Crash Course: The Films of Lionel Rogosin

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.” This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

I’ve long praised the Turner Classic Movies network, which I maintain is one of the last consistent bastions of sanity and integrity left on television, and my love grew for them just a little bit more last month when they aired a retrospective or works from the documentary pioneer Lionel Rogosin.  I’d maybe heard of one or two of Rogosin’s films before I saw that marathon on the schedule, but for the most part his work was a complete blindspot for me.  That’s why I excitedly DVRed all four of the films that TCM aired and will look at each of them in sequence.

 

On the Bowery

Lionel Rogosin’s most famous film is On the Bowery, which (as the title implies) takes a look at the people who live and congregate in New York’s rough Bowery neighborhood circa 1956.  I say “takes a look at” instead of “documents” because it is perhaps open to interpretation whether or not this film counts as a true documentary.  The film was made in a time before a filmmaker could really get good results by simply walking around with a handheld camera and a boom mic. As such, Rogosin needed to make his portrait with a full film crew and that isn’t really a set-up that’s conductive to fly-on-the-wall spontaneity.  Instead what he’s done is gone into the real neighborhood and hired actual people from the neighborhood to sort of recreate their day to day lives around a simple scripted story that was meant to convey truth even if it was technically a work of fiction.  Robert J. Flaherty used similar methods when making his early documentaries like Nanook of the North, and one could also compare this to what Italian neo-realist filmmakers were doing with non-actors around the same time.

If the film is to be believed (and I see no reason why it shouldn’t), then the Bowery was about as dismal a place as you’d expect.  Most of the film is set in a tavern called the Confidence Bar & Grill, where a bunch of nearly homeless blue collar types congregate to drink their sorrows away.  The film doesn’t do a whole lot to try to explain what led these people into this lifestyle and it doesn’t go out of its way to offer solutions either.  In many ways the film seems to view life on the Bowery as a sort of existential destiny for a certain percentage of the population that just sort of finds itself giving up on life.   It’s not the most uplifting film you’re likely to see, and it’s all the more depressing when you know that the film’s two main “actors” would go on to drink themselves to death not too long after the film was completed.  The film is a stark contrast to what you’d likely see out of a Hollywood film of the time, even the ones like On the Waterfront which allegedly depicted the realities of blue collar life.  I think that’s what you need to keep in mind while watching this extremely interesting but sometime difficult to watch film.

***1/2 out of Four

 Come Back, Africa

While On The Bowery is probably his most famous film today, Rogosin’s most ambitious film was probably his 1959 film Come Back, Africa, which took a hard look at South African Apartheid some twenty years before that was a cool issue to get behind.  In fact the making of this film (which is chronicled in the workmanlike but interesting 2007 documentary An American in Sophiatown) is in some ways just as interesting as the film itself.  Rogosin essentially had to lie to South African officials about what he was in the country to film and then sneak around with the underground activists of the time in order to make the film.  Like On the Bowery, this is technically a scripted film albeit one that is meant to be a strong reflection or reality and which doesn’t use professional actors.  This one feels a little more scripted than On the Bowery, in part because it has a wider array of locations and also because it has more of a central character in Zacharia Mgabi.

I expected the movie to be a litany of horrors and indignities perpetrated against black Africans, and there is certainly some of that to be found in the film, but I was surprised to see that the film was also interested in some of the softer sides of daily life in the black communities.  The film goes to great lengths to prove that these oppressed Africans are not the “primitives” that the whites claim they are.  Rather they’re shown to be both politically aware and culturally astute when they’re allowed to be.  In fact the Sophiatown shown the film is shown to be a somewhat vibrant community even though it’s a squalid place built on oppression.  In fact it’s because the black Africans in the film are shown to be such fascinating individuals that it’s all the more unpleasant to know they’re being forced to live in such horrible conditions.  Come Back, Africa doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions to the situation in South Africa, but it works well both as a document of the situation and as a plea for justice.

***1/2 out of Four

 Good Times, Wonderful Times

With his first two films Lionel Rogosin sought out oppressed places in the world and documented them.  His third feature length film, Good Times, Wonderful Times, took a more experimental approach to filmmaking in order to attack injustice on a larger level.  The film is set primarily at a bourgeois London party where people are having petty discussions and arguments about war with Vietnam as the clear backdrop.  The film then intercuts these discussions with some of the roughest and most graphic archival footage from the first and second world wars that Rogosin could find.  The argument that the film is basically trying to make is that war is a hell of a lot more horrible than people can know from the safety of their safe upper-class home and that America’s rush to war was analogous with the patriotic fervor with which Germany rushed into the Second World War.

I understand and sympathize with the message that Rogosin was trying to deliver with the film, but I kind of despise the way he went about expressing it.  This is some really nasty footage of human suffering that Rogosin is working with here, and to just use these people’s suffering in order to make a bunch of people at a party look like idiot just struck me as wildly inappropriate and distasteful.  I sympathize with Rogosin, I know what it’s like to be anti-war in a time when the world seems to be marching toward conflict and I know what it’s like to overstate your case while witnessing a massive injustice.  Still, I cannot endorse what he’s done here, at all.  It’s a massively misguided effort and if there’s anything interesting to be taken from it it’s the fact that someone once thought it was a good idea to make it in the first place.

*1/2 out of Four

Black Roots

This is the only of these four Rogosin that can pretty unequivocally called a “documentary” in that there aren’t really any scripted segments, but it’s still not a vérité type thing.  Instead what he’s done here is he’s assembled a number of blues musicians in a room and had them more or less shoot the breeze about their experiences and thoughts.  It’s not an overly organized conversation; there are nuggets of interesting ideas throughout, but a number of them kind of get lost in the shuffle.  Still I guess it’s good that these conversations have been recorded for posterity.  I also liked how Rogosin sporadically cuts in images of proud black children who are sort of being posited as the benefactors of the suffering of this older generation.  Still this is a really minor work when all is said and done.  It’s something like 60 minutes long and it’s far from the most important work on this subject.  There’s not really much to say about it really, it’s the kind of thing that would air on PBS at like two in the morning during Black History Month and then kind of be respected but ignored.

*** out of Four

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