A bum’s life

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - Jon Bow­man For The New Mex­i­can

Idocu­d­rama, not rated, 3.5 chiles Tiger’s blood doesn’t course through the veins of the men in On the Bow­ery. They’re fu­eled by a more er­satz mix­ture of flat beer topped off with 15-cent mus­ca­tel and a chaser of “canned heat,” a volatile and po­ten­tially lethal con­coc­tion they squeeze out of cans of Sterno.

These men are for­got­ten — not only sub­sid­ing on the ab­so­lute fringes of so­ci­ety, long ago shunned by their fam­i­lies and friends, but hav­ing trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing who they are. They live to for­get, for the quick high that will erase all of their pain and suf­fer­ing, trans­port­ing them from the hellish depths they oc­cupy to some place closer to par­adise, even if the trip is false and fleet­ing, evap­o­rat­ing into the night.

All too of­ten, they black out and find them­selves sprawled on a side­walk or curled up un­der a park bench the next morn­ing, not re­ally sure of their where­abouts but cer­tain that more mis­ery lies ahead. It’s the booze that drains their mea­ger re­sources, leav­ing them broke, beaten, and vul­ner­a­ble to a bar­rage of in­dig­ni­ties per­pe­trated by friends and foes alike. They know all too well that they’re on a dead­end street, but they can’t pull back or es­cape the dark shad­ows cast by the Third Av­enue El over­hang­ing their reg­u­lar haunts — the mean­est back al­leys, the low­est-rent flop­houses, and cheap­est gin mills in New York City.

The first film by Lionel Ro­gosin, On the Bow­ery, orig­i­nally re­leased in 1957, doesn’t at­tempt to san­i­tize or psy­cho­an­a­lyze these men, nor to lion­ize or casti­gate them. In­stead it cap­tures their daily habits, their nightly binges, their weary faces, their sapped bod­ies, and the de­cay­ing ur­ban cage that holds them hostage. Ro­gosin chose a dif­fi­cult tightrope to walk, which per­haps ex­plains his de­ci­sion not to cre­ate a straight­for­ward doc­u­men­tary or a full-fledged work of fic­tion but rather a film that strad­dles that chasm, mix­ing and match­ing tech­niques used by mas­ter sto­ry­tellers as well as crack re­porters.

He drew inspiration from Vit­to­rio de Sica’s Bi­cy­cle Thieves, the defin­ing achieve­ment of the Ital­ian ne­o­re­al­ist move­ment, as well as Robert Fla­herty’s older an­thro­po­log­i­cal epics, in­clud­ing Nanook of the North and The Man From Aran. But in the straight-laced 1950s, when Ro­gosin shot On the Bow­ery, this slice of Skid Row cul­ture shocked most movie­go­ers, not only be­cause it de­picted a world they couldn’t fathom but be­cause it did so with­out at­tach­ing any ca­sual or easy moral lessons to the squalid pro­ceed­ings.

The film, in a sense, served as a piv­otal fore­run­ner for the Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dent cin­ema that emerged in the 1960s, when the in­tro­duc­tion of light­weight, hand-held cam­eras and sound gear made it eas­ier for artists to cre­ate non­com­mer­cial works out­side the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem. It’s no won­der that John Cas­savetes, one of the movers and shak­ers in the ’ 60s scene, hailed Ro­gosin as “prob­a­bly the great­est doc­u­men­tary film­maker of all time.”

To get to the heart of the truth, Ro­gosin im­mersed him­self in the seedy Bow­ery mi­lieu for months be­fore he filmed any­thing. Over time, he be­friended two char­ac­ters who be­came his de facto travel guides. They rep­re­sented the yin and yang of the Bow­ery — one an el­derly pot­bel­lied moun­te­bank and ra­con­teur nurs­ing a 50-beer-a-day habit, the other a younger, wellchis­eled South­ern la­borer who could have been the next Gary Cooper if only he had been able to cor­ral his in­sa­tiable thirst for liquor.

Booze in the hood: Ray Salyer, left, and Gor­man Hen­dricks in On the Bow­ery

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