A Song of Skid Row
AFS Documentary Tour: 'On the Bowery'
The process doesn't sound all that removed from your average mumblecore film: a shoestring budget, a cast of nonactors, minimally scripted, on location, with a learn-by-doing ethos. Only this was 1957 and – in theory, at least – a documentary, Lionel Rogosin's award-winning On the Bowery, about the lives of hobos and drunks on Skid Row.
It wasn't the movie Rogosin first meant to make. On the occasion of Milestone Films' newly struck 35mm print in 2010, Rogosin's son Michael recounted in an interview on WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show, "He had come back from the war, and he thought that something had to be done to change the world." Initially Rogosin wanted to make a film about apartheid (which would eventually become 1960's Come Back, Africa), but first he had to get his feet wet. He began On the Bowery as a short, but as the richness of material in the Bowery's poverty-stricken inhabitants stretched before him, he stretched the film to feature length.
On the Bowery is like a head dunk in ice water compared to the mannered portrayals of alcoholism in fictional films like 1945's The Lost Weekend or 1962's Days of Wine and Roses. While Rogosin's documentary was partially scripted and sprung from prompted improvisation, the film's ragged leading men were only acting out what they lived day in and day out: the jawing at each other and the pawing for drinks, for smokes, for whatever little they could wrench from lives that had given them next to nothing. And what of those lives, once the camera stopped rolling? One of the film's rough-living leads, Gorman Hendricks (who had also been Rogosin's first guide through the Bowery underbelly), drank himself to death shortly after production wrapped, while its star, Ray Salyer, reportedly was offered a studio contract but turned it down to dedicate himself to booze. He hopped a rail out of town one day and was never heard from again.
The AFS Documentary Tour presents On the Bowery on Wednesday, May 11, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz (320 E. Sixth). The film screens with "The Perfect Team," Michael Rogosin's documentary about the making of On the Bowery. For ticket info, see www.austinfilm.org.