Artistic movements rarely travel in as straight a line as casual cultural historians like to imagine. Yes, American independent film flowered in the ’80s and ’90s in ways it hadn’t before, but there were non-Hollywood mavericks working in cinema long before then: in the avant-garde, in the underground, in regional pictures, in documentaries, in B-pictures, and occasionally in small-scale, personal versions of mainstream narrative films. One of the most influential was Lionel Rogosin, a committed social activist who took up filmmaking in the ’50s so he could tell the truth to the world about the evils of poverty, racism, and war. In 1955, Rogosin leapt into his new career by bringing his camera down to lower Manhattan, to try and capture both the desperation and the simple humanity of the impoverished alcoholics living on the streets and in flophouses. He quickly realized that mere reportage wouldn’t grab an audience, so in the spirit of documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty, Rogosin and his collaborators came up with a story, about a drifter named Ray (played by real-life skid-rower Ray Salyer) who loses everything while on a bender. The mix of scripted scenes, improvisation, melodrama, and portraiture offered a distinctly American take on neo-realism, proving to be a major inspiration to ’60s cinema verité and to the edgy psychodramas of John Cassavetes.
Not everyone was impressed with On The Bowery when it was released in 1957. (Notoriously square New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “This is a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see.”) But the film won prizes at international film festivals, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, and in 2008 was added to the Library Of Congress’ National Film Registry. It’s still a strikingly beautiful and powerful picture, unlike any other. Though barely more than an hour long and performed by non-actors, On The Bowery feels like a rich, full-scale drama, showing Ray’s fruitless efforts to stay sober long enough to find some work and maybe make back the money he lost. Rogosin holds Ray’s story together with vivid vignettes: day-laborers fighting each other for a spot on a delivery truck; old rummies debating which prison is the nicest; a preacher’s lackey laying out the rules of the mission; bums drinking Sterno out of a dirty paper cup; and so on. What On The Bowery mainly gets across, even now, is the colossal waste, as masses of men filter into gin mills at night and then pass back out in the morning, obliterated.
On The Bowery: The Films Of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 has a second disc that includes Out, a 1957 UN-commissioned short about Hungarian refugees seeking shelter in Austria, and 1965’s Good Times, Wonderful Times, another feature-length quasi-documentary that intercuts archival footage of the horrors of war with a drunken cocktail party debate about whether war is ever necessary. Out is the more conventional of the two, though “conventional” may not be an apt word for a film that combines caught-on-the-fly footage of destitute families with scripted narration in the voices of the subjects. Good Times, Wonderful Times is much rougher, focusing on Holocaust corpses, Hiroshima victims, and the like in between scenes of boozy Brits taking a more rhetorical approach to the subject of genocide. The structure of Good Times, Wonderful Times is a little too clever for its own good, lacking the directness of On The Bowery. But in its blend of the plausibly real and the shockingly real, it’s very much in Rogosin’s style—a style that helped establish what American independent film could be.
Key features: A Martin Scorsese introduction to On The Bowery, vintage documentary shorts about life on the skids in New York from the ’30s to now, and featurettes on the making of On The Bowery and Good Times, Wonderful Times.