On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 (Milestone, NR)

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The raw footage captured by cinematographer Richard Bagley’s Bolex is so powerful that any concerns about moviemaking conventions simply fall by the wayside.

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The Bowery is one of the oldest streets in New York City. Today it’s a typically heterogeneous and bustling city neighborhood, with restaurant supply stores and lighting warehouses jostling for space with the New Museum of Contemporary Art, a Whole Foods, and several luxury condominium developments. But in the 1950s, “the Bowery” was a synonym for “skid row,” and was known as an impoverished area of flophouses, bars, and winos passed out on the street.

Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 semi-documentary On the Bowery captures the reality of Bowery life before it became gentrified. Captured in black and white, sometimes with a hidden camera, Rogosin’s Bowery is a sort of secular hell, populated with tattered, emaciated men who have no higher goal than to get just one more drink. Some of the scenes are obviously staged, and the film has only a minimal, schematic plot, but neither shortcoming matters—the raw footage captured by cinematographer Richard Bagley’s Bolex is so powerful that any concerns about moviemaking conventions simply fall by the wayside. It’s also a real nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers life in New York when the Second Avenue El still existed, the phrase “Bowery bum” had a literal meaning, and the term “homeless” had not yet entered our collective vocabulary.

Rogosin directed On the Bowery to learn the craft of filmmaking, but his maiden effort succeeded beyond all expectations, winning the grand prize for documentary film at the Venice Film Festival and also garnering an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature. As is often the case with documentaries, particularly those lacking an uplifting story, it fell largely out of public view until release of a two-DVD set by Milestone Films that includes a restored print (by Cineteca di Bologna) and a generous package of extras. On the Bowery is a must-see simply for the cinematography—the phrase “gorgeous black and white” has never seem more appropriate than when applied to this film—but you will also marvel at how Rogosin and Bagley also manage to portray the Bowery denizens with a compassionate eye.

Rogosin was a great admirer of Robert Flaherty and followed his lead in creating a fictional, scripted film which captured the true feeling of a community and a way of life. The actors are non-professionals playing either themselves, or types with which they are familiar. The central character is played by Ray Salyer, a middle-aged man recently arrived on the Bowery after a stint working on the railroad. Ray immediately falls into the company of Gorman Hendricks, an older Bowery regular who shows him the ropes, although always with an eye to self-interest; disinterested friendship does not appear to exist on this particular patch of earth. Salyer’s good looks brought offers of further movie roles but he turned them down, preferring to remain in obscurity and enjoy the peace to drink as much as he liked; Hendricks died of cirrhosis of the liver before the film was released.

The DVD includes an introduction to On the Bowery by Martin Scorsese (who grew up on Elizabeth Street and is intimately familiar with the locations and character types portrayed in the film). Extras on the first disc include the documentaries “Street of Forgotten Men” (no director listed; 1933; 2:29), “Bowery Men’s Shelter” (Rhody Streeter and Tony Ganz; 1972; 10:32), “The Perfect Team” (documentary about Lionel Rogosin, directed by Michael Rogoson; 46:31), “A Walk Through the Bowery” (Michael Rogosin; 11:06), and On the Bowery’s theatrical trailer. The second disc contains three Good Times, Wonderful Times (Lionel Rogosin, 1964; 69 min; 1964), “Out” (Lionel Rogosin, 1957; 25:40), and “Man’s Peril: The Making of GWTW” (Michael Rogosin; 24:16). | Sarah Boslaugh

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