The Downward Spiral

Independent film classic a dramatic portrait of alcoholism and poverty.

On The Bowery w/ The Perfect Team
May 12, 13 and 15, 9 p.m.
May 14 and 16, 7 p.m.
Metro Cinema (Citadel Theatre)
4 out of 5 Stars

The mechanics of poverty and alcoholism haven’t changed much since 1956. When you look at the men in Lionel Rogosin’s classic On The Bowery, they may be living in 1950s New York but you could find similar stories on any city’s skid row today. Their tipples may be the iconic intoxicants of the past, like Sterno (canned heat), or Muscatel, but the effects on the people are the same as those you see drinking aftershave, Lysol, inhaling glue, paint thinner, or maybe under the influence of more modern drugs (like methamphetamine) right now.

It’s a circular existence: people hustling for day labour, getting a little money, blowing it on booze, then not having enough to pay for a place to sleep/charity missions that want to speak to the men about God in return for a meal/shelters that won’t take intoxicated people so they have to stay outside/hawking meagre possessions to get a little money until they have nothing left/a cycle of desperation that fuels drinking, one drink turning into several, which in turns fuels arguments, lies, thieving, violent mugging or injuries that put people out of work again. The film is as much a visual portrait of ravaged faces and bodies as it is a story of one man’s journey through this nightmarish landscape.

But it’s also the story of a significant moment in the history of independent film. That’s the reason it’s considered a classic and is playing at The Metro Cinema. It was Lionel Rogosin’s first film, and one of his best. The film became the first American film to receive the Grand Prize for Documentary at the Venice Film Festival in 1956 and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Though perhaps not widely known to the general public, Rogosin was a pioneer in American cinema, one of the first this side of the Atlantic to explore what was called Neo-Realism in Europe: a blend of documentary techniques with written or “staged” elements. Practitioners included Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City, 1945), Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), or Luchino Visconti (Obsession, 1943). Originally a chemical engineer in the family-owned synthetic fibre (specifically Rayon) industry, his World War II navy experiences left him, after the war, wanting to devote himself to combating racism, fascism, and promoting peace through filmmaking. He left his career and launched himself into the precarious world of independent film. He wanted to make a film about Apartheid but decided to get some experience first and turned his attention to something closer to home — derelict men in his own city. He recruited people with experience: cinematographer Richard Bagley (The Quiet One, 1948) and editor Carl Lerner (who went on to edit such films as 12 Angry Men in 1957 and Klute in 1971 and direct Black Like Me in 1964).

Ironically, despite its humanistic post-holocaust intentions, the film got him shunned by American Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce at the Venice festival and was attacked by critics like Bosley Crowther in the New York Times as being pro-communist. Being truthful doesn’t get you many friends. Nothing has changed since 1956 on that score, either.

One of the little-discussed but equally powerful aspects of the film is its classical soundtrack by Charles Mills (1914-1982). How many people today would use classical music to score a film about this subject matter? Mills studied under Aaron Copland (among others) and you may hear some influence in the lyrical fanfares of his woodwinds and the more modern rhythms in the strings, both of which counterpoint the bleak visuals and harsh sounds of the braying arguments, lies and rationalizations which comprise the rest of the soundtrack.

 Rogosin is also considered an important figure today because he opened The Bleecker Street Cinema, one of the pivotal art cinemas in New York (a virtual film university) and Impact Films, which distributed political and independent films. Rogosin had a huge influence at the time and everyone from John Cassavetes, to Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Milos Foreman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Tony Richardson have publically spoken about that influence.

Accompanying the presentation of this print, which was restored in March of 2006, is The Perfect Team (2009), directed by Rogosin’s son, Michael, about the making of On The Bowery. Several equally important figures speak about Rogosin: Marina Goldovskaya, a celebrated Soviet filmmaker and UCLA professor, who conducted the final interviews seen in the film, Jonas Mekas, who started the Film-Makers Cooperative and Filmmakers Cinematheque and wrote on film in Film Culture and The Village Voice and Robert Downey Sr. (yes, he was significant well before his Iron Man son was born), himself an independent filmmaker of note.

A couple of odd side notes: Ray Salyer and Gorman Hendricks who play the lead character and the shifty ‘Doc’ respectively in the film were real-life Bowery down-and-outers. Sayler (who critics at the time compared to Gary Cooper but perhaps more closely resembles rougher leading men of the 1950’s such as Sterling Hayden or Robert Ryan) rejected the spotlight which was put on him from the role, including the offer of a Hollywood contract, and disappeared into underground America again. Hendricks heeded his doctor’s advice that another binge would totally destroy his already damaged liver and stayed sober during the filming. After the film was finished, he started drinking again and died shortly after the film’s premiere. Rogosin paid his funeral expenses.



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