Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 March

 

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.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • 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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 January

 

 

Thomas Hardy dies, 1928

On this day in 1928, the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy died. He was 87 and this Victorian writer had survived into and almost through the age of the formal modernist, such as Joyce, with whom he had little in common, though he was an informing influence on writers with a more earthy, carnal and rural inclination, such as DH Lawrence.

Hardy had trained as an architect in the 1860s but didn’t enjoy life in London and as soon as he became established enough he moved back to the West Country (Somerset, then Dorset) where he remained till he died.

After four early books written while he was an architect, two of which he published anonymously because he was embarrassed at their naked commercial intent, Hardy published Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874. It was a hit and it allowed him to devote himself full time to writing. The books that followed it were, like Far from the Madding Crowd and much of Hardy’s most popular work, set in the fictional Wessex – the Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire area of south west England.

When Hardy’s much loved wife of 38 years died in 1912 he got married again, to his secretary, who was 39 years younger than him. Now often seen as a whiskery paragon of Victorian virtue, Hardy was often criticised in his lifetime for his frank treatment of sex, particularly in 1895’s Jude the Obscure, whose portrait of a man driven by “erotolepsy” (ie his dick) shocked Victorians, who bought it in huge numbers (in plain covers).

Let’s also not forget Hardy’s lubricious portraits of his female protagonists – Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. But it’s fate, and fatalism, that drives many of his best books, with sex merely a carnal manifestation of the disruptive power of a universe with no benign creator at the helm.

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967, dir: John Schlesinger)

Whether you go a bundle on this adaptation of Hardy or not – and not everyone does – it is probably the film to turn to if you want to see Julie Christie, the epitome of the smart, free, upwardly mobile 1960s young woman, at her most beautiful. And Terence Stamp too, come to that. In films where naked lust is the driver of the plot, it really helps if you can get behind the notion that the people being portrayed really would make you lose your head.

And there is a lot of that going on here. At the centre of it all is Christie’s Bathsheba, a “headstrong” woman (ie borderline bitch) who employs poor shepherd/former suitor/torch-bearer Gabriel (Alan Bates) to help on her farm, makes flirtatious eyes at local man-of-means William Boldwood (Peter Finch), only to run off and marry the dashing Sergeant Troy (Stamp), who has, unbeknown to her, already got a local girl in the family way.

Bathsheba is then tossed back and forth by her own choices, her lust and uncaring fate, in a story that pits her against three archetypes of male suitor – Stamp is the sexually exciting rotter, Finch the decent would-be provider, Bates the quietly devoted servant.

It is true that Christie might be just a touch too much the 1960s girl – the posters describe the film as being about “a wilful passionate girl and… the three men who want her!”, which makes her sound like a version of Marianne Faithfull. But, its two leads apart – Sixties faces par excellence – this is in many senses a 1950s film, a big-budget studio-driven affair packed with talent: screenplay by Frederic Raphael, cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, score by Richard Rodney Bennett. And watched in that light, as almost the last of a dying breed, its three hours are well worth plumping up the sofa for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Stamp and Christie at their best
  • Nicolas Roeg’s lyrical, beautiful Panavision cinematography
  • Frederic Raphael’s intelligent script
  • Anyone for a film with an Intermission?

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2014