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The Inescapable Fever Dream of John Schlesinger’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’

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A tripped out kaleidoscope of broken thoughts, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy bleeds with sexual violence and the inevitability of decay. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) abandons his dishwashing job, dons the armor of a cowboy and takes a long bus ride to New York City to become a prostitute. He meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a real bum whose game is no match for Joe’s naïve hayseed. Joe loses his money and winds up living with Rizzo in a condemned tenement house.

At its core, Midnight Cowboy is about the decay of American society. Unable to recognize his ridiculousness, Joe fails to see outside of the identity he has cobbled together. From the moment the film begins, Voight’s character has a radio glued to the side of his head that he listens to, laughing and smiling at all manner of frivolity. He seems hurt and confused when strangers on a cross-country bus don’t suddenly strike up a friendship. Joe’s view of American life is fashioned together from advertising, movies and adventure books — even his name sounds made up, like some he-haw from a B-western. He has completely bought into every dream and every ideal about travelling and living in America. Joe is a rejected child, the result of every plastic disposable and every ideal preached but never practiced. Even as he is met with the underbelly of city life, Joe won’t let go of his howdy doody attitude.

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When Joe and Rizzo go to a Warhol-esque factory party, the former tells his new pal that he wants to inform the odd-ball hipsters of their arrival. We know these people couldn’t care less and see the duo as observable only, not real human beings. As Joe comes to wander in the “greatest city on Earth,” his ridiculousness is cemented and he just can’t survive. Rizzo comes across like a future version of Joe — wise but beaten down, a real man on the streets who asks no favors but always lies. He’s filthy and nearly homeless, falling out of the bottom of New York City with nothing and no one to catch him. Rather then possessing a heartbreaking naivety, Rizzo dreams of Florida. He knows that New York has nothing for him anymore, but he envisions Florida as his savior. Even as his body begins to fail him and he can no longer stand, Rizzo never gives up the illusion. He sees Florida as paradise, a place where nothing falls down and just wearing a Hawaiian shirt can lead to money and good food. Joe buys into the Florida illusion too, as his dream of a paradise in New York City begins to rot from beneath him.

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Much of Joe’s guilelessness can be partially attributed to his confused and stunted sexuality, as he never confronts the fact that he is gay. His encounters with male sexual partners run the gamut between disturbing religious fervor to outright violence. These men make him fearful and angry, while the women fail to take him seriously. In his efforts to be a real Marlboro he-man, Joe comes across as an irrelevant joke, the regurgitation of American culture, sanitized and useless. Joe’s virility is constantly under attack as dreams and memories flood his mind. A sexualized grandmother and the violent, humiliating destruction of his relationship with his girlfriend, Annie, are consistently referred back to as inescapable visions that are felt but barely seen. His interactions with women lead him to be kicked out, ripped off and rendered impotent. The relationship with his grandmother, and the forced ending of his courtship of Annie, has left Joe without a masculine identity, so he must appropriate one by becoming a disordered mix of cowboy and prostitute. He is desperate to reorder his sexuality but has no idea how, nor does he completely understand why he is in this mess. Joe’s relationship with Rizzo is able to function partially because of Rizzo’s completely desexualized nature. He is a man that women would cross the street to avoid. He sniffles and his hacking cough grows steadily into a full body spasm. It’s because of this undesirability that Joe and Rizzo can be friends. Rizzo is not a symbol of Joe’s confusion (Rizzo is neither masculine man or woman) but simply a friend who can show him how to survive.

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Midnight Cowboy is a film rife with heavy symbolism. The large MONY sign outside Joe’s hotel window and a demolished apartment building are some of the more glaring examples, and the film avoids feeling hokey or ham-fisted due to the humanity brought forth by the performances of Voight and Hoffman. These symbols appear as signposts rather than desperate stabs at meaning because these two actors — at the beginning of their respective careers — bring a level of sustained anguish that leaves the viewer with a distinct impression of real people whittled down by the trials of life. Even as we understand Joe and Rizzo as symbols of American decay, they are people first. That is where Midnight Cowboy succeeds the most and why it is still so watchable 47 years later. The universal humanity displayed in this film keeps it from feeling dated. In our current urban society, we often find ourselves anonymous, shunted, or without community. Joe and Rizzo have problems that many of us are lucky enough to never have to face, but their experience and reaction to those problems are real and relatable. We dream, we fantasize, and we are haunted by that we cannot change. We are desperate to reinvent ourselves, and we always think some other place will be better.

Lex Corbett (@trazism) is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Toronto, Ontario. She studied cinema, both theoretical and practical, at the University of Toronto and OCAD U, respectively, and currently enamoured with the films of both the American Independent Cinema and Alfred Hitchcock.

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