Thursday, January 25, 2018

Olde Review: Midnight Cowboy

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the snarky, clueless kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This particular one is a companion piece to the review of The Sound of Trumpets broadcast on KCMU-FM.

Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) Midnight Cowboy is a film that has been vastly over-rated over the years. So has its director, John Schlesinger. I haven't seen one film of his that has been consistent—content-wise, or quality. Admittedly, Schlesinger does do some great things in his films. but never for long, and that goes for Far from the Madding Crowd, Darling, his marathon sequence in Visions of Eight, and especially last year's The Day of the Locust. Schlesinger couldn't even pull off a simple thriller like Marathon Man without laying it over with unnecessary cross-cutting and lead-balloon pretensions.

The problem? Schlesinger is a cold director and this coldness of attitude combined with a certain heavy-handedness in technique bring movement, but not life, to the subject matter. Add to this Schlesinger's off-and-on fascination with grotesques—as in Midnight Cowboy—and the situation is nearly impossible.

Midnight Cowboy begins well enough, with a rather multi-layered shot of an empty drive-in movie screen overlapped by the sound of thundering hooves. But not from the screen. From a nearby corral. Joe Buck is leaving the farm to go to New York; putting himself out to stud, so to speak. And Joe Buck's bus-trip to New York is very enjoyable with the exception of some coy flashbacks. But once the Big Apple has been reached, Schlesinger begins to feel the need to be...satirical. And his satire has all the subtlety of a brick through a window, as opposed to the subtlety of The Sound of Trumpets.

Jon Voight gives a fine performance. Dustin Hoffman is all right (but his limp keeps changing, and Schlesinger keeps drawing attention to it!) But, above all, the best thing about Midnight Cowboy is the music for the film by John Barry, whose scores include those for the James Bond films and Born Free. His music provided the best satire, the most feeling, and the best humor in the film. One of these days, I'm going to have to do a tribute to him.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM December 5th and 6th, 1976

That last bit referred to film score tributes, basically three minutes in length, that I did for the station. Barry's died in 2011, his last score being for the Michael Apted film Enigma. He didn't score the whole of Midnight Cowboy but he supervised the music, picking and producing the songs, and writing bits and pieces of score that worked gang-busters in the film. If you want something of a tribute, you can find it here: John Barry.
Frequently, when typing up these elderly reviews from a kid I can't even remember being, I've always resisted the urge to change them, edit them, correct them—but I don't. Or I've wished I could go back in time to tell this little twerp what exactly is wrong with his opinion, and I felt that urge this time when I started reading the review. After all, 1) Schlesinger did settle down and do some good things later in his career, and 2) Midnight Cowboy remains to this day the only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and 3) it's still considered a "classic." I may not like it, but the Wisdom of the Tribe has spoken and one shouldn't discount it, no matter how "blinkerdly pig-ignorant" it might be (thanks to Monty Python for the phrase).

But, have you sat through it lately? I mean, sat through all of it? Midnight Cowboy is a mess, jobbing about from one bit to another, and all the parts that are endlessly played on clip shows ("I'm walkin' heyah!," the final bus ride, Joe Buck's walk through the crowded streets of New York, including satire alert-satire alert the guy who's been assaulted (presumably) lying in the street and everybody's walkin' to the tune of "Everybody's Talkin'"—written by Fred Neil, sung by Nilsson—right by him and....that's about it), those are the parts that people remember and inform their opinion about the whole of the film. Maybe, just maybe, people have a better opinion of the film because they're expected to. It's a counter-culture classic, after all, like Easy Rider (and we all know what a masterpiece that is! sarcasm alert) Reading through this review, I went from "You're being too harsh" to "Yeah, point taken." The things that bug me about Midnight Cowboy are the same things that bugged me then, and it had to do with direction, inconsistency, and just the gosh-awful look of some of those sequences, not to mention a tone-deafness that came, possibly, from Schlesinger, a Brit, observing the terrain of New York and wanting to emphasize it more for the folks back home. It's like Schlesinger took Mike Nichols' bag of tricks from The Graduate and decided to use them poorly. 

I'm surprised it won Best Picture, actually.

What was nominated for Best Picture that year? Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello, Dolly, and Z.

.............well, given those choices, maybe I'm not surprised it won, then (though Z is a good film).

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