On the Bowery & Come Back, Africa (Web Exclusive)
Review by David Sterritt

Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery

Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery

DVD and Blu-ray, B&W, 1956-1970. A Milestone Film & Video release, distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, www.oscilloscope.net.

Lionel Rogosin was remarkable in many ways—as a pioneer of docudrama before the term was invented, a political filmmaker deeply committed to progressive causes, an independent filmmaker seeking new modes of exhibition and distribution, and an American filmmaker with a nuanced understanding of international issues. Yet, despite his enormous contributions to American cinema, Rogosin was badly undervalued in his time and has been scandalously overlooked since he completed his last film, the 1974 shortArab Israeli Dialogue, more than twenty-five years before his death in 2000. Milestone Film & Video is now resurrecting and exhibiting his legacy via theatrical engagements of his most important productions—On the Bowery (1956) and Come Back, Africa (1959)—as well as DVD and Blu-ray releases in a multivolume collection called The Films of Lionel Rogosin.

Rogosin grew up on Long Island in a well-off Jewish family—his father, an immigrant from the Soviet Union, made a fortune in rayon—and studied chemical engineering at Yale before serving in the Navy during World War II and then rising high in the textile business. He decided to become a full-time filmmaker so he could participate in public dialogues about such crucial issues as pacifism (Lewis Milestone’s 1930 antiwar classic All Quiet on the Western Front had deeply impressed him) and the postwar fascism of South Africa’s apartheid regime. In the early Sixties, he converted a Greenwich Village theater into the Bleecker Street Cinema, which opened with the premiere of Come Back, Africaand remained an influential venue for serious cinema until long after Rogosin sold it in 1974. He also helped establish the New American Cinema Group along with Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Rudy Burckhardt, Robert Downey, and other radically independent screen artists. His energy and enterprise were unquenchable, but the obstacles facing independents were daunting, and Rogosin completed only ten shorts and features between 1957 and 1974, his regrettably brief period of active filmmaking.

On the Bowery is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, but Rogosin said later that he undertook it as a training exercise for the more challenging task of making Come Back, Africa. Located in lower Manhattan, the Bowery neighborhood (named after its major street) had gone from riches to rags by the middle of the nineteenth century, and by the middle of the twentieth it was populated mainly by alcoholics and other social outcasts. I first saw it as a child in the Fifties, and I vividly recalled how it lived up to its reputation, with a legion of “Bowery bums” staggering, slumping, and sleeping all over the sidewalks and sometimes the streets. This was precisely the kind of social problem, known to everyone yet unaddressed by public policy, that Rogosin took as his mission to document. He started by hanging out in Bowery streets and saloons, talking to the locals and getting a feel for the place. He also hooked up with writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Richard Bagley, free spirits who shared his interest in political film. Their idea was to blur the boundary between documentary and fiction, telling a story based on the experiences of real people who would play characters based closely on themselves.

Shot over a three-month period in 1955, the film chronicles three days in the life of Ray (Ray Salyer), a good-looking young laborer who arrives on the Bowery with hard-earned money in his pocket and a powerful thirst to spend it on. He meets an older wino named Gorman (Gorman Hendricks) in the wildly misnamed Confidence Bar & Grill, and when Ray’s money runs out, Gorman helps him replenish the supply by selling clothes out of his suitcase. Ray winds up dead drunk outside, whereupon Gorman steals the suitcase, setting the stage for Ray’s continuing decline. Subsequent episodes show him bedding down in a flophouse, visiting a rescue mission, and grappling with the dark urges that are plainly destroying any hope he ever had for a decent life. Salyer and Hendricks were recruited on the Bowery, like the film’s other performers, and alcohol was their demon. Salyer had served in World War II and reportedly received overtures from Hollywood when On the Bowery was released, but he disappeared permanently into the night a short time later. Hendricks, who stayed clean and sober for the shoot, fell off the wagon thereafter and died a few weeks after the film opened.

Some scenes in On the Bowery were staged, but the whole film was shot on location and the illusion of unmanipulated authenticity is strong. Rogosin had a low opinion of documentary in today’s sense, contending that any attempt at detailed depiction of something as large and intricate as a community can never generate more than “a meaningless catalogue of stale, factual representation.” He would surely have agreed with Werner Herzog’s position that cinéma-vérité (a term not yet devised in the Fifties) gives only “the truth of accountants.” Wittingly or not, Rogosin also shared Jean Vigo’s aspiration of creating what Vigo called “social documentary, or more precisely the documented point of view.” Personal documentary of that kind had a robust life in the Thirties and Forties, producing such classics as Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936), Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (1943), Sidney Meyers’s The Quiet One (1948), and various films by Robert Flaherty. Although it isn’t a “pure” documentary à la Frederick Wiseman or David and Albert Maysles, On the Bowery was certainly received as one, winning best-documentary prizes from the Venice Film Festival and the British Academy Awards, and scoring a documentary Oscar nomination to boot.

The power of On the Bowery to open eyes, stir the spirit, and outrage the conscience is undiminished to this day. Milestone’s fine DVD and Blu-ray release also includes The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery and A Walk Through the Bowery, both directed by Michael Rogosin, the filmmaker’s son, as well as shorts about the Bowery made in 1933 and 1972. Out, a 1957 short written by the great John Hersey, was directed by Lionel Rogosin for the United Nations Film Board, which enlisted him to publicize the difficulties faced by Hungarians seeking refuge in Austria after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. But the most imposing bonus is Rogosin’s feature-length Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964), his definitive antiwar movie, juxtaposing scenes from a pretentious and frivolous cocktail party (partly real, partly set up) with truly horrifying images of the human devastation caused by modern warfare. Although the quaffing of cocktails here contrasts starkly with the swilling of muscatel in On the Bowery, both films diagnose chronic diseases of the human spirit with a stunning blend of detachment and compassion.

Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi) in Come Back, Africa

Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi) in Come Back, Africa

The second Milestone volume centers on Rogosin’s second feature, Come Back, Africa, shot on the sly in Sophiatown, a nonwhite ghetto adjacent to Johannesburg. The district was about halfway through a process of systematic destruction by South Africa’s racist government when Rogosin went to work. (Once forced removals had cleared out all the black, mixed-race, Chinese, and Indian residents, the area was demolished, shabbily rebuilt, and renamed Triumf, a name as bitterly ironic as that of the On the Bowery saloon.) Rogosin again started production by going to the area, where he met and conferred with journalists, artists, and activists of different colors and sought out locals who could provide story elements, improvise dialogue, and play characters very similar to themselves; his main collaborators on the basic script were Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, both affiliated with Drum, a progressive magazine aimed at black readers. An American in Sophiatown, an hour-long documentary about the film directed by Lloyd Ross, shows how much ingenuity, duplicity, and mendacity the makers of Come Back, Africa had to employ when shooting the picture, from inventing dummy scripts to filming musical numbers for the friendly travelogue they were purportedly making.

The racially mixed cast includes white antiapartheid activists playing highly unsympathetic Afrikaners, based on what they had observed as citizens of the officially white-supremacist nation. While they contribute spice to the film, its heart and soul reside in its depiction of black South Africans waging a daily struggle to understand their irrational sociopolitical environment and survive despite the hostility, suspicion, and outright malice that assault them every day. The main character is Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), a Zulu worker who comes from a rural village to the gold mines outside Johannesburg in search of employment to feed his family. When his mining job fizzles he tries various lines of work in the city (garage assistant, houseboy for a spiteful white woman, and the like) before getting arrested for violating the complicated pass laws, going to jail, and returning home to find that his wife Vinah (Vinah Makeba) has been killed by a black thug he had alienated earlier. The ending is a full-throated cry of anger and desolation, voicing the despair inflicted on individuals and groups in a land where bigotry and oppression have the full force of law behind them.

Come Back, Africa has more conspicuously amateurish acting than On the Bowery—not a bad thing if you agree with Bertolt Brecht that “good” acting is just a more effective form of fraud—but its best moments are vividly alive. In the film’s centerpiece, Zachariah sits in a shebeen (illicit hangout and drinking spot) during a dead-serious bull session that includes the worldly and sophisticated Nkosi, the noted communist and anarchist Can Themba, and eventually the superb musician Miriam Makeba, who sings a pair of songs with a sweetness and control that leave the listener breathless. Rogosin helped Makeba get a visa to attend the film’s premiere at the Venice festival, where it won the Italian Film Critics award; he and Harry Belafonte then brought her to England and the United States, but when she tried to attend her mother’s funeral the following year she learned that her South African passport had been revoked. She and Rogosin subsequently fell out for reasons that remain unclear. These and other matters are touched on in a 1989 documentary by Jürgen Schadeberg called Have You Seen Drum Recently? An odd, mercurial, and entertaining film, it recounts the magazine’s history with many references to Modisane and Thembe as well as a portion of the shebeen scene. Milestone includes it as an extra with Come Back, Africa, along with Rogosin’s hour-long Black Roots (1970), about the place of blues and folk music in African-American life; Bitter Sweet Stories, a Michael Rogosin short with reminiscences by people involved in making Black Roots; a radio interview about Come Back, Africa produced by the UN in 1962; and more.

Rogosin’s passionate supporters have included Basil Wright, who found echoes of Fyodor Dostoevsky in On the Bowery, and John Cassavetes, who called him “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” Another is Martin Scorsese, who provides brief video introductions to On the Bowery and Come Back, Africa on the Milestone discs. Scorsese grew up in Little Italy, less than a stone’s throw from the Bowery, and he finds Rogosin’s depiction a dead-on accurate portrayal of what he saw on the street and from the windows of his home; he also praises Come Back, Africa as a work of “terrible beauty,” a judgment I find exactly right. A dozen years after his death, Rogosin’s star is on the rise, thanks to Milestone and the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, which has mounted a heroic restoration project. His documentaries deserve keen attention from everyone who cares about political film, sociological film, humanistic film, and the art of film.

David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics and film professor at Columbia University.

To purchase On the Bowery, click here; to purchase Come Back, Africa, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.