Thursday, June 22, 2023

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy

If the Hollywood industrial complex will stealth-censor The French Connection, how long will it be before they remove the “problematic” parts from Midnight Cowboy? Don’t immediately dismiss the notion. After all, Popeye Doyle’s censored racist comments were intended as the opposite of an endorsement—and the French Connection won more Oscar’s than John Schlesinger’s X-rated best picture winner. Instead of pondering this question, Nancy Buirski’s interview subjects spend a lot of time talking about the Vietnam war and the cultural climate of the late 1960s in the awkwardly titled Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy (it is also missing a serial comma), which opens tomorrow in New York.

According to the talking heads, the era of
Midnight Cowboy was the best of times and the worst of times. The film faithfully captured the gritty, sleazy desperation of New York City when it was literally teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Yet, it was greenlighted at a time when the studios were giving talented young filmmakers virtual carte blanche, provided they work within reasonable budget constraints.

It was also a time when major studio films were including increasing explicit sexual content.
Midnight Cowboy was also one of the first films to depict homosexuality, in dangerous underground encounters that make Jon Voigt’s Joe Buck character freak out in rather homophobic ways. Apparently, this was all made possible by the Vietnam protest movement, which Desperate Souls etc. etc. discusses almost as much as Schlesinger’s film. It also clearly pre-supposes the audience only shares the New Left’s perspective, showing no affinity for the experiences of veterans, their families, or the Vietnamese boat people, who desperately fled for their lives after the fall of Saigon.

Perhaps more “problematic” is the uncritical discussion of screenwriter Waldo Salt’s blacklisting during the McCarthy Era. The Blacklist was an ugly practice, yet we know with certainty from the Venona decryptions, the CPUSA (which Salt had joined) worked hand-and-glove with the KGB and NKVD. Are you happy Putin has threatened Ukraine with nuclear weapons? Then thank former CPUSA party members, like Harry Gold and Julius Rosenberg, who revealed the secrets of the atom bomb to Stalin.

Frankly, the only interesting sequences in
Desperate Souls are Jon Voigt’s interview segments discussing his involvement with the counter-culture at the time, given his current standing as Hollywood’s most outspoken Trump supporter. You could say he always was a rebel.

It is also telling Dustin Hoffman never appears as an interview participant. He is still very much alive and he had a somewhat important role in the film (he was nominated for best actor), but Hoffman has been largely “canceled,” or blacklisted, for sexual misconduct allegations. His absence is especially glaring, especially considering how often other commentators refer to
The Graduate.

Desperate Souls
is an unfocused film. It is also another example of a documentary in desperate need of more diverse viewpoints. Since everyone sees the film and the era in which it was produced almost entirely the same way, they largely say the same things. Not recommended (not even to passionate admirers of Midnight Cowboy), Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy opens tomorrow (6/23) in New York, at Film Forum.