Customary criticism of quasi-documentary works like Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (or any for-real documentary for that matter) is wont to retreat into critical waves of the hand like “realistic” or “authentic” which sound more important and inlaid with meaning than they truly are. That something depicts reality is less meaningful than we’d like to think. What does matter is what kind of reality art depicts, and here is where On the Bowery is stomping on new territory with its in-the-trenches, verite-adjacent camerawork that invokes a world that is unstable, unvarnished, and seemingly invisible. Every film, to put it succinctly, imagines its own reality, and the reality of On the Bowery is weathered, woozy, and altogether bracing in its alien familiarity, a place we’ve all seen and pass by but do not truly know.
The characters of On the Bowery have been disregarded and discarded, but that doesn’t mean the film needs to be. Loosely sauntering around railyard worker Ray Salyer through a drunken bender after a long day of laying tracks, On the Bowery thankfully eschews long-night-of-the-soul meditation for a more manic, temperamental, tonally fluxional game of survival with Salyer and his newfound friends in New York’s hobo-haven Bowery district. Razed of poetic meaning-making, On the Bowery’s fly on the wall approach traces the topography of loneliness and crusted-earth survival in a quotidian world that feels increasingly mutable and apocalyptic as the film staggers and stumbles along in arrhythmical lurches that capture the aimless drift of life off the clock of society but on the cusp of the void.
On the Bowery is shot-through with the pungent whiff of social isolation and even hopelessness, but it is hardly a nocturnal procession. Rather than a listless rumination on the failure of the American Dream though, On the Bowery is a tilt-a-whirl, a corporeal film that filters ideological debates through the nervous ticks of the men and the camera slurring their words and their images and finding camaraderie in others who have similarly been left by the wayside. Never condescending, it’s a perfectly spirited, vigorous film about physical motion and interaction, where life is lived on its own terms rather subject to a thesis. Community becomes not a statement but a verb, an active interplay of hesitations, considerations, combat, and camaraderie. Rogosin’s film rides the waves of daily minutiae in the bowery, following the antic crests and animated troughs of existence without judgment. This is no philosophical tract. Instead, it finds poetry as the subjects do (the subjects often being real unemployed men and non-professional actors): through the everyday dialogue of life without much more than an imagination to get you by. His film moves into the mischief and mayhem, the wonderment and fatigue found in constellations of moments that sketch a semblance of a daily structure compiled out of momentary beats and riotous calamity etched in the streets. The film lives in the ever-precarious moment, never trapped in a museum tour through impoverishment
It’s a vigorous film, basically, bubbling with the expression of vivid self-portraiture, exploring the narratives these men make for themselves rather than the ones society foists upon them. Many of the participants speak in arch tones that evoke the daily theater of life on the street, the braggadocio and verbal combat and imagination that helps them get by as they construct a sordid, smoke-filled noirish atmosphere of adventure to peak their own selves and ignite their days. Suggesting at once the mythic nature of the men to more domesticated types and the self-conscious mystique they dress themselves in hopes of adopting a new identity, however temporarily, On the Bowery dares to explore homelessness as a multifaceted social play of confrontation and creation. The daily energies of social interaction sculpt remnants of hope and possibility out of the friction of public life. The self becomes a state of multifaceted flux, of holding on to multiple identities, multiple parts, we play out at different times, to different people, and to different extents.
Naturally, the film is moored only loosely to a story, much as the men try to narrativize their brawls and bowels even through their daily cadences are very much antithetical to the lexicon of linear narrative. But when the conclusion hits, a reckless and rebellious bar-room brawl wrapped in a tryst wrapped in a parade of skirmish, worship, allegation, incrimination, amour, and intrigue all preying for air time in a bar, it feels like a polyphonic climax of a dozen fictional film stories rather than a docufiction. Life imitates art as the men all vie for air-time, resurrecting their own stories out of the remnants of life in hopes of hogging or sharing the spotlight for their fifteen minutes of bar-crawl fame, their chance to shine in an environment that breeds contest and care all veraciously edited together by Carl Lerner.
Why move beyond realism then? Well, Rogosin himself does it, culling the patois of the homeless men and filtering them through the tempestuous stories they create for themselves in the moment, wobbly concoctions filled with pride and disdain and desire that depict people fighting for something to be the protagonist of. With life as their pen, they utilize a patois of both verbal and physical amusement laced with terror and malaise about the moment when their story fades and they are left with the world in front of them.
There’s a naked authenticity here, but it is one embellished by and emboldened with the fruit of the un-pinnable human living a life in the mind even in spite of the ramshackle world around them. Without losing sight of their piecemeal existence or failing to acknowledge the pressures of the structural, institutional world, Rogosin imagines the lives of these men as a dispute between physical reality and mental imagination, favoring slipshod and toppling physical movement that feels like a call-back to the low-art comedy films of the silent era that in their own way intimated a world hazardously out of order and ready to tilt into oblivion. Although “more authentic” after a fashion, the greatest achievement here might be the realization that Chaplin and Lloyd in their own way understood much more than we know about the daily physical adaptability and mental fluidity required of a life lived on the other side of the tracks and without a stable, domesticated existence to regiment you into the rituals of the middle-class.
Although Rogosin himself imagined the climax as Dante’s descent into something like Hell, the tone of the film imagines Hell as something its residents debate and draw a kind of liberation from (using it to resist the rule-sets and routine lifestyles of middle-class ’50s suburbia) even as they must subsist knowing that the fossil fuel of mental flight cannot last forever. On the Bowery is the rare film to depict poverty as a balancing act, a dialectic, between individual agency to defy social status and the crippling weight of social status that rests atop agency nonetheless. As docufiction, it fittingly argues that fiction – the tall tales we create – are part of life rather than an addendum to it.