Judge Gordon Sullivan misses nights out on the Bowery.
"A vivid portrait of addiction that resonates today."
We hear stories and see pictures of solitary men and women of genius, quietly going about the business of creating art. On a certain level that's true. Most art gets created in a kind of isolation, but there's a reason that everybody emphasizes Emily Dickinson's life as a shut-in: it's rare. Consequently, when you discover a new artist or work you've never heard of, it can be a fun game to see how they connect to people you are familiar with. I'd never heard of On the Bowery or its director, Lionel Rogosin, but it turns out that he co-founded the Bleecker Street Cinema, which was an art-house landmark in Greenwich Village. The Bleecker Street Cinema was instrumental in inspiring people like John Cassavettes, so in a way we can pin the entire American Independent cinema movement on Lionel Rogosin. Even if that might be a stretch, Rogosin's first film, On the Bowery is an important piece of cinematic history that just happens to also document an important part of New York City's history. Thankfully, we have a lovingly restored print for On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1, an extras-packed DVD, to fit this piece of history into America's cinematic puzzle.
On the Bowery falls pretty squarely into the Neorealist tradition. After spending months wandering the Bowery (which is located in New York City's lower portion, between the East Village and SoHo), Rogosin decided to make a film about the down-and-out alcoholics and workingmen who populated one of the city's poorer areas. The result is a dramatic fiction that uses non-actors, capturing life as it was lived in the Bowery in the late 1950s.
The second, bonus feature here is Good Times, Wonderful Times, which is Rogosin's 1964 anti-war protest. By gathering atrocity footage from a number of European governments and cutting it in with scenes of a London cocktail party, Rogosin made a film that attempts to drive home the horrors of war.
In our post-9/11 world it can be difficult to remember that New York City was not always a shining beacon of hope against the forces of terror. In fact, there was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s where parts of the island looked more like a John Carpenter movie than they did like a shining beacon of anything. Then slowly, gradually, money moved in and the city was "cleaned up." Despite the millions of tourists who visit the city every year, there are still those who pine for the "good old days." Whether we pine for them or not, we no longer live in a time where starving artists and the poor can afford to live in Manhattan; the city has moved on.
What's so amazing about On the Bowery is that it captures a moment in the history of one of America's greatest cities that has passed on, never to be recovered. Though the city still has landmarks and neighborhoods, those associations have changed over the last sixty years. Back in 1956, the Bowery was synonymous with being down on your luck, likely alcoholic, and very much working class. Rogosin's achievement is to get close to the people that live in the Bowery (at least some of them, primarily the men who are down on their luck), and give them a movie that reflects what they think their life is like. There's a precedent for this kind of work—I'm especially reminded of Dorothea Lange's WPA photos—but it's rare that anyone can be so effectively sympathetic towards the working poor without condescending or whitewashing.
What is perhaps more impressive—and noticeable, thanks to the restoration done on this print—is that On the Bowery was Rogosin's first film. Working with a cinematographer who knows his stuff, Rogosin effortlessly combines staged scenes and more documentary style footage. Both are surprisingly beautiful, given the subject matter.
There's a reason this set is advertised with On the Bowery: Good Times, Wonderful Times has not aged quite as well. The conceit of combining World War II-era atrocity footage (including camp liberation and Hiroshima aftermath) with a boozy party at the height of Swinging London sounds like something only the Sixties could produce. Though it's easy to admire the antiwar sentiments of Rogosin and his collaborators, the execution feels more enthusiastic than effective.
This is a two-disc set from Oscilloscope, and each film gets its own disc. Both flicks have been restored from their original negatives by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. On the Bowery looks simply stunning. Its black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and this print is in great shape. Contrast is spot-on, black levels are appropriate, and grain is handled perfectly. The mono audio is relatively clean and clear (amazingly good for the source and its age), with only the occasional pop or hiss. Good Times, Wonderful Times looks equally good, at least in the Swinging London scenes. These are almost pristine, like On the Bowery, with very little damage or other problems. The footage culled from the various atrocities, however, doesn't hold up quite as well (and was likely damaged before it even made its way into Rogosin's film), but the changes in quality do little to detract from the film's effects. Similarly, its mono soundtrack is in pretty good shape, given its age.
Extras are amazingly strong for a release of this type. Disc One starts out with an introduction by the man, Mr. Martin Scorsese himself. He talks for three minutes about the history and influence of the film. We also get a kind of making-of featurette on the film, a 2009 walk through of what the Bowery looks like now, a 1972 documentary on the Bowery that captures it between Rogosin's era and our own, and a 1933 newsreel that examines the life of those on the bottom rung. Disc Two includes a making-of documentary for Good Times, Wonderful Times and Rogosin's first foray into filmmaking, a short called "Out" documenting refugees from Hungary. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050800/ These flicks are not aimed at the average moviegoer who wants an easily digested story and lots of action. These films can feel pretty slow, and, as historically interesting as they are, might be difficult to watch for contemporary viewers weaned on narrative drive and fast-paced editing.
On the Bowery is a fascinating document of a bygone era in one of America's landmarks. It treats the poorest among us with compassion and sympathy; the result is a documentary style drama that continues to resonate. The inclusion of Good Times, Wonderful Times would have been enough of an "extra," but combined with the loving restoration and numerous other features puts this set in the highest category of DVD release, right up there with the kind of work that we expect from the Criterion Collection. The film itself is worth a rental for anyone interested in the history of New York City or American independent filmmaking. With such amazing extras, a purchase is easy to recommend.
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