Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the Bowery

Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956) looks backwards to the great Russian dalliances with reality, like Dziga Vertov’s Man With the Movie Camera (1929), the documentary still-life work of Walker Evans (Rogosin knew James Agee, who worked with Walker Evans on the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men from 1941), and the work of neorealists like De Sica, who used real people to create classics like The Bicycle Thief (1948).  The current revival of On the Bowery at Film Forum is a reminder of how important its gritty realism, as in Hal Ashley’s Little Fugitive(1953), became for the development of the cinéma vérité movement and the French New Wave. Would we have Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), which used non-professional actors in documentary settings, without the precedent set by these two films? The New York of On the Bowery and Little Fugitive, with poverty lurking under elevated tracks, is similar, though the story of On the Bowery is really a subterfuge. Little Fugitive is a powerful narrative about a child who runs away to Coney Island, the victim of a prank in which he is made to think he has murdered his brother. On the Bowery is simpler. It’s the saloon that O’Neill painted so beautifully in Iceman, replete with pipe dreams, though minus a Hickey. The central character arrives on the Bowery and tries to stop drinking, but can’t. Ray Salyer plays the attractive young railroad worker with a drinking problem—Rogosin conscripted him for the film and he actually received some Hollywood offers after the movie was released. But, in keeping with On the Bowery’s theme of dispossession, Salyer simply disappeared and was never heard from again. Meanwhile, one of the commentators in a short film made by the filmmaker’s son, Michael, about the creation of On the Bowery, compares the portraiture, and especially a famed orgy sequence in which the camera creates a mural of inebriated faces, to Rembrandt. Cassevetes and a generation of French and American filmmakers who sought truth rather than escape in cinema draw the most obvious comparisons when it comes to this kind of cinematography, but the Rembrandt analogy is a show-stopper.

NB: Rogosin’s ownership of the Bleecker Street cinema, which showed many of the works that influenced him and went on to show films that were influenced by his work, his self-confessed drinking problem and his well-to-to background as the son of a prominent textile manufacturer are all salient bits of back story for viewers of OTB.

1 comment:

  1. We saw On the Bowery a few days ago. The doc his son made pointed out that one reason it's not more well-known, at least in the States, is because it was considered anti-American. It won the Venice Gran Prix & the ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, refused to shake Rogozin's hand & Time magazine refused to print the name of the film. I agree, Francis, the Rembrandt analogy was deeply apt.


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