Wednesday, December 06, 2006

10 Reasons why I love Midnight Cowboy

1. Jon Voigt's portrayal of Jo3 Buck, the dumb hick from Texas who goes to New York hoping to make it rich by servicing rich women. Voigt's face is literally wide-eyed throughout the film, his blonde good looks and enormous even white teeth suggesting an innocence that is about to be severely compromised. Yet he's not as naive as he looks - someone who wants to be a hustler and has corrently evaluated his own attractiveness, clearly knows a thing or too about the way the world works. Buck spends a lot of the film being ripped off or conned in various ways by a range of cynical New Yorkers. But in one of the final scenes, he wrestles back the upper hand, in an incredibly violent way, reminding us that good bodies don't necessarily promise sex.

2. Manhattan. The film depicts the seedy New York of the 60s and 70s, before it got "Disneyfied" by Guiliani. Perhaps it is a place that is best left remembered on celluloid (and Manhattan can still be scary), but what a place it is. In an early sequence, Jo3 Buck is aghast at a crumpled body, lying on a sidewalk and tangentially noticed by the jaded New Yorkers who've seen it all before. The film shows run-down hotels (25c mkes the tv work), the cruisy flea-pits of 42nd street, the run-down, sweltering subway (which hasn't changed much).

3. The Soundtrack. Well worth getting hold of on cd. "Everybody's talking about me" is only deceptively cheerful, but has a much darker message. And the main theme always gives me goose bumps. There are also a few pieces of great 60s psychedelica on the soundtrack, including "Jungle Gym at the Zoo" and "Old Man Willow" by Elephant's Memory and a few good Easy/Jazz pieces by John Barry.

4. The Warhol Set. In a key scene towards the end of the film, Jon and Rizzo attend a very 60s party, where many of the denizens from Warhol's Factory happen to be present. Look out for Ultra Violet, Viva, International Velvet and Paul Morrissey. Additionally Sylvia Miles, who plays an ageing, silly, hard-nosed potential client, was to appear in Warhol's Heat three years later, alonside Joe Dallesandro, playing pretty much the same role again.

5. The gays. Put aside any qualms about negative representation - this was a less PC time after all. And instead enjoy the range of tortured gay stereotypes on display, a Box of Queer Delights for us to try on and cast off at will. There's Jackie - the swishy queen who twirls her handbag around and is never without a tart barb for Rizzo. Poor Joe thinks she's a real girl at first. Or how about Bob Balaban's nervy, geeky student who gives Joe a blow-job during a showing of Mystery Science Fiction Theatre 3000. Gagging on Joe's ejaculation in the theatre bathroom afterwards (it does get grim at times), the student admits he doesn't have any money and offers Joe his books as payment. What on earth would Joe do with books? He could at least pawn the guy's watch. "My mother would kill me!" whispers the poor guy over and over, until Joe leaves him alone. Or there's Barnard Hughes chattery, mother-loving out-of-towner, who hates himself and is almost relieved when Joe attacks him. And there are the hard-faced male hustlers who seem to line every street in NY. It's even been suggested that there's an implied love relationship between Joe and Rizzo. The film may toss the word "faggot" around with gay abandon, but it ends up questioning what a faggot actually is.

6. The party. Joe encounters the chic freaks of Manhattan's underground culture. After he forsakes "joint etiquette" by totally bogarting it, he's asked "What would you like? Uppers or downers?" And he's soon off an the obligatory 60s trip. This scene seems to have been mercilessly ripped off a year later in The Boys in the Band, which also has a dumb as a box of hair Midnight Cowboy who gets high.

7. The media. While Joe canters through life, not really paying much attention to anything except his own narrow concerns, there's a lot of world going on in the background. Joe's radio offers salvation via God and via cosumerism. There are people marching in the streets with placards. And during a vigorous bout of sex, the remote control gets randomly flicked over and over, treating us to what American tv audiences of 1969 had to endure. The point was hammered home in Forrest Gump, but it's a lot more subtle here..

8. The editing. Dream sequences, flashbacks and "what ifs" are shown via sharp use of editing, allowing us to get a feel for Joe's rather complicated past, and raising more questions than answers. Was he sexually abused by granny? Why did a gang of youths rape him and his girlfriend? What happened to make him hate Church so much?

9. Fashion. In order to be a Midnight Cowboy you need a big cowboy hat, a brown jacket with a fringe, a collection of gaudily embroidered shirts, a little black neck tie and a massive pair of cowboy boots. There is a lot of focus on Joe's clothes - their state signify his gradual degradation into the New York under-class. He spills tomato sauce over his trousers at one point, and then has to hide the stain with his hat. Gradually the clothes get smellier and more tarnished as the film progresses, and Jon has to pour perfume down the boots at one point. By the end of the film, the whole get-up is thrown in the trashed and Joe's wearing a fresh set of clothes, signifying that it's over.

10. The end. One of the themes of the film is about escaping to somewhere better. Jon leaves Texas because he thinks he will have a better life in Manhattan. But when he gets there, his life is much worse. So he picks up on Rizzo's dream to go to Florida - where it's warm all the time and you can (apparently) live off coconuts. The coach ride at the end of the film mirrors the film's beginning. There's hope that Joe will be able to find some sort of happiness in Florida, but it's also tinged with a horrible sadness. It could all happen again so easily.


Old Cheeser said...

Great to see you paying tribute to a great movie, Lubin - and you've focused on many of its interesting aspects. Haven't seen it for a few years but it is a classic.

The portrayal of New York and Joe and Ratso's squalid existence is quite depressing - but that doesn't mean the film is unwatchable. You can't help feeling sorry for the naive Joe when he first arrives in NYC and the way people take advantage of him - not a very pleasant depiction of human nature. I love the scene when, attempting to pick up a woman for sex, he pretends to ask her the way to the Statue of Liberty. Then, when she twigs she tells him "shame on you!"

The trippy party scene is cool too and I love the way it's shot. Brenda Vaccaro, as the girl he picks up at the party is a very groovy chick (she piled on the pounds in later years but is looking very slim here).

The ending is desperately sad and seems to indicate that real happiness is elusive, and finding something better is just a fantasy. Well, maybe. Joe is still with us at the end. Perhaps they could make a sequel with Joe years later in Florida, now an aged lothario, still trying to make it with the ladies. Could be good!

matty said...

I do so love this film. ...and, my Brenda V!

Lubin said...

Old Cheeser, Matty - I think it's one of my favourite ever films. I didn't realise it, but the director John Schlesinger also directed loads of my other favourite films: Darling, Billy Liar, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pacific Heights.

Old Cheeser said...

Yes he directed some good stuff. And he batted for the team too. Sadly he is no longer with us. Although I note the last thing he directed was "The Next Best Thing" - the Madonna / Rupert Everett movie. Perhaps not his finest hour ... although actually not the worst thing Madonna did (in my opinion, anyway!)