Review: ‘Union Square’

Stephen Szklarski's DV camera follows seven junkies on their daily rounds, rarely venturing beyond Gotham's Union Square, the recently renovated three-block ersatz park that gives the film its name. Dispassionate cinema-verite journal unblinkingly records each twentysomething addict unselfconsciously with a signal lack of condemnation, pity or morbid curiosity.

Stephen Szklarski’s DV camera follows seven junkies on their daily rounds, rarely venturing beyond Gotham’s Union Square, the recently renovated three-block ersatz park that gives the film its name. Dispassionate cinema-verite journal unblinkingly records each twentysomething addict unselfconsciously answering questions, panhandling, shooting up or bedding down, with a signal lack of condemnation, pity or morbid curiosity. Pic opened May 21 at Gotham’s Cinema Village (around the corner from Union Square) and its unvarnished look at life in the slow lane exerts a hypnotic fascination that could hook reality mainliners.

It is clear from the outset that Szklarski comes to the table with even less baggage than his homeless interviewees, and he employs few digital tricks. His barely heard off-camera questions tend to be practical or factual, his very matter-of-factness prompting the junkies’ own introspection.

Some users have long pharmaceutical histories, having been on the streets at an early age. For some, drug abuse runs in the family. Stealth, his face sporting an assortment of piercings and his body a collection of tattoos, ran away from his home in California at age 9. Cheyenne, taken away from her addict parents at age 6, found herself repeating the nightmare she swore she’d never revisit, as she was denied visitation rights to her own daughter. With the exception of one inexplicably straight-arrow brother, Danny’s relatives are all either drug addicts, drug dealers or else in recovery. Ron, who gradually slid from Madison Avenue to Union Square, finds it necessary to keep up appearances, terrified lest he be taken as one of “them.”

Yet the more Szklarski’s subjects come into focus as individuals, the more dreary the sameness of their existence appears (styles of injection don’t differ greatly, though Stealth’s use of a shoelace still attached to a sneaker is novel). The ironies of their situations are not lost on the junkies themselves, who harbor few illusions. But the only thing that offers relief from the terrible place to which they have come is the substance that got them there.

One of the shockers of “Square” is the amount of time, repetition and work involved in maintaining a functional high. Copping several bags at once may only see the junkie through the morning, at which point he has to find money, score and cop all over again, several times a day. The viewer spends enough time in anonymous bathrooms to be thoroughly wearied by the process — and the film lasts only 90 minutes.

Some 30 years ago, Floyd Murtrux shot fiction feature “Dusty and Sweets McGee” using real junkies and only one professional actor, Billy Gray (of “Father Knows Best” fame, himself an addict at the time). Warner Bros., which released the film, withdrew it after a week, despite excellent reviews, fearful that a film that withheld judgment might be deemed as condoning what it did not condemn. Given “Union Square’s” grim depiction of drug abuse, it is doubtful viewers would make a similar claim.

Image quality is fine, but source sound is often difficult to decipher.

Union Square

Production

An Alliance Intl. Pictures presentation of an SZK/NYC production. Produced by Lillian Miranda. Executive producer, Stephen J. Szklarski. Directed, edited by Stephen J. Szklarski. Screenplay, Lillian Miranda, Szklarski.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Szklarski; music, the Lewis Elderlane Experience, Lars Alive; associate producers, Dawn Alytn, Jeff Hayne, Robert G. Dixon. Reviewed on videocassette, May 12, 2004. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Cheyenne, Mark, Stealth, Ron, James, Mike, Danny, Lock.
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