ON THE BOWERY - On DemandMay 22, 2012
On Demand Weekly provides new movie reviews of hot movies on demand and from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: ON THE BOWERY (Oscilloscope Labs).
ON THE BOWERY
By Joe Charnitski
In most documentaries, there is a thin line between fly-on-the-wall reality and the structured world of a piece of art. Sure, docs are non-fiction by nature, but the filmmaker’s guidance, massaging and sometimes flat out coercion will present the facts as they see them. There’s a point of view to every story after all. A sophisticated viewer will factor that in as they consider the topic they’re being presented: yes, this story is “true,” but what is the filmmaker trying to say?
ON THE BOWERY is an American documentary from 1956 that mixes the worlds of non-fiction and fiction storytelling in a most extraordinary way. The film was shot entirely on the lower east side of Manhattan and features a cast of non-professional actors, just real people as you would expect from a doc. The twist is that a few of these real people were coached and given scenarios in which they could improv a scene. With this film you get a true picture of what life was like for the homeless and destitute alcoholics struggling on America’s skid row, plus you get a fabricated story (even if it was ripped from the headlines) about one man’s struggle to get off the bottle and off the streets.
Ray Salyer is that man, the protagonist of the story. He’s clearly not as far along in his addiction and his downfall as many of the men we meet on this street. He still wakes up in the morning and promises himself he’ll never drink again, but he passes out every night having broken that promise. Ray is robbed and beaten, he visits the Bowery Mission for a chance for redemption and he bounces from despair to hope and back.
The filmmaker behind this journey was Lionel Rogosin. You may not have heard of him, but for what it’s worth, John Cassavetes had referred to him as “the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” After watching this film, I wouldn’t argue. The craft behind this picture is solid. Music dominates the first section of the film as we’re shown images of life on this famous American street.
The first voice we hear is from a loud, intoxicated patron
at one of the Bowery’s many booze halls.
He cuts through the music. A perfect choice.
The cinematography is layered, and rich and amazing, not just for a doc, but for any film. The framing of these Bowery bars stuffed with belligerent drunks bellowing their opinions to each other is perfect. A figure slumped in a chair occupies the front of the frame while a conversation happens beyond him. A man stares right at us from way back in the room, again not the focus of the shot, but he’s there, and when I saw him I wasn’t sure he didn’t see me too.
The faces are what will linger with you after you see this film. Yes, you’ll wonder how these man got here, and will they ever get out. You may contemplate how a fair and just society would treat a clan of men like this. You’ll think about a lot of things, but from your primal, human core you’ll remember the faces of these lost souls.
There are memorable passages of dialogue. There are moments of levity. There are verbal disputes over feelings hurt and pride wounded. The subtext for me, no matter what the men were arguing about or debating on the surface, was a proclamation of manhood. These men knew what they were: drunks, tramps, and in some cases thieves and liars. But they never relinquished their manhood. Their humanity is on vivid display. Another credit to Mr. Rogosin.
At just over an hour of running time it won’t take long to get through this film. The men and the frames they fill will last much longer in your memory. ON THE BOWERY is unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen.
Joe Charnitski is a new contributing writer to On Demand Weekly. His career in film and television production, development and marketing has included stops at Miramax Films, Syfy and VH1. He currently works at a entertainment focused social media marketing agency in New York City. Twitter: @JoeCharnitski
ON THE BOWERY (Oscillocope) can be found under your cable system's Movie On Demand section.
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