23 December 2010

36. Midnight Cowboy

This is a story of friendship, how unlikely individuals come together when they have nothing else.

Joe Buck, a handsome aspiring hustler who dreams of seducing rich women, takes the bus from Texas to New York with little more than a portable radio, his cowboy clothes, and a painful naivete. Joe has an active fantasy life, remembers bad incidents in his life, imagines women describing him when they describe their male ideal.

Joe is not a good hustler. He fails often before his first success, and the next morning when he asks the lady for money, she cried and screams at him until he relents, tells her he's joking.

The subplot at minute 24 is Ratso Rizzo, a sickly city-dweller. His name is appropriate: this is a man who lives in filth, who is just barely surviving. Ratso tells him he'll hook him up with a man who will pimp him out, but only for a fee. Joe meets the man, and the bait and switch is the guy is a Jesus freak who wants to save Joe.

Joe is broke, eats crackers at a diner, is locked out of his room. Sees Ratso randomly, and their uneasy friendship begins: Ratso offers him a place to stay, brings him in on dreams of escaping the city for Florida.

The writing could use work. The flashbacks are distracting: the overeager grandmother, the rape, "you're the only one, Joe." They tell us how Joe came to be who he is, but who cares? Likewise, Joe's latent homosexuality might have been shocking at the time, but now it plays out in obvious ways: he's weirded out at a gay bar, brutalizes a gay john in a sketchy hotel room. Finally, we see Ratso's death a mile away: he's always been sickly and we sense his Florida dreams will be out of reach to someone so small. And so they are. Ratso dies on the bus as Joe realizes, "Hell, I ain't no hustler".

It essentially starts on a bus, and that's how it ends.

This is an interesting case wherein the directing does a disservice to the writing (which, despite many problems, is at its core a solid story), making it less of a film than perhaps it could have been. Oftentimes on this blog I have implied that the director elevated the material (particularly in regards to Scorcese, Spielberg, Hitchcock). Here, the dominate and poorly-aged stylistic tricks of 60s mod cinema just get in the way: the flashbacks, the heavy cutting, the zooms. This is, above all, a story that ought to have been told simply, and it was not. Luckily, the core of the writing and the acting shine through.


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