There are certain films that are dear to me, not due to plot or characterization, but more because they so effortlessly capture a sense of place—the way a particular landscape or cityscape looks in a given time and place. There are many fine films capturing New York in the seedy 1970s, including Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever, Annie Hall, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Warriors. For a glimpse at the Bronx and other parts of New York circa 1981, the great documentary Style Wars can’t be beat.
Just last weekend I ran across an odd and fascinating film called On the Bowery that reaches even further back into New York’s checkered history. Filmed in 1956, the director spent months on the Bowery (known as New York’s skid row at the time) drinking with its inhabitants, and then writing a screenplay with said inhabitants that would reflect their day-to-day life. For this reason, the film plays like a fictionalized documentary, and is largely without plot or character arc. For most of the film’s 65 minutes, men wake up in some hazy late-afternoon time, head to the bar, and then drink until they fall asleep on the street—or if they’re lucky, in a flop house. There are maybe only one or two women glimpsed in the film’s entirety, and only one scene I can think of where people eat actual food (as opposed to drink). It’s a rarely screened film that has just made its way to DVD after being restored, and is touted by none other than Martin Scorsese as, “a milestone in American cinema… On the Bowery is very special to me… Rogosin’s film is so true to my memories of that place and that time. He accomplished his goal, of portraying the lives of the people who wound up on the Bowery, as simply and honestly and compassionately as possible. It’s a rare achievement.” I imagine Mr. Scorsese is probably right, and this probably is one of the most honest portrayals of what life was like in down-and-out New York around this time; for this reason I would recommend giving the film a try, even if it can be hard to watch at times.
Another favorite “place movie” of mine is Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, but I’ll save that film for a future post. How ’bout you? Do you have a favorite film about a specific place or city?