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Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
"Midnight Cowboy" has the distinction of being the only X rated movie that
ever won the best picture Oscar. When the ratings system was introduced
in 1968, the X rating was given to films where the subject matter was not
deemed suitable for any minors to screen. It wasn't associated with outright
pornography. After the controversy surrounding "Deep Throat" in 1972, it
became linked with hardcore product and the major studios refused to release
titles with that classification afterwards. In some cases the movies were re-cut to
get an R rating. A number of newspapers wouldn't accept advertising for X rated pictures
either. To avoid this linkage, many original X rated mainstream films were
later reclassified R as was this one.

Now for the film itself...

If you took a stroll down Times Square today you'd see a family friendly
street full of tourists on their way to watch the latest Disney musical
on Broadway. 40 years ago it was a different picture. Times Square
and the Big Apple in general were cluttered with X rated cinemas, grind
houses, sex shops, pimps, hookers, hippies, drag queens and junkies.
If you ever wanted to experience the urban decay of the past,
then "Midnight Cowboy" is the film for you. It's an extremelly well acted
but relentlessly grim and depressing movie. Make sure you're in the mood
to wallow in squalor. For example, upon arrival in New York, Voight walks
down the street and sees a homeless man either passed out or dead on
the sidewalk as apathetic pedestrians walk by oblivious. That sets
the tone for what follows.

The story is based on the book by James Herlihy which I read as a teenager
but I was too young to see the picture itself. I finally caught up with it
at the Elgin in 1975 which was a repertory cinema in Greenwich Village.
It seemed an appropriate place to screen it considering the characters
in the story. Putting it in historical context, if "Easy Rider" and "Woodstock"
depicted the upside of the sixties counter-culture, then "Midnight Cowboy"
showed the dark side. It was made by John Schlesinger who was a British
director, not an American. He directs the film like a journalist visiting a modern
day Sodom and Gomorrah. You get to visit a slum, grind house cinema, a
pot party populated by Andy Warhol veterans and other sordid sites.
The plot device framing this bizarre journey is the old story of the
country bumpkin who visits a big city and is unable to adapt to it's
ways. In this case it's Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie's father for younger
forum members) who puts on a rediculous cowboy outfit and arrives
in New York trying to pass himself off as a male prostitute.
He's completely unsuccessful in this endevor and ends up befriending a
small time thief dying of TB played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman
being the consumate method actor is so disgusting, unshaven and filthy
with a bad leg, rotting teeth and coughing up flem that you can almost smell him.
It was a radical departure from the yuppie role he played in "The Graduate".
It ends up as a bizarre buddy movie as the two losers shack up in a condemned
building. They go on a few adventures including the above mentioned party
and Voight eventually poses as a gay prostitute to steal some cash so they can
migrate to Florida, a fantacized promised land. Hoffman dies on the bus after
wetting himself to give the story it's grim, hopeless ending.

The film is very dated in it's technique with lots of choppy, herky jerky editing
which was popular in that era. There are flashbacks, flash forwards, zooms,
psychedelic imagery, jump cuts, grainy black and white footage intercut with
color footage, hallucinations and other visual wackiness. I'm not sure it really
fits well into the main narrative but it does put the movie into it's time context.
Some you might find it disorienting or annoying.

The anamorphically enhanced 16:9 De Luxe color image is okay when the shots
are from the camera negative and grainy when it's not, specifically in those
montages. The 5.1 remix of the original mono track is actually quite good.
They added rear channel ambience throughout the film so you feel like you're
on location...providing you want to visit these places. The catchy theme
song, "Everybody's Talkin' at Me", has a nice sub-woofer thump if you turn
up that channel.

I'm somewhat hesitant to recommend this movie. As I said, the performances
are very convincing but I'm not sure what the point of the story was.
I tend to look at things objectively and the first question I had was...why didn't they
just go on welfare rather than live in that condemned building? Or get a real job rather
than trying to be street hustlers? I suppose just taking this approach means I'm not
'with it' and I don't 'get it'. You'll have to judge for yourself. In summary it's an
effective movie but I can't say it's an enjoyable experience.

The suppliments are interesting but I don't think this is one of the great movies
of all times. It's a curio from another era.

By the way, the man on the sofa at the hippie party who says he doesn't know
what he's doing there is Paul Morrissey, director of "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein"
and "Andy Warhol's Dracula" which are my two favorite counter-culture spoofs.
Morrissey was a participant and satirist of the sixties counter-culture.

In summary: Picture quality B, sound design A, cinematography B-, peformances A,
music score A, story and screenplay B.

Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
A postscript.

When the ratings were revised in the nineties, they changed the X classification
to NC-17. It didn't fool moviegoers or exhibitors and hasn't been used since.
Today, pornography is no longer in cinemas but on DVD and the internet so
the concern that it increases urban decay is no longer valid.

Back in the seventies, pornographers devised their own rating system to categorize
their product. After "Deep Throat" (which was X rated but hardcore), the X
classification meant 'soft core' and the XXX classifcation meant 'hard core'.
These were not approved by the MPAA but the ratings stuck which is why no major
studio would release a picture with either classification.

"Midnight Cowboy" didn't fit into either rating since it wasn't pornography although
it was a sordid story. In terms of the amount of nudity it's pretty tame by today's
standards. It was the subject matter that made it controversial back in 1969. It's
no longer shocking and is more of a time capsule now.
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