Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)


Not the first or last admission of this sort to appear in this blog: I completely failed to understand this film the first time I saw it. In fairness to me, I was twenty years old, but I remember thinking it was aimless, unstructured, free of any kind of a point. Evidently I also didn’t have much of a heart. The sadness of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy is so absolute, it’s like something that wraps itself up around you and smothers you, but it’s also something pure and gorgeous. It’s like a cry of lonely desperation against a sea of stodgy classism, yet it simultaneously captures a beautiful country in transition. More than anything, it’s about a kid, and the wake-up call of growing up. Maybe it’s about a generation facing up to reality. Maybe not. But if it is, it’s not just about one generation. And yes, it’s witty and sexually frank (though not liberated, as the world it depicts isn’t) but its portrait of a hope crushed is what resonates and makes its lyrical ache almost too much to process.

A young, sprightly Jon Voight features as optimism personified, a goofy kid called Joe Buck who wants to jet from his dead-end job and work as a gigolo in the New York of all his hopes and dreams, to make nice with fancy ladies who’ll pay him off and lead him to the finer life of his choosing. Boarding a bus, he instead finds a galaxy of the lurid and lonesome, anger and grit everywhere, and suddenly the vastness of his dreams meets up with the equal, insurmountable vastness of reality. His confusion is relieved initially by his introduction to Ratso Rizzo, played with a bottomless pit of edgy paranoia by Dustin Hoffman, a pretend-streetwise con artist whose perpetual illness elicits the deepest sympathy of failed prostitute Joe, now loaded down with false leads and burdens, a list Ratso ends up joining. The boy in the city’s rude awakening, a casual and simplistic enough notion, gets beautifully hampered by the entrance of a second complicated and doomed figure.

Joe will go there and back again with Ratso, though he will finally end up in Florida, as alone as ever, now awake and full of dread and fear, his ideas faltered. Throughout the film, which is rife with humor and absurdity that it finds in eccentric but realistic dialogue as well as the gut-busting juxtaposition of sex and television (or movies), we periodically enter a fantasy world of slight subjective unreality. It’s exclusively Joe’s at first: his fantasy of killing Ratso after an early swindle, his horrified memories of a vaguely expressed past, and a hilarious drug trip; but later, Ratso’s yearning for the beautiful life becomes our own — and we realize it isn’t just a shallow or superficial desire, it’s the actual core of a human need for validation and deliverance, and while this is the wittiest and silliest scene of the picture, it’s also the one that ends up breaking your heart: a want so simple, framed so tragically.

Inevitably, we’re aware that Ratso and Joe are just microcosms of something larger, a city and maybe a globe stuffed with displaced people and missed opportunity. We meet a few specters: would-be customers whose attentions become malicious, or the source of impotent consternation. None are more memorable than Bob Balaban as a sweet-voiced gay kid wandering the streets seeking male companionship, a sacrifice Joe sighs and makes — only to find the boy cannot pay and begs not to be beaten up for it, his want and fear alarmingly real and desperate. An hour later, he’s mirrored by an older man whose guilt becomes the crux that sends Joe finally over a violent edge, for Joe’s single-minded goal now is to save the life of his friend, a bus ride against fate that ends with a whimper. The snapshot of this life, of this young man’s promise and decline and the camaraderie and loss he shares with Hoffman’s Rizzo, both pins down and belies the film’s secondary purpose as an artifact of the ’60s. Because as in so many films of the period, we now realize that what then seemed a cutting edge portrait of a then-new reality is in fact a stylized but resigned portrait of the new promise and infinite naivete of young adulthood. Normalcy, such as Joe sees it, appears mundane at the outset, a thing to escape. Then by the time he’s in Florida ordering coffee from pretty girls and barely even noticing them anymore, he’s aged decades and the unpretentious straightforwardness of the world outside his mutually destructive fantasy land with Ratso seems attractive, even tantalizing.

It’s a measure of the “new Hollywood” and its relationship with the old one that this ends up, for all its languid pacing and deliberate absence of conventional structure, feeling not too dissimilar from Americana in the classic sense, a documentarylike catalog of a place and time but also a travelogue, at first just imagined and then real, that sees the world from a cocoon but still sees it and gives some sense of its breadth and density. The uncertainty of Joe’s future is clear enough, but it feels as if we’re only meant to see this tiny part of it, this bit of growth and fury and despair, as lyrically expressed as any moviemaking portrait of a sad moment in a life.

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