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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Poverty > New York > Independent Cinema > On The Bowery: The Films Of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 (1956 - 1964/Milestone Blu-ray)

On The Bowery: The Films Of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 (1956 - 1964/Milestone Blu-ray)

Picture: A Sound: B+ Extras: A Film: A

When news hit in early March that the Salvation Army Chinatown Shelter in New York's Bowery would close to make way for an upscale Ace Hotel and what the New York Post described as a luxury boutique condo complex, I first raged (internally) at yet another example of the needy being cast aside to cater to the super-rich. But then my thoughts turned to Lionel Rogosin - specifically his 1956 masterpiece On the Bowery.

The film is at once a time capsule of an earlier, more rugged Bowery and a kind of mirror reflecting the lives and culture we try to bury during redevelopment projects. For too long, the film was out of circulation, languishing in anonymity. But fortunately that has changed. On the Bowery is available in a superlative Blu-ray presentation as part of Milestone Films' two-disc On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1. The set includes two other films, the gut-punch anti-war feature Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964) and the 25-minute documentary Out (1957), which chronicles the plight of emigres flooding into Austria during the Hungarian Revolution. Good Times, Wonderful Times is an especially excellent piece, constructed around a staged banal cocktail party with harrowing footage of wartime propaganda and atrocities woven throughout, and it's a film worthy of its own thoughtful, measured response. But the main event here is On the Bowery.

Rogosin shot the film on location in New York's Bowery - a stretch of lower Manhattan historically notorious for vice, crime, alcoholism, and poverty - using non-professional actors (read: down-on-their-luck men living most days in a bottle) in a docudrama style that blurred the lines between documentary (real people in real locations and real situations) and narrative filmmaking (some scripted dialogue/interactions). The result is 65 minutes of urgent, unique filmmaking that captured a previously unseen, unvarnished reality and would go on to inspire the likes of John Cassavetes, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese. That Rogosin did this independently in an era where, on one hand, these types of films got little to no attention and, on the other, dealt with a subject (poverty) that was roundly ignored makes it some kind of cinematic miracle.

Insofar as there's a story, the film follows a newcomer to the city, Ray Salyer who has traveled to NYC looking for work after a stint in New Jersey's railyards. After his bus deposits him in the shadows of the Bowery's elevated train trestle, an arrival as rife with metaphor as any in cinema, Ray stops in a bar to freshen up (mistake #1), gets to talking to some of the more, um, friendly locals (mistake #2) who instantly read him as an easy mark, then proceed to buy his new pals drinks (mistake #3). Before he knows it, he's drunk, broke, his possessions have been stolen by a kindly grifter named Gorman, and he's in the Bowery Mission looking for a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. The film ends with Ray swearing off the Bowery - and New York - for good.

This arc would have been a familiar one to any number of men (and women) who flopped, preyed, or eked out a living on the Bowery. And there's immense historical value in documenting an iteration of the Bowery that no longer exists. But of even greater significance is the record of these Bowery residents' caught in its grip. More than simply filling out bar scenes and shelter backgrounds, these men are as important to the film as Ray and Gorman, and they're photographed by Rogosin with a nobility and reverence typically reserved for the powerful and the famous. He luxuriates especially on faces - the crags and bags and scars and eyes and noses and hair - the way John Ford fetishized the natural world of Monument Valley. Under Rogosin's gaze, these men aren't castoffs, society's takers rooting around in the lives they earned. They're mythic heroes of the American story - if only the less pleasant chapters. They're the most forgotten of the Forgotten Men, and by immortalizing them on film, Rogosin returns some measure of their dignity.

Eight years after On the Bowery was released, President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty; 50 years later, the maligning of the poor that war was meant to combat has roared back with a vengeance. This gives the film the odd distinction of being at once a window on the past and a piece of cinema with a present immediacy. The film received some attention during its initial run, but it and Rogosin have remained mainly anonymous in the nearly 60 years since it's release. It's an unfair fate for a filmmaker of incomparable vision and humanity whose films are beautiful, indelible works of art. And if there were ever a time for a rediscovery it's now. The empathy Rogosin displays in On the Bowery - and indeed across all his work - is something we'd do well, as a society, to emulate.

As far as introductions to Rogosin go, On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 is near perfect.

From a technical standpoint, the main feature, On the Bowery, looks fantastic. The source for the Blu-ray is the excellent 2K restoration, done by Cineteca del Comune di Bologna and Anthology Film Archives, which holds the original negatives. Good Times, Wonderful Times, the other feature on the set, was also given a 2K restoration by Cineteca del Comune di Bologna and it, likewise, looks fantastic. The footage of war and atrocity procured from national archives in the early '60s can be soft and uneven, but that's to be expected given its origins. The short film Out is a solid transfers, if overall pretty soft. The aural presentations for all three films aren't really anything special, but then again these were films shot on the cheap with independent equipment. They were meant to tell stories, not blow the doors off theaters.

On the extras side, this set earns its claim of being a deluxe edition. The first disc is dedicated to On the Bowery, and the film is complemented by six extras: There's a trailer and an introduction by Scorsese; two film-specific documentaries, The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery and A Walk Through the Bowery, both directed by Michael Rogosin; the 1972 short Bowery Men's Shelter, directed by Rhody Streeter and Tony Ganz; and the 1933 short Street of Forgotten Men. This material is indispensable to On the Bowery. Not only does is it offer loving, non-markety insight into the making of the film, it provides vital context for its location, history, and people. The second disc is dedicated to the other two Rogosin films, Good Times, Wonderful Times and Out. There's only one extra feature here, Man's Peril: The Making of GTWT, directed by Michael Rogosin and Lloyd Ross, but that, too, is incredibly beneficial to understanding and appreciating the film and its impact.

The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1 is the kind of set so many distributors not called Criterion have moved away from. But it's exactly the thing that gives the Blu-ray format so much potential, especially with older, less known work: You can give viewers a great looking film and a solid foundation of background and ancillary content that heightens the experience of watching, and afterwards, discussing it. Massive credit to Milestone for seizing the opportunity presented by Rogosin's unique and masterful oeuvre. Hopefully this is the first entry into what will be a complete, career-redefining retrospective.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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