American Neorealism: Lionel Rogosin's Docs Reconsidered
By Ron Sutton
Milestone Film and Video's restored print of Lionel Rogosin's 1957 documentary On the Bowery, the focal component of Milestone's new two-DVD set, On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin Volume I, is stunning. The crisp black-and-white images look as if the film was shot last week. On the Bowery tracks three days in the life of Ray Salyer, who lost his job as a part-time railroad worker and finds himself adrift on New York's skid row.
The film's informal, relaxed, non-judgmental style is refreshing today. But in 1956, it burst on the scene as cinema's first serious, uncompromising look at men devastated by chronic, unrelenting, untreated alcoholism.
Influenced by Italian Neorealism from the late 1940s and early '50s, Rogosin worked in a style reminiscent of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. He spent months among the derelict dregs of humanity that inhabited this legendary street in New York City. He talked with them, drank with them and befriended a small group representative of the whole. With these men, along with cinematographer Dick Bagley and writer Mark Suffrin, Rogosin fashioned a fragile storyline for the film.
The authenticity of the men's voices and relationships are moving, their faces unforgettable. However, it's the Bowery itself--the hash houses and bars, the flop houses and missions, the streets, sidewalks, doorways, stoops, park benches and alleyways--that is the real character This is where we meet, up-close and personal, the nameless, the trapped and the desperate, who live out each hopeless day of their lives. The street itself is the heart of the film.
On the Bowery won the Grand Prize for Documentary at the 1956 Venice Film Festival as well as an Oscar nomination. Rogosin was credited by filmmaker/archivist Jonas Mekas with playing a key role in jump-starting the New American Cinema movement that also featured such filmmakers as Mekas' brother Adolphus, Shirley Clarke, Robert Downey Sr. and John Cassevettes, who once called Rogosin "the greatest documentary filmmaker in the world." The late author/historian Eric Barnouw cited On the Bowery as an important, influential film in the 1956 showcase at the National Film Theater in London that launched the British Free Cinema movement.
Also included in the On the Bowery collection is a two-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese, who grew up on the edge of the Bowery. The Perfect Team: The Making of ‘On the Bowery' is a bonus feature made by Rogosin's son, Michael Rogosin, in 2009. Its focus is the filmmaker's life and how his major works were created. Also by the younger Rogosin, A Walk Through the Bowery sets forth succinctly the history of the Bowery as a street and what it looks and feels like today.
The Films of Lionel Rogosin Volume I includes two other background films: Street of Forgotten Men, a 1933 short subject created by Columbia Pictures, mostly with a hidden camera; and Bowery Men's Shelter, a film by Rhody Streeter and Tony Ganz from the New York Public Library's Archive that gives a vivid and shocking picture of what the city's Department of Social Services Shelter Care Center For Men looked like in 1972.
The second disc in the Blu-ray and DVD Deluxe Edition includes Rogosin's Good Times, Wonderful Times. This 1964 film was his bold and critical statement on 20th century militarism, fascism and racism.
The structure is simple; some would argue even a bit simplistic. The setting is a London cocktail party in the mid-1960s featuring real men and women of varying ages voicing conversations rank with banal and irresponsible chatter. These scenes are then juxtaposed with some of the most horrendous examples of 20th century war atrocities that Rogosin culled from the archives of a dozen European, American and Asian countries.
Released at the height of the Vietnam War, Good Times, Wonderful Times was screened mostly on college campuses and to audiences of people opposed to the war. Commercial distributors wouldn't touch it, and Rogosin was accused of being a traitor to the US and the West. His purchase of the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York City, which he renovated in 1960 and ran until 1974, gave him a venue in which to screen his work, and he later launched his own distribution company, Impact Films, which handled social issue documentaries, experimental works and feature films, and targeted universities and cultural organizations. Rogosin sold his company in 1978.
A Man's Peril: The Making of Good Times, Wonderful Times, shot in 1964 by son Michael, takes a fascinating look at his father's two-year process in securing the archival material. The film underscores his close connection to Bertrand Russell, the famous British pacifist, and highlights his uncanny ability to find non-actors to improvise conversation in the cocktail party scene that is so central to the film's structure.
A final inclusion on this disc is another documentary by Rogosin, Out. This was made in 1957 for the United Nations and presents the plight of Hungarian refugees fleeing to Austria and elsewhere after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The film is heartfelt and competently made, but exudes just a hint of his singular cinematic style.
For 22 years, Milestone Film and Video has released a host of classic cinema masterpieces. The company, founded and headed by Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, has won a slew of archival and preservation awards over the past 15 years and, in 2010, Milestone earned two Special Heritage Awards from the National Society of Film Critics for On the Bowery and The Mariposa Film Group's Word Is Out.
Ron Sutton is professor emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.