Barflies blather. Guys wait on the corner for work, then blow their cash and sleep on the street. There are fights and soup kitchens and moral lectures. The cycle goes on, no end in sight.
Is it a documentary or a drama? It’s the latter disguised as the former. Or vice versa. Lionel Rogosin wanted to document the bums and alcoholics who haunted New York City’s Bowery (aka Skid Row), so he made friends and got drunk with them like a participant-anthropologist. When he started filming, he realized it would be best to follow Robert Flaherty’s lead in such carefully arranged ethnographic films as Nanook of the North and Tabu, in which locals enacted archetypal dramas faithful to their culture. Rogosin’s actors semi-improvise dialogues and storylines out of their own experience, and it’s all shot in brilliantly sharp black and white with Fellini-esque attention to craggy, vivid, grotesque faces. Not only does the viewer feel the typical sentiment of “There but for the grace of God etc.” but our immersion makes us feel that for an hour, it’s actually happened just as we feared.
Extras include similar glimpses into the same neighborhood from the 1930s and the 1970s, making it clear that Rogosin’s 1950s glimpse is very much a slice of the continuum. The various making-of segments, including interviews with Rogosin, explain that while the film made a splash with critics and the independent community, even scoring an Oscar nomination, some Cold War guardians (like the State Department) thought the subject matter too unpleasant and implicitly critical of America. The film made a hit in Europe, including Iron Curtain countries like Poland, where shocked viewers likely saw through the official ideology to recognize a version of their own alcoholic aspects and the freedom of Americans to make such a thing.
Among the eye-opening discussions is what happened to those involved in the filming. Except for Rogosin, who continued his career from this benchmark, the others died as they had lived. One charismatic fellow had Hollywood offers after this picture but seems to have been afraid of such success. It’s a stark contrast to the recent documentaries Waste Land and Bombay Beach (very much in the same tradition), in which some of the participants have their lives transformed by their brush with art.
As a result of his success, Rogosin was commissioned by the UN to make a film on behalf of Hungarian refugees who fled to Austria in 1956, and that short film is Out. With a script by John Hersey, it uses the same kind of dramatic recreations with “real” actors in their locations. The editor is Alexander Hammid, husband of Maya Deren and an experimental filmmaker in his own right.
That’s on a second disc along with the experimental feature Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964), in which non-professional actors argue about war, the bomb, pacificism, and other topics at a cocktail party, and their remarks are intercut with documentary footage of Hiroshima, Hitler, death camps, the Russian Front, anti-nuclear marches, and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. I don’t think the film is reaching for ironic contrast (though sometimes this is heavily underlined) so much as the continuity between these things.