Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rogosin's ON THE BOWERY: the return of a classic -- plus a terrific new "making-of"

TrustMovies had heard about ON THE BOWERY for nearly all of his adult, film-going life (he was 15 when Lionel Rogosin's ground-breaking combination of documentary and narrative was made), yet only this week did he finally see the movie. Labeled anti-American in its own time (by the likes of Henry Luce and wifey Clare), this likely most-under-seen American classic ever was much more appreciated elsewhere around the world -- as we learn from the indispensable and information-filled documentary about the making of the film, THE PERFECT TEAM, which accompanies the original in its week-long run that just opened at NYC's Film Forum.

Finland, for instance, saw it as "a documentary with a capital D," notes one talking head from whom we hear. Yet the film, though documentary-like, was not a documentary at all. Instead, it was an unusual combination of the narrative and the real -- somewhat in the manner of the recently-released Alamar.

In that excellent Mexican film, writer/director Pedro González-Rubio uses people playing themselves in a film that is narrative but makes use of the roster of documentary techniques. Mr. Rogosin (shown at right), who died in 2000, uses a bevy of men (plus a couple of women) -- all of them alcoholic -- found on New York City's then-infamous Bowery and places them inside a filmed short story of his (and also, I rather imagine, of their own) creation that brings to life the truly awful existence of these "Bowery bums."  Weird facts department: This non-documentary was actually "Oscar"-nominated for a Best Feature Documentary in 1958. Well, why not? It had already won the BAFTA award for Best Documentary the year before, and the Grand Prize for Documentary at the Venice Film Festival the year before that! (Please: can we now refrain for five minutes from arguing about whether or not Catfish is a real documentary.)

At this point, I should admit that I have major trouble watching anything with an alcoholic at its center.  Having spent years of my adult life working under two such men (and living below another for a time, hearing those bottles drop and roll across his uncarpeted floor at 2am), my patience with and empathy for alcoholics has long since dissipated. (I do not mean those in AA who have stopped drinking but still consider themselves alcoholics-for-life; the guys I tried to help were "drinking alkies" who refused to be separated from their bottle.)  So it's hard, very hard, for me to watch a film with this situation at its center.

On the Bowery makes it easier, in some ways, due to how beautifully realized it is.  The cinematography by Richard Bagley is superior stuff, and the restoration of the film -- based on original negatives preserved at NYC's Anthology Film Archives and carried out by Cineteca del Comune di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory -- is spectacular. As is the transfer to DVD. The film looks better than anything I've yet seen on Blu-ray, with the black-and-white photography so gorgeous you want to lick it off the screen. Tactile, full of texture and the richest shades of gray imaginable, the film is a feast for cinephiles who appreciate the art of great black-and-white cinematography.

So impressed by the look for the film was I that I immediately called its distrbutor, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, to learn more about this. "It's great, isn't?!" Doros responded with his usual enormous enthusiasm. "They went from a 2K scan to high def. But mainly it’s the restoration -- and then the transfer -- that's so great"  Further, the distributor insists, it has to do with something else. "This is a film of close-ups. When the crew was all at Lionel’s apartment -- you see this in the making-of film The Perfect Team -- he tells them that he wants faces, and everyone agrees.  Well, they got ‘em! Very few films these days do this. I don’t know why. Shooting great faces, doing it right, really is a lost art.

"I suspect," Doros continued, "that On the Bowery looked pretty damn good back in its own day. This is not always true. The Exiles, for instance did not look as good in 1961 as it does now. UCLA did a frame-by-frame exposure to get this restoration. But back in 1960," he chuckled, "nobody could have afforded this. These films are so immediate and direct with simple plots that pull you in. You feel as though the characters are looking back at you. No exposi-tion. Nobody telling you what you have seen. Films that are simple stories, told artfully, really take you in, and this is one of them."

And this is a simple story (written by Rogosin and his Greenwich Village neighbor Mark Sufrin): Newcomer alkie (Ray Salyer, above, who may remind you a lot of Gary Cooper), suitcase in hand, joins a group of mainstays at a Bowery bar.  One of them in particular (Gorman Hendricks, seen several photos above, through that chicken wire, and below, right) befriends him, then steals from him, continually gets him drunk before finally....  I have to admit feeling that the movie goes just a tad sentimental at its conclusion.  But at just 65 minutes, it should hold your attention and pay you back with that superior cinematography, as it looks at a venue that had heretofore not been seen. And certainly not like this.

Immediately after viewing On the Bowery, I had so many questions, I felt about to burst. Fortunately the accompanying "making-of" documentary, The Perfect Team, answered almost every one of these, so I can't stress how useful, not to mention entertaining, this addition is -- an unmissable accompaniment to the original film. Made by the filmmaker's son Michael Rogosin, it's fascinating account of the making of On the Bowery that includes both recent (in later years Rogosin seemed to resemble Danny DeVito) and archival footage.

Michael details the history of his father's film and its crew -- some remarkable filmmakers who all had their own oddities -- and features two of the few filmed interviews with Lionel ever recorded: one by Russian film director Marina Goldovskaya, the other an astonishing 1956 interview on The Today Show, in which host Dave Garroway -- who admits not having seen the movie that he and Rogosin are talking about (imagine a TV host having the balls to do that today!). Ray Salyer also appears on the interview, and we learn a lot more about this unusual man, who very easily could have had a film career post-Bowery, but instead -- well, you'll find out when you see this double bill. The Perfect Team, a France/USA/Italy co-production, runs 47 minutes, is in both color and black-and-white, and has an aspect ratio of 1:1.85. (On the Bowery has an aspect ratio of 1:1.33.)

Now playing at Film Forum through next Thursday, September 23 (I apologize for the tardiness of my coverage), after which -- and soon I hope -- we'll see a DVD release of both the film and its making-of featurette. And since it's from Milestone, you know it'll look good. Mr. Doros, by the way, promises that we'll eventually see restorations of Rogosin's other two films: Come Back, Africa (another narrative/documentary combo about South Africa and apartheid) and Good Times, Wonderful Times (an experimental documentary that Doros calls "the first anti-Vietnam film."

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