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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Union Square
Union Square
Other // R // March 22, 2005
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted April 8, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Everybody, no matter how regal or humble, is a person at heart. They all have a history and they all have a story. No one, no matter how famous or infamous, comes into this world fully formed. There is always a family, a background, a reason for where they are today and why they are in the position they're in. Superstars weren't born into celebrity. Serial killers didn't come out of the womb wicked and evil. Like the song says, ever picture tells a tale and all people share the exact same sentiment. Get a chance to know them, and they will reveal their narrative in compelling clarity and amazing detail, no matter who they are.

Filmmaker Stephen Szklarski discovered this one day, while walking through Union Square. At first, his impression was rather routine: lots of homeless people, some in their early twenties, most of them disheveled and down on their luck. But a bit of fateful happenstance found him speaking to one of these so-called bums, and he discovered something quite amazing. Almost all of them were heroin addicts. And almost all of them were young people, lost and trapped in a world of dependency and despair. Realizing that there was something more here than just the standard story of junkies and hustlers, Szklarski decided to document the scene.

The resulting footage formed the basis for Union Square, a powerful first person POV look at an often-controversial concept in today's society. Beyond all the hype and the 'just say no' horror stories, there are real people living with a terrible problem. And far from being reprobate without a reason for existing, Szklarski learned something fascinating. Everyone he met was just a person at heart. And they all had a history and a story to tell.

The DVD:
One night, after a concert, director Stephen Szklarski stumbled into Union Square in New York City to celebrate with some friends. While there, he ran into a homeless heroin junkie, who asked him for money. Startled to learn that there was a huge derelict drug abuser community in the park, Szklarski grabbed his portable video camera, started making connections and finding potential interview subjects. Eventually, out of 40 addicts, Szklarski settled on seven, and they became the focus for a film named after the area.

There is Stealth, a pierced punk who has a hidden sensitivity and cool sense of street smarts. We get to know Danny, a married man with three kids who uses and abuses anyone around him to merely get the money he needs. There is Ron, a chipper, optimistic man who gives off a kind of self-delusional air, while bravely battling both his depression and his drug dependency. Yet there is also a sadness behind his smiles. James is a typical hustler, filled with a savvy, and accompanying shallowness that results in his constant visits in and out of jail. And Mark believes he is too much of a man to let heroin take control of his life. Naturally, he seems to be the one having the hardest time coping with his drug-based demons.

But perhaps the most compelling couple befriended is Mike and Cheyenne. He is a street musician, playing for spare change in the subways. She panhandles, providing the money for both of them to fix their habits. He treats her badly. She misses the daughter she hasn't seen in months. Together, they form a typical co-dependent bond, proving that even on the hard sidewalks on New York, interpersonal relationships play out in the same old painful ways.

The amazing thing about Stephen Szklarski's humbling, harrowing documentary Union Square is not its attention to detail. It's not the laundry lists of bags and bundles, shooting tips and panhandling prerequisites. No, what sets this stellar piece of cinema vérité apart from the rest of the real life retrospectives that pass for fact film is the found nature of its origins. Szklarski literally stumbled across this subject, more or less by accident, and utilizing the technology currently available (or at least that was around in 2002), he managed to film, edit and self-distribute one of the best anti-drug dissertations ever created. Indeed, there is perhaps no better example of the ravages of heroin use than this grim, gritty nightmare. While all the people we meet are decent, if not a little mislead, how they have to live, and the things they do to survive give a new meaning to the concept of hitting the skids. For the seven we meet, there is nothing lower than addiction...not even death.

Szklarski makes the wise decision to make this a character study, only subtly shaded with the realities of the Union Square drug scene. We get fleeting glimpses of drug dealers and police, indications that the insularity of this world can be violated at any and all times from the outside. But for the most part, this is the junkie universe of NYC that we are thrown into, and thanks to the director's attention to detail, we begin to learn the rotten ropes. A fix is not just a shot, it's a well measured amount of heroin (calculated in $10 'bags') that requires a great deal of pre and post injection effort. Many of the individuals we meet here aren't into mainlining or skin-popping just to get high. Indeed, for many, the daily desire to cop (or acquire drugs) is for maintenance only. In Ron's case, it's to get through the day in as "straight" a mannerism as possible – something that will allow him to get a job or a place to stay. Mark admits that it's the fear of getting 'sick' that keeps him using. Even Cheyenne, desperate to reconnect with her family, explains the doses and the schedule she must maintain just to barely get through the day.

Union Square does cast off the notion that all addicts are lazy, lumbering losers, wandering aimlessly from shooting gallery to doorway strung out and stumbling. This may be true for other drug users, or the alcoholic winos unconscious along the curb. But in the world of heroin, life is a constant battle between scoring and shooting. Panhandling provides most of the money here, but there are other ways to get the cash that is so important to a junkie. Ron explains about a man who will pay for sex, a proud pervert who merely wants "a penis on a body" for $40. Danny steals from family and friends, selling their CD collections and coffee table books for drug dough. We learn that, from a combination of begging, borrowing and outright theft, many of these people must earn between $100 to $300 a day, just to feed their need. That very few of them seem strapped for the necessary cash explains why they will always continue on this dismal downward spiral. They've gotten good at it – or at least comfortable.

Indeed, Union Square tends to indict the society as much as the substance abuser for the reason why so many are stuck on the streets. Over the course of this 90 minute film, we see a couple of our 'cast' attempt to enter detox and rehab, situations that are supposed to help. But with bureaucracy and a burgeoning need, the facilities can't keep up, turning away many who require help the most. Szklarski, in his commentary, also casts a jaundiced eye on the people who would gladly give money to an obvious drug user, complimenting their kindness on one hand, but arguing against prolonging the addict's pain on the other. There really is a major mixed message in Union Square, something that the subject matter itself seems to create. This is by no means a glamorization of drug culture, or an apology for addicts or addiction. But with the can-do spirit expressed by most of the junkies here, we never quite feel the fatalistic nature of their predicament. Even at their lowest, we sense they will find a way out of their lowlife living Hell and make it to the next sequence.

It is also necessary to understand that, if this sort of subject matter sickens or bores you, or if you could care less about witnessing dope heads shooting brown mung into their collapsing veins in loving detail, then Union Square has very little else to offer you. This is basically 90 minutes of telling talking heads, channeled through a homemade movie ideal. In order to avoid lawsuits and rights issues, Szklarski shoots his entire film in extreme, face filling frame shots. You would never know this was New York City without the constant verbal references to the Big Apple. Also, we get very little of the urban ambiance of Manhattan. Union Square is really just a series of walls and alleys, street corners and park benches – and rightfully so. This is not a film about how the mean metropolis chews up and spits out the decent and the dreamer. No, this is a movie about how heroin takes your life and destroys it, from both the inside out and the outside in.

Instead of an epic to excess, or a mainstream message movie about mainlining, Union Square simply tells the truth. It shows, without excusing or accepting, the daily dimensions of a homeless heroin addict and asks if you can see yourself in these bleary eyed, blanked out bodies. There is definitely a "there before the grace of God go I" ideal at play here, since many of the revelations sound like snapshots from everyone's adolescence. That, in the end, the film more or less fails to transcend its tenets to become something more profound or prophetic is not necessarily Szklarski's fault. In actuality, it is hard to imagine how the stories of seven desperate junkies could lead to such an enigmatic conclusion. Union Square is just a simple saga of people, individuals who you might walk past and never give a second thought to. But Stephen Szklarski proves that inside every human being is a story – be it sad or sensational, shocking or somber. Thankfully, he had the desire to sit – camera in hand – and listen.

The Video:
As mentioned before, this is a handmade movie all the way. On a limited budget, with minimal lighting, and an internal mic for recording purposes, director Szklarski is not out to make some manner of visual masterpiece. As a result, Union Square looks cheap and dirty – perfect for the subject matter it is tackling. The lack of correct colors, perfect contrasts, or defect-free footage gives the 1.33:1 image that much more authenticity. Unlike other documentaries that strive to capture the look and feel of a subject while keeping one foot firmly planted in the cinematic, Union Square just wants to tell its tale. And it does so without a lot of technically accomplished bells and whistles. The transfer is fine, just not flawless.

The Audio:
Another issue Szklarski had to battle was how to capture dialogue while combating the sounds of the city swirling around him. For the most part, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix manages to keep the voices clean and decipherable. Every once in a while, we lose a line of two to a passing truck or a honking horn. But for the most part, this is a good aural presentation, considering the camcorder microphone mannerisms of its recording. There is also a minimum of music in the movie, usually used to mask other songs the director could not afford to clear. The resulting heavy metal menace, full of thrashing chord cacophony, adds a nice sonic seriousness to the film.

The Extras:
The three bonus features offered on this DVD rank from acceptable to outstanding, each one expanding or explaining the reasons behind this film. First, there are a couple of trailers that do a terrific job of expressing what Union Square is all about. Secondly, there is Szklarski's interesting and engaging commentary. From his own personal anecdotes about the addicts, to a little bit of 'where are they now" (the track was recorded before the final bit of added content was completed), this alternate narrative really expands our understanding of the production process. Szklarski is not shy about his own past (while not a heroin addict, he battled his own drug issues) and marvels at how well his subjects seem to cope with their homelessness. He obviously has a soft spot for Cheyenne (as the only girl) and Mark, who he fears reminds him too much of himself. He gives everyone equal attention. But for the most part, this extra gives us insight into how Szklarski approached this project and managed to create it almost literally by himself.

For anyone affected by the film, however, the best extra will be the final retrospective entitled "Union Square Revisited". Szklarski went back and caught up with as many of the individuals who starred in his film as possible. The results are astounding. Those who you expected to clean up did. Others who appeared on the right path have stumbled, badly. A few cannot be found, and we fear for their existence. And even someone who appeared hopeless reveals an inner strength and a desire to stay sober that we never knew he had. In essence, "Union Square Revisited" is the second part of the main movie. It's less of a sequel, and more of the pay-off for the 90-minute set-up we saw before (it is nearly as long as the motion picture proper). Together, they make a marvelous, and occasionally moving, fact film experience.

Final Thoughts:
There will be some who see drug dependency as a sign of weakness and dismiss anyone caught in it as barely worth the time of day, let alone a three hour DVD dissertation. Others will watch and wonder why abuse and addiction aren't 'cool', like the media and the movies make it out to be. Director Stephen Szklarski has an answer for both narrow views. To those who would avoid the subject as beneath their ethical or moral consideration, they better not have too many skeletons in their own social circumstances, less they too become cast off into their own private purgatory. And anyone who thinks heroin is a reason for heroics and happiness needs the cold, callous slap in the face this film provides. What Union Square wants to say, and what it actually says so expertly, is that PEOPLE, not monsters or miscreants, own the faces and the facades that sleep along the sidewalks and beg for spare change. No matter how hampered they are by narcotics, or weakened by a life on the streets, they are still human beings who deserve consideration. Call it there own fault, or blame a government that cares more about corporations than rehabilitations, but addicts are not things. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. They deserve to be heard. Thankfully, Union Square was around to pay attention. And what a story it has to tell.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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