A lackluster world restored
By Shana Liebman
On the Bowery, which screens as part of the Restored/Rediscovered series at the Tribeca Film Festival, premiered at the Venice Film festivalin 1957. After winning honors there and by the British Film Academy, it opened in New York City, where the New York Times called it a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see and a temperance lecture. Shortly after, it went on to be nominated for an Oscar.
These days, the film offers an authentic picture of a past world, when homeless drunks were passing out on the street, fighting in bars, paying pennies to sleep in dirty cages in flophouses; awakening at dawn and passing bottles around. But despite its historical value, its not an easy film to watch. Its chaotic, then dull, then chaotic. The cinematography is jolted and amateurish and the plot is undeniably limited: Ray Sayler, a young drunk trying to find the next days work, gets sidetracked in New York City. With little money and only a suitcase full of possessions, he wanders into a bar where he meets the older, slyer Gormon Hendriks (these arent actors but Bowery residents acting in this documentary) who, savvy in the ways of the hood, helps Ray sell some of his clothes to raise drinking money and pay for a night at a flop house. But Hendriks isnt all hes pretending to beor is he?
Because of the awkwardly scripted scenes and singsong dialogue, and the odd mix of fiction and reality, On the Bowery doesnt feel like a documentary to the modern day viewer. However, at the time, when Robert Flaherty and Walter Ruttmann were the main shapers of the genre and most docs were pretty pictures of safe subjects, director Lionel Rogosin was regarded, at least by John Cassavetes, as probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time. And this film, one of the first to present reality without judgment or manipulation, actually helped bridge the gap between 1950s filmmaking and what we know as documentary today. Rogosin spent six months observing and a year and a half filming all for a simplistic, 65-minute film. According to him, those scenes that seem so stilted and obvious (What else is there to do around here? is the response to repeated drink offers) were recreations of actual moments. They came out of the filming and not the other way around. Rogosin was also the first filmmaker to give unsavory subjects a dignity. (Interestingly, Ray Sayler was offered $40,000 and a Hollywood film contract after the first screening. He refused it and went back to the Bowery where he died of a heart attack.)
The filmmaking is certainly competent and even creative at times. The opening scene features a shadowy, silent four-minute montage of Bowery drunks played against a symphonic soundtrack, a faux peace that is jarringly broken by the loud, grating banter of a cheap bar. And there are some poignantly captured random moments (like the Asian woman talking to herself at the local saloon), which makes the viewer realize that this is indeed a realistic view of 1950s Bowery life. Its a world that Joseph Mitchell reported, and David Isay documented in his NPR piece The Sunshine Hotel (an oral history by old-Bowery survivors). But moving images of this life are a rarity, and what make this film so exceptional, and apparently worth restoring and reviewing.