Volume 18 • Issue 49 | April 21 - 27, 2006

Special section

On the Bowery
April 29
at Tribeca Cinemas 2
May 2
at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
www.tribecafilmfestival.org

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 festival—in 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, it’s not an easy film to watch. It’s 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 day’s 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 aren’t 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 isn’t all he’s pretending to be—or is he?

Because of the awkwardly scripted scenes and singsong dialogue, and the odd mix of fiction and reality, “On the Bowery” doesn’t 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 1950’s 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 1950’s Bowery life. It’s 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.


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