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On the Border

Lionel Rogosin’s 1957 documentary “On the Bowery” is one of those richly liminal works that exist between the old (the Flaherty school of the composed, fictionalized, restaged documentary) and the new (the soon-to-explode cinema verite movement, driven by the availability of new, more portable cameras and sound equipment). Shot in 35-millimeter, and presented on the new Blu-ray from Milestone in a print created by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna from the original camera negative, Rogosin’s film (his first) is an absorbing combination of artifice and observation, jamming together carefully composed, WPA-style images, non-professional actors cast as fictionalized versions of themselves, an imposed storyline that artfully fizzles out, and extended moments (particularly, a late night bacchanalia) that seem to escape the filmmaker’s control. John Cassavetes acknowledged the film’s influence on his aesthetic and methods; the film itself may have been influenced by the Beats (Ginsberg’s “Howl” was published just before Rogosin began production) and the emerging bohemian scene on St. Mark’s Place, just a few crucial blocks uptown from the area where “On the Bowery” takes place (a couple of years later, the filmmakers might have dropped in to see Thelonious Monk at the Five-Spot, though they seemed to prefer the White Horse Tavern on the other side of town). An altogether fascinating piece, I barely scratch its surface in my review in the New York Times.

45 comments to On the Border

  • BEtsy McLane

    The new edition of A NEW HISTORY-quite different-covers this film also

  • Interesting insight, that On the Bowery may have influenced Midnight Cowboy (or perhaps its source novel by James Leo Herlihy?).

  • jbryant

    Here on Oscar day, it may be appropriate to mention that ON THE BOWERY was nominated for Best Documentary of 1957, a category it might be ineligible for under current rules (it won BAFTA’s award in the same category; ALBERT SCHWEITZER won the Oscar).

    I had seen the film listed in Oscar books, but didn’t know anyone who’d seen it until about 15 years ago when it turned up on a friend’s all-time top ten list. I was able to rent the VHS at Eddie Brandt’s, and was really impressed. Hope to see this Blu-Ray someday.

    I was also happy to see a Blu of SCARLET STREET listed at the bottom of the article, from an “immaculate” 35mm print, no less!

  • Johan Andreasson

    This is a rare case where I’ve seen a blu-ray before it was reviewed in the NY Times, and all I can do is confirm that the film richly deserves all the praise it gets in Dave K:s perceptive review and from most other reviews I’ve read as well.

    The amazing thing with the film is, as others have pointed out before, the combination of top quality cinematography and the sense that the filmmakers must have been able to become a natural and accepted part of the environment. Rogosin and his team somehow managed to gain the complete trust of the people in the film while at the same time operating all that heavy equipment.

    There’s also a great trust in the images being able to tell the story. You hardly get any back stories of any of the men you see (and it really is a male community – I counted maybe two or three glimpses of women in the entire film), but the close ups of the faces tell you everything you need to know. A couple of them are ex railroad workers, and it’s not hard imagining the same faces in Ford’s THE IRON HORSE. And among the faces in the Salvation Army religious service you wouldn’t be surprised to see the insane Johannes from Dreyer’s ORDET.

    When I visited New York in 1990 I looked up CBGB (I was a teenager in the late 70s and have a nostalgia for American punk bands like Ramones, Blondie and The Cramps) and as I recall the area still looked a bit worse for wear then. I don’t remember if the el was there, but I imagine it must have been gone by that time.

  • Oliver_C

    The CBGB bar and surrounding area, looking suitably shabby, are briefly glimpsed in Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989).

  • “I don’t remember if the el was there, but I imagine it must have been gone by that time.”

    Yes Johan, the elevated was gone by then, dismantled in 1956, but Stan Brakhage made “The Wonder Ring” at the request of Joseph Cornell in 1955 to document its run from South Ferry to the Bronx. The El figures in several movies and I’m sure people will weigh in with its filmography (Raoul Walsh’s “The Bowery” for example.)

    Gentrification didn’t set in until shortly after your 1990 visit (somehow the Bowery escaped the wave of gentrification that swept through the Lower East Side in the 1980s.) The Bowery had a rise and fall and rise; from the post WW II era until the early 1990s the Bowery was economically depressed and pretty much as depicted in “On the Bowery.”

    My friend Nan Goldin lived on the Bowery through the ’80s; William Burroughs lived there from the mid-70s until 1981 and sub-let “the Bunker” to John Giorno who took over the lease after Burroughs died in 1997 and still lives there. Cy Twombly also lived there at one time too.

  • ON THE BOWERY I am used to seeing as a brilliant vintage 35 mm print originally released in Finland in 1958 by the visionary arthouse distributor Aito Mäkinen. My feelings with the movie are mixed because of the ethical questions related to documenting alcoholics, addicts and others who may be unable to defend themselves. What about their dignity? An exceptional approach is in Stefan Jarl’s drug addict trilogy THEY CALL US MISFITS, A DECENT LIFE, and GENERATION TO GENERATION.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Antti, I also thought of the Stefan Jarl “Mods Trilogy” documentaries while watching ON THE BOWERY, especially the second film: A DECENT LIFE. By following the drug addicts in the Mods films for basically their whole lives (and continuing with the lives of their children) you get to know them in a way that you don’t do with the alcoholics in the relatively short ON THE BOWERY, but I think Rogosin’s motives for making the film and the respect he shows for the people he films is the same as Jarl’s.

  • Dear Antti,

    First, hi and fond regards from New Jersey! We frequently have this discussion about our films since many, many of our films are anthropological in nature — IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS, CHANG, GRASS, SIMBA, THE EXILES, ARAYA, CHAC, KILLER OF SHEEP and now ON THE BOWERY and COME BACK, AFRICA. I have to admit, we’re usually defensive about this, but it’s an important question that I can’t really answer. It’s very much a chicken or the egg (or the truthfulness of cinema verite versus poetic truth) — can only the subjects make a film about themselves and if they don’t have the resources or inclination, does it not get made at all? And if we consider them unable to protect themselves from exploitation, are we not in danger of infantilizing them? Again, I’m not disagreeing with you. I just don’t know the answers. We’re doing PORTRAIT OF JASON next which probably is THE film for this discussion. Is Jason being exploited or is he performing for the camera?

    Interestingly enough, on many of our films, the subjects actually participated in the writing and actual shooting of the film even as far back as 1912 with IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS. OTB was a three-page (as I recall) script that Gorman, Ray and the others filled in with dialogue and situations. The more I researched into Ray, the closer I realized it was to his personal story than he probably shared with many people.

    And of course, “truth” in film is different in 1955 then it is in 2012 though I’m not sure which is more truthful. There’s a LOT of documentaries these days that I find dishonest. It really goes to the filmmaker’s best intentions, their sense of honesty/integrity and their talent. On the OTB disc, we put BOWERY MEN’S SHELTER from 1972 which is a much more objectified view of the people. They’re completely different, but I love them both.

    Usually, when we decide to look into these films, we have some people from that culture look at it and discuss it with us. With THE EXILES, Sherman Alexie told us that only a non-Native American could make that film as it told the story of many different tribes. He as a Coeur-d’Alene/Spokane would have been uncomfortable taking on a San Carlos Apache or Palm Springs story. He also heavily defended against some of the critics concerns of the scenes where Kent Mackenzie filmed the “cast” getting drunk. We also had several of the San Carlos tribespeople look at the film and it was screened there at their request.

    To be absolutely honest, we did not vet OTB as we did most of the other films. (Though I spent six months looking for descendants and all I found was Ray Salyer’s nephew.) It’s absolutely a reverse discrimination that I didn’t consider white addicts as possibly being exploited. And since they participated in the storytelling, it didn’t occur to me. With every film, a new opening of my eyes!

  • Barry Putterman

    Shouldn’t the question be in regards to “truths” rather than “truth?” Is there one view of a person or event which is demonstratably more genuine and valid than all of the other possibilities? If a person were to control the means of his or her presentation in a movie would it necessarily be more “truthful” than if the control were in other hands? Are autobiographies by their very nature more accurate than biographies? Do any of us actually know the truth about ourselves?

    It seems to me that anybody appearing in a movie could, with some justification, claim to be being “exploited.” Actors regularly complain that their versions of the character that they were playing was ruined because the worst takes were used, or they were photographed from the wrong angles, or important explanatory scenes were edited out. At the same time, a person participating in a documentary has no idea how his words and actions will be contextualized by the scenes which surround what they say and do.

    And what recourse does anybody who appears in a film have after the fact? The film is the film and it constitues one version of the truth by means of the way that it was put together. Another film on the same subject and employing the same people in front of the camera will present another version of the truth.

  • jbryant

    Yeah, it’s pretty tricky business. Especially since from LAS HURDES to CATFISH, some filmmakers have played with the documentary form in ways that call their intentions into question, whether intentionally or not.

  • dan

    Sad news. The great Bruce Surtees had died. Don’t know if he fits the category of “underrated” but it can’t be mere chance that his death went under the radar of almost all newspapers or websites. Or maybe i just don’t read the right ones?

  • Alex


    Bruce Surtees “underreated”?

    Maybe ALL cinematographers are underrated at the level of the general culture.

    Didn’t the awards for cinematography and production design open the slow ascent to glory at last night’s Oscars?

    (NOT that there’s any systematic underappreciation of cinematographers because of auteur theory, as the window on the true sees all and is never fogged.)

    Just Googled “Cinematography cinematographers” and “Tom Cruise” and got 46,000,000 hits for the former but 56,400,000 hits for the latter.

  • dan

    As i said the first time – I also found it hard to believe, but the fact is i haven’t found much about his passing in the media. again, it could be that i haven’t seeked it out in the right places, but nevertheless…

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Surtees death was posted at Variety yesterday, along with Erland Josephson’s (which initially at least got more attention).

    The Oscar memoriam was the usual mixed bag – Annie Girardot, Bingham Ray and George Kucher were included, Raul Ruiz and Theo Angelopoulos weren’t,

  • Blake Lucas

    “…a couple of years later, the filmmakers might have dropped in to see Thelonious Monk at the Five-Spot…”

    Please forgive me for this disgression, Dave, especially because I haven’t even seen ON THE BOWERY yet–though your fine piece encouraged my interest and in any event I did see the same director’s COME BACK AFRICA several times in earlier years and was mightily impressed by that one.

    But “truth” (a word already important in this thread) seems to call out for me to note that the filmmakers could have seen Monk at the Five-Spot in this very year of 1957, because in fact, this was Monk’s breakthrough year there, when he took in his first working quartet to that club to great success and made the club’s name too. The tenor saxophonist he had chosen (enticing him away from Miles Davis) was John Coltrane who flowered in Monk’s company and left drugs behind in the process–and this time was no less important in his own career. Wilbur Ware was the bassist (at least initially) and Shadow Wilson was the drummer. In the next year, 1958, Monk brought in another great group (Johnny Griffin, Ahmad Abdul-Malik, Roy Haynes) so plenty of chances to catch him at the Five-Spot in those two years. I only wish I had.

    I will now happily take my slap on the wrist for this jazz aside, as Monk’s 1957 Five-Spot engagement is for me one of the major events in twentieth century cultural history, kind of like Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette meeting up and talking movies or something like that.

  • Dear Dennis,

    It is an honour to receive such a well thought out comment from you (February 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm). There are many truths to these matters, and since Flaherty and Rouch many solutions exist, and I think every true artist makes his documentary on people vulnerable to abuse together with the people he is portraying, as I now realize Rogosin, too, must have done.

    The world has changed during the last decades. Reality tv and the internet have made people willing to expose anything. There are new opportunities now for the most incredibly intimate confessions and exposures in documentaries, but still I want to know that they are based on consent and freedom of choice.

  • Johan Andreasson

    X: Thanks for the info about New York! By chance I happened to see Harold Lloyd’s last silent, SPEEDY, yesterday, and while it of course belongs to another school of filmmaking than ON THE BOWERY and SHADOWS, the New York location shooting is just as impressive. Is there any other film where you see this much of what New York looked like in the 1920s?

  • There’s a great book by Richard Koszarski called Hollywood on the Hudson that details the filmmaking in the New York area. There are also other books too look at and websites as well.

    There are thousands of films and shots of New York pop up in unexpected places. For example, Winsor McCay’s GERTIE ON TOUR is animated, but it’s one of the few views of the Upper West Side looking up the hills before they added the West Side Highway. And I’m just proofing Mary Pickford’s POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL and there’s great shots of Riverside Drive in the limited number of exterior shots. Funny thing about it — New York filmmakers from the beginning of time used New York as a set. There is probably a fewer percentage of films set in Los Angeles even though far more movies have been made there by now.

    And Antti, we are in agreement!

  • Johan Andreasson

    I’ve read a lot of McCay’s comics but seen relatively few of his films. I’ll look out for GERTIE ON TOUR! Meanwhile, here’s McCay’s Little Nemo flying into New York after a trip to Mars:

  • Alex Hicks

    The Academy’s neglect of Raul Ruiz and Theo Angelopoulos is indeed lamentable (however predictable).

    However, some recent video source (CNN, The Golden Globes?) did have the wisdom to include THREE tributes to Annie Girardot (all from “Rocco”) into its 2011 “In Memoriam”: Nadia ‘s first display of herself at the Pirondi household; Nadia and Rocco at the back of that Milanese street car (come straight our way from the tolley in “Sunrise); Nadia’s Crist-like outstrtetching of her arms as death from Simone Pirondi closes in (amidst industrially befouled yet “Sunrise” like medowland).

  • Johan

    You might want to check out “Manhatta” a 1920s documentary by the painter/photographer Charles Sheeler and the photographer Paul Strand which is available on youtube.

    Also, although I am not sure if this is available in Europe, there is the the 7- (later 😎 part “New York a documentary film” from Ric Burns which was produced for public TV in the US.

  • “The world has changed during the last decades. Reality tv and the internet have made people willing to expose anything. There are new opportunities now for the most incredibly intimate confessions and exposures in documentaries, but still I want to know that they are based on consent and freedom of choice.”

    That’s an important observation Antti. Newsreels (or now videos) are not necessarily made with the consent or choice of their subjects. And what of the videos showing the police beating Rodney King or the William Cardenas beating?

    In the US there are chapters of Cop Watch that specialize in filming encounters with law enforcement. Sooner or later someone is going to make a compilation of these videos and fashion them into a documentary about police brutality or about citizen activism or maybe about the street life of the working poor, and probably without the consent of the police.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Joseph: MANHATTA was really something – those guys knew how to compose an image, and for YouTube the quality was surprisingly good. Apparently it was restored digitally a couple of years ago, and hopefully it will be screened in Stockholm sooner or later.

    And thanks for the recommendation of the NEW YORK television documentary. I just finished watching Ken Burns PROHIBITION (really good, and a fine companion piece to ON THE BOWERY), so I might as well give his brother Ric’s efforts a try. It’s available for a reasonable price from Amazon UK, and I have no trouble watching Region 1 DVD:s.

  • “the filmmakers could have seen Monk at the Five-Spot in this very year of 1957, because in fact, this was Monk’s breakthrough year there, when he took in his first working quartet to that club to great success and made the club’s name too.”

    Thanks for reminding us of that Blake.

    As for a possible Beat influence, John Clellon Holmes’ novel “Go” was published in 1952, and his article “This is the Beat Generation” appeared in the New York Times Magazine in late 1952. New Directions Annual was also featuring Beat prosody, and the beats themselves were denizens of the Bowery; Kerouac has a great description of it in “Visions of Cody” (written in 1951-52 and published in 1972.)

    There was already a Beat presence in film starting with Christopher Maclaine’s “The End” from 1953.

  • Ric also made “Coney Island”, another great NY-related doc, for “The American Experience”. His stuff has an extra, slightly surreal, emotional edge that his brother’s work doesn’t have. “Coney Island” and “The Donner Party” are both first rate.

  • “the filmmakers could have seen Monk at the Five-Spot in this very year of 1957, because in fact, this was Monk’s breakthrough year there, when he took in his first working quartet to that club to great success and made the club’s name too.”

    This would be true, Blake, except that the principal photography was done in the summer of 1955, before the Third Avenue El was torn down, and the Five Spot didn’t open until later that year, when the tracks were gone. Monk opened on July 4, 1957, at least according to his Wikipedia entry, at which point “On the Bowery” had already been in release for five months.

    Johann, “Manhatta” was given a major digital restoration by MOMA in 2008, supervised by Bruce Posner. I wrote about it here.

  • Brian Dauth

    I can second the recommendation for Ric Burns’ CONEY ISLAND which remains vivid in my memory, as well as his films on Eugene O’Neill and Andy Warhol. Tom B’s comment on his work having an “emotional edge” seems right on the mark to me.

  • Blake Lucas

    Dave, thanks for the clarification in yours of 6:30. I had read your piece several times looking for the actual shooting dates and didn’t see it, so two years seemed a long time and I didn’t know that NY topography. But I know you rarely get your facts wrong, so sorry for presuming wrongly. I am interested in when films are actually made, especially a documentary like this, so will appreciate knowing the 1955 date when I do see it.

    Meantime, if it was still in a theatre somewhere in July 1957 I guess a film buff/jazz aficionado could have seen it in the afternoon and then headed down to the Five-Spot for the evening.

  • x359594 (February 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm): exactly, and because of such ethical problems Krzysztof Kieslowski ceased to make documentaries and started to make fiction films, instead.

  • Blake, after a decade at the New York Times, where readers often take a sadistic delight in pointing out errors, I’ve learned to check my facts as closely as possible. Obviously, some mistakes still get through, and I am always happy to be corrected in a collegial manner, as you did. I wanted the Monk connection to be true, but on closer examination it didn’t stand up. The presence of the Third Avenue El is the real tip off — its demolition in 1955 was the start of the slow rebirth of the Lower East Side, of which one of the first manifestations was the emergence of St. Mark’s Place as an entertainment district.

  • Alex

    Visionary eyes scanning doc-like depth as in “The Docks of New York,” “La Terra Trema,” “Berlin Year Zero” and “Il Posto.”

    Now them’s motion pictures!

  • Robert Garrick

    I know Dave Kehr has an interest in movie posters–he’s written books about them, and they’re a feature of this blog. So he will want to take a look at THIS, and so will most of the rest of you.

    Maybe we can pool our resources and put in a bid for that “Dracula” poster.

  • Another film with many views of New York City is APPLAUSE (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929). The film is uneven, with a downbeat finale, but the New York footage is good.

    Manhatta is a fascinating work, with beautiful compositions.

  • Robert Garrick (March 2, 2012 at 1:30 am), those pre-Code posters are stunning!

  • jbryant

    Ditto on those posters. I wish my home office was papered in them.

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, what’s wrong with a downbeat finale?

  • Steve Elworth

    Yes, Mike, many of our favorite films have downbeat finales, CITIZEN KANE, GERMANY YEAR ZERO, ALI,MOUCHETTE, THE SEARCHERS and VERTIGO amongst hundreds of others.

  • Especially when recommending films to other people, I’m often reluctant to list gloomy or downbeat movies. Am afraid people will watch them and have a miserable time.
    Not sure if this is an aesthetic stance, or merely a social one.

    GERMANY YEAR ZERO is far and away my least favorite Rossellini film. Its extreme gloom is a big part of this. PAISA, STROMBOLI, EUROPE 51, INDIA MATRI BHUMI, THE TAKING OF POWER BY LOUIS XIV and THE AGE OF THE MEDICI all seem much richer.

    Much of what I learned about aesthetics comes from classical music and painting. They are fields that tend to equate joy and pleasure with great art. This point of view seems relevant to film, too.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well Mike, in the arts there is a very long tradition of something called tragedy. It goes back to the ancient Greeks, and quite a few great works of art fall into that category. You could refer to items such as “Hamlet” or CITIZEN KANE as being part of the tradition when making recommendations. Not long ago I saw a British comedian who created a stand-up character of an Irish nun named Sister Mary Immaculate. One of her lines was: ” I’ve been reading The Bible lately. A wonderful book. He dies in the end.”

    I know that we Americans are supposed to be addicted to “happy endings.” But remember, “It could be Oedipus Rex. Where a boy kills his father and causes a lot of bother.” That’s entertainment!

  • Peter Henne

    C’mon, Mike. There are sad films that are beautiful, joyous and life-affirming. They have that transcendence thing going for them. I see GERMANY YEAR ZERO that way by benefit of Rossellini’s humane lucidity; only somebody concerned over people shunned and in peril could have made this film, and we see those same traits in the other two war films. Since you bring up classical painting, heaps of Old Master pictures feature subjects drawn from the Bible and ancient myth which are painful and tragic. History painting, which contained these sources, was regarded as the highest genre for centuries.

    Barry, the clock is ticking and my post crossed yours…

  • Barry Putterman

    Peter, I wouldn’t say that our posts crossed. You make an entirely different and extremely valid point about the transcending nature of tragedy. It simply didn’t fit into what I was saying. But I’m glad that you came along to add it.

    And Mike, as long as you are referencing classical music; what about opera?

  • Steve Elworth

    Yes, Mike, Opera, Shakespearean tragedy do not fit your model. Some of the films that I listed allow transcendent readings and some do not but all are from upbeat. My point is that endings can be read in multiple ways with multiple meanings and can not be one thing with one reading at all times.

  • david hare

    Well, I love Deutschland Nulle Jahre (its correct title) and I am always floored by it’s completely open and incontrovertible grief and the sheer distropy of its setting (which I visited only last year.)

    But I guess I’m that kind of guy (I revelled like a tart while watching Melancholia and felt totally self fulfilled and aglow with the final shot. I’m that kinda guy.)
    But I agree with Mike the hard cold truth of if is these are not movies you want to share viewing with much, except perhaps within very special circles (as Sternbeg said about Eisie’s extremely naughty sketchbooks from Mexico ca. 1931).

    Speaking of which, Dave thanx in advance for the finger on Universal for their hopelessly egregious failure to fix the “slight” problem in their fucking master/vault print of Shanghai Express.

  • Barry Putterman

    Post-scripting an earlier topic, there is a surprisingly lengthy and well informed obit for Bruce Surtees in today’s N.Y. Times. I suppose that the news simply didn’t fit until today.

    Now, on to Sternberg!