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DVD Review: Midnight Cowboy

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Midnight Cowboy (the name was then contemporaneous slang for a male prostitute) is one of those solid, well-made films from the 1960s that’s best recalled than watched. This is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s not. It’s a good, occasionally very good film — especially in terms of editing, cutting, and realism. But in many ways it’s an interesting short subject film of 25-30 minutes’ length, blown up to four or five times its optimum running time.

The film was adapted by Waldo Salt from a 1965 novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy, and directed by veteran journeyman filmmaker John Schlesinger. I use that term to describe the director because much of the film is pedestrian, in what occurs, how it is interpreted by the actors, and in its routine banality. However, this acts as a good setup for the flights of fancy and supposed recollection that litter the film, even if the pedestrian-ness of the bulk of the film is rather banal. Of course, most critics praise the banality as realism, again showing what the carrying of even a pocket dictionary could do to ameliorate film criticism.

That stated, let it not sound like I’m knocking the film. It is a good, solid film, and an emotionally enjoyable one, even if what it says about humanity is rather plain. In this way, it resembles films of that era, from Easy Rider to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Its initial X rating is an absurdity, for the nudity is brief, and the violence even briefer. The acting is standout. While Dustin Hoffman usually gets the raves for his portrayal of sickly and crippled loser Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo, the better performance is turned in by Jon Voight as Joe Buck, because he has to show emotion in a character whose whole life is acting the part of the dumb yokel cowboy to try and ‘sucker’ city slicker women with his lovemaking abilities.

Even better than the lead duo is the supporting cast of Sylvia Miles, as a Manhattanite bitch who cheats Voight out of cash; John McGiver as a psychotic pimp turned evangelist; Brenda Vaccaro as another horny Manhattanite diva; and Barnard Hughes and Bob Balaban as homosexuals who use Voight for sex and end up getting manhandled by him — the former with violent results the viewer never learns the full scope of. The film won three Oscars, for Best Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director, but only the last is really justifiable. The screenplay has merits, but too many flaws to name, and there certainly were better films that year. However, the solidity of the screenplay is heightened by Schlesinger’s direction, editing, and the cinematography of Adam Holender. The use of black and white dream sequences for Joe, the uber-color of Ratso’s fantasies, the psychedelic sequences at an Andy Warhol Factory party; all make the film stylistically interesting and innovative, far above its rather pedestrian theme of the decency of the common man.

The film opens following Buck, as he sojourns from West Texas to New York City by bus. Some stellar scenes ensue on the bus that show Joe’s mind and plight. After some failed attempts to con women out of money, he meets Ratso, who cons him out of money by introducing him to the pimp-cum-evangelist. Ratso disappears, and Joe is left to allow a queer to blow him, only to be stiffed by the young kid. He gets locked out of his hotel for non-payment of his bill, and then finally catches up with Ratso. They form a partnership in small time scams and squat in a condemned tenement. As his life goes on we get what seem to be memories, but also flashbacks that are clearly fantasies. They involve his aversion to religion, his loss of his Grandma, Sally Buck, and his varying interpretations of his romance and breakup with his hometown sweetheart, a girl named Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt).

Yet, in all the reviews of the film that I scanned, not a single one of them seems to be able to recognize that, in every memory of the same situation — Joe’s and Annie’s breakup — things evolve to a worse and worse state, from a routine breakup to Annie and Joe being gang-raped by a pillaging homosexual Texan gang. Now, most critics accept the final version as the real version, which seems to justify their take on Joe Buck as a closet homosexual who has a closeted relationship with Ratso, and the evidence of which is provided in the two scenes where Joe tries to ‘service’ homosexuals for money. Yet, clearly, this is a wrong interpretation.

First, the flashbacks with Annie are not all in a row, but spread through the film, and each worse interpretation comes as Joe reaches a more and more desperate point in his life. What do average people do in such situations? They justify their states by playing up the worst aspects of their pasts. It seems clear that, with each fall in self-esteem, Joe’s ‘memory’ gets worse and more absurd. After all, even as backward as a Texas town might be, does one really believe the ‘reality’ that a band of Texas yokels would not only gang-rape a woman, but a big guy like Joe, too? Clearly, the whole Crazy Annie sequences are Joe’s justifications for his own actions to solicit men (as well as leaving Texas), his own queasiness with his own possible bisexuality (even the Vaccaro character taunts Joe as gay when he goes impotent, and this spurs him to erection and wild sex), and as his ‘real’ life tanks, so, too, do the fantasy/recollections.

Furthermore, after Joe assaults the old gay john (Barnard Hughes) in the hotel, his ‘lashing out’ dashes his resentments and fantasies, for then he has the reality of the ill and dying Ratso (tuberculosis or pneumonia — it’s never specified) to deal with. As Occam’s Razor states, "The simplest explanation that best fits the known facts is usually the correct one." And Joe’s linear match of his life’s and flashbacks’ rise and fall clearly suggest that the flashbacks are fantasies, not unlike the dream Joe has with Ratso in it, along with the mob. There simply is nothing in the film to suggest that Joe and Ratso were sexual intimates. One need only watch the famous scene in the stairwell of the building where the Factory party is raging. Ratso can barely stand, and as Joe cleans him off, Ratso puts one of his arms barely around Joe’s waist, to balance himself. But, the character’s body language clearly shows that he is wary of such, and recall that earlier in the film, Joe clearly delineated his and Ratso’s territories in the abandoned apartment they share. The reluctance Ratso shows to embrace the other man is clearly not that of a lover.

And other than the Warhol Factory party, that’s pretty much the film. It ends on a bus, after Joe beats the old gay john (in a bravura instance of editing for maximum effect and ambiguity, including rarely used flashforwards), he buys new clothes for the two of them, and has one of the two most telling scenes in the film. The first was when he arrives in Manhattan, and sees a young dishwasher looking out a restaurant window at him, and one sees the revulsion in Joe’s eyes. The other is at the end, when, after dashing his cowboy outfit, Joe picks up food from a pretty young diner waitress, but has dropped the sexual bravado and acts normal towards her. Ratso then dies, and the film ends with a shot of reflected Miami hotels in the bus’s outside windows, then a fade to black.

Of course, the film critics usually miss the boat on films that deviate from their preconceptions. Pauline Kael, as example, wrote:

The director, John Schlesinger, uses fast cutting and tricky camerawork to provide a satirical background as enrichment of the story, but the satire is offensively inaccurate — it cheapens the story and gives it a veneer of almost hysterical cleverness. The point of the movie must be to offer us some insight into the two derelicts — two of the many kinds of dreamers and failures in the city. But Schlesinger keeps pounding away at America, determined to expose how horrible the people are — he dehumanizes the people Joe Buck and Ratso are part of. If he could extend the same sympathy to the other Americans that he extends to them, the picture might make better sense.

Her venom seemed to be directed at the portrait of New Yorkers as harsh and uncaring, even stepping over a passed out man in the middle of Manhattan. However, as someone who lived in that era, street-level, and not in the chi-chi digs of Kael, hers is a false claim and argument. Then there is Roger Ebert, who panned the film when it came out, in 1969, and re-evaluated it upward, a bit, a quarter century later. Among his revised comments are:

The characters and their immediate world are absolutely right, then. But the director, John Schlesinger, was not willing to tell their story with the simplicity I think it required. He took those two magnificent performances and dropped them into a trendy, gimmick-ridden exercise in fashionable cinema. The ghost of the Swinging Sixties haunts Midnight Cowboy, and robs it of the timelessness it should possess.

But, that’s 180 degrees backward. The gimmicks actually save the film, for without them the film would have been a run of the mill 1970s-era telefilm of the week; and yes, it is a film of its time, but, while that’s less than being timeless, it is more than being forgotten, which is what it would be had Schlesinger followed Ebert’s advice, and made the film simpler. Yes, the acting is good, but the screenplay is pedestrian, enlivened only by the ahead of its time innovative editing. Of the Warhol Factory scenes, Ebert opines, "In the world they inhabited, there would have been almost no chance of Joe and Ratso being invited to such a party."

As with Kael, Ebert simply knows not of what he speaks. Having been in the Manhattan arts scene in the mid-1980s, at the end of the Warhol (and his admirers’ and imitators’) reign, the idea of inviting ‘real’ folk to swank parties was akin to zoo-going, for the superstar crowd. Again, the film gets the zeitgeist and cultural snobbery right on, and Ebert simply is clueless. Ditto for his take on the flashback scenes I covered, and Joe’s possible latency:

One of the subtexts of the movie is Joe's own homosexuality, which he has never faced or understood. One scene that does work, in developing that theme, is the awkward encounter in the dark movie theater with the kid with horn-rims. But this scene is damaged by flashbacks to Joe's earlier life in Texas, that only offer the appearance of an explanation. The sexual fiasco with the young girl in Texas, and the smothering sexuality of his unattractive grandmother, provide ready-made Freudian shorthand: These experiences, the movie says, led to today's Joe Buck. Does it matter?

Note how Ebert does not even contemplate the idea that the flashbacks may not be true. Aside from the injection of emotional and political biases into criticism, the biggest flaws critics have is simply not understanding the totality of what is in front of them, be it Kael’s specific snobbery or Ebert’s general cluelessness.

The DVD, a two-disk edition from MGM, is a good package overall. Disk one has the film and the audio commentary. The transfer in this edition is flawless. I generally do not rave about such technical matters because the difference between solid and good work is minimal, but this film looks perfect, blemish-free, and, aside from the hairstyles of women and the makes of the cars, this film could be Soho today. The commentary, unfortunately, is only mediocre, and provided by Jerome Hellman, the film’s producer. The mediocrity is mainly from standard comments on the film and banal comments on its making, as well as utter obliviousness to what makes the film good or not.

The best example comes towards the film’s end, when, in his commentary, Hellman tells a tale that while shooting the film’s ending of reflected shots in the bus window, they ran out of film on the first take, when a brief sun shower opened up and left drops on the window. Because the film ran out, they had to reshoot and use the actual ending, without raindrops. What is so bad is that Hellman thinks the film would have been better with the rain on the window because they would have symbolized the cosmos crying over Ratso’s death. Now, needless to say (I hope), this ending would have been didactic, mawkish, and plain old terrible. Yet, Hellman thinks not, and thus offers the real reason so many films these days are so bad. And that is because the Hollywood suit types (producers and moneymen) have absolutely no clue as to what constitutes good art, much less great. And, as I stated, this is only the most egregious of Hellman’s wishes for how the film may have been different.

Yes, the director and screenwriter are dead, but where are commentaries from Voight and Hoffman? And, if they were reluctant, or too expensive to secure, where is the cinematographer, or a film historian to put much of the film in context, historically, if not artistically? The second disk has a photo gallery, and three well made and informative documentaries on the film: After Midnight: Reflecting On The Classic 35 Years Later; Controversy And Acclaim; and a featurette called Celebrating Schlesinger. In truth, although this DVD was put out in 2004, before the Blu-ray disks came out, there still was no real reason to not cram all this stuff onto one DVD. They didn’t purely for marketing reasons, to call the two-disk version a ‘Collector’s Edition.’ 

Despite many odes written on this film as being influential on films that came later, I could see far more derivation (in a weak sense) from a film that came out just a year before, John Cassavetes’ 1968 film Faces, which did not look at seedy Manhattan’s sexual mores, as much as suburbia’s. There were many similar scenes, personal and public, but Cassavetes’ characters were deeper, their dilemmas a bit less contrived, and, as good as the acting in this film was, Cassavetes’ actors put on a realistic acting clinic. Cassavetes lets conversations drone on, not to show the droning, but the pathos of those unaware that they are droning, to and at each other. Schlesinger’s characters, on the other hand, simply complain and shoot off wisecracks. Yes, their shallowness has a genuine quality (at least because of the acting), but nothing the actors could do could add depth to the essentially hollow characterizations on paper. And this is why, despite its Oscar and decades of praise, Midnight Cowboy is a severely overrated film. The good news, however, is that its overrating is so high that, even back on earth, it’s still a good film, albeit one whose primary virtue is historic rather than artistic. All in all, not that bad for any hustler.

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About Dan Schneider

  • http://mikesyoutalkingtome.blogspot.com/ Mike Lippert

    I’ve always disliked this movie and found it to revolve around two amazing performances that it doesn’t even quite know what to do with. I’ve also never considered John Slchlesinger to be a very good director outside of Sunday Bloody Sunday or Falcon and the Snowman. One of the most overrated films of all time for sure, although you are very write, it does have some good moments.

  • http://www.indyboomer46.blogspot.com Baritone

    I had moved to NYC from Indy just months prior to the release of Midnight Cowboy. I was in my early 20s and quite impressionable. At that time, NYC was a muddled wonder to me that was, IMO, aptly reflected in Schlesinger’s film. For a # of years, MC was my favorite movie.

    I haven’t seen it in years, and probably would be disappointed in it if I did. But, at the time, it had a great effect on me. I was a child of the 50s and 60s and an army vet (not Vietnam, however) having spent most of my “hitch” in central Texas at Fort Hood. Beyond that, I never saw myself as Joe Buck.

    I was mainly taken with the performances. If the story was as you claim, banal, it was that quality that gave it its legitmacy and its character, as so many lives are in their own way banal – even as they spiral into dissolution.

    I drove a cab back then. I remember a fare, a self pronounced gay, who proclaimed that the film totally missed the point in NOT presenting Joe as a budding homosexual – that that should have been the lesson learned, the revelation Joe was having. I thought he was full of crap. I felt that the thrust of the film had far more to do with simply maturing, truly coming of age, learning something of the wider world – some of its hard knocks and something about relationships that went beyond what I would consider the more banal sexual issues. At the end, one might actually have hope for Joe Buck, that he may well survive and perhaps flourish to some degree in his new surroundings.

    But, that’s just me.

    BTW – While my memory of the film is not particularly clear – I, too, was taken by Cassavete’s Faces.

    B

  • zingzing

    baritone–you lived in new york? it’s no surprise, but there are 3 or 4 new yorkers around here, at least… including a conservative or two. such a strange thing. i’ve only actually met one bc-er, but i knew him beforehand. meeting someone from this place might be really pleasant, no matter what their stand. or it might be shit, i dunno.

  • http://www.indyboomer46.blogspot.com Baritone

    My wife and I spent a few days around christmas with my son who lives in Brooklyn and works at the Botanic Garden. Had it occured to me that you live in NYC, perhaps we could have had a beer or whatever.

    I have extended an invite to Clavos to visit if the spirit moves him. He has family in Michigan. Despite our political differences, we have maintained a mutual respect, and I suspect we would get along pretty well as long as we don’t mention politics.