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The AFI Top 100 Films: Midnight Cowboy (#36)

Entertainment 150Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman
Written by Waldo Salt (screenplay) and James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Directed by John Schlesinger

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.

Rating: 6/10.


Posted by on April 2, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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The AFI Top 100 Movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (#50)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross
Directed by George Roy Hill
Written by William Goldman

I’m not really sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this movie, but I have to say it was a delightful surprise. Most westerns from this era have a serious, mythic tone that’s honored here but also deconstructed to really great effect. It takes the idea of the legendary western bandit and shrinks it down to the size of men. This is probably how things really were, the movie wants to say. These criminal masterminds have no more idea what they’re doing than the rest of us.

The movie begins by telling us that at one time Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ruled the West, and then moving into that most classic of Western staples the saloon poker game. Sundance is accused of cheating, a tense stand-off ensues, and the only thing that saves them from a bloodbath is the fear inspired by their reputation. The scene is shot in sepia-tone, to emphasize just how iconic the situation — and its players — are. When they get themselves out of that scrape, they ride off into full-color fields and the real world of their situation.

From there, it’s one trouble after another. First, a member of their Hole-In-The-Wall Gang tries to take over the crew and needs to be put down. Then, an ambitious train robbery brings a little too much heat on them. The tycoon whose wealth their pilfering doesn’t take kindly to being ‘picked on’, and sends an all-star team of trackers and law men after them. Both Butch and Sundance try everything to throw them off the scent, but their reputation catches up with them before too long. I won’t say more than that, but the ending is both surprising and completely logical given what comes before it.

Newman and Redford made their careers with this movie, and it’s easy to see why. Redford is ruggedly handsome as the stoic Sundance Kid, and he serves as a template for what it means to be a self-sufficient man. Newman is instantly, consistently likeable as Butch Cassidy, and even when he makes a mistake (and he makes many mistakes) you forgive him immediately. He’s always one good idea away from being on top again, and he makes it easy to believe that his next one is just what’ll do the trick. They have a chemistry together that’s easy, organic and just sublime; it helps that William Goldman’s screenplay walks this great tightrope of tones, bouncing from great, broad humor to dialogue with a great sense of character to situations that point to the ominous tightening of a noose around our boys. What’s impressive is that even when the situation grows darker the tone remains light. Butch and Sundance never give up, even in the face of shrinking options.

Katherine Ross is pretty good as Etta Place, Sundance’s girlfriend and Butch’s confidant. She serves as something of an alarm clock, making sure the boys stick to their decision once they’ve made it. When they decide to move to Bolivia and rob banks there, she makes sure they know enough of the local language to pull it off. When they decide to do something else, she’s right there to make sure they actually do it. When they bounce back to robbing banks, she finally tires of their indecision. It’s surprising how much her presence is missed during the final part of the movie — she’s a great example of a strong, feminine supporting character with her own ideals. Yet she’s tied up inextricably in the story of these two men without being diminished by it.

When you take a step back to think about the movie as a whole, you see how incredibly lost and almost aimless these two are. They’re both unsure of who they are and what they really want to do, and generally they’re pulled along by what fate does with them. When you get right down to it, they’re fairly reactionary heroes. While it’s true that the narrative is jump-started by Butch’s first bad decision, everything else that happens in the film is a reaction to the consequences. It’s interesting that the film remains so engaging despite that, and I think it’s a testament to Goldman’s writing as well as the wonderful, warm performances from Redford and Newman.

I think the film’s ultimate meaning is that the people who inhabit the stories we tell — especially culled from history — are just people. They may have done extraordinary things, or lasted through extraordinary circumstances, but when you get right down to it they’re just us. They’re confused, scared, shiftless sometimes. They’re also smart, full of life, fun and have the capacity for love. Our greatest heroes — George Washington, Charles Darwin, the Buddha — had lives just as messy as ours. We clean them up for the sake of narrative, and that’s just fine. But it would do us well to remember that. Our mythic, real-life heroes have a lot in their stories that aren’t heroic, or villainous. Just mundane, stupid, quietly sweet like the rest of us.

The movie opens up with an iconic, sepia-toned scene, and it ends with the same sepia-toned image that conforms to our understanding of the western criminal. And make no mistake, all that might have happened. But the reality happened between those old photographs that we make our myths with. Knowing and understanding that enriches our grasp of our myths, and makes people out of them.

Rating: 8/10.

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Posted by on October 29, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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