It always amazes me when I talk to people my age who didn’t have restrictions on their media consumption growing up. Also, I’m a little weirded out by people who had everything banned from them. For me, I existed somewhere in the middle of that. There were televisions shows that I could watch that some other kids couldn’t (The Simpsons for example), but I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies (with very few exceptions) or buy albums with that pesky warning label until I was 17. The reason for 17 was because that was the age people could engage with restricted media without a parent or guardian. This was incredibly annoying for a teenager with filmmaking ambitions. I had to see the classics and figure out how I wanted to not only film, but also score my films. And, sometimes, movies and music have naughty words.
On my 17th birthday, I got a homemade cake. Naturally, it said “Happy Birthday” on it but the “R” was super big and accentuated. The family knew what I was excited about. One of my gifts that year was a one-year paid subscription to Netflix. At the time, I didn’t know what Netflix was. I was living in a small rural farming community. We had a dinky little rental store. However, if I wanted to see a movie, just had to buy it the next time I was at Wal-Mart, or when I’m feeling fancy, cough up a few extra bucks at Suncoast.
Back in 2004, Netflix was only a mail-in service where DVDs were shipped to you two at a time. You got two DVDs in an envelope. You could hold onto them as long as possible and mail them back in the prepaid envelope when you were done. Once a movie got returned, the next available film in your queue was sent to you. This was the greatest thing ever. I had no car, no adequate rental store near me, and no premium cable subscription services to indulge in all the R-rated goodness that was available. What a time to be alive!
I had to make up for a lot of lost viewing time. We did have internet at the house, so I did research on what were universally considered that greatest films of all time. Also, during the early to mid-2000s, the American Film Institute produced annual countdown shows profiling the greatest movies. These aired on cable television and were a much sought out event for my hungry film intellect. They started with their salute to the 100 greatest movies of all time. After that, they did ancillary countdowns profiling the 100 greatest heroes and villains (50 on each side), the 100 most thrilling movies, the 100 best lines from movies, and eventually the 100 greatest songs from movies. These were the tastemakers. They curators of cinema knew what was the best in the craft. This is where I started.
It was when I turned 17 that I discovered the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy. I had known that it was, at the time, categorized as X-rated and notably one the Academy Award for Best Picture despite that commercial and critical suicide rating. Still, it frequently appeared on all of these lists and I had to check it out.
Even at 17, and still very much a nerdy virgin, I knew this film would be the sexually explosive film it sounded like. In the film, Jon Voight plays a naïve Texan dishwasher who aspires for more in life. He’s also a bit of a joke with his cowboy hat, loud shirts, and broad-shouldered jacket. He’s just a guy who likes to play the part and look good doing it. He gets it in his mind that he can be a successful gigolo in New York City because “the women are paying for it. Begging for it too. And the men are mostly tooty-fruities.” Being the big handsome stud that he is, he’s sure to strike it rich by bedding rich ladies.
Of course, as well know, that is a ridiculous notion. Joe Buck’s journey becomes the generation-defining fish out of water story of it’s time. He isn’t taken seriously the cold, hard streets of New York take advantage of him any which way they can. He partners up with a seedy, gimp-legged con man named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo played by Dustin Hoffman. With no money, they reside in a condemned building with no utilities and very little food. Joe Buck has to compromise and find unseemly ways to make money while Rizzo dreams about moving to Florida despite getting sicker.
Just as things are starting to look for Joe after the city has beat him down for so long, Rizzo is on the verge of dying. Being eachother’s only friend, Joe does something completely horrific to get the money for them to get on a bus and get to Florida where they hope to have better lives. Joe sheds his cowboy identity and accepts that fact he needs a real job. And even seems to enjoy the prospects of living a normal life. As they get to Florida, Rizzo dies on the bus and Joe is on his own now.
It is not a very happy story. However, it left an incredible impression on me when I was 17. It became my favorite movie. At the time, what I think I got from it was a great example of a film that blended traditional Hollywood cinema with avant-garde elements. Joe has flashbacks and nightmares that feature distorted memories, black and white footage, surreal scenario, and quickly paced editing. At that age, I was learning all about classic Hollywood while only dipping my toes in foreign and cult cinema. Those would come later, so a movie like Midnight Cowboy with it’s qualities seemed so radical to me.
This past weekend, I watched the film for the first time in nearly six years. And the movie means differently to me now. IT is still a beautiful film that evokes certain emotions from me. However, I am drawn to different elements and have a deeper appreciation for the story and the characters in it. I have engaged in sexual intercourse since the first time I saw the movie so sex on film no longer seems so otherworldly or sacred to me, but that’s not my real takeaway from the film. Joe had dreams of making it in a big city, found out how challenging an unforgiving that process was, and reassessed his life as result. Rewatching the film reminded me of my move to Chicago in early 2011. I didn’t know anyone in the city, didn’t have a job lined up, and had never been to Chicago before. I didn’t know what to expect and had no certainty that I would succeed. I was like Joe Buck in a way. Though he assumed he would make it big, he eventually started considering falling back into a dishwasher’s life. For me, I was unsure of what would happen, but I succeeded in getting settled. I appreciated just how much out of water Joe the Fish was and connected with his plight and the story on a more intimate level.
While the film only has two stars, the music in it practically acts as a third. Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin’” is prominently featured throughout the film at length. Initially released in 1968 on his album Aerial Ballet, the song was rereleased in 1969 to be included on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack after Bob Dylan was late in submitting his song “Lay, Lady, Lay.” During the opening credits, the song play in it’s entirety while also making prominent appearances throughout. The song captures the spirit and story of Midnight Cowboy with it’s simple singer-songwriter style. In the song, Nilsson is talking about going where the sun is shining and where the weather suits the clothes on his back. He’s a travelling man on a journey to find a place where he can take his shoes off and call home. However, the listener gets the idea that such a place might not exist. The singer is lost in himself. People are talking to him, but he doesn’t hear or understand what they are saying. Instead, he only hears the echoes of his mind which suggest that the place full of sunshine he is looking for needs to come from within and that no physical manifestation will do unless he overcomes certain mental obstacles. He must be happy with himself before he is happy where he is.
I had never forgotten either the song or the movie, but I had forgotten how beautiful both are and how much I love them. Though an incredibly sad movie, it really helps put things in perspective. You realize your limitations, learn to accept them, and then live your life to the fullest with what you have. It shows that you can still get back up after reaching rock bottom. You just need to want that and to listen to what is going on around you as opposed to what is going on inside your head because the voices inside you may not be the right ones.