On the Bowery is our DVD of the Week

February 21, 2012

Not to be churlish about it but simply to state the case as it appears to a cheerful film reviewer and ex-reporter in the byways of New York, this is a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see. You can see the same thing in many places in this city without going too far from where you live. Indeed, it is merely a good montage of good photographs of drunks and bums, scrutinized and listened to ad nauseam. And we mean ad nauseam!

— Bosley Crowter, reviewing Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery in the New York Times, March 19, 1957

Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 film On the Bowery — the first American film to win best documentary at the Venic Film Fetsival — derives its power not from the sometimes stilted dialogue spoken by characters playing versions of themselves, but from the powerful black and white images of the lost people who wander in and out of the frame. looking back across more than 50 years, Rogosin’s movie would probably play better without sound, or at least without the scripted story that Rogosin attempted to lay over the brutal reality.

While On the Bowery was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary (and was the first American film to win the Best Documentary award at the Venice Film Festival, Rogosin himself was less than comfortable with the term.

On the Bowery might violate modern audiences idea of what a documentary ought to be, in that it employs obviously staged sequences. But if you look back over the history of documentaries, you’ll note the work of Robert J. Flaherty, who is often said to have invented the form and who served as Rogosin’s chief role model.

“The total reality of a community or a society is so vast that any attempt to detail its entirety would result in nothing more than a meaningless catalogue of stale, factual representation — a result which I call ‘documentary,’” Rogosin said. “Flaherty’s great work has no more to do with ‘documentary’ than great poetry has to do with the factual report of a sociologist.'”

Flaherty wrote, directed and shot the classic 1922 silent film Nanook of the North, which is often cited as the first feature-length documentary. But Flaherty wrote a script for Nanook and staged some sequences.Furthermore, the man presented as “Nanook” was actually named Allakariallak; the woman who portrayed his wife in the film was not his wife in real life.

When Allakariallak went out to hunt seal and walrus, he carried a gun. For the cameras, Nanook used a spear and a club. According to accounts of the Nanook shoot that live on in the oral traditions of the Inuit, Flaherty asked Allakariallak to do things he considered ridiculous.

Rogosin, on the other hand, spent weeks on the Bowery — the notorious Lower Manhattan thoroughfare that for years was home to a mile-long skid row (and even now features a few vestigial missions and shelters alongside gentrifying condos and upscale hotels) — getting to know the residents before he ventured down there with his camera.

The Bowery had been a thriving entertainment district in the 19th century (see Luc Sante’s excellent history Low Life) but by the middle of the 20th it had become a district filled with cheap gin mills and flophouses, where drunks and unemployables loitered and drank away their days. A pastor appears early on in the film, to cite a newspaper report that calls the Bowery “the saddest and the maddest street in the world.”

Rogosin frames his story through the point of view of a newcomer to the street, the handsome war veteran Ray (Ray Salyer), a Southerner flush from a railroad job that brought him to New Jersey. Ray seems to have come to the Bowery to drink away his money, and he’s welcomed by the regulars, most especially by Gorman (Gorman Hendricks), an alcoholic former physician and journalist who similarly befriended Rogosin when he arrived on the street.

Ray Salyer in Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery

Salyer was a hired actor, albeit one who shared a drinking problem with his character. One of the apparently true legends that surround the film have him being offered a Hollywood contract on the strength of his performance, But Salyer declined, remaining on the Bowery until one day he hopped a freight train and disappeared.

Hendricks was the real deal, a Bowery denizen who quit drinking for the duration of the film shoot — then took it up again.

“A few days after the completion of the film, I received a call from the police informing me that Gorman had been found dead in a bar on the Bowery with my card in his pocket,” Rogosin later wrote.

The film chronicles three days in the life of these two men as the pitiable and repentant Ray spending his days looking for work and — with Gorman’s help — slides off the wagon into the gutters each night.

Rogosin and cinematographer Richard Bagley manage to catch some tough poetry in the creased faces of the hopeless men they encounter, and the streets of New York have never looked so pitilessly beautiful. While you can tell when Ray and Gorman are running lines, there’s no small amount of bitter truth in the scenes of men bedding down in doorways or brawling in sawdust-floored bars.

Milestone Films released On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1, a two-disc DVD today, in both standard ($34.95) and Blu-ray ($39.95)editions. The extras include Rogosin’s 1966 anti-war doc Good Times, Wonderful Times, and Out a documentary he made for the United Nations in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

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