Blog Directory CineVerse: Take a walk on the wild side

Take a walk on the wild side

Thursday, January 10, 2019

If you're a classic film lover, here's a hard truth that proves you're getting older: "Midnight Cowboy" turns 50 in 2019. Yes, the film ranked #43 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American movies was released half a century ago (officially this May). To help celebrate, we poured on the "Cineversary" glaze last night at CineVerse and talked about ways this film has remained relevant over five decades. Here's a recap:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s a time capsule film that captures a specific place and time: New York City in the late 1960s, a city that is much different now, but which is depicted in a way that is fascinating 50 years later for what it represented: a soulless, dog-eat-dog metropolis where starry-eyed dreamers and the na├»ve learn that the American dream is a fantasy. 
  • It still matters, primarily, because of the fine direction by John Schlesinger, and memorable acting performances by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, and the boundaries that it broke at the time, making it a pioneering movie that helped forever change American cinema. 
  • It has stood the test of time because it’s a timeless tale: one about the shattering of illusions related to the American dream; a story about two friends trying to survive in a harsh environment designed to destroy them; and a narrative about desperation and redemption. 
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • Midnight Cowboy was extremely important as a film that helped break down the walls of censorship and offer adult content that was more realistic and graphic. 
  • It, along with contemporary films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” and, from the same year, “The Wild Bunch” and “Easy Rider,” ushered in a near era of the young Hollywood maverick filmmaker, concurrently at a time when the old Hollywood studio system had collapsed. 
  • As film critic Michael Wilmington wrote: “With its prestigious literary source, raw realism, nudity, profanity, onscreen (if discreetly staged) sex acts, near-documentary looks at Manhattan high and low life, plus a raft of cinematic tricks (flashbacks, fantasies, videos, shifts from monochrome to color) rifled from all the '60s arthouse hits of Italy and the French and Czech New Waves—"Midnight Cowboy" was an unabashed American art film…It was also a howitzer blast right through the remnants of the old Hollywood Production Code, which once forbade even inferences to deviant or extra-marital sex. One by one, the movie seemed to shoot down taboos with effortless abandon, but not just for shock value.” 
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in (movie name)?
  • What does it mean to be a man? Joe is enraptured by a stereotype of male masculinity—that of the rugged, strong and macho cowboy, an archetypal character created by the movies that probably never existed. 
  • Living a life of illusion or fantasy. Both Joe and Ratso believe they are good at what they do—respectively, being a male gigolo and symbol of attractive masculinity and being a smart and successful pimp and street hustler. The truth is that they are both terrible at their chosen pursuits. 
  • The myth of the American dream. Joe thinks he can score big by playing the part of a cowboy stud in New York City; Ratso believes sunny Florida to be the land of milk and honey. Both are disappointed. 
  • The power of friendship, and how losing a friend can leave a hole in your life. This film is a “buddy picture” and a profile of two oddball characters whose friendship helps fill the emptiness in each of their lives. Consider how Joe loses his first friend in traumatic fashion—a girlfriend—which helps prompt him to leave Texas. Then, think about how the prospect of losing another friend—Ratso—serves as the catalyst for him leaving New York. 
  • A journey to redemption: Joe sinks to a new low after resorting to sudden violence with one of his clients, signaling the degree to which his illusions, and the urban jungle, have turned him into a soulless animal capable of violence; yet, by the end of the film, he redeems himself and chooses a path of compassion and dignity by caring for his dying friend and stripping away the artifice of his former life (literally throwing away his cowboy getup). Consider how Joe’s life comes full circle: he starts the movie on a bus ride to what he thinks is the promised land and ends the film on another bus ride toward an unknown future. But perhaps it’s a future unencumbered by the pretense of fantasy and role playing. 
  • Loneliness and alienation. Few films before or since depict with such ruthless, cold realism, the estrangement felt by such a sympathetic main character. 
  • Lack of communication or regard for our fellow man. The lyrics to Nillson’s song speak to the world’s inability for two-way communication (“Everybody's talking at me; I don't hear a word they're saying; Only the echoes of my mind”) and how easily we tune out the world around us. Think, too, about how Ratso is almost hit by a car but insists that the driver pay attention to him. 
Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in (original year), and who do you think it appeals to today? And if that appeal has changed, what does that say about the film’s impact, influence and legacy?
  • The film would have likely been shocking and rejected by older viewers and those used to traditionally censored content and the kind of entertainment that was popular earlier in the 1960s—big budget musicals like “The Sound of Music,” and “Oliver.” 
  • It’s probable that most who bought a ticket were adults in their 20s, as well as fans of arthouse cinema. 
  • Today, this film likely appeals to fans of classic film, baby boomers, film students, filmmakers, and fans of Dustin Hoffman and/or Jon Voight. 
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • You could argue that some of the scenes—like the Andy Warholesque trippy party Joe and Ratso attend, as well as the avant-garde editing style (consider the quickly alternating shots of Joe walking through Times Square, at night and in color), and the often disturbing flashbacks—are relics and psychedelic trappings of a more experimental time in movies; artifacts of the late 1960s. 
  • What has aged well are the fantastic performances, the gritty, verite-style realism of New York captured on film, and what is communicated between Joe and Ratso without words or unnecessary exposition. 

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