Back in 1987, Berlin-based filmmaker (and one of my former professors) Karl Kels made a short piece called “Bowery/Fragment” while on a fellowship from Cooper Union. It’s seven silent, black-and-white minutes in front of the Prince Hotel with a group of now-extinct Bowery bums. The men sit around in chairs, dominating the sidewalk, drinking beers and clowning around. They seem to show no signs of shame or embarrassment when one man begins playing with the sagging breasts of another.
Nowadays, we’re most likely to visit the Bowery for one of three purposes: going to a concert, looking at art, or buying organic groceries.
As a staunch Kubelkian formalist, Kels would probably deride Rogosin’s effort for its obviously staged quality. Though billed as a documentary (indeed, it won best doc at the 1957 Venice Film Festival), it employs actors, a script, and fairly contrived editing. Before the Maysles, Pennebaker and Leacock fully developed the verité style, documentarians like Rogosin still worked under the precedent of Robert Flaherty. On the Bowery is equal parts truth and fiction, and its subjects are both actors and actualities. Ray Salyer (“Ray”), a gruffly handsome man with something of Brando’s waterfront diction, was given several studio offers after the film’s premiere, but “deciding that drink was more important, one night he just hopped a train and was never heard from again.” The other protagonist, Gorman Hendricks (who claims in the film to have once been a surgeon), died almost immediately after filming from cirrhosis of the liver. Ray comes to the Bowery from New Jersey’s railroads, hoping to find a good few day’s work. He leaves the Bowery after squandering all his summer earnings on drink, “disgusted with this place” and determined to get to Chicago before it’s too late. His new friend Gorman, who steals his suitcase their first night together and uses it as leverage for two night’s stay in a flophouse, is a man of ambiguous morals that one never feels inclined to judge—perhaps Rogosin’s most impressive feat in this terse, hour-long portrait.
“The acting, most of the time, is improvised on the spot, the dialogues are real, and so are the faces and situations,” wrote Jonas Mekas (“Lionel Rogosin and Come Back, Africa,” Movie Journal, 6 April 1960). “Even if we know that some of the situations were staged and some of the dialogue imposed, they still contain all the freshness and roughness of life. The very amateurism of the cast becomes a part of the movie’s truth and authenticity. And then there are scenes which are simply great.” A few years later, in 1966, Mekas, Rogosin and Shirley Clarke would go on to create the short-lived Filmmakers' Distribution Center. Due to his limited output, Rogosin is perhaps most important as an organizer, creator of the Bleecker Street Cinema and Impact Films Distribution (both out of commission by the late 1970s). A wealthy son of a textile impresario whose films were part of a broader campaign against racial violence, Vietnam and nuclear warfare, he died in LA in virtual obscurity almost 10 years ago. He's also noteworthy for launching the career of none other than Miriam Makeba.
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther didn’t like the film, calling it “merely a good montage of good photographs of drunks and bums, scrutinized and listened to ad nauseam. And we mean ad nauseam!” It’s true that On the Bowery doesn’t have the structural rigor of, say, Martha Rosler’s 1975 photo-essay shot in the same locale. Its careful framing and cloying score occasionally veer from the gritty to the precious. But unlike a photograph, which freezes a sordid picture into an indelible tableau, film is a time-based medium that carefully polices its images. Many of Rogosin’s most striking shots last no more than a heartbeat: a ribcage protruding from the darkness of a Bowery Mission floor, spittle falling from a drunkard’s mouth, a thickset nose red with alcohol—when images flit past as they do in montage, they seem somehow less exploitative than those at which we can keep on staring until we’ve had our day’s fill of dereliction.
Shaded beneath the Third Avenue El, the street is both prison and protector. There are no children, very few women, and its denizens display little interest in society's larger concerns. Despite the contrived nature of shooting—the 48-hour narrative was filmed over a period of four months—On the Bowery still smacks of historical truth. Cameras tend to make people nervous or unusually performative; but when you’re drunk, it’s of little concern who’s watching. Toddling around local dives and flophouses; pawning hats and watches for liquor; yelling over each other while enjoying a leisurely game of dominoes; grizzled post-war bums in ill-fitting clothes who still use words like “malarkey” and pronounce "Houston" correctly—that was Rogosin’s beat on this “saddest and maddest street in the world.” If Pull My Daisy (1959) helped give birth to a new generation, On the Bowery rang the death knell of another.
On the Bowery is playing at Film Forum from September 17 to the 23rd. It used to be available as an old Mystic Fire VHS, though there seems to be a new Rogosin DVD set courtesy of Gaumont (if you can afford it!) It's being screened with The Perfect Team, "a 45-minute account of the making of the film by Rogosin’s son Michael, with new and archival footage, and visits to The Bowery then and now." 209 W. Houston St., New York, NY.