As its subtitle indicates, this two-disc set encompasses more than just Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 masterwork On the Bowery, a harrowing yet humane account of friendship and betrayal set among society’s downtrodden fringe-dwellers. The second disc includes Out, a 1957 documentary short about refugee camps produced in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution, and Good Times, Wonderful Times, a feature-length documentary from 1965 on nuclear disarmament and the afterlife of wartime atrocities. Inspired in equal measure by pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s community-collaborative docudrama style and the improvisatory production methods of Italian neorealism, Rogosin’s downbeat street poetry would in turn exert a sizable influence on the burgeoning American independent film community (John Cassavetes’s directorial debut, Shadows, for one), as well as the British Free Cinema movement. Rogosin’s influence on film culture doesn’t end there: Plagued by difficulties distributing and screening his own films, Rogosin started the Bleecker Street Cinema in 1960, soon a preeminent art-house venue that François Truffaut referred to as “the American Cinémathèque.”
Like Flaherty, Rogosin took his time developing material, exploring the terra incognito of On the Bowery, getting to know its denizens, feeling his way into their lives and stories. The film’s slender through line of a narrative arises with seeming naturalness out of these observed details, focusing on three men: Ray Salyer, a railroad worker who blows into town in the first scene; Gorman Hendricks, an affable older man who plays unreliable Virgil to Ray’s Dante; and Frank Matthews, a weathered pushcart vendor in a captain’s cap. Although certain scenes are clearly staged (multiple camera setups are a dead giveaway), there’s never that fact-or-fiction tug of war endemic to many contemporary documentary films (exemplified by, say, Catfish). These sequences feel like an organic part of the men’s lives, not inelegantly grafted on after the fact, let alone fabricated out of whole cloth.
On the Bowery is the filmic equivalent of a Charles Bukowski novel. Ray moves through a twilight world of flops, dives, and Salvation Army missions, where solidarity and dishonesty go hand in hand. Bums that roll you one night are just as likely to offer you some Sterno “squeeze” as a hangover remedy the next morning. The film’s remarkable centerpiece unfolds over a few hours in a particularly decrepit watering hole. As the drink flows freely, tongues loosen, the din mounts, and booze-fueled bonhomie gives way to drunken beefs. It’s like a scene out of Brueghel or Bosch, and Rogosin films it accordingly: brief shots, canted angles, stark lighting, a tour-de-force of rapid-fire editing.
Rogosin’s commitment to his subjects extended beyond filming. He invited Ray Salyer to participate in publicity for On the Bowery, where he was the center of much attention. Footage from one of the supplements shows a clean-shaven Ray appearing on a talk show alongside Rogosin to discuss the film, and he was even offered a lucrative Hollywood contract, which he summarily turned down. And when Gorman Hendricks passed away only a few weeks after filming concluded, Rogosin paid for his funeral.
Milestone's 1080p transfer of these films is marvelous, thanks in no small measure to the stunning restoration work of the Cinateca di Bologna. They look clearer and cleaner than I ever would have expected: On the Bowery is nearly pristine. The same can be said for the contemporary footage in Good Times, Wonderful Times, while the WWII-era footage, culled from archives around the world, varies considerably in quality and even format (frame size varies throughout). Out fares worst overall; it's a bit dimmer and a little muddier. Nevertheless, the short contains its fair share of strikingly composed images. The lossless mono track is more than adequate, with some hiss and pop evident in the older footage, but that's to be expected. Dialogue in On the Bowery comes across as reasonably discernable, save for the bar scenes, where it tends to overlap and sometimes gets a bit disjointed. Of course, in the film's centerpiece scene, where crowd sounds slowly drown out individual voices, that's precisely the point.
Milestone has gone the extra mile in presenting these films with a fantastic array of supplements, stacked deep with background information as well as some unexpected archival gems. Disc one opens with Martin Scorsese's introduction to On the Bowery. Scorsese recalls the film's impact on him, since he had grown up on similarly mean streets, and briefly lays out its historical importance. Two short films about the Bowery (one a newsreel from 1933, the other filmed in 1972) show how precious little had changed on the Bowery in the intervening years. The same can't be said for "A Walk Through the Bowery" (shot in 2009): Its point is precisely to highlight the massive changes the area has undergone, its progressive gentrification, and the resultant damage to the block's historicity. (Until recently, examples of architecture ranging from the late 18th century to the present could be found up and down Bowery.) Rounding out the first disc, a fascinating making-of, "The Perfect Team," goes into great detail about the film's production history and reception, presenting a wide array of talking heads, from Jonas Mekas to Robert Downey Sr., who discuss the film's importance, as well as interview footage of Rogosin that was shot over the last few years of his life.
Disc two leads with Good Times, Wonderful Times. As its editor confesses, the film's narrative structure can best be summarized as "crude but effective," juxtaposing a Swinging London cocktail party, full of jaded Brits voicing witty, cynical maxims about current events, and archival footage that falls into one of three types: illustrating the effects of the atom bomb on Japanese citizens, documenting movements against nuclear testing and the arms race, and depicting atrocities committed by the Nazis in the camps as well as casualties suffered along the Eastern front. Hammering its points home, voiceover narration repeats some of the more callous Brit blather while bodies are tossed into mass graves, or the camera pans over towering heaps of shorn hair. Subtle it is not. However well-intentioned it might be, the film lacks the understated, unadorned humanism of On the Bowery. "Man's Peril," the making-of feature, is named after a historic radio broadcast on the subject of disarmament made by philosopher Bertrand Russell, who's featured in Good Times, Wonderful Times. In some ways, it's even more interesting than On the Bowery, especially anecdotes about producer James Vaughn talking his way into a Moscow film archive and then smuggling out irreplaceable film stock. The final extra on the disc is Out, a documentary short about the plight of Hungarian refugees, made under the auspices of the U.N. Given the inclusion of narration penned by novelist John Hershey, it bears obvious comparison to Joris Ivens's The Spanish Earth, a similarly affecting, poetic documentary on the Spanish Civil War that was written by Ernest Hemingway.
The cultural and aesthetic importance of The Films of Lionel Rogosin can't be overstated. Milestone has does a great service to aficionados of the documentary form with the first installment of what promises to be a stellar series.