A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Robert Koch announces discovery of the cause of TB, 1882
On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had worked out what was causing tuberculosis, a disease so devastating that it went by several names – phthisis and consumption were also common. Until Koch started his research, it was widely believed that TB was a hereditary disease. But though Koch had observed that TB would often spread through families, its epidemiology was not uniform – poorer families tended to get it more than richer ones. We now know that TB is caused by a slow-growing bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is carried by many people (one third of the world’s population is currently infected). But though it is infectious, it doesn’t progress to the full-blown disease in most cases. People who are fit and live in healthy, well ventilated environments resist it well; it is those with compromised immune systems who succumb. Koch’s suspicions that a bacillus was causing TB were prompted by his work on anthrax in farm animals, which had found that a bacillus – cultivable in the lab (ie his home) – was responsible. But he was only able to prove his TB thesis after getting a position at the German Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin, where he was able to identify, isolate and cultivate the tuberculosis bacterium. Having done that, it was on to cholera, another scourge, the methods for the control of which helped provide the blueprint for the control of all epidemics, still used today.
Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir: John Schlesinger)
Chekhov’s rule about guns in plays – “one must never place a rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” – applies to the nth degree with coughing. A cough in a film generally means something more than just a cough. In films from Hollywood’s golden era it means the person coughing will be dead by the next scene, especially if they have been coughing blood. Midnight Cowboy isn’t from Hollywood’s golden era, which ended any time from the mid-50s back to the late-30s, take your pick, but it deals with death from TB, though differently. Telling the story of two young bucks on the make in New York City, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as street hustler Ratso, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the cock for hire – a midnight cowboy – nervous about anyone finding out that he’s highly in demand by gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Must be the fringe jacket, though the cheekbones (which Voight would pass on to his daughter, Angelina Jolie) obviously help.
That’s it, in terms of story – two guys, adrift, losers, hustlers, wandering around New York in the late 1960s in an era that’s suddenly different from the one Ratso grew up in, which offers sights that no one from Joe Buck’s rural hometown has ever seen. And here’s where the film gets either interesting or terrible, depending on your point of view. Interesting if you’re hungry for late 60s hipster parties, Andy Warhol-style blankness, throbbing cameras, the swinging sixties and all that. Terrible if you wish that John Schlesinger and his writers (including Waldo Salt) had made it more about the strange romance between the two stars, an analysis of Joe’s unexamined homosexuality, and less a tour of the fashionable parts of the Big Apple, places which these two losers would in all likelihood never have got to see.
There’s the performances, though. Hoffman’s nervy, ADHD Ratso remains as alive now as he was in 1969; Voight is also remarkable as the more thoughtful and internalised of the two – it’s a harder role too, and he doesn’t have a cough to fall back on! Midnight Cowboy has not worn well over the years. Its shocking content – violence, the ugliness of street life, men having sex with other men – is no longer shocking. But it’s an interesting film, not just because of the standout performances, but because it is so clearly of its era and yet is also a clear harbinger of things to come.
- Won three Oscars, none for the actors
- One of the key films that made Dustin Hoffman
- Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’
- A John Barry score
Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014