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On the Bowery (1956)

7.4
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The Bowery is a neighborhood in New York City populated largely by the down and out, and largely by transients. Those that can work generally can only find short term employment on a day to... See full summary »

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Title: On the Bowery (1956)

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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 3 wins. See more awards »

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The Bowery is a neighborhood in New York City populated largely by the down and out, and largely by transients. Those that can work generally can only find short term employment on a day to day basis, their daily earnings which primarily go into booze. Those that can't or won't work generally sponge off whoever they can, especially for that next drink. New to the neighborhood is Ray, who most recently had been working the rails in New Jersey. He is one of those who can and still does work, but like the others spends what little money he has on booze, which means he usually sleeps on the streets in a drunken stupor. The only person he would probably consider a friend in the neighborhood is the elderly Gorman, who in turn takes advantage of his new friend at whatever opportunity. When he's sober, Ray understands that alcohol is ruining his life, and as such states that he will try to stop drinking. The questions become whether Ray has either the will or the support necessary to fulfill ... Written by Huggo

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19 July 1962 (Hungary)  »

Also Known As:

Az iszákosok utcája  »

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Opening Weekend:

$13,236 (USA) (17 September 2010)

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$13,236 (USA) (17 September 2010)
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A milestone in documentary film making
26 June 2005 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

This film had tremendous influence on documentary film making and in many ways is still ahead of its time. John Cassavetes, the great American independent director, once said that Rogosin is "probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." "Wait a minute," you might say, "that isn't what I was taught in film school!" To understand that quote, and the impact of "On the Bowery," you would have to understand the world of documentary film making in the 1950's.

Robert Flaherty, and Walter Ruttmann were the people who had largely shaped what documentary film making had become in the 50's. Flaherty had shown us natural people in natural settings. This in itself was not new, but his mastery of film skills raised the documentary to an art form. His images were beautiful and haunting, and that eventually became the norm for good documentaries. Ruttmann, in his film "Berlin; Symphony of a Great City," photographed a day in the life of Berlin, and edited it to match the structure of a symphony. Once again we saw the marriage of documentary and high art. This was copied by Dziga-Vertov (who is often given credit for Ruttmann's innovations) in his "Man with a Movie Camera" and by others.

There were, of course, other influential film makers. There is, for example, a tradition of political films and propaganda pieces that are often thought of as documentaries. But in discussing non-political, documentaries in the world of 1957, they were generally highly aesthetic, and usually about fairly safe subjects such as native people, famous scientists, animals etc. The films were sometimes scripted, and a representative story (not a real story) of the lives of the people was done using native non-professional actors. "On the Bowery" can be seen as a transitional piece between the Flaherty school and modern documentaries, On one hand it is aesthetic, and contains some script, but on the other, it is mostly unscripted. The film also has a strong feel of reality. This is because the people in the film were going through their daily routine rather than acting. Instead of coming up with a representative story, the scripted parts of the film are recreations of a specific, real story, played by the person who lived it. It is interesting to note that after the film was shown the main character was offered $40,000 and a Hollywood film contract. He refused it and went back to the Bowery. I do not know what became of him. Doc, (who had been a real doctor at one time) stayed on the Bowery and died of a heart attack shortly after the film.

Because it is partly scripted, it is often misunderstood as being fictional, but Rogosin methods reflect this connection with reality. He spent 6 months studying and observing, then a year and a half filming. You don't need to spend a year and a half to film a fictional script. I attended a screening of the film in the 60's put on by Rogosin and was able to ask him some questions. The scripted scenes came out of the the real life events that occurred during the filming, not the other way around. "On the Bowery" is clearly the breakthrough film that that paved the way for today's documentary style.

Another breakthrough occurred with the subject of the film and the way it was treated. Instead of animal life, native people, or a famous person, the subject was alcoholics on New York's skid-row. This was pretty much unheard of at the time except in the political/propaganda type of documentary. But unlike the political documentary, there was no comment or judgment or manipulation of the footage to lead you to a conclusion that the film maker wanted you to have. As an audience member you feel free to interpret it as you like, and many people had different ideas of what it meant. In doing this Rogosin is ahead of his time even today.

In an article in "Film Culture" 1960, "Interpreting Reality (Notes on the Esthetics and Practices of Improvisational Acting)", Rogosin gives his "Manifesto" for documentary film making. Although he respects Flaherty and his school he feels that they are not actually making documentaries. Also he rejects true documentaries as being a, "meaningless catalog of stale, factual representation," and even says that he does not make documentaries. Instead he wanted to spontaneously film elements of reality and "put it in a form that would capture the imaginations of others." This is not the same as making a representative story. The scripted scenes in "On the Bowery" are made from the actual experiences of the people in the film. They are being recreated by the people who lived them. This clearly sets him apart from even modern documentary film makers.

Another thing that still sets Rogosin apart is that he gives his characters dignity. It is very easy for a documentary film maker to ridicule people, or show them in a bad light, especially because they no way to make a rebuttal to the audience viewing the film. Modern documentary film makers too often fall into this trap. Rogosin's effort was just the opposite. "I want to give man a new dignity, to make a true national hero of a Nebraska farmer, a Pennsylvania coal miner, a Harlem taxi driver," Rogosin says in his 1960 article. He certainly succeeds in doing this in "On the Bowery." You walk out of the theater with a sense that these people have a certain nobility in their lives; that they are not caricatures but distinct individuals. Not an easy job, considering the subject matter.

"On the Bowery" was a groundbreaking film, but it is also a film that is still unique in its vision of what a documentary film should be. Even today it is ahead of its time.


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