November 27, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: Three Portraits of 1950s New York City

In the Street. 1952. USA. Photographed by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee

These notes accompany a series of short films about New York City in the 1950s on November 28, 29, and 30 in Theater 3.

Cinematic New York street scenes date back to the very beginnings of the medium, in the 1890s. In 1908, D. W. Griffith, cameraman Billy Bitzer, and Griffith’s stock company of actors began wandering outside of the Biograph Studio on 14th Street (just east of Union Square) and shot films on locations that documented our city more than a century ago. In his early months, the director went to the Bowery for Deceived Slumming Party and the Lower East Side for Romance of a Jewess. By the time of the seminal gangster film The Musketeers of Pig Alley, in 1912, Griffith, like most of the industry, had begun moving most of his operation westward, drawn by the California sunshine.

Yet to this day the city has remained a rich source of imagery, both in narrative films and documentaries. In the 1920s Robert Flaherty made Twenty-four Dollar Island and Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler made Manhatta. Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (which won the young man an internship with Sergei Eisenstein) and Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner’s The City bookended the 1930s. And who can forget the climax of King Kong? The nitty-gritty street-shooting of Griffith’s era was echoed by Jules Dassin’s Naked City in 1948. Even with efforts of Francis Thompson (N.Y., N.Y.) and Shirley Clarke (Bridges-Go-Round) in the 1950s to add a dash of color to the palette, the city remained resolutely black and white.

Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee, the creators of In the Street, were all still photographers, although Agee, of course, was the noted author of classic film reviews for The Nation and Time, three novels (including the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Death in the Family, which was later filmed as All the Way Home), five screenplays (including John Huston’s The African Queen and, later, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter), and a collaborator with Walker Evans on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The three had previously contributed cinematographically to Sidney Meyers’s documentary feature The Quiet One, and Levitt gained a few more movie credits, which she mostly disowned. She was also associated with Evans, and she was part of The Museum of Modern Art’s first photography exhibition in the late 1930s. Both women lived more than twice as long as Agee, who died in 1955. In the Street, like A Bronx Morning, brought a candor and a degree of cinematic vérité to its material, long before anyone thought of coining the term.

Rudy Burckhardt (1914–1999) was also a still photographer, but he was deeply immersed in cinema. Many of his films were collaborations with the poet Edwin Denby, and later the artist Joseph Cornell. Jonas Mekas said that Under the Brooklyn Bridge has “sequences…which belong with the best footage of New York by anybody.” There is something exquisitely, nostalgically lyrical about seeing boys innocently swimming under Roebling’s great structure, a short time before the Dodgers left and broke their (and my) heart.

On the Bowery 1956 film Lionel Rogosin

On the Bowery. 1956. USA. Directed by Lionel Rogosin

Lionel Rogosin (1924–2000) was a total New Yorker, born here and establishing his filmmaking career with On the Bowery, which was filmed on the skid-row streets a few blocks from his Greenwich Village home, nominated for an Oscar, and awarded the prize for documentaries in Venice. His portrait of alcoholism and despair was stark, but art-house audiences had been exposed to Neo-realism (Rossellini’s Open City and De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine). He was paving the way for Clarke’s The Cool World, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, and Peter Goldman’s Echoes of Silence a few years later. Rogosin would go on in subsequent films to direct his outrage at racism, colonialism, and war. (I included Good Times, Wonderful Times in our The Sixties: Yanks in Britain series a few years ago.) I had the opportunity to meet him in 1968 at the Bleecker Street Cinema, which he had purchased and run since 1960 to show his and other quality films. I was looking for a career, and Rogosin (like the ever-stalwart Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films) was encouraging and supportive. Rogosin’s films may not have always been subtle, but they left no doubt that he was on the right side of history.