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June 28, 2007The Gods of Times Square, Richard Sandler's first full-length film, is a documentary, filmed between 1993 and 1998, about the religious fanatics, doomsday prophets, drug addicts and street folks living in New York City before, and during, the process of corporatization and Disneyfication that has irrevocably altered the landscape of Times Square. I caught up with Sandler for this interview during a Reel Round Table event at the Pioneer Theatre on Avenue A, where he was a guest speaker. Sandler and I spoke in the theatre for a few minutes, then went to a coffee shop across the street, and eventually finished up back at his apartment a few blocks away. As we discussed his film, the state of New York, and the over-reaching implications of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's subsidization of public space to corporate entities, Sandler's radio played quietly in the background, tuned to a Thelonious Monk birthday tribute, a rather appropriate soundtrack for a conversation about New York.
LAS: Why don't you start by giving a quick history of the film to date; when it was first finished, how it first started getting around and shown at different places, that sort of thing.
Richard Sandler: Well, it screened for the first time in Rotterdam, at the Rotterdam Film Festival, early in 1998. Actually the cut that was at Rotterdam is an old cut; there's a new cut that was finished a year later. Shortly after Rotterdam, we re-cut it and then I took it to Sweden to show in the Popcorn International Film Festival, where it won - it was, like, the highest rated movie in the whole festival - which was really cool, and very much an honor for that to happen. It was like a bit of a dream. Anyway, now it's showing at the Chicago Underground and New York Underground festivals, was recently at the Woodstock Film Festival, et cetera. As of right now, starting on October 19th and thru October 27th, it'll be showing at Cinema Classics. So that's the present scoop, and it's going to show in some other places - it's going to show in Boston on the 20th and the 22nd, and in Seattle and Great Barrington Mass. Its starting to get around... it's definitely starting to find it's audience.
Yeah, I was wondering where you were at right now with screenings and distribution.
Well, it is self-distributed, as I don't have a distributor, and it first showed in Rotterdam in February of 1998. I met some people there who wanted to show it at some other places, so there was some interest at that point. At the '98 Rotterdam Film Festival, The Gods of Times Square was the highest rated American movie and the highest rated documentary in the whole festival. The audience award was a big thing there, it came in 9th out of 220 films - I should say movies. You've got to use different terminology now. It really is a movie, not a film. In a sense that the word film has become movie, yes it's a film, but The Gods of Times Square wasn't shot on film, and being from the era of film, I'd like to get that right.
Some purists could take issue with that.
Well, the purists would be on my side, I'm saying it's not a film, it's a movie. Its a video. I like to call it a movie or a video because there's nothing wrong with video, it's just different. It allows a level of intimacy that you could never have with film. For instance, I could never have shot this movie on film. It couldn't have happened, because I would have had to have been working with a sound person, and in order to get the intimacy that I got, I had to be alone, because it was just me and somebody else and they had to trust me. If they knew that they were being taped, and sometimes they didn't even know they were being taped...
Did you always have the camera out front, and visible?
Sometimes I hid the camera to the side while I was talking to people so I could look in their eyes and they could look in mine, but the camera was always on, and sometimes they didn't know that. Some people would find that problematic, but I don't.
So you've done this project almost completely by yourself?
Yes, I made the movie myself. Shot the movie myself, certainly, and edited it with a great editor named Dan Brown, and also got editorial advice from the executive editor, who is my son. Everything had to pass through him first.
Was this the first full-length documentary film you'd ever made?
Indeed, this is the first feature length documentary that I've made. I made one or two pieces in 1992 - the first was on the democratic convention in New York that year, and the other piece that I made later that summer was a piece called Waiting for Woody, which is about the press feeding frenzy surrounding the child custody case between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. So it's very much a movie; it was shot in just one day, but it's still a little movie, and it is a little movie about the press, primarily, turning the camera very much upon the press, because while we were waiting for Woody Allen all kinds of things happened. The press started to feed upon itself. They were so, you know, itchy; their trigger fingers were so itchy and Woody and Mia never showed up. So they just started photographing themselves and this very hilarious, very surreal sort of Fellini-esque cartoon developed on the street. Ahh, and people that showed up for this particular date outside the court were like characters from a Woody Allen movie itself, I mean they really were. They were the losers on his train in the beginning of Stardust Memories, you know, the various schlemiles and losers and wonderful characters, you know... I shouldn't say losers, but you know what I mean.
Schlemile kinda pins it.
Schlemiles, schlamozzles, shmageggy, shmendrick, stuff like that.
So, coming from that, did you have an idea about working on The Gods of Times Square? Did you recognize what was going on in Times Square, all the changes, is that what spurred it on?
Yeah, I certainly recognized that Times Square was going to change, but I, like everyone else, didn't know how it was going to change.
You didn't realize the full extent of it.
Exactly. We heard that Disney was going to move in and indeed they did, and the landscape has been forever changed, the neighborhood has forever passed, the richness and the sweetness of that neighborhood is now completely gone. But before we get too far down the road of baby boomer nostalgia - I'm 53, and obviously am a baby boomer, having been born in 1946... my parents were fucking in celebration of the end of WWII, and here I am - what I just want to say is that even though I miss that neighborhood tremendously, and even though I miss the function that Times Square used to have, as the ultimate town square or as the, sort of, meeting ground for high and low, the only mildly sane spot in a very puritanical America... Even though I mourn the loss of that Times Square, I have to say that the present day's rampant commercialism and consumerism and, well, ah, the seeds for this world was in that one, and now its just gotten out of hand. There's always been capitalists and there's always been corporations and it was always sort of evil what they did, muscling small people out of business, but in Times Square we saw something that had never really happened before, we saw this massive blitzkrieg of capitalism, this 4 year...
It was a major blitzkrieg. They were making laws, putting people out, legal businesses out, people just couldn't continue...
The Giuliani administration ran roughshod over Times Square. They got Disney in, Disney said We want certain things - the porno businesses have to go, we want the right to decide who can do business on the block, and the city said No problem, along with a big tax break. So Disney came in, and once Disney came in, the place fell like a house of cards. And now the crossroads of the world, which was once the crossroads of the most amazing characters the world could ever dream up, is now the crossroads of the Disney corporation and Time Warner corporation. The Time Warner store is across the street at 1 Times Square. So, you know, we have a world spinning out of control both economically and in a bioengineering sense, and in a spiritual sense there's absolutely no memory of the culture that was buried so that [this Disney culture] can be here. And this is where the Hebrew Israelites play a very important part in my documentary. I sympathize with them probably more than anybody else in the movie.
Now, are you talking about the Hebrews in the vans driving around Times Square?
No, that's the Lubavitcher's, I'm talking about the very, very, very, angry black Jews. They're called the Hebrew Israelites.
They were the most militant in the film, if I recall correctly, and in the film a man came up and sort of offered himself up in a symbolic sacrificial way. I don't know how you would interpret it, but what I saw was the white male, offering himself up to them...
Just a guy who wanted to take on their pain, make a statement, you know... like he says in the movie, not all white people were involved in slavery. It's true, not all white people were, but, but... there's no getting away from the fact that white people were and that, symbolically at least, the white man is the inheritor of the white people that pillaged a culture.
And the white people today are reaping the benefits just like those blacks today aren't reaping the benefits.
Exactly, and that is a point that most white people don't see. This guy did a very courageous thing by letting them preach on his back.
That was one of the most intense things in the film.
Yeah, it was one of the most intense things I've seen in my whole life.
Because you don't know what's going to happen next. The guy was completely subjugated, they had him under their feet. And you followed up with him - it was cool to see his point of view. You got to speak to him, and he didn't really want to speak, but he knew what he was doing.
Yes, he certainly knew what he was doing. I've heard the Hebrew Israelites once say, on their loud, loud speakers, "you so-called white man, you think you own this place," as they pointed up to the buildings, "but just tell me - how many Indians did you have to kill to put these buildings up?" And you can see people walking by, saying to themselves Oh my God, they're right., and in that moment their whole reality is undercut. You know, we have forgotten the culture that was here before, the brilliant, brilliant, spiritually elevated, technologically advanced - though not in our sense of the word, but still a technologically advanced - civilization.
Living in relative harmony.
Yeah, they went through their ups and downs like all cultures do, but they never developed a science like we did, and here we are about to pollute the planet through 200 years of industrialization, to the point that its unlivable. It's certainly already unlivable in major parts of the world, and on a daily basis THAT part of the world gets bigger, whereas, the pristine pure part of the world gets smaller. So you do the math; it's just a matter of years. And the Hebrew Israelites are important in that regard, that they are holding a mirror up to mainstream, white society.
And you brought up a good point, saying that the change that took place, and the roots were always there. Let me ask one question which is inspired by something that a woman brought up after the screening at Cinema Classics during the Q&A - her point was, "but it's so much safer now in Times Square, it's so much cleaner, and it's easier to live here, I'm not afraid to walk down the street or get mugged." For her there was no price being paid, no loss, as a result of this corporate cleanup. What's your response to that kind of reasoning?
If Times Square were a place wherein there was still tolerance, the kinds of people that were scary to her really wouldn't be as scary. But I can sympathize with her feelings because it was a very rough and tumble place. And certain people - because of their body type or because of their demeanor, or their gait, or whatever - are the kinds of people that are classically easy prey in our society. And she may have been one of those people, and she herself may have been mugged at some point in the past, I don't know. And that kind of thing certainly leaves a trauma. So for her the new Times Square is at least a place that she can go, whereas the old Times Square is a place that she would never go. And of course we can argue that that's OK. But there is the other side to it, that it's complicated, and it is complicated.
I mean, the only reason why Times Square became so seedy was just because the economics in society changed so rapidly. Shit, man, when I first moved down to this neighborhood in 1966, there was no unemployment; I was paying $49 a month [rent] over on Third Street and 1st Avenue in '66. And I was paying the highest rent in the building - most of the people were paying 30 bucks a month. So, something profoundly changed wherein the economics became so strident and people at the lower end of the economic spectrum were completely forced out. Most of the single occupancy hotels where the denizens of Times Square had formally lived were now destroyed, and the seedy period in Times Square's history parallels the destruction, or the conversion, of single room occupancy hotels into condos. So many, many people were forced out onto the street. As well as a deinstituitionalization program wherein mentally ill people were let out, wholesale, from mental institutions. And there's one more very important fact that contributed to Times Square's seediness, which was returning Vets from Vietnam who came back, addicted and seriously fucked up psychologically. So, you know, these are the most harmed people in our society, and there must be a place of tolerance for them. I feel bad, in answer to your question, I feel bad about this woman who couldn't walk through Times Square and I can understand her beef, but she could walk in the other 98-percent of New York City. She had the rest of it to herself - there was some fear in probably walking anywhere anyway - and so let Times Square be for the people who really need the camaraderie of the people in society who really don't make it, who don't want to join in and be a part of the game. And that's ok, not everyone needs to join in.
But the current economic state is such that that's not OK.
Right, that's not OK.
And with many of the laws being enforced right now, under Giuliani - the vagrancy laws, et cetera - you can't just be. In a lot of ways, it's like forcing people to step in line.
It's Social Darwinism.
The change that I saw... I graduated high school in 1993, and I was coming into the city all the time, from freshman year on, and Times Square was still really seedy. Porn shops all over the place, the drugs, the religious fanatics and not so fanatics, just people expressing their beliefs, and for me to see the fast shift away from that was incredible, as well as the changes that took place down at Tompkin's Square Park with the squatters being forced out by the police. That shift was incredible and fast, and suddenly all those lifestyles were impossible, and it didn't seem to be all about crime. There was a moral social agenda there, it seemed like there was more behind it. The documenting of that time in this movie was incredible.
Well, yeah, starting in '93, that's when I started shooting, from '93 to '98, which was the period that saw the old neighborhood end and the Disney neighborhood begin. I'm glad I stopped in 98, because it would have been two very depressing years videotaping from then until 2000.
How much more depressing could it have been than to see the official opening of the "New" Times Square and the Disney store?
Well, that was the end for me. I didn't have to stick around for the millennium, because the millennium was bought and paid for by Disney, you know, Mickey Mouse, is the face of the new millennium. We are now in the Mickey Mouse millennium. It is really true, that party that was brought to us in Times Square was hosted by Mickey Mouse himself, and that is a corporate fascist logo that implies a very, very sly shift in our society. It implies a whole lifestyle, one of compliance.
From an early age too, of buying into that view. Kids look at the dolls, toys, shows, et cetera, then grow up to do the same for their kids.
They are the engineers, or as they like to call themselves, the "imagineers," of what looks like a corporate Reich. They are down with what looks like a worldwide corporate Reich, and its my personal feeling that fascism never died it, it just changed it's form, and it turned into multinational corporations.
Globalization. What a bad word that is.
What was it like switching from photography to video?
It was pretty smooth for me. It wasn't that hard and I was always shooting stills, even through the whole period of shooting video. Now, with my digital camera, I can shoot stills and video on the same camera, so I pretty much take that camera with me on a daily basis and I leave my still cameras at home. I still shoot film stills on occasion, of course. I've been a street photographer since 1977, and, ah, so, the transition to street video was not that big a deal for me. I'm used to being in people's faces.
What do you think of Weegee? I'm sure you're familiar with his work, I found there to be some really great similarities between his work and The Gods of Times Square, like his famous shot where the building is on fire and the sign says "Simply add boiling water." I don't know if you recall that picture.
There seemed to be a lot of crazy juxtapositions and things caught haphazardly.
Anything done on New York City streets is informed by Wegee. He was one of the real originals.
At the screening you mentioned that, since the filming of this movie, you've come into contact with a few of the people that were in the film. What was it like seeing those people back and forth during the filming, and afterwards? For example, the one guy that thought he was Jesus Christ, I think Jimmy was his name?
Yeah, I haven't seen him since the last time I shot him in the movie. I have seen Solomon and Brenda, the husband and wife preaching team, the woman who says to me, "All those phony boloney garbage gods, your shiva, and your buddha and all these other phony baloney garbage gods, they're worthless"; the one who says, "When, when, when, are you going to repent?" Anyway, that's Brenda and she's still out there with her husband Solomon, they're still out in Times Square almost every day, and the Hebrew Israelites are still out there every day also, pretty much. But other than that, I think almost all of the people I met are gone. There are a few I've seen since, but you know the climate of Times Square has changed so radically that they don't even feel comfortable to be out there. And much of the sin is gone.
Which is the reason they were there in the first place.
Particularly the Christians, yes.
The preacher was a real wild character.
James, yeah, James was a trip and a half, that guy is really out there. But completely in his own reality, I mean, he believed it all.
Yeah, he's really out there, he was a trippy dude.
That guy once said to me, "Reality is slipping into the dream world." I once saw him and I said, "James how are you, and he said, "I'm not." I said that I had never heard anyone respond like that to that question before, and he said to me, "that's because you're used to talking to intelligent people." I said, "You're not intelligent?" and, he said, "No, I'm not, I'm still learning the English language." I love that, How are you? "I'm not." It's a wonderful reply. "I'm not."
Yeah, James kept coming back, he was one of the recurring characters, he kept popping up.
The most recurring, actually.
Yeah, and it was wild, each time he had a different reply, sort of a Muslim take on things, then a Catholic perspective, but always very not even. It seems like he throws out a certain line from an organized religion, but then he hones in on what you're saying and spins it around in some way.
Yeah, I think the word that someone used about him was elliptical. You know, he's different than the average person, way different. The first time I met him was a joy beyond belief. In fact, that was the day that Gods of Times Square really started for me. I had been out there for three months or so, shooting the lights and the signs both on video and stills, 35mm stills, and you know the longer I was there, the more I started to hear the buzz of people talking about religion on the streets.
So you kind of developed the idea from that, from being in the street already? You didn't go into the street saying, "I'm going to make a documentary."
No, not at all.
You were there already and the idea just grew.
Yeah, I was there photographing and videotaping the lights and making photographs and videos of the reflections of lights on glass surfaces. For instance, I would go to a corner, where you could see through the two glass surfaces of a building, and I would look through those surfaces at, say for instance, at Joe Camel across the street. But on the surface that I was looking through was the reflection of a sign across the street behind, so I would look for these places where I could layer reality with reflections, to make these kind of dense images with a sense of layerdness, which I realized comes exactly out of the sense of the world you get from taking psychedelic drugs. I mean, I know it comes right from the LSD trips that I took back in the 60's, I don't doubt it for a second. Just a sense of so much going on at once, visually. I wanted to try to shoot things that got to that feeling, and I thought I could do that better with video. Although I got some good stills, I have to admit, of the lights and the signs of Times Square.
Do you think the way you developed shooting video, in a way that wasn't intrusive, was something that you just picked up working, from being out on the street so much?
Well, it's important to put people at ease and to be good with people, but you know, when it comes to getting people to talk about something they're interested in, its not so hard, if you're good at it, because people like to talk. In the situations where people didn't like to talk, that's where [I would] have to use [my] wits, so that people are comfortable to talk. Other times I wouldn't even tell them I was taping.
Which you did on occasion.
Yeah, I did that all over The Gods of Times Square. It was done deliberately; my goal was to record conversations without feeling the presence of the camera, without the "subject" feeling the presence of the camera. I wanted to make it as transparent as I could. That's why I could never have worked with another person, or a sound guy. Once you have a sound guy with you, its already bullshit, because you recreate the environment; you create a new environment, you and your soundperson, and this kind of filmmaking - or video making I should say - is utterly the result of video technology. You make different movies with a video camera than you do with a film camera and you can be a one-man crew. If I couldn't be a one-man crew then I believe this movie couldn't have been made. Or rather, it could have been made but it wouldn't have been as intimate. It's a whole revolution, it's democratizing too, to a great degree. I made the movie, initially, with a $1000 dollar video camera, and maybe I spent five or six dollars on each tape, probably not even that much. You could never do that with film, because the costs are completely different.
You mentioned earlier that you used to teach. How long since you've been away from that?
I taught for five years or so at ICP (The International Center of Photography). I taught street photography there and photojournalism, which I enjoyed very much, and I would consider going back. About four years ago was the last time I taught.
Teaching is a big thing for me. It uses a lot of energy, I like it, and I'm pretty good at it and I get very inspired by it. Because when you teach, the thing that's in it for the teacher, I think, is the grace that comes with having to articulate things that you already know, but that you don't have to articulate to yourself. You kind of know it, but for somebody else you'd have to articulate it, sort of like when you critique somebody's work. You have to really, really formulate your own ideas about how to critique a person's work, and that's not easy to do well. But when I really was able to do that, as I learned how to do that, I found it to be enjoyable, and of course it's great to see people grow, and everyone's had great teachers who've inspired them, and so it's your debt to society, it's your karma. If you've ever had a good teacher, you have to keep the ball rolling because you know just what that teacher did to help you. That's a pretty common experience. You can have helped other people just by inspiring them and getting out of the way, bringing out their best qualities. It is a very special kind of relationship.
But its true, when I stopped teaching I really put my foot on the accelerator, in terms of my own work, and then I stopped teaching. To tell you the truth, I didn't want to take time out from my own work. It just became more important for me to be out in Times Square everyday. And the other thing is that I didn't want to talk about what I was doing, about the project. There are times in your life when it's good not to talk about what you're doing, and it's hard for me not to talk about what I'm doing because I tend to be pretty communicative. But while I was shooting The Gods of Times Square I tried to be just as observant as possible. I knew I was into something big, and I tried not to talk too much about it. I think if I was teaching at that time I would have been talking about what I was doing and I'm glad that I kept it to myself. But now I'm happy to talk about it. (Laughs). It's just - sometimes it's better to keep things in and let them grow, and maybe there was some sort of professional, almost arrogant protectiveness on my part. I saw that I was onto something and I didn't want to give it away.
Yeah, you didn't know who would come along.
Yeah, if you're onto something you've got to be a little careful because someone can steal your idea. But, if anyone wants to go out into Times Square to shoot that way, that's great. See, for me it was kind of easy, because of the years of being a still photographer. So it wasn't really difficult, but it was different.
So you think you approached it differently than other filmmakers would? That coming at it with a background in photography had a lot to do with how the movie came out?
There definitely is an underlying repose to a lot of the scenes, especially the ones set to music, and you allowed a lot of silence and different faces and action. Like the demolition you filmed in the middle of it.
Well, the thing that photography enabled me to do was not be shy. The act of making a still photograph is greatly different than the act of video, because with a still photograph you just shoot and run, basically you shoot and keep moving. I'm not out there to talk to people and make friends, I'm out there to just make pictures. It is a little bit of a cold, somewhat detached point of view, I know, but I know the power of still photographs, and when you get a good one, it really rocks. In a way that a film or movie will never rock. It is like pure poetry, like the essence of scaled down communication, in the way that a poem generally is shorter than a novel, a still photograph is shorter than a movie and can ultimately have the same emotional impact. I adore still photography. So it is different, its real different. When you're shooting video, you stick around longer, its not fractions of a second, its seconds and minutes, and so it is a completely different skill. But the thing that I guess I brought to it was this idea of wanting each frame to look like a still photograph, or be composed well. A lot of people, strangely, who shoot film, don't really compose well very often as [they would] with still photography. With a still photograph it's either there or it isn't. It's a very exacting discipline. There are no maybes, no almosts. But with movie imagery the frame can be not that interesting but it can become interesting over the course of some seconds or minutes. And so you can kind of redeem yourself. But since that's not the case with still photography, what I brought to the video process was the still photographer's sense of a well-put-together frame from the start. Shot by shot I wanted the thing to look like good still photography looks. But of course there are things that are completely specific to video, like sound and movement, and it all becomes vastly more complicated.
And you felt that those elements came together throughout the whole process?
When I would be shooting and I would see something beautiful in front of me, something that was remarkably and wonderfully in front of my eyes, I would feel sort of graced that what was happening was interesting and that it was coming together frame-wise for me too. I was really getting off on the frames I was making. I found that video was actually easier for me than still photography. In a funny way, I think it's a lot easier than still photography. And you see with video you have a completely unprecedented ability, which is the ability to look at your own work, to edit it. As you are shooting, if you don't like something, you can take it out.
Which you did often, right?
Yeah, and that was great. I was shooting edited tapes, so I didn't have a lot of crap in it. So if something didn't work out I would rewind the tape immediately.
How much reviewing did you do? How much time did you invest, along with the other day-to-day projects that you may have been juggling?
Well, the editing was done in the camera, so there was no editing when I came home. I would look at my tapes, sure. Every night I would look at my tapes, and you know, I realized what I was doing at some point, and then I realized I wanted to make a documentary. Maybe about two months into the shooting of the lights and signs. Then I got an idea for the title, and I just started shooting away.
When did you come up with that? It is such a nice dual image for what was going on in the video.
Well, The Gods of Times Square - what does it mean? It certainly means the representative of Christian, Jewish and Muslim Gods, but it also represents Marky Mark and Kate Moss and these huge billboard anthropomorphized representations of perfect people looming above us, kind of spying on us from their high and perfect perch. And we don't all measure up to them. They're all perfect and they're huge, and we walk through Times Square, which looks like a cathedral - Times Square has a neon monolith at each end, and Number 1 Times Square is like the altar where the ball drops, and Number 2 Times Square at the northern end, is where the huge Coca Cola sign is, just north of 47th street. Yeah, the Renaissance Hotel, and in between that Broadway and 7th Avenue cross, so you have this boat-like structure which is surrounded on all sides by very tall buildings. It is a church; Times Square itself is a church or a cathedral, whatever you want to call it. Certainly it's a gathering place, because every New Year's Eve half a million people cram in there and they're celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. That's what they are doing, you know, in the most expanded sense of the word. Of course they don't think that's why they're there, but our history is defined totally by Christianity, and we live in a Christian country, in a Christian era, working by a Christian calendar that has thoroughly changed this land and landscape from that of the Native American people - who had a very sort of pantheistic approach to life - to this mono-god. They didn't have clocks in those days. Indians didn't walk around with watches, and they had a completely and utterly different time-space paradigm. And so, we are the blip on the radar screen of human time, living in this "civilized" way in the smallest portion of collected human experience. So, all that is just a long way of saying that Times Square had a lot of gods in it. I could feel them in the air in some sense, and I could see them on the billboards, and I could talk to their representatives in the personages of the religious zealots I met.
I also met the sort of God intoxicants; just people who are whacked on God and just love talking about God. But, the other thing that I wanted to say is that, in this book here called Gotham (pointing to the table), is a history of New York City, and I saw an amazing thing when I got that book. I saw the oldest maps of New York City, one of which is in that book. And then I went to the Museum of the American Indian to look at the older maps, and what I discovered, which is amazing, is that Times Square, which is right here (pointing to the map in the book), was the intersection of a very large river that came in here at about 30th street and ended right there at around 43rd, and that's probably at 5th or 6th Avenue. This is Times Square, right here, and this is the beginning of Central Park. There were all these rivers all over the place and this part of Manhattan right here was the most densely-rivered area. So in the Native American world, this was an incredibly rich and lush environment, the whole island was. You can see there were more mountains further up and they lived right up there, but these were hunting grounds right in here, for fowl and fish and stuff, so Times Square itself was the crossroads of the local Native American world. And all these years later we make it the crossroads of our culture and all we're really doing is nature's bidding. The geography defines the subsequent human activity.
So, you see it as Native Americans used these rivers and passageways, and they were there the most often, so those became roadways, and we sprung up all around them?
Oh sure, all of the first roads in this land were modeled after Indian paths. You have to remember when white men first showed up here, they were fucking scared shitless. They did not know how to live and they begged Indians to help them. And the Indians did. They obliged them all the time, continually obliged them, said, "sure you're my brother, I'll share it with you." Of course they got fucked for that, but you know, that's the history of America. That's just another reason the Hebrew Israelites are so important in this documentary - they hold that mirror up to white society, the mirror being how much has been swept under the rug, and how much is just revisionist history.
It's amazing that you came across that map.
It came from speaking to a Muslim dude named Muhammad, who sold incense and books on the street. He told me that he thought there were ghosts in Times Square, and that he had heard that it was an Indian burial ground. So I went down to the Museum of the American Indian, down by Battery Park, and tried to find out if that actually was the case. I didn't do exhaustive research, but I didn't find out that there had been a burial ground. But who knows? There probably was a massacre there, from what I read. There were just massacres everywhere.
So what are you working on now?
The new movie that I'm working on now is called A.K.A. Martha's Vineyard. It is called that because the Indians that live on Martha's Vineyard - some 300 Indians still live there, their tribe is the Wampanoag tribe - they of course have their own name for the island. It's not the vineyard of the daughter of the English ship captain who "discovered" it in 1602. There was a name before that, long before that, for probably 10 to 15 thousand years. So anyway, it's a documentary about the island we call Martha's Vineyard, this place of privilege and class, a famous place, where the rich go. I'm looking at the island through the lens of the native people. And of course their view of the place is completely different. They're not exactly down with golf courses and stonewalls, and telephone lines. Even though they live in our world now, they are still very in touch with their history and with their culture and mythology. But there's been a big break, obviously.
Have you been shooting up there at all yet?
I've been shooting up there for two years. I just started interviewing people this year and I'm very hot to finish it. I think it's a very important story, because it also has to do with the death of JFK Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law, in the exact spot in the ocean, right off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, where, according to Indian lore, a two hundred-foot tall giant Indian deity retired to when he foretold that the white people were going to come. So, JFK junior died seven miles off the coast in the spot where the Indian god resides.
So you're saying that's a known tribal tale of those people? Was that known to them as well?
Well, they didn't think that much about it. I've only spoken to a few people so far, as I'm really in the early stages on the interviewing end.
That's a wild theory.
Yeah, well it seems obvious, to me at least, that JFK junior was something like a, uh... that the event of his death is interpretable in a mythological way. You know, events used to be interpreted in mythological ways. If that was Zeus out there and we were living in ancient Greece it would be no problem to say that Icarus fell out of the sky and landed in Zeus' den, and so that would be a parable about foolishness, and we all tend to be foolish so the gods have enacted this drama out for you, so you can live by their example. By both their foibles and their strong points. At least that's what Greek mythology is all about.
Which, in that case, this modern version can be a warning against that sort of lifestyle, a lifestyle that allows such privilege? Or something indicative of that lifestyle of privilege, if you want to extend it that far.
That's exactly how I want to extend it. Because JFK Jr. then becomes representative of this lifestyle, and was there ever a more exalted person of this lifestyle than he?
Not one. He had a completely beautiful side - he was a really, really gentle sweet person and he was very well liked, by a lot of people that came in touch with him. Similar to Princess Diana, with a similar kind of vibe, both people that got a free ride in life.
She was a genuine, she was like a saint, a real beauty. But that's what it takes; it takes getting to the pinnacle of the privileged class to get beyond it. So Diana got beyond it, and I think JFK Jr. got beyond it, to some extent... although there were all these rumors about his wife being a crackhead, that she was strung out in Tompkin's Square Park one day, and they were fighting apparently in the days before the plane crashed. Supposedly she stormed out of some restaurant, I heard. I mean I don't know what the exact deal was, its really hard to know, but anyway, that guy is amazingly dead in a spot in the ocean where Moshupt the giant went to live.
So this documentary becomes even more poignant because I believe the way I want to tell the story... I mean documentaries are fiction, the biggest fiction in the world. And the fiction that I want to tell in my documentary about Martha's Vineyard is that the death was somehow symbolic of the end of colonialism and the return of a sweeter culture. Listen to this, this is really interesting: This is a chief named Standing Bear, who wrote this in his autobiography in 1933, that "the white man does not understand the Indian for the reason he doesn't understand America, he is too far removed from its formative processes. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and soil. The white man is still troubled by primitive fears. He still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent. Some of its vastness not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes, he shutters still with the memory of the loss of his forefathers upon its scorching deserts and forbidding mountaintops. The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien and he still hates the man who questions his path across this continent. But in the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested. It will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm, men must be born and reborn to belong, their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers bones." That was 1933. That was the real end of it all.
Richard Sandler's photography can be seen at Tankboy.com, and The Gods of Times Square can be seen at select theaters around the country. Additional information on the film can be found here. Sandler currently works as a freelance photographer and videographer in New York City. His photo work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Independent, Time, Outtakes, Lear's, Print, Picture and other publications, and has been shown at The Brooklyn Museum, The New York City Public Library, and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He also curated "Living for the City: 20 Years of New York Street Photography" at the Parsons School of Design in December of 1997, and received the New York Foundation For The Art's Fellowship For Photography in both 1992 and 1998. SEE ALSO: www.tankboy.com/richard
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