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Blu-ray Review: On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume I

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The Films

The headliner of Milestone Film’s essential two-disc set The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume I is no mere artifact of a bygone era. On the Bowery captures an undeniably specific moment in New York history, but the vibrancy of its images transcends time or milieu — here, we have a film that knocks the wind out of you by virtue of its emotional immediacy and honesty.

The construction of the 1956 film, which was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature, is not recognizably documentary-like by today’s standards. Influenced by both Robert Flaherty and the Italian Neorealists, On the Bowery features a number of residents of the skid row district essentially playing themselves, scripted scenes mingling with fly-on-the-wall nonfiction moments. Some of the line readings are quite stilted, and shot-reverse-shot editing eliminates any doubt that an interaction was captured in the moment.

But despite these factors, there’s nothing constitutionally artificial about On the Bowery.  Before taking a camera into the East Village bars, missions, and flophouses that populate the film, Rogosin lived with the inhabitants for six months, learning their stories and observing the social complexities. When he finally introduced a camera into the mix, he came away with a document where every frame feels vital and true, scripted or not.

The film has a cursory plot — former railroad worker Ray Salyer can’t find steady employment, but he’s desperate to escape the cycle of booze and homelessness that affects him and hundreds of other men in the same position — but every face of real men and women in the film tells its own story. The gorgeous, illuminated black and white photography settles in on close-ups of these weathered, expressive faces often, and the result is far more telling than any fact-filled documentary about homelessness and unemployment rates could be.

Also included in the set is Rogosin’s biting 1964 satire Good Times, Wonderful Times, a forceful anti-war statement that juxtaposes archival footage of WWII atrocities with the privileged obliviousness of a London cocktail party. While the partygoers wax eloquently about the glories of war and its necessary effects, images of dying innocents, Hitler Youth rallies, and concentration camp casualties put their hawkish sentiments in perspective. After just a few minutes, Rogosin’s point is crystal clear, but the sum effect of the horrific imagery is essential to the blunt message.

The set also features Out, a more traditional documentary Rogosin produced for the United Nations about Hungarian refugees fleeing to Austria after an unsuccessful uprising against the Soviets in 1956.

The Blu-ray Disc

On the Bowery is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Working from a restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna, Milestone has produced an impeccable, jaw-dropping transfer. Fine detail is abundant, from clothing fibers to stray hairs to interior textures, and every frame looks like celluloid, with healthy, unadulterated film grain omnipresent. The silvery beauty of the film’s grayscale images is a wonder to behold, and it’s astonishing how clean the elements are. The film’s mono audio is perfectly acceptable, with clear dialogue throughout.

The second disc of the set, featuring Good Times, Wonderful Times and Out is a DVD disc, which is too bad, as the also freshly restored Good Times would have also stunned in HD. Nevertheless, it’s SD presentation here is quite good.

Special Features

Disc one features the bulk of the extras, including an introduction by Martin Scorsese, who grew up near the Bowery, and an excellent 45-minute making-of directed by Rogosin’s son Michael that details the conception and execution of the film. Rogosin also helms a 10-minute look at the Bowery today. Giving us further perspectives on the social crisis the area represented are two brief docs, 1972’s Bowery Men’s Shelter and 1933’s Street of Forgotten Men. The disc also includes the trailer for On the Bowery’s 2010 Milestone theatrical re-release.

Disc two features a making-of of Good Times, Wonderful Times that includes interview footage with Rogosin from the same sessions included in the On the Bowery making-of.

The Bottom Line

Thanks to the good folks at Milestone, a vibrant, vital document of New York City in the 1950s gets an incredibly beautiful transfer. Bring on Volume II.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • Dusty

    For those interested in the set, it turns out both discs are Blu-rays, not just disc one. There was a mix-up with the screener I received.