I have to admit it took me a little while to puzzle this one out. At the end of the Midnight Cowboy you get the sense of closure that comes when a writer tells a complete story; the protagonist’s arc has closed and he’s moved on to another phase of his life, another story. As we watch Joe Buck (Jon Voight, who was young once) staring out of his window on the bus and the sound of the harmonica swells to signal that this is the final image, I’m stuck wondering what the point of it all was. It wasn’t until I talked to Ryan that I got a sense of things, but I’m still not entirely convinced that’s all there is.
Joe Buck is a simple Texas man who decides to leave his dead-end job as a dishwasher and head to New York. He figures that lonely New York socialites don’t see a lot of real American cowboys, and they would gladly pay him for the experience of a tryst. Things don’t quite work out the way he had planned; his first roll in the hay is with a woman who has no idea that he expects to be paid for his work, and the realization of what this is on both ends is both interesting and awkward. Buck learns a lot from the experience, but it leaves him with even less cash in his pocket.
Eating through his finances quickly, Buck manages to run into Rizzo (Hoffman), who turns him on to a man who might be able to help get him established. That fizzles as well, and after that rocky start to the relationship the two end up becoming friends and roommates. Rizzo shows him how to survive a little better in the underworld of New York City, while also forcing Joe to learn how to tolerate his new friend’s less savory characteristics.
The entire time, Joe is trying to fulfill his dream of being a gigolo. Any attempt at a shallow, consequence-free fling ultimately ends up a disappointment, with memories and emotions that tail Joe long after he’s left. He has a trail of these memories he’d like to forget — his closest relationships back in Texas are similarly punctured with feelings of terror, shame and regret. It’s possible that Joe is trying to engage with the world by becoming slick enough that everything rolls right off of him, but that’s a fool’s errand. In order to see the futility in that, he only has to look at his friend and guide, Rizzo.
Rizzo’s lived a scamster’s life for a very long time by the time we meet him, and it doesn’t take long to see that it’s catching up with him. In a lot of ways, we’re catching two men on opposite ends of the same continuum — Joe has come to the city with the dream of gliding through it, fleecing its populace of money with unsavory acts; Rizzo is the man who’s been doing it all along, and all he has to show for it is the detritus he’s collected from other people.
Midnight Cowboy is ultimately kind of depressing, and not just for the story. It actually does a really good job of calling up the peculiar alienation one can feel in a big city, where there are so many people it’s impossible to feel like you stand out, that you matter at all. Joe enters the metropolis with no plans and no connections, and he quickly falls through the cracks to this different community, completely comprised of people just like him. But even that community doesn’t feel true, just someone to share your loneliness with.
Ryan says that Joe’s arc is one of friendship, where he learns to actually put someone else into consideration. There’s something to that — Joe’s naivete at the beginning of the film is a selfish one, and he lights out without telling the people he works with because he genuinely doesn’t believe that his desertion matters. Maybe he was part of that small community in Texas, maybe people had considered him a friend (albeit an odd one); but he never considered that. He couldn’t have, to show up for work one day with a suitcase to announce he was leaving.
My initial take on the movie was that it was a study of what New York City does to people, swallowing them and their dreams whole and spitting them out as disillusioned, but wiser survivors. Joe escapes and throws away his cowboy outfit soon afterwards, and the fact of its significance wasn’t lost on me. When a clerk asks him where he’s from, he says “New York” with a clear Texan accent. He’s taken on the world-weariness, the confusion that comes when you realize you’re not the center of the universe. New York is great at imparting that sort of lesson.
But my ideas about the movie might be heavily influenced by another movie from the top 100, Taxi Driver. It featured the same kind of protagonist, a loner trying to make sense of the society around him, and I don’t think it’s an accident that both movies share the same setting. What’s interesting, I think, is that both the loneliness of Joe Buck and Travis Bickle subvert their desire for connection, their ideals, and it drives it deep down in their psyches only to come out in these twisted ways. Taxi Driver is a lot darker than Midnight Cowboy, but I think that Joe and Travis are kindred spirits that way. The big difference? Joe got out; he’s learned his lesson and he has a chance to apply it. Travis’ fate is…different.
All that being said, while Midnight Cowboy was interesting I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. It takes its time with its story and the narrative looseness makes its meaning a bit of a mystery. Long montages set to late-60s music are punctuated by snippy conversations between Joe and Rizzo, or scenes that end in a setback for our cowboy hero. The pacing is a product of its time, I realize, but I never really caught on to the shorthand of the arthouse cinema in the late 60s/early 70s. It seems they were really big into sequences of quick cuts that melded disturbing images with more-or-less static, calm ones. The idea is to disorient, to shock, and it succeeds in the worst way.
Still, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight both give great performances, and you get the feeling that the movie is shot exactly as Salt and Schlesinger wanted it. That surety of vision is admirable, and it’s quite possible that my distance from it is a personal preference more than a qualitative one.