On The Bowery (1956) die. Lionel Rogosin
Starring: Ray Salter, Gorman Hendricks
By Greg Klymkiw
"Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." - John Cassavetes
"Postwar America experienced a dramatic economic expansion, sustained prosperity, and a huge population increase. By the 1950s, the United States ... manufactured half the world's goods, possessed over 40 percent of the world's income, and had by far the highest standard of living."- National Archives, USAPostwar prosperity in America is a myth - bought and paid for at a very dear cost to a generation of forgotten men. This had far-reaching implications upon future generations and the nation as a whole. The ramifications of a somewhat spurious development of a middle class are felt today in ways the American people probably never imagined.
Not even in their wildest dreams would anyone have conjured the near-dystopian widening between rich and poor that's so prevalent in today's America. It's a history of building up a teat-suckling dependence upon greed and waste on the backs of those most vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. During the early post-war era, this facade-of-plenty engendered escape in bottles of cheap booze and a class of working men who were sneered at - if and when they were noticed or remembered at all.
Cinema and indeed, mankind as a whole, owes a debt of gratitude to the late filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. Inspired by the Italian neorealist movement and in particular, the work of Vittorio (Bicycle Thieves) DeSica as well as the groundbreaking docudrama work of Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty and Lewis Milestone's evocative film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Rogosin created an important body of work. He gave voice to the disenfranchised in a style that built upon his chief influences and his own life experience experience whilst developing a unique style that was all his own.
Rogosin influenced such diverse talents as Cassavetes (Shadows), Scorsese (Who's That Knocking at My Door?) and the realist vérité of UK's "Angry Young Man" genre, including John Schlesinger (Terminus, Midnight Cowboy).
Rogosin earned a degree in Chemical Engineering at Yale and was poised to join his father's textile firm when World War II interrupted these career plans and he ended up serving in the Navy. His experiences during the war and especially after the war, when he travelled through the debris of a decimated Europe, affected him deeply. Returning to America, he did not stay with his father's firm long, deciding to pursue his interest in human rights, activism and cinema.
His ultimate goal was to create work that would benefit mankind.
On The Bowery was his first film - so extraordinary that it attracted the attention of the British film collective the Free Cinema - whose members included Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reizs and Tony Richardson. Along with Schlesinger, Rogosin was a chief influence upon the New Wave of British Cinema and they were the movers and shakers behind presenting his work to British audiences.
John Cassavetes declared: "Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." He tempers the justifiable hyperbole with the word "probably", but it's certainly no stretch to place Lionel Rogosin in the unequivocal pantheon of great documentarians of all time. Cassavetes's respect for Rogosin was merely the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, Rogosin's importance to cinema has seldom been paralleled. He pioneered the forward movement of cinéma vérité (using the camera to provoke reality by blending "fly-on-the-wall" direct cinema with stylized approaches and specific set-ups that utilize overt narrative technique), thus forging a path that opened up a whole world of great filmmaking. I'd argue strenuously that without Rogosin, things might well have been a lot different.
The art form, the genre of documentary itself might not have easily yielded the work subsequently provided by the likes of Sinofsky/Berlinger, Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, Ulrich Seidl, Claude Jutra, Michel Brault, Allan King, Albert/David Maysles, Alan Zweig, Peter Lynch, Nik Sheehan, D.A. Pennebaker, Fredrik Gertten, Barbara Kopple and frankly, a list that could stretch on for a few more miles.
On The Bowery, his first film (and surely one of the great first films in the history of cinema), focuses the camera upon the lives of America's forgotten men who lived in the squalor of the Bowery in New York City. Once an upscale neighbourhood, the Bowery transformed - almost overnight - into a symbol of urban blight.
When the city built a series of overhead train tracks in the area, it created an endless cacophony and worse, it blocked the daylight - enshrouding the Bowery in darkness, shadow and shade.
Slats of hazy sun crept into the district like a ghostly filter. Occasional dollops of sunlight where no track existed played tricks on the eye and seemed even brighter, more hyper-intense than it normally would have been.
Seedy hotels, flophouses, pawn shops, soup kitchens and sleazy taverns became the lifeblood of the district. Attracting a generation-or-three of men who had suffered through war, these aimlessly shell-shocked victims of American prosperity and might, eked out a living as seasonal and migratory labourers - many of whom "rode the rails", risking the brutality of rail bulls, a criminal element and even incarceration.
They sought cheap rent and cheap booze to drown their pain and sorrow. Blowing their earnings on potent mescal and beer chasers, a lot of them couldn't even afford flea-bitten flophouses and lived on the street. The Bowery ran rampant with homelessness.
Essentially, Rogosin fashioned a "dramatic" construct to examine the lives of these men. He found two exceptional real-life personalities and followed the simple tale of Ray Salter and Gorman Hendricks whilst using montages of the Bowery and its residents as transitional bookends and punctuation marks. All the gnarled, grizzled and blotchy mugs Rogosin picked to populate the film are completely and without qualification photogenic in extremis.
Ray Salter, however, was a rugged, handsome and relatively young man who came to the Bowery with money in his pocket and a spring in his step. With his two-fisted good looks - a Joel McCrae-type with a Barrymore profile - Ray was so critically praised and profiled in magazines and newspapers that he eventually received numerous offers to act in Hollywood.
Sadly, this was not in the cards for poor Ray.
The tale told in On The Bowery is true. At a sleazy bar, Ray meets the friendly Bowery veteran Gorman. In short order, they become close friends. Of a sort.
Ray is slyly coerced into buying so many rounds of drinks that he eventually pawns a good many of his possessions. There are, however, a few items dear to Ray and he won't part with them, but in one massive blind drunk, he passes out on the street and what little he has left is stolen and hocked.
While dependent upon alcohol, Ray still maintains hopes and dreams of kicking the demon fire water and leave "The Life" of the Bowery behind.
Ray was, no doubt an alcoholic to begin with, but over time, like all the rest, he's sucked into the patterns so deep-seeded in the place and time. His desire to dry-out is sadly not strong enough to withstand the physiological toll alcohol takes upon him. Even in this day and age, alcoholism is a horribly misunderstood disease that's compounded by societal prejudice - ascribing personal "weakness" to the affliction. While help exists now, it's still far from adequate. In Ray's day, help was virtually non-existent.
As for poor Ray, the Hollywood dream dried up when he hit the open road and was never seen nor heard from ever again. Given the cards dealt to America's forgotten men, this is not so much a mystery, but the reality of what happened to so much of humanity.
The squalor and poverty in On The Bowery is, at times, shocking - not, however, because we're agog at how things were. In a sense, this portrait of disenfranchisement, whilst very specific to the postwar era and a neighbourhood long-transformed and almost gentrified, the sad fact of the matter is that the lives of Ray, Gorman and all the others in this film continue all over the world and in North America specifically, these conditions are escalating to a frightening degree.
Rogosin's camera eye never flinches from the filth, pain and inhumanity perpetrated against these men of the Bowery.
There are women too - alcoholic old whores offering their bodies in the bars to anyone who will buy them drinks. In some cases, they're hoping their johns will have a place to sleep for the night or vice versa.
Most of the men who can afford it, though, will stay in flophouses - no women allowed - where they're shoved into open-ceilinged cubicles covered with wire cages.
The men are essentially incarcerated - perhaps not in literal jails or prisons, but by the indigent lifestyle they've been forced into. The scenes in the flophouses are so evocative, one can almost recoil from the stench of filth, sweat and disease.
The film is replete, however, with so many aspects of humanity. A lot of what's extraordinary in the picture are the unbelievably funny, poignant and even dangerous moments captured in the bars where we follow mildly "improvised" conversations between the men. Rogosin "sets-up" certain "scenarios", but what we see is ultimately the real thing. Ray and Gorman are a great team - not only cinematically, but within the reality that unfolds - one of father-son, veteran-naif and teacher-student.
Rogosin's almost benign provocation of these men exposes their very hearts and minds. This, if anything, is what makes this one of the most stunningly moving portraits of humanity ever committed to film. Rogosin gives them a voice and presence they deserve - or at the least, a celluloid epitaph instead of a potter's field.
They're humanized in ways only the camera can achieve. Rogosin's sensitive caring eye helps us get to know these sad, yet extraordinary "ordinary" men who gave up everything for their country.
Holding on to what scraps of existence are left for them, numbing their deep pain with booze and finding a sense of family with each other, Lionel Rogosin - documentary filmmaker extraordinaire - gives them a voice and on film, a place in the world.
The men of the Bowery, lest we forget, are remembered forever.
"On The Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin" is available on a sumptuous Blu-Ray or DVD package from Milestone Films. Not only do you get the stunning restoration of the title film, but it includes Rogosin's powerful 1957 short "Out" which deals with the displaced person refugee camps in Europe and his exquisite experimental documentary "Good Times, Wonderful Times" which juxtaposes the pretensions on display during a bourgeois party with the most sickening footage from the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Add to this mix a collection of archival films and several eye-opening documentaries on Rogosin and the making of "On The Bowery" and you have a magnificent item to cherish, study and watch over and over again.
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