Saturday, March 17, 2007

Midnight Movies

When I was a young pup first leafing through the pages of The New Yorker in my high school’s library, my favorite thing to read was the capsule movie reviews, primarily by Pauline Kael, bundled up in that tiny type in Goings On About Town. You got to find out about all the new movies that had descended upon New York, which were very different from the ones we got back home in Covington, Louisiana. I remember it being a very big deal when Pink Floyd: The Wall became the local midnight movie. We certainly never got such things like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or Heat and Dust, for which we had to rely on Pauline Kael’s judgment.

This was back in the days when Manhattan still had such things as revival houses, where they would expect people to buy tickets and sit through older movies, just as if they were Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then we would get to read capsule reviews in The New Yorker of such exotica as Black Narcissus or One-Eyed Jacks, expecting full well that we would never actually get to see these movies. Those were the real treats, for while we would get tired of reading the same recap of Blade Runner every week, getting a Cliffs Notes-style briefing on whichever Howard Hawks fave was coming to town -- even if it was someone else's town -- would render you what would pass for a film expert in Covington.

Now, of course, in the age of the DVD, every house is a revival house. I can see literally thousands of different movies whenever I want, for a nominal fee or no fee at all, without ever leaving my house. One result of this is that every movie is now current, and I can take in The French Connection as readily as I can Wild Hogs.

When you add on the research capabilities of the Internet, this makes moviegoing a whole new experience. For example, I recently was able to watch Midnight Cowboy for the first time, and immediately thereafter was able to catch up with Roger Ebert’s review (strangely enough, there are two of them at his Web site) and check out the trivia at as well, which I do after every movie I watch. Midnight Cowboy is remembered as a classic – everybody knows the names Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck – but Ebert’s review is rather tepid, and if you haven’t seen the movie recently, watch it again and you’ll understand why. This movie is seriously dated. It’s got all these garish jump cuts and quasi-fantasy insets that recall nothing so much as Myra Breckinridge, and that’s not a good thing. People stopped making these kinds of movies right around 1969, when Midnight Cowboy came out, and it’s no surprise.

Ebert singles out three scenes that he finds offensive and false; two of them are the Warhol-style party and Joe Buck’s visit to a Jesus-loving fanatic played by John McGiver, and I agree with him totally on both counts. But he also objects to the scene near the end of the movie where Joe Buck dallies with a middle-aged homosexual from Chicago named Townsend Locke. Now, far be it from me to try to correct Roger Ebert, but I think he’s off-base with this last one.

What Ebert finds wrong about this scene is that Joe Buck, heretofore a gentle soul, resorts to smacking Towny in the face, sending his false teeth flying across a hotel room, then jamming the business end of a telephone into his mouth and quite possibly killing him. But remember where in the movie this takes place: Joe has realized by this point that moving to Manhattan was a pretty bad idea, and he’s broke and hungry and wants to leave, and his only friend, the aforementioned Ratso, is sickly and near death and thinks the only way to save his life is to get on a bus headed for Florida. Joe needs money to buy two bus tickets, so he plies his trade with Towny, then tries to procure as much cash as possible off him. Towny refuses, and ends up with a mouthful of phone.

Ebert thinks that director John Schlesinger has misjudged his own character in this scene, but I think we’re seeing just how desperate Joe Buck has become. We’re seeing that the cold-hearted city has turned this country boy into a killer – and he’s become a killer for no other reason than to escape said city.

Plus, if we missed out on this scene, we would miss out on Barnard Hughes’ heartbreaking portrayal of Towny. To call this man conflicted would be inaccurate; he flat-out hates himself, hates what he wants to do with Joe Buck, and looks for any excuse he can to stop what his instincts are urging him toward. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect out of a middle-aged gay man from Chicago circa 1969. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were justly celebrated for their acting in this movie, but in about five minutes of screen time, Barnard Hughes accomplishes just as much. I wonder what Pauline Kael thought of it.


Pike said...

Barnard Hughes died a few months ago. He was a great actor (see his magnificent work in the deeply flawed "The Hospital") and a terrific guy. For a few years, I had the pleasure of going to his famous Christmas parties. Barney would stand there for hours, frail as hell, and the entire Broadway community would come and pay homage. His son Doug is a great stage director, by the way.

T. Nawrocki said...

Unfortunately, the younger generation's impression of Barnard Hughes is probably his work on "Blossom," but he was also fantastic as Bob Hartley's dad (or Da, if you prefer) on "The Bob Newhart Show."

Pike said...

So you would spit in the eye of all those who tear up remembering the comedic wonders of the sitcom "Doc." You, sir, are worse than Hitler!