By **Patrick Burns**
How simple it used to be: after losing a job, one would walk downtown and get drunk on one’s last pennies. So suggests On the Bowery, a documentary film showing the debauched souls in New York in the late nineteen fifties.
In the mid-nineteen fifties, aspiring filmmaker Lionel Rogosin began walking from his apartment in Greenwich Village to the seediest street in New York City. He sought real, human adversity – the kind usually not to be found in developed countries—without having to leave Manhattan. The Bowery bums, with their world-done-me-wrong tales, were his spark for a documentary. Rogosin spent months on the Bowery, rubbing elbows with the bums and seeing how they lived. Then he began to film.
The result of his effort is the scarcely seen but consistently praised On the Bowery. It’s lauded as much for its vivid look into a dark corner of New York as for its restrained photography and editing. The stark, minimal visual style mirrors the deprivation and hopelessness on the streets. It’s in the close-ups of the life-weathered faces—scrunched, twisted, and puffy from alcohol abuse and cold nights in the street—that the pain and misery of the Bowery hits the hardest. The film’s cinematography owes as much to Italian neorealism as it does to the rich hues of a Rembrandt portrait.
It was a dog-eat-dog world, and the homeless were at the bottom of the food chain. Yet, just a few blocks north, the real Mad Men were creating an opulent empire. The two worlds seemed, well, worlds apart. In reality, the separation was just a few years and a few subways stops.
How little has changed. Today in New York, Wall Street bonuses are as high as ever, and Manhattan real estate prices rise accordingly. And, though homelessness and crime is down, the number of families on food stamps is substantial. Just as the world of On the Bowery wasn’t on the radar of midtown executives in the nineteen fifties, today’s hedge funders fly in and out of JFK airport but are oblivious to the housing projects surrounding the airport.
On the Bowery does a piercing job of making the audience feel the misery of street life in nineteen fifties New York. Though the dehumanizing effects of homeless and poverty are no longer seen as frequently on today’s Bowery, a similar level of inequality still exists in New York. It’s up to the new generation of documentary filmmakers—directors like Ramin Bahrani, of Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop—to expose us to all those who are left behind.
Copyright 2010 Patrick Burns
Patrick Burns is an editorial intern at Guernica.