January 28, 2011

#43: Midnight Cowboy

I just got back from a couple days with family on South Padre Island in southern Texas, so the opening strains of John Schlesinger's 1969 film Midnight Cowboy seemed familiar to me. As it went on, it became less familiar (thank God), but it grew into a film I did not expect.

Company: I might just stop listing Company if I don't have any. This is getting depressing. Although I'm planning a get-together for the next film on the list, so I'm reaching out! It's just that a lot of these movies are a hard sell.

Cuisine: coffee, and about halfway through, bacon and tomato macaroni and cheese with Frank's Red Hot. Seriously. SO good. Try it.

The film opens by zooming out from a dilapidated (that word took spell check to spell) drive-in movie theater somewhere in Texas, seemingly the kind of place not too far from the small town of Anarene in The Last Picture Show. This is probably exactly the reason why our hero, Joe Buck (Oscar nominee Jon Voight), wants out -- he's a young man with a pretty face and not much else, and he figures he's outgrown his tiny existence. So he quits his job, gives Texas the finger and hops on a bus for New York City in hopes of becoming... a hustler. Not huge aspirations, but as he admits, lovin' is the only thing he's ever been good at.

He sticks out like a sore thumb in the crowded streets of Manhattan, fringe jacket, cowboy boots and John Wayne hat. (Voight actually lost the Oscar to John Wayne this year, for the original True Grit.) He comes looking for sex, for companionship, for fun ... but no one seems interested. What could possibly be wrong? The crowds are depicted as not just unfeeling, but perhaps just unaware of anything around them. In a moving moment, Joe sees a man literally face down on the pavement, and while some passers-by take notice, they don't dare help. When Joe finally manages to get into a woman's pants, the woman (a fantastic, short Oscar-nominated performance by Sylvia Miles) scoffs when he asks her for money, since she was going to ask him the same thing. But still, not bad for a first try ... right?

Things aren't really going his way -- he can't find women who want to sleep with him, he can't pay his rent at the hotel he's staying at, and he's lonely -- until he's enlightened by a third-rate con man named Ratso (Oscar nominee Dustin Hoffman), a skeeze with a leg crippled by polio. Ratso tells Joe that his problem is the get-up -- cowboys are out, out, out! I thought to myself, "all right, well, change your look" ... but it's like Don Cheadle's character in Boogie Nights, similarly unwilling to give up the cowboy look. It makes him feel good. It reminds him of who he is, and in this increasingly unfriendly city, Joe needs to keep feeling good somehow.

But things go from bad to worse, and soon Joe steps into the gay scene to make some cash. In a horrifying and touching scene, a young kid from Chicago (a very young Bob Balaban!) elicits him for oral sex in a movie theater and then admits to having no money to pay him. "What are you gonna do to me?" he asks like a timid mouse in the bathroom, maybe having suspected all along that he would be beaten to a pulp. I had to keep in mind that this was 1969, babies -- scenes like this did not happen in movies! This film was released in theaters literally weeks before the Stonewall Riots. Historical perspective. It happens.

Anyway, Joe is troubled by this incident, and would take it out on Ratso if Ratso wasn't the only friend he had in the whole city. Ratso, whose cough gets worse by the day, has no one and Joe has no one. In a relationship that goes beyond stud and pimp, they bond, and dream of Miami, where the girls are plentiful and Ratso's cough might not be so bad.

These dream sequences are also spliced by haunting images from Joe's past: a grandmother who raised him, a traumatic baptism in a river he didn't understand, and a brutal scene where he and his girlfriend, formerly promiscuous but now faithful to Joe, are raped by a bunch of guys who preferred her being a slut. Yikes. If I was haunted by all that, I'd want out too. Schlesinger's direction seems so contemporary, even today, the way he uses imagery to tell a story is truly remarkable.

Ratso's got a past, too. His father was an illiterate shoe shiner who hunched over and inhaled shoe polish day in and day out until it finally killed him. Joe and Ratso are united in their longing to escape their pasts and find some way out, some companionship that could bring them happiness ... but I think they're looking in the wrong places. There's an overarching theme of loneliness throughout the film -- hustling by its definition brings two people together, but without a real emotional connection, which I think keeps Joe, who's maybe too dim to fully understand that, from finding what he thought he'd find in New York.

Or could it be his repressed sexuality? After being invited at random to a psychedelic party, where Joe gets drunk and high, he ends up at the apartment of Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro). He's temporarily impotent, until she challenges his heterosexuality ... and that really does the trick. Voight does a spectacular job of keeping this ambiguous for us -- we never really get an answer about him, but it's quite possible in this age that he's actually homosexual. That would at least account for his isolation and possible budding love for Ratso.

The film ends on a bittersweet note, without a clear answer about the future of our hero, but it's certainly a fascinating meditation on repression, isolation, sex, love, commitment, fear and longing, told through the experiences of a ambiguously sexual hustler in late-60's New York. This time in movie making, with the French New Wave and the early stages of independent cinema, is really fascinating to me. I'm finding that more and more as I go through this blog. Hmm.

Next up: another from this same time period. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway shoot 'em up in Bonnie & Clyde.

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