A Drinking Life: On the Bowery

On the Bowery is one of the most ecstatically beautiful black-and-white films ever made.

A Drinking Life: On the Bowery
Photo: Milestone Films

Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 movie On the Bowery, an account of skid row life that screens Friday and Saturday in a new 35mm print at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, is a rare work that hasn’t aged in any way that counts. Shot on location in the East Village when it was called the Lower East Side and thought of as a wasteland of fringe-dwellers, the movie is tough to classify. I’ve read essays that call it, variously, a documentary, work of social criticism, a documentary experiment and a drama. It’s no mere reported piece, no matter how urgent its depiction of the drinking life might have seemed at the time.

For starters, On the Bowery is one of the most ecstatically beautiful black-and-white films ever made, and the movie’s photography doesn’t just find beauty in the moment; it manufactures it. Rogosin’s cinematography mixes long-lensed, seemingly handheld closeups and locked-down wide shots (very French New Wave), but it’s not sloppy, or even perceptibly random. In fact, the movie shows every sign of having been planned out in advance, shot-by-shot. Characters casually walk into the frame, feed another character an obvious opener, then launch into a conversation that seems spontaneous until Rogosin cuts to a reverse shot in the middle of a sentence; he obviously didn’t shoot such conversations on the fly with two cameras because if he did, the compositions would guarantee that we’d see the cameras in both shots. A conversation between a drunk and the night manager of a flophouse is framed with Orson Welles-like care, and lit in the same spirit, with a bright key light hitting the manager and making him pop out of the frame. A scene where the main character is rousted by cops and sent to the city lockup follows a line of prisoners as they shuffle along in a lateral tracking shot, moving screen right to screen left, separated from the viewer by prison bars that create a slight Zoetrope flicker as they glide past. This isn’t documentary filmmaking; it’s closer to the jaggedly dynamic, high contrast black-and-white dramas that would later become di rigeur in the 1960s—films such as John Frankenheimer’s The Young Savages and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, which were equally influenced by the French New Wave films, live TV dramas and theatrical newsreels.

Ginning up the drama was standard practice in nonfiction films from the first 60 or 70 years of movies. Until the so-called “Direct Cinema” revolution begun in the early 1960s by America documentarian Robert Drew (Crisis), there weren’t any hard-and-fast rules pressuring filmmakers to show only events that they happened to record in the moment. It wasn’t just considered OK to light the hell out of your subjects, have them repeat themselves or recite scripted lines, and otherwise will your footage into being and then force it to fit a predetermined outcome; for a very long time, this was simply the way things were done. Until the early 1960s, the word “documentary” conjured images of a drama about real subjects that got its point across by having a narrator explicate the unspoken motivations of actors playing “typical” people, or else a restaging of actual incidents performed by people with some connection to it. This was the type of filmmaking practiced by Robert Flaherty; his Nanook of the North and Louisiana Story highlighted the everyday struggles of marginalized subcultures by having them act out a didactic, metaphor-packed story. In retrospect, Flaherty’s films have more in common with Italian Neorealism and 1990s Iranian cinema—both of which employed nonprofessional actors in real locales—than with most nonfiction films and TV news pieces made after Rogosin’s heyday.

The Anthology Film Archives calendar entry on Rogosin’s film offers two quotes endorsing the idea that this is reality caught-on-camera (“An extraordinary, agonizing document…filled with an overwhelming sense of veracity and an unvoiced compassion for the men who have surrendered their dignity for a drink,” gushes Saturday Revew critic Arthur Knight). But the entry’s main text calls it “a dramatic film.” Of course it’s both. There’s no denying the fact that what you’re seeing onscreen are real skid row drunks playing “themselves” under their own names (lead character Gorman Hendricks supposedly was a professional actor, but his IMDB page lists only one credit, On the Bowery, so it seems a bit of reach to dismiss him as a ringer).

Boston University film professor Ray Carney calls Rogosin one of three pioneers of American independent cinema, the other two being Sidney Meyers (The Quiet One) and Morris Engel (The Little Fugitive). All worked in and around New York City in the 1950s, making films that mixed scripted scenes with improvised situations and dialogue, and threw professional actors onscreen alongside regular citizens who could be themselves while cameras rolled. In American Narrative Film Art: 1949-1979, Part Two,” Carney writes:

“Rogosin and Bagley went down to the Bowery, the neighborhood where New York’s drunks, derelicts, and drug addicts congregated at the time, and enlisted several of them to cooperate with a professional actor (who played the lead role) in a series of guided group improvisations over a period of months to create a series of narrative events that would appear to take place over a very brief period of time within the film. In this respect, On the Bowery defines an important genre within the American independent tradition: the work that blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking by utilizing both unscripted, improvised scenes and rehearsed and scripted ones. From Rogosin’s work here, through Cassavetes’ in Shadows and Husbands, to Shirley Clarke’s in Portrait of Jason, to Robert Kramer’s in Ice and Milestones, to Rob Nilsson’s in Signal Seven, the mix of actors and non-actors, and the blend of “grabbed” and planned moments would become one of the hallmarks of American independent film. (Cassavetes, for one, told me that he knew and greatly admired Rogosin’s work, and employed a similar dramatic technique five years later in his A Child Is Waiting by bringing together a group of actual retarded children with an actor playing a retarded child. His Husbands also has a partially improvised drinking scene that seems somewhat indebted to a similar scene in Rogosin’s film.)”

The above isn’t offered as a condemnation, but rather to force acknowledgment that the lines between drama and documentary were never clear, and still aren’t as clear as we’d like to pretend. One mode has always inspired and sometimes borrowed from the other—a fact made plain by On the Bowery, a contrivance that staggers along the line separating the real from the invented, chancing on truth after truth.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder and original editor of The House Next Door, now a part of Slant Magazine. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, he is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com and TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com.

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