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When the Bowery was Skid Row: Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957)

(Review) The stunningly beautiful new 35 mm restoration of Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957), playing now at Film Forum, harkens back to an infamous time along the downtown thoroughfare. A skid row for alcoholics, mostly men of the laboring trades, the Bowery was also in a slump, in eclipse from its better days as an important farm lane in New Amsterdam and later as a downtown Broadway. The Bowery had even slipped from its raunchy vaudeville existence under the darkness of the Third Avenue El.

By the 1950s, even as much of the city shined in the boom of the postwar years, the Bowery attracted few people, except for artists seeking lower rents. The street's cheap bars and flop houses lured the down-and-out hopeless cases, men whose weathered faces erased any signs of a happier former life or a hopeful future. The Bowery Mission offered one way off the street, but for the man addicted to the heady combination of freedom and Muscatel, the promise of room and board in exchange for sobriety did not seem as fun as a night of drinking, even if that meant sleeping in the streets.

From Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery (1957). Courtesy Milestone Films.

Many New Yorkers would have known the filmmaker as the eccentric founder of the Bleecker Street Cinema (1960-1990), but this film should help many recognize Lionel Rogosin (1924-2000) as an important documentary filmmaker. Trained as an engineer, a veteran of the Navy, and a worker in his father's successful rayon business, Rogosin suddenly decided he wanted to make a film. Leaving the family business, he started exploring why the society left some people in dire poverty. As he explained in a filmed interview, On the Bowery served as his school for filmmaking. He spent the next six months just observing the life there, getting to know his subject before he even picked up the camera. He got to know five or six of the men and invited them over to his place in the Village at 96 Perry Street. His comfortable world, although proximate in geography, seemed far away from the sidewalks of the Bowery.


From Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery (1957). Courtesy Milestone Films.

The aesthetic success of the documentary can be attributed in part to the work of cameraman Richard Bagley. His intense immersive black-and-white photography, as he drank alcohol while operating the camera for the late night Dante-esque scenes, resulted in a few shaky and unfocused images, qualities suitable for the subject matter. The faces of the men, especially the handsome protagonist Ray, encourage empathy on the part of the viewer. As we learn from The Perfect Team, the informative 2009 documentary about the making of the film by the son of the filmmaker, Michael Rogosin, the self-portraits by Rembrandt served as a point of inspiration for the filmmaker and his cameraman. In addition, black-and-white photography accentuates the look, from the shadows under the elevated railroad to the lights streaming into the taverns to the lines on the faces of the fatalistic men. It's a beautiful movie about a despairing chapter in the story of a real city. It's less depressing than enlightening.

From Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery (1957). Courtesy Milestone Films.
The vogue of Italian realist filmmaking, mixing reality and artifice, inspired the improvised dialogue of the film. The conversations among the men seem from a far distant era, referencing the vocabulary of railroads and Depression-era hobos. While looking at the crowded streets and milieu of the big city, the dialogue reinforces a culture of existential drifting. The thin story, built on the search for drink and survival over the course of three days and nights on the Bowery, also contributes to the fatalism and boredom of life on the streets. It's tragic but unsurprising that some of the cast and crew members did not survive or live too long beyond the making of the motion picture.

"While looking at the crowded streets and milieu of the big city, the dialogue reinforces a culture of existential drifting."

Leaving the theater after seeing the film, it's tempting to wander down to the Bowery just to see what's changed. It's only a few blocks from Film Forum on Houston to the blocks of the Bowery most featured in the film. But the new colorful Bowery, while still home to restaurant supply stores and furniture shops, is all fixed up with high-end housing and hotels, a Whole Foods, upscale diners, and the New Museum. The street bears only a few physical traces to the shadowy Bowery of the 1950s. It's not hard, however, to come across late at night the sight of sleeping bodies on cardboard mattresses, tucked away less obviously in the alleys and alcoves of the neighborhood, or for that matter, all across the city. The Bowery Misson is still there, and it is still busy. 

On the Bowery. USA. 35 mm. Restored by L'Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory, Cineteca del Commune di Bologna, with the original negative preserved by Anthology Film Archives. Milestone Films theatrical release: October 2010. On the Bowery is playing at Film Forum, 209 W Houston St., through Tuesday, September 28. Milestone Film's official website for the film includes an excellent map of locations. 

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