On the Bowery

Glasses Full of Rye
By Nick Pinkerton

On the Bowery
Dir. Lionel Rogosin, U.S., 1956

Under the steelwork silhouette of the Third Avenue El, bums splay out across doorjambs in mid-afternoon; anyone who has scraped together enough money already has their binge underway. It’s a few stops downtown from P.J. Clarke’s and Don Birnam’s apartment in The Lost Weekend, but formally it’s another universe—shots of winos being scooped into police vans seem cut-in direct from life, seemingly surreptitiously filmed; people, buildings, everything in sight shows marks that could only come of long, terrible attrition. There are no open-armed, redemptive Jane Wymans here, only men, specimens in advanced states of decay, in-and-out-of-Bellevue types not quite able to fill out their rusty, piss-scented trousers. Enter a new guy, Ray (Ray Salyer), whose biceps still fill out his sleeves, his chest not yet concave, looking preoccupied as he enters the Confidence Bar & Grill. He’s railroaded into buying a round of drinks, learns a few names, and just like that he’s part of the Bowery.

Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery is ostensibly Ray’s story: He’s hustled for his suitcase by a sack-shaped, apparently harmless coot (moustache-chewing Gorman Hendricks, a real-life Bowery resident), kicks around at the corner of Houston looking for day labor, gets rowdily drunk off muscatel, tries to bed down with a hatchet-faced barfly, gets rolled for his couple of bucks. In another sense, maybe more successfully, On the Bowery is the distilled essence of a bygone social panoply, fully infiltrating the Bowery at a very specific spot on its timeline, when it served as the final way station before potter’s field and oblivion.

Though it has, in the main, disappeared in any significant form from the contemporary consciousness, “The Bowery,” that mile of pavement between Astor Place and Chatham Square (where a statue of opium trade-busting Chinese Consulate Lin Ze Xu stands watch), was a popular entertainment staple for nearly a century, supporting its own rowdy folklore, self-mythologizing melodramas, and reams of comic songs. Fallen from its heyday as an entertainment district by the time cinema arrived, it remained a potent presence, the symbolic "East Side" of Allan Dwan’s East Side, West Side (1927), the eponymous stage for a dumb, rambunctious bluster of Gay Nineties nostalgia by Raoul Walsh—and in fact it was only in 1956 that Leo Gorcey laid down his “Slip” Mahoney fedora, ending a two-decade stint with the Dead End Kids/ East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys. By then any trace of the series’ hard-nosed Thirties realism had dried up, and Gorcey and Huntz Hall mixing it up with mad scientists and séance scams wasn’t something that a lot of Bowery residents could relate to; the street was an oozing open wound, a purgatorial skid row housing tens upon thousands of men who had lost or walked away from their function in society, renting cell-like holes in cheap motels with ironic-grandiloquent names (The White House, The Dandy), and living there a life whose aspect lay somewhere between the monastery and the charnel house, rotting together and waiting on Last Call. That it is on this street, so goes the story, that the phrase "Off the wagon" was coined, is a factoid too perfect to pass up.

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Lionel Rogosin remains a somewhat vague figure; he was born in 1924, far Off the Bowery, into a well-heeled Eastern European Jewish family (his Grandfather was a Talmudist from Volozhin, Belarus) on Long Island. In World War II he served as an engineer on a Navy minesweeper and, upon returning, finished a degree in chemical engineering degree from Yale. Moviemaking eventually drew him away from the family textile business, and by sometime in 1955 he was shopping around a print of his feature debut, On the Bowery, 65 pungent minutes of celluloid culled from two years of work, made in collaboration with Richard Bagley, Mark Sufrin, and the dwellers of that street’s fifty-cent-a-flop fleapits.

The precedents for this film are all outside of cinema: Weegee’s flash-flooded pictures of desiccated burlesque at Sammy’s-on-the-Bowery (Arthur Leipzig, Fred Stein, and Fritz Neugass likewise deserve mention); Joseph Mitchell’s detailed portraits of downtown pariahs and eccentrics for The New Yorker. If cinema was somewhat late to breathe firsthand the toxic air of New York’s lowlife, technological factors must be accounted for—the advances in lightweight synch-sound camera equipment and high-speed film stock that would underwrite the Sixties’ Direct Cinema/ cinema verité movement (which Rogosin’s film both presages and in many respects surpasses) had not yet become readily available. As such, before admiring what one might call On the Bowery’s artistic accomplishment, we should pay our respects to the very physical task of the film; whereas Mitchell had only a notepad to burden him while broaching picturesque lower depths, Weegee a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, Rogosin was schlepping the full accoutrements involved in professional 35mm filmmaking. As far as solving a problem of bending technological limitations to the needs of a subject, his accomplishment recalls Jacob Riis’s unprecedented illumination of the slums, spitting perilously flammable magnesium flash powder from a revolver.

Rogosin’s film, to a contemporary viewer, will seem far removed from the accepted tenets that have come to signify “Documentary.” Salyer and Hendricks read prepared lines (probably stemming from improvisations or culled from observed conversations), and the film is constructed around a skeleton of planned-out scenes. Scripted but ragged on the edges with hidden camera and boozy rambling, tripod-stabilized but extraordinarily raw, peopled almost entirely with real-life alkies, OTB (that the film shares an acronym with Off-Track Betting is just perfect) occupies a precarious borderland between "classical" narrative cinema and modern documentary; that idiosyncrasy, to this viewer, is much of its appeal. Though Rogosin’s social conscience deserves admiration, it is through his rough poetry and pictorial sense—virtues often effaced in documentary through decades to come, as immediacy and the illusion of verisimilitude gained priority over the image—that OTB perseveres.

It is a film of indelible portraiture; the plot, as it is, exists largely to transfer our protagonists (and the camera) between congregations of winos, from gin mills to games of dominos around a flophouse common room’s pot-bellied stove, from a listless sermon at the Bowery Mission to bums in a side street squeezing a “Good morning” cup of pink lady from a can of Sterno. All throughout, the film looks hard at that which we’re accustomed to turning away from, exposing a litany of exploded hairdos, gardens of gin blossoms, trench-like worry lines, loose blubbery lips, toppled orthodontia, eyes glistening from burrows, noses pitted like no-man’s-land or broken across the bridge (even a couple of visages that are positively Beckettian). In numerous bar scenes, the atmosphere is palpable: the Rheingold on tap, the raw onions in the beards, the cracked-leather barstools soaking up rancid farts.

OTB’s characterizations are sympathetic if unsentimental; from “Interpreting Reality,” a 1960 piece Rogosin wrote for the Jonas Mekas-edited Film Culture: "Those who use the nonprofessional actor do so for the purpose of elevating the image of man to a new dignity." Rogosin refers to his own work, by way of the Italian Neorealists; I am not certain that "dignity" is the word I would use for the Bowery’s population, but the unexpected beauty that feeble East Side sunlight casts across crumpled faces, as photographed for the film, does suggest an unexpected sort of spiritual elevation.

Rogosin’s allegiance was to a lyrical strain of documentary truth, more attuned to the elegiac mode of Robert Flaherty than to the prosaic John Grierson. "Interpreting Reality," again:

"Making On the Bowery taught me a method of molding reality into a form that could touch the imagination of others. The total reality of a community or a society is so vast that any attempt to detail its entirety would result in nothing more than a meaningless catalogue of stale, factual representation—a result which I call ‘documentary.’ Flaherty’s great work has no more to do with ‘documentary’ than great poetry has to do with the factual report of a sociologist."

Even at the time of its release, Rogosin’s unusual formal calculation seems to have been viewed as an affront to the agreed aesthetic conventions of documentary; during a 1957 engagement New York City’s 55th Street Playhouse, New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, taking time to note the film’s growing reputation in "arty" film circles, keenly observes that the performances, “while remarkably true in many details, [look] consciously directed.” That the same complaint of evident “conscious direction” might be equally well leveled at, say, Nanook or Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman, does not seem to occur to the critic. In years subsequent, it is only rare filmmakers who’ve chafed at the documentary template enough to reveal “conscious direction”; the result is some of the medium’s richest material—documentary/ fiction double-dippers like Herzog, Imamura, or Austria’s Ulrich Seidl, for example, or Robert Kaylor in his Derby, one of the most underappreciated films of the Seventies, where the style that emerged fully integrated in Rogosin’s extreme American strain of Neorealism finds its natural inheritor.

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What may be most remarkable about Rogosin is how so many currents of the cinema in his time seem to intersect through his small body of work: he looked back to De Sica and Rossellini; he was friendly with a young Cassavetes, who would remain a fervent admirer; Lindsay Anderson, holding forth on the germination of the British Free Cinema, would recall Rogosin arriving in London in 1955 with On the Bowery, and securing him a National Film Theatre showing that won the picture distribution. His sophmore effort, Come Back, Africa, shot on the sly in Johannesberg, came from a collaboration with black Sophiatown literary lights Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane of Drum magazine; the result crystallizes a short-lived Renaissance and is a cherished relic of African intellectual culture. Rogosin was also owner of Greenwich Village’s 200-seat Bleecker Street Cinema, purchased in 1962 with his considerable personal fortune, so goes the story, as a showcase for Come Back, Africa when no other New York cinema was receptive to screening it on his terms. Though his management was, by most accounts, hands-off (Rudy Franchi and Marshall Lewis handling day-to-day duties), the theater remained his through 1972, and as such he deserves at least partial credit for facilitating dozens of important premieres and creating an epicenter for underground cinematic activity (Rogosin, speaking to the NYT after the purchase: “There is a dearth of houses for certain kinds of pictures—the sort that may not be commercial, precisely, but ones which do deserve to be seen.")

If readily available information about Rogosin is sparse, information on OTB’s dramatis personae is even sparser. Of Hendricks, who talks of having been a surgeon and a reporter for the Washington Times and Washington Herald, one might very well assume that wisdom from one of Mitchell’s Bowery denizens applies: "To hear them tell it, all the bums on the Bowery were knocking off millions down in Wall Street when they were young, else they were senators, else they were the general manager of something real big, but, poor fellows, the most of them wasn’t ever nothing but drunks." At least one listing on a genealogy website would seem to lend Henricks’s bleary rambling credence, identifying him as a "childhood playmate of J. Edgar Hoover" and, as a journalist, a onetime “cause célèbre when he did a story on bootleggers and went to jail for refusing to name his sources.” It also lists his year of death as 1955—that is, likely mere months after Rogosin’s camera stopped rolling (OTB’s opening titles dedicate the film to him). Of Ray Salyer, there is no greater stock of information; it is reputed that he entered shooting as the cast’s sole "professional" actor, though he has no prior or later screen credits, but he seems to have thrown himself into his role with gusto. The apocryphal story goes that he was offered a $40,000 contract after OTB’s release, an offer turned down with the explanation "I just want to be left alone… There is nothing else in life but the booze."

Rogosin died in Los Angeles in 2000, the last quarter century of his life fairly low-profile. His filmmaking activity seems to stop in the mid-Seventies; at the time of his death, he was reported to be working on oral history of anti-apartheid activism in South Africa. In the half-century since his crew left the Bowery the street has changed considerably, enough that the Village Voice could claim, circa 2005, that it was en route to becoming "a new millionaire’s row." The statement is undoubtedly hyperbolic—the majority of its length is still devoted to wholesale kitchen equipment and lighting fixture sales—but then, across from the Salvation Army on Prince and Bowery, a 135-room luxury hotel’s just opened ($245.00/ night). Two new apartment buildings are signing leases, replete with built-in Whole Foods and YMCA. Hearkening back to more rugged days there’s a bar called Crime Scene, with decal bullet holes in the tinted storefront glass, where twentysomethings with untucked, vertically striped button-ups can congregate on Felony Fridays and ply NYU girls with two-for-one Appletinis. The site of the Confidence Bar & Grill, insofar as I can tell, is now occupied by a vacant lot.

The street’s legacy of destitution is not entirely gone: Public radio producer David Isay expanded his own 1998 All Things Considered piece on the tenacious “eat-and-beat” 125-cell Sunshine Hotel ($10.00/ night), one of the Bowery’s last remaining flops, into a coffee table photo book, which was a collaboration with Harvey Wang; a 2001 documentary by Michael Dominic, The Sunshine Hotel, explored the same terrain. But this very concentration of attention to one hotel, the apocalyptic squalor canalized into one perfect museum-piece novelty, should be indication of how far gone the world of On the Bowery is; the Sunshine is the exception, not the rule. And though there will never be any short stock of human dejection—Los Angeles’ Skid Row boasts scenes worthy of Calcutta—what’s really missing are the Lionel Rogosins who would integrate these hard truths with beauty.