A Groundbreaking Documentary
Completed and first released during the 1950s, this first feature by cutting-edge filmmaker Lionel Rogosin (1927 to 2000) still stands as an exemplary and entirely successful combination of documentary and narrative production.
In making On The Bowery, Rogosin cast as his lead characters several men who were actually panhandlers on New York's Lower East Side and transient residents at the flop houses that lined the then infamous Bowery.
As his lead character, Rogosin enlisted a handsome and emotionally engaging drunkard named Gorman Hendricks, a non-actor who was, essentially, playing himself. Other non-actors were similarly cast to play themselves.
However, the story of their lives was really that they did pretty much nothing more than get day jobs -- when they could -- in order to earn enough money to get drunk and to pay for an overnight bunk in a flop house. Not much of a narrative structure, but a huge and compelling story that needed to be told. So, to give structure to his documentary about men whose lives were really in a sort of state of stasis, Rogosin created a through line story with a beginning, middle and end, and with scripted scenes that were staged on the streets, in the bars and flop houses, and at other locations where similar actions and situations had and/or would have occurred in real life. These scenes include the introduction of Gorman, as a man newly arrived on the Bowery, to the regulars in one of the bars, and incidents of drunken conning, betrayal and petty theft, and of moments in which Gorman is trying so hard to sober up and stay booze free.
A Timeless Story
As a result of this mixture of reality and reality's imitation of itself, the film is a raw, thoroughly compelling and intensely dramatic portrayal of a man whose life is repeatedly disrupted by alcoholic binges that he simply cannot control, no matter how hard he tries, and no matter how many times he vows to himself and others that he's going to stop drinking.
Rogosin non-judgmental camera captures the flagrancy and nuances of Gorman drunk and sober, revealing the great and greatly disturbing differences in his personal behavior that are brought on by alcohol. His situation, and that of the other alcoholics in the film, is extremely saddening and, at times, shocking.
On The Bowery is an authentic document of its time, but there is also a timeless quality to this film and Gorman's story that makes it as fresh and relevant today as it was when it was released in 1957, and became an underground must-see for cinephiles. Until now, it has not been easy to access the film, but thanks to Milestone Film and Video, it has been fully restored and is being re-released in a deluxe DVD edition, complete with some fascinating extras, including interviews with Rogosin about the making of the film, an introduction by Martin Scorsese, a wealth of background material about the Bowery and an on camera guided tour of the Bowery today, showing how recent gentrification and development have changed the ambiance, and discussing how the changes have impacted locals, including the down-and-out people who've traditionally gravitated towards the surrounding neighborhood.
Cutting Edge Filmmaking
On The Bowery is fascinating and essential viewing for anyone who enjoys documentaries and/or is entertaining the notion of making one.
Rogosin's work is an an early and brilliant example of the crossover style of filmmaking -- the range of styles, actually, that blend documentary and narrative filmmaking techniques to tell of true and truth-based stories that illustrate and provoke debate about society's pressing issues. Recent examples of documentaries that can be classified within the crossover genre include filmmaker Clio Bernard's The Arbor, in which professional actors appear on camera, mouthing the audio-only interviews that the filmmaker made with witnesses to the life British playwright Andrea Arnold whose death was caused by alcoholism, as well as filmmaker Jessica Yu's Protagonist, in which a Greek chorus of puppets is used to represent actions described in personal confessions spoken in voice over narration by four miscreant men whose life stories are the subject of the film. And, as an example of a film that's classified as a narrative feature, but uses crossover elements, consider French filmmaker Laurent Cantet's The Class, in which Parisian kids attending an ethnically diverse high school play themselves in a scripted drama about the realities and aspirations of teenagers. Other examples would be most of the narrative features directed by Ken Loach who often used non-actors to perform in his gritty dramas about the lives of working class people.
If You Like This Film, You May Also Like:
- American: The Bill Hicks Story
- The Arbor
- The Battle For Brooklyn
- Bigger, Stronger, Faster
- Boxing Gym
- The Cool School
- Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father
- Title: On The Bowery - 1957 and 2012
- Director: Lionel Rogosin
- U.S. Theatrical Premiere Date: 1957 (limited)
- DVD Release: February, 2012
- Running Time: 65 mins.
- MPAA Rating: Not Rated
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents for content.
- Location: Bowery and Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York, USA
- Language: English
- Production Country: USA
- Production Company: Rogosin Films
- DVD Distribution: Milestone Films and Video