags and black greasepaint, girls create their own versions of the Sleez Sister uniform in response to the announcement, and board buses and subways from all over the New York City area to converge in Times Square. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, while the sense of solidarity forged between the girls is mediated by commodity culture (and punk rock is no exception), it is still a meaningful relation. Here, the city streets, so often construed as a masculine domain, becomes the temporary staging ground for a cross-class girl gang claiming these public spaces for themselves.
In her now-signature garbage bag armor and bandit eye make-up, Nicky performs an ecstatic “Damn Dog” on the marquee roof of a Times Square theater above a milling crowd of screaming fans. But as the police approach from behind, Nicky jumps off the edge of the marquee and into a tattered blanket held taut by a group of girls – staging her own “death,” her swan song, like a true rock star. Disappearing into the crowd, whose chaotic uniforms provide camouflage, she evades capture by the police. As a sadder but wiser Pammy watches her vanish into the night, this final moment resonates with a war cry Nicky screams from atop the marquee before her star performance: “They might be able to blow me away, but they can’t blow all you away!”
In the decades following its release, the pre-Disney Times Square of the film (and the landscape of New York City in general) was subsequently, and devastatingly, transformed by the AIDS epidemic, the globalization of capital, programs of urban redevelopment and the real-estate boom, the resulting increase in homelessness and the relocation of many tenants. So whereas this climatic denouement certainly models the possibility for identification with a pop star (or punk star) to become a kind of public agency, however temporary, what it also presages, and eerily so, is the corporatizing effects of decades of redevelopment on the meanings of public space in Times Square. With this “revitalization,” Times Square now made safe and secure for tourists and corporations, MTV’s Total Request Live hijacks this scene daily. Under these changed historical circumstances and social frameworks, groups of teenage girls gather in Times Square to submit to this new form of urban surveillance, to perform themselves as devoted fans and, as the cameras turn toward them, as fleeting stars. Even more disturbing for the radical potential of queer publics is the role of middle-class gays and lesbians as a vanguard for gentrification, transforming, and in the words of one real estate agent, “stabilizing,” working-class (and often non-white) urban neighborhoods.
Times Square, then, might be a reminder of what a dangerous queer public might look like, could still look like. As Lauren Berlant argues, “The real fear we face, as scholars and activists, is not that queers in America will have sex, but that morning, noon, and night, in the streets and everywhere, queers in America will have politics.” Against the more familiar urban genre of noir, which so often links the dangers of the city with the sexuality of femme fatales and other uncontrollable women, and against these histories of the political and corporate privatization of (non-normative) sexuality, Times Square challenges this production of urban spaces with a queer, punk rock love story that passionately and perversely takes place in public.
For more on the gentrification and redevelopment of Times Square in the name of “family values and safety,” see Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. For feminist theory about spatial politics, see Rosalyn Deutsche’s Evictions and Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender. And for all that Alan Moyle disapproved, the two-LP soundtrack for Times Square isn’t bad at all, featuring tracks by Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Ramones, Gary Numan and Suzi Quatro. He’s also responsible for Pump Up the Volume, featuring a young Christian Slater as a low-fi shock jock who inspires his teenaged listeners to “stay hard.” Thanks to Toby Beauchamp for sharing the love for Times Square and Billie Jean.