On the Bowery / Lionel Rogosin / 1956 /

Active Ingredients: Raw, evocative footage; Complex emotional portrait of poverty
Side Effects: Scripted moments undercutting the film’s immediacy

Lionel Rogosin’s independently produced docufiction hybrid On the Bowery is a powerful, largely unfiltered look at the complex issue of postwar poverty and homelessness on “the saddest and maddest street in the world.” Combining beautifully textured and unflinching vérité footage of the titular street with scripted situations involving some of its denizens, Rogosin’s is one of the essential New York films. It may not be 100% “true” documentary footage in the conventional sense, but it’s a potent and vivid document of a very specific time and place. You can catch On the Bowery in a flattering new 35mm print as part of the Boston MFA’s Festival of Film Preservation tomorrow, August 23rd.

While Rogosin’s loosely scripted material affords him more control over his portrayal of the exhaustion and hopelessness of poverty, and shows us new dimensions to Rogosin’s subjects and collaborators, the film’s simplest moments are its most memorable. The poetic montages that bookend the film, beautifully shot and edited, speak with immediacy across the gap of time that separates us from 1950s New York. Largely devoid of sound, these sequences approach pure cinema, using film to communicate so much about the Bowery’s forlorn faces and the city as a whole. Despite their formal simplicity, or indeed because of it, these moments tell us all we need to know, and Rogosin’s scripted encounters of hard drinking and desperation soften the film’s rawness and emotional impact.

Like George Orwell’s memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, On the Bowery explores the complex spiral of psychological forces that makes these hard times seem inescapable. Alcoholism and joblessness breed shame, profound fatigue and resignation, making the cycle even harder to break. Still, Rogosin is too observant and truthful not to document the joyful bar room camaraderie and lazy pleasures of drinking, sentiments which only deepen his argument.

The film’s inclusion at the Festival of Film Preservation is fitting. Not only is the richness and depth of this film’s images to be celebrated and safeguarded, but so too are its memorable faces, faces which might have been lost forever without the eye of this filmmaker, faces that testify more powerfully than words that yes, they were there, on the Bowery.