The most charitable take on Stephen J. Szklarski's "Union Square" is that the director had the best of intentions when he picked up a camera and started poking into real lives. Shot in digital video, this self-distributed documentary centers on seven heroin addicts whose everyday routines and debilitating habits revolve around the Manhattan park of the title. A patchwork of interviews, street scenes and innumerable images of junkies jabbing needles into bruised, abused, sometimes abscessed flesh, the film attempts to affect an air of dispassionate objectivity, but generally comes across as an exercise in exploitation.
Clocking in at 95 minutes, "Union Square" introduces us to seven young lives gone depressingly wrong. Among the bleakest are Dan and Cheyenne, both of whom have young children and, however briefly, can talk with persuasive emotion about their abandoned former selves. Cheyenne's current partner on the streets is Mike, a guitarist who plays for handouts and seems loath to panhandle. As with any real stone-cold junkies, the couple's waking hours are principally organized around getting high and the relentless, single-minded pursuit of money, needles, dope, money, needles, dope and so on ad infinitum. If nothing else the pair's numbing routine — which is, of course, part of addiction — affirms that being a junkie is really hard work. Unfortunately for Szklarski and his movie, it's also acutely uninteresting.
It's unclear what exactly Szklarski is after here. Shot in a loose, faux-vérité style, with the hand-held camera dogging after the junkies, "Union Square" doesn't give us anything we haven't seen before, either in fiction or nonfiction films, and offers precious little information about the specifics of heroin addiction. (The final credits state there are 2 million heroin addicts in the country; the Office of National Drug Control Policy puts the number of hard-core addicts between 750,000 and 1 million.) Still, far more troubling than the documentary's lack of data and analysis, its refusal to pose even basic questions — whether, for instance, the so-called war on drugs is a total farce — is the sense that these seven lost souls are principally on display for our viewing displeasure.
Nothing makes that clearer than the repeated scenes of junkies shooting up. Again and again, Dan, Mike, Cheyenne and the rest of the "cast" wrap a bit of cloth or a rubber hose around their arms and stick a needle into their impatient bodies. It's instructive that the images of needles sinking into flesh represent some of the tightest shots in the film, since the camera inevitably goes in for a close-up that lets us see the drug draining from the needle and, at times, rivulets of blood flowing from the puncture wounds. This fetishistic, even pornographic interest in the mechanics of shooting up gives the film the flavor of a process film; if you didn't know how to inject heroin before, you might just learn a little something.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Graphic drug use, strong adult language
Alliance International Pictures presents an SZK/NYC Production, released by Alliance International Pictures. Director Stephen J. Szklarski. Writers Lillian Miranda, Stephen J. Szklarski. Producer Lillian Miranda. Music, the Lewis Elderlane Experience, Lars Alive. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
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