December 11, 2009

300 Words About: Diary of a Times Square Thief

Modern day archaeology = digging on Ebay...

Imagine that you've recorded your innermost secrets, ideas, personal philosophies, and confessions from the last few years in a composition book. If somebody found it in 2035, what would impression would they have of you - and how would you feel if they attempted to find you by contacting all of the people you've been writing about?

This reunion with the past is the essence of Dutch filmmaker Klaas Bense's intriguing documentary, Diary of a Times Square Thief, which was recently nominated (in the company of Food, Inc., Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and Afghan Star) in the Best Feature category of the 2009 International Documentary Association awards. 

It is a brief film (60 min.) packed with fascinatingly bizarre interviews with a diverse group of New Yorkers whose names were found in a personal diary that Bense purchased on Ebay. The only details he could find in the diary about the author were that his name was John and he worked as a receptionist at a dilapidated flophouse (the infamous Times Square Hotel, now the largest permanent supportive housing project in the country) during the crime-plagued mid-80's. Armed only with these clues, and curious about what John might be doing today, Bense set off for New York City.

Bense's motive for this project is never really explained, but soon after he arrives in New York and tracks down the first few names in the diary, it becomes clear this is going to be a fascinating investigation (and one that is beautifully shot in digital video). He meets Connie, a woman who describes how horrific the state of the building was at that time and implicitly suggests that anyone else mentioned in the diary must be dead by now. Richard is a social worker and/or security guard (I'm sorry to say I can't remember which) who looks through the diary but can't recall a particular "John" from the hundreds of people who lived in and around the hotel during those years.

There is also Sammy, an Italian-American photographer with a penchant for daredevil investigation who brags that "The Sopranos" don't resemble any of the "real" mafia that he knows. Ducky is a surprisingly young woman who worked in the seedy sex trade in the 80's but doesn't remember John; she now teaches the art of the female orgasm at Harvard. And finally we meet Chet, a down-and-out middle-aged guy who was photographed in the diary sporting a black eye, and who would eventually go on to graduate from Columbia University in the same class as Barack Obama. It is Chet who eventually (apologies for the spoiler) leads Bense back to John, and the reunion of the mysterious man with this mysterious book packs a surprising emotional wallop.

But aside from the concept of your past literally catching up with you, Diary of a Times Square Thief also provides a really rich, almost dream-like depiction of New York City (and one that is much more absorbing than the tepid New York, I Love You). These characters are so vividly drawn that you'd swear they're fabrications, but there's nothing to suggest the Bense did anything but stumble upon a really compelling group of people walking around New York, oblivious to the parts they played in John's diary. I suppose we all play those roles in other people's lives to some extent. Wouldn't it be interesting to see who would lead an amateur detective to you?

Diary of a Times Square Thief screened at film festivals throughout 2009. It is listed on Netflix but not yet available on DVD. Here is a clip from a Dutch radio interview with Klaas Bense. If you can't speak Dutch you can still understand the English dialogue in the clips. But the Dutch is kind of fun to listen to anyway.


  1. Well Daniel, I am just about a New Yorker as you know, and I know the Times Square Hotel, so this particular documentary has a built-in allure for me. And it seems the length here is no substantial time investment. NYC is the prime place for films about street people and their interesting stories date back decades, with Dassin's THE NAKED CITY stories among the most renowned. I'm surprised this film didn't play in any festivals in this area.

    Magnificent 300 word entry.

  2. Thanks as always, Sam - I definitely consider you a New Yorker for as much as you spend every weekend in the city, at least enough to see some colorful characters. Here's where I embarrassingly admit that I have not seen the Dassin classic (I have a lot of noir to catch up on), but it is currently high on my list.

    I see that this doc did play at the Brooklyn IFF in June, but for an IDA nominee, you're right - you'd think this would have received more festival play in general.

  3. Daniel: a great, succinct piece about a film I need to see. Thanks.

    What an interesting think it is to make a daily journal, diary, or etc. Just looking at the photo above makes me wonder who had the care, the thought and the creativity to do something like that.

  4. Rick, I don't want to give too much away but if you've read through this you've already seen the spoiler. As interesting as all of the characters are along the way, I think the real heart of the film is in John's reflection on that time in his life. Ties it all together in a pretty powerful way.


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