Feb 19, 2011

Timeless Classics - Midnight Cowboy (1969)

(or: Movie Review #7)
(Side note: it has been a while since I've written a movie review, and since many of you have suggested that I write about an older film instead of always writing about recent ones, I thought I would review a timeless classic. And thus begins a new series of movie reviews.)

"I ain't a f'real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!"

Midnight Cowboy. If you haven't seen it, you probably know of it as the only X-rated movie to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. But there's much more to it than its record-breaking film rating...

The film's plot is pretty simple, but it's delivered in a very compelling and powerful way. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a small town man from Texas who decides to leave his job as a dishwasher and hop on a bus heading to New York City. How does he plan on making a living there? By being a male prostitute, of course! He seems pretty confident that rich women are into that sort of thing and that he can make any one of them fall head over heels for his cowboy act. Typically, his dreams of living the easy life are crushed as he repeatedly fails at hustling or finding clients willing to pay for his services. In this downward spiral, he meets the sickly Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman)-- another outcast-- and together they build up their friendship and dreams as they struggle to survive in the Big Apple. 

The movie starts off on a rather upbeat tone, with Harry Nilsson's outstanding original song "Everybody's Talkin'" playing as the opening credits appear. But soon after, it becomes apparent that we-- the audience-- are not about to sit through a feel-good story. As Joe sits on the bus, looking out the window and contemplating, his past comes back to haunt him. We see flashbacks of his childhood, mainly consisting of the time spent with his overly affectionate grandmother (sexual abuse?), as well as unforgettable moments of his adolescence or young adulthood, such as the rape of his beloved girlfriend by a group of guys. The latter really sticks with him, and throughout the film this vision is triggered multiple times. One of the things I love the most about Midnight Cowboy is that instead of using narrative voice-overs to get into Joe's mind, it prefers to visually lay out his thoughts and offer hints here and there to who he is. This gives the film a more authentic, natural feel. Ironically, the film says a lot more by saying less. Joe wants to bury his memories that have troubled him so much and never have to face them again. He wants to start off new, somewhere else, and as someone else.

A certain popular expression can be associated with Joe: "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". He firmly believes in it until he does enough walking on the streets of New York City to realize that it isn't at all true. There's this one scene near the beginning of the movie that I distinctly remember, because it really hit me. An unconscious man is laying on the sidewalk just outside Tiffany & Co., and all the pedestrians passing by gawk at him and continue with their day normally, as if nothing had happened. Joe is appalled by the indifference of the city folk; he seems to wonder why he's the only one who shows any kind of concern for the poor man. For me, this scene perfectly captures Joe's feeling of alienation and confusion. In a city populated by millions of people, he feels completely alone. Luckily, he regains hope when he and Ratso instantly bond. Probably the only true friend Joe has had in a long time, Ratso is always there, by his side, trying to make it through life just as he is. Each one of them means so much to the other.

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman deliver such strong performances that it seems like nothing separates them from the buddy characters they portray. Back in 1970, they were both deservedly nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor, but they both lost to John Wayne in True Grit (speaking of cowboys...). It's hard to think of a better male duo in the movies; their brotherly chemistry is unmatchable.

Midnight Cowboy is way ahead of its time. Or so I think. At the peak of the Hollywood New Wave, it's a bold film that handles highly controversial topics without much restraint. It's open about everything that would be deemed unethical in a conservative America. For instance, homosexuality is brought up countless times, mostly with derogatory terms like "faggot", "fruit", "queer", etc.. I had no idea that those words were around back then. I found the similarities between our actual culture and the culture shown in the film simply astonishing. It's a piece of cinema that is still relevant to today's society.

I believe Midnight Cowboy is especially overlooked on the technical levels. Who would've thought that a movie from the 60s could be so visually absorbing, disturbing, and bizarre?! So many scenes have trippy or hallucinogenic characteristics that mirror the works of David Lynch or David Cronenberg. No kidding. If you want to see some of the best film editing of all time, just watch Midnight Cowboy's party scene. I was in awe. The cinematography and direction are equally impressive. Along with winning Best Picture, this work of art also got John Schlesinger the Oscar for Best Director and Waldo Salt the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Come to think of it, I haven't even mentioned how wonderfully written the film is. It has some of the most memorable lines in the history of cinema (e.g. "I'm walkin' here!"), as well as some of the greatest character development I can recall.

This film has beautiful music. I absolutely loved the original score by John Barry, on top of the original song by Harry Nilsson. Just listening to the "Theme from Midnight Cowboy" makes me tear up a little bit, because not only do I remember the emotional power of the movie, but I also remember that John Barry passed away not too long ago. He has made so many wonderful contributions to music and cinema that it breaks my heart. May he rest in peace.

For me, this movie is about hope. It's about looking ahead to brighter days when life is at its darkest. Sometimes, you just have to keep on walking. And it helps when you have a good friend by your side. Someone who understands you, and who makes you feel a lot less lonely. Ultimately, Joe has to leave behind his old cowboy clothes and start fresh with some new clothes. Instead of dwelling on the past, his struggles have led him to a newfound taste for life.

In sum, Midnight Cowboy is a tough, bleak, and lonely film. But it's also a compelling, engrossing, and inspirational story about life, true friendship, overcoming our past, and searching for belonging. Though some may say the ending is tragic, I like to see it as an endless ocean of hope.