Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy 03This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.

This review discusses the movie in full detail, so beware spoilers.

Midnight Cowboy 01Joe Buck (Voight) is a young Texan who quits his job as a dishwasher and hops a bus to New York City to become a “hustler,” to sell his body to rich old women and make a ton of money.  He wears a buckskin jacket, beautiful shiny boots, and a black cowboy hat.  As the bus travels north, flashbacks tell the story of how his beautiful young mother dumped him with his grandmother, Sally Buck (Ruth White), who raised him while having a series of affairs.  As a young man, he was involved with a girl named “Crazy Annie” (Jennifer Salt) who repeatedly told him “you’re the only one.”  A gang finds them making love in a car and while some of them hold Joe, the others rape Annie while he is forced to watch.

Midnight Cowboy 06When he arrives in New York, he takes a hotel room and wanders the streets trying to find some woman who needs his services.  A wealthy middle-aged woman (Sylvia Miles) takes him up to her apartment and they make love, but the next morning when he asks for money, she weeps and he actually ends up paying her, by giving her cab fare.

Midnight Cowboy 02He meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street con man that everyone calls “Ratso.”  They have a drink together and Ratso tells him that he knows a pimp who can get him lots of work.  He takes a fee of $20 for setting up a meeting with O’Daniel (John McGiver), then disappears.  O’Daniel tries to get Joe to go down on his knees with him and pray to a plastic Jesus mounted on the back of his bathroom door, but Joe freaks out and runs away.  When his money runs out, he takes to the street.  Seeing young homosexuals on the street dressed in cowboy gear, he agrees to oral sex with a young man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater, but when the boy tells him he doesn’t have any money, Joe is forced to let him go.  Begging crackers in a diner, he watches a mother playing with her son by running a toy mouse over his face.

One day, walking past a coffee shop, he spots Ratso and tries to get his $20 back, but all Ratso has is some change.  However, he offers to share his room with Joe, a flat in a condemned building that still has running water.  Joe comes back with him and the two of them begin a strange, shaky friendship.  Ratso, whose dream is to one day move to Florida and get healthy, helps Joe to clean up and they try to hijack a male escort service job, but Joe blows it and they are back where they started.

Midnight Cowboy 07Winter arrives and with it an intense cold wave.  Stuck in their flat with no heat and no money, Joe and Ratso barely get by, but things take a turn for the worse when Ratso gets sick.  Sitting in a diner one day, they are approached by a strange pair, who take Joe’s picture and give him an invitation to a party at their flat.  This odd couple show up at a Warholesque scene involving pulsing music and film, decked out art scene celebrities (including Viva, Ultra-Violet, and other Andy Warhol actors).  Joe smokes a joint and then is given a pill, while Ratso fills up his coat pockets with salami from the ample spread provided.  Wandering into a room filled with red light, Joe becomes entangled with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a wealthy woman who agrees to take him home and pay him $20 for sex.  Ratso, who is now covered in sweat most of the time, falls down a flight of stairs.  Although he has always been crippled, he is now having difficulty walking.

Midnight Cowboy 04Initially, Joe finds he can’t perform with Shirley, but when she taunts him with being gay, he comes on very aggressively, then is surprised by the aggression she displays, clawing up his back with her fingernails.  Nevertheless, she gives him a referral to one of her friends and Joe thinks he’s finally on the way to becoming a stud.

When he gets back to their flat, however, Ratso is even more sick, so he goes back out and hooks up with a homosexual salesman, Towny (Barnard Hughes).  Worried about Ratso, he tries to get money from Towny, but when the man resists, he beats him and steals the money to buy two bus tickets to Miami for he and Ratso, who can no longer walk.

Ratso wets himself in the bus, so Joe goes to buy them light clothing for the warm weather.  He gets Ratso a Hawaiian shirt with palm trees on it and he throws away his buckskin jacket, boots and cowboy hat.  As the bus nears Miami, Ratso dies in his seat.

There really aren’t enough good things to say about this movie, which today remains one of the best films ever made.  Obviously, it’s for Adults Only, even though the X-Rating was later downgraded to an R.  In spite of the nudity, the thing that really concerned censors at the time was the abundance of homosexuality in the movie, which no longer carries the stigma it once did.  No sex is graphically shown in the film.

Midnight Cowboy 08I think most credit for the success of this movie is the vision of director John Schlesinger whose use of color, unique camera shots, and creative editing creates a look that is almost one of a kind.  Because dreams are so important, the camera itself has a very dreamy quality, whether it is in the flashbacks to Joe’s childhood or Ratso’s dream of a life in Florida.  The dark blue quality Schlesinger gives to New York City makes it a fully separate world, always fearful and eerie and on the edge of society.  At times, he allows the film to move into black and white and then back into color.  In this film, the city itself functions as dream world and that becomes fully apparent when the sun strikes the two friends on their way to Miami.  They have emerged from the darkness into the light.

The cast is full of terrific actors, which I never realized when I first saw it in a theater so many years ago.  You see it now and can only wonder at stalwarts like John McGiver playing a plastic Jesus loony and Barnard Hughes as a simpering fag.  Bob Balaban was virtually unknown at the time, but Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro were well-respected actors throughout the industry.  Jon Voight is terrific as Joe Buck and he carries a little boy optimism throughout his terrible experiences, but Dustin Hoffman steals the movie with his fully realized Ratso Rizzo.  Even at the time, it had to be considered one of the best performances of all time, but now it clearly shines and withstands the test of time.  He is simply brilliant.

The song that launches the movie, “Everybody’s Talking,” written by Fred Neil and sung by Harry Nilsson, truly gets under your skin and it sets the tone for the movie in the same way that “Sound of Silence” sets the tone for “The Graduate.”  You won’t be able to get it out of your head and that’s not a bad thing.  The entire score is amazing.  John Barry supervised the music and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme, a haunting melody carried by a harmonica.

Obviously, I recommend this movie strictly for adults, but it must be considered one of the best films ever made, if not in the Top 10, then very, very close.  Brilliant filmmaking!

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Friends with Kids

Friends with KidsThis 2011 movie written, produced and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt is about a group of shallow, sex-obsessed Manhattan Yuppies who start having children.  I’m going to discuss the full plot in some detail, so if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you probably shouldn’t read this review.  On the other hand, the story is quite predictable and if you haven’t figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, then all cylinders aren’t firing anyway.

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), are both well-paid professionals in their mid-30s.  Best friends for many years, they live in the same building in Manhattan and have long telephone conversations usually involving a choice between grisly ways to die.  Julie asks Ben if he’d rather die a long, painful death by cancer or to see a loved one die the same way.  Ben chooses to watch the loved one die because he would still be alive.

They gather regularly with married friends Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who are obsessed with having sex, and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph).  Not interested in each other Jason and Julie continually seek their own romantic relationships, the success measured in sexual happiness.  Their friends have children, but they continue to seek permanent mates themselves until one evening they decide to have a child of their own.  Seeing the misery that their friends have experienced, they decide that they can raise a child and still search for their own soul-mates.

While Ben and Leslie manage to make their marriage work, Alex and Missy’s relationship falls apart, further evidence that they’ve made the right decision.  As time passes, Jason becomes involved with a dancer, Mary Jane (Megan Fox), while Julie finds Mr. Right in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns).  When Alex gets drunk at a New Years skiing getaway for the eight of them, he comes down hard on Jason and Julie for not thinking through the effect their decision will have on their child.  Jason strongly defends the decision, declaring how much they love each other and how much they love their little boy.

Taking this to heart, Julie realizes that she really does love Jason more than Kurt.  When they get together to celebrate her birthday, she tells him how she feels, but Jason recoils, explaining that he loves her as a friend and is already in a deep relationship with Mary Jane.  Julie decides to move to Brooklyn to get away from him.  Both of their relationships end and Jason then realizes that he actually loves Julie, too.  It ends with him telling her that he’s changed his mind: he’d rather die himself than to watch her die of cancer.  She is reluctant at first to accept this change of heart, but when he promises great sex, she changes her mind.

There are moments in this movie that ring true and come close to being genuinely touching, but the predictability of the plot makes it very hard to become attached to story.  The characters are genuinely shallow.  Self-obsessed relationship-junkies who have probably never had an original thought in their lives, their elevation of sex to the be-all and end-all of human love comes across as pathetic and self-serving.

Maybe this is the present or the future of American ideals, but I sure hope not.  One can admire Westfeldt for her hard work in doing the project, but I really wish she had taken the time to put some thought into it.  I can’t really recommend this movie to anyone.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

nick and norah book cover

This novel comes rumbling out of some torn up Manhattan tunnel like a queercore punk nightmare, full of profanity, revolt, degradation, and the sweetest young love you’ve ever tasted on some strange Jack Kerouac night full of piss and vinegar.

Much the way On the Road roared at the right side of the highway from America’s kick back against conformity in the 1950’s, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist assaults the reader from the first page and doesn’t stop jumping until literally the last word of the book, which is, appropriately: “Jump.”  Young adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan trade chapters in this novel, with her writing as Norah and him writing as Nick.  That accounts for the distinctive voice of each character (written in the ever present YA Biblical tense of FIRST PERSON PRESENT).

The book begins with Nick on stage at some Manhattan club playing bass with his queercore punk band, The Fuck Offs. He’s the only straight guy in the group, comprised of high school seniors.  The drummer, Thom (with an H), is less than talented and waits for a solo that never comes in the two minute screaming slashes that they burn, and the lead singer, Dev, is a beautiful slut, ever on the make for his next guy.  Nick nearly loses it when his ex-girlfriend Tris comes smoking into the club with her newest guy because she is truly, eternally hot and he is still desperate for her.  After the set, he goes to the bar and when Tris approaches him, he turns to the girl next to him, who wears of all things, a flannel shirt in this den of trendy commercially run Ramones tee shirts, and says, “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?” Norah answers his question by giving a deep, eye-opening kiss that begins a six hour trip for these two angst ridden teens that doesn’t stop until, well, like, you know, the end.

Alternately attracted and repulsed, Nick tries to deal with Tris strutting around with her new guy, while Norah, who is Jewish, tries to deal with her ex-boyfriend who has just returned from a kibbutz in Israel.  They are both POSITIVELY unhip and yet at the same time are the two COOLEST people in the novel.  Norah, it turns out, is the daughter of a lifelong A&R man and she grew up traveling the country, going to concerts, and listening to every kind of music there is and digging it all.  Right now, she is deeply, wholly, into punk and so, of course, is Nick, who himself is into all different kinds of music, even though right now he’s really into punk.  Although he doesn’t know who Norah is, she knows all about him because she’s an old friend of Tris and has listened to and admired the mixes he’s made and the songs he’s written.  They are both trying really hard to be people that they’re really not because they love this kind of music and nothing exhilarates either of them more than jumping into the mosh pit when Where’s Fluffy? plays their trashed out rejection of The Man.  As Norah sagely remarks: “The mosh pit never lies.”

Although there are things in book that made me seriously pause, look out the window, and wonder how it was possible to write something that sounded so trite and yet rang so true, I raced through the 183 pages in less than a day. The prose carries you forward as if you were just a passenger on their crazy train or a thrashing punk song, and after a while, you don’t really want to get off or see the song end.  Long sentences that riff like one of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness poems run into even longer paragraphs that run into pages that occur inside one brain or the other and at the end you realize that only a few seconds have passed in the story and it only felt like a few seconds as these pages devoured you!

Most of the book is just laugh-out-loud funny, although there are some pages where you might develop a permanent little chuckle. Cohn and Levithan have such a grip on their writing, however, that this humor can change to heart-rending angst or unexpectedly profound observation within a few words.

The push and pull back and forth between Nick and Norah is a kind of song in itself as they feel their way through their anxieties, work out their past failures, and grope toward a relationship. They are, in some ways, metaphors for our fractured world and if they can work it out, maybe we can work it out.  This must be considered a break-through novel in the YA genre, not just for the language, but for the compression of time, the driving style, and the unique young voices that push it forward.

This is a compelling book that should be LOUD on YA radar.

Like it or not.

My review of the movie is located at Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.