On The Bowery and The Master: Raw and Real

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

At first glance, the 1956 documentary On The Bowery and the haunting new drama The Master appear to be vastly different films.  The former is a semi-scripted depiction of Manhattan’s Skid Row, while the latter is a chilling portrayal of a cult leader and his troubled disciple.  Yet The Master’s director Paul Thomas Anderson saw the connection.  Soon, lead actor Joaquin Phoenix did, too, calling On The Bowery a “huge and important” inspiration for his character, Freddie Quell.

More than a half-century separates the two films, yet there are clear parallels between them.  On The Bowery, which screened in New York last week at the REEL Recovery Film Festival, captures a time when the Bowery was, as E.B. White once put it, “the street of lost souls”—men whose lives revolved around alcohol.  In The Master, which takes place during the same time period, Freddie’s life is similarly ravaged by alcoholism.  A traumatized World War II vet, Freddie drifts from job to job, drinking whatever he can get his hands on—from paint thinner to industrial fluids.  Likewise, the men of the Bowery wander in and out of taverns, boozing away the day’s earnings and sleeping on the streets.

Joaquin Phoenix as troubled Navy vet Freddie Quell.

The two movies provide a window into a time when viable addiction treatment did not exist.  For war veterans like Freddie and On The Bowery’s Ray, alcohol provided an escape from painful memories.  However, in the early to mid-1950s, few understood the challenges these vets faced or how to treat their addictions.  In one of the documentary’s most powerful scenes, we see a room full of beleaguered men who have come to the Bowery Mission for a meal and a place to sleep; the camera captures their catatonic expressions as the Mission’s pastor sermonizes about their need to find religion.  At the beginning of The Master, Freddie and his fellow Navy vets look equally unmoved as they listen to a speech about their bright futures.  It’s clear that neither sermons nor rallying cries will help these men give up the bottle.

Fortunately, we now understand that addiction is a chronic brain condition and we’ve developed evidence-based tools to treat it.  What has not changed, though, is the devastating nature of this disease, which both movies brilliantly convey.  On The Bowery feels particularly authentic due, in large part, to the fact that it does not pass judgment.  Without glamorizing or sensationalizing his subjects’ lives, director Lionel Rogosin captured the vulnerability, desperation, and alienation the men of the Bowery faced.  Their alcoholism forced them into a dangerous, impoverished lifestyle on the margins of society—yet they could not stop.  At one point, Ray tells his buddy Gorman that he’d tried to give up alcohol at least 800 times.  Addiction, we see through his story, is not a choice, but a compulsion.

The Master’s Freddie is far less articulate than On The Bowery’s Ray, but his actions speak volumes.  His drinking leaves him unable to keep a home, a job, or a relationship—and puts him at the mercy of cult leader Lancaster Dodd, the only person who would take him in.  Yet even Dodd and his spooky wife cannot silence Freddie’s demons.

Viewers won’t find a recovery message in either film.  Tragically, after the documentary’s release, the handsome Ray was offered a Hollywood contract, but chose to continue drinking on the Bowery.  Likewise, although Freddie escapes Dodd’s control, we’re left with little hope that he will find sobriety.  There are no happy endings here.  Still, the two movies offer portraits of substance abuse that are hard, but important to watch.  They remind us that addiction is about real people facing real struggles; they deserve compassion, not scorn.  This was true fifty years ago, and it remains true today.

Kate Schmier, Emma Edelman, and Alisa Harris
Blog Editors, Phoenix House

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