THE STORY – Extensive archival material and compelling new interviews illuminate how the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy” captured the essence of a time and a place, reflecting a rapidly changing society with striking clarity.
THE CAST – Nancy Buirski (Director/Writer) & Glenn Frankel (Writer)
THE TEAM – Jon Voight, Waldo Salt & Jennifer Salt
THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes
Nancy Buirski’s “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” is an odd beast of a film. A combination of film criticism, socioeconomic tract, and historical archive, the film looks at the 1969 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Midnight Cowboy,” within the context of the period in which it was made. Through a series of interviews with the film’s surviving actors, those close to them, and cultural critics/historians, in addition to archival interviews with director John Schlesinger and co-star Dustin Hoffman (as well as a Zoom interview with Brian De Palma), Buirski distills the essence of Glenn Frankel’s book “Shooting Midnight Cowboy” to an hour and forty densely-packed minutes of analysis. Simultaneously too much and not enough, Buirski’s film manages to situate its subject perfectly in a historical context. However, it leaves many ideas either half-formed or glanced over in its effort to cover so much in such a tight timeframe.
“Midnight Cowboy” stood at the intersection of many ongoing cultural movements: the youth-led revolt against the Vietnam War, the burgeoning gay community (especially in big cities like New York), the civil rights movement, the Warhol art scene, and several movements in film style and production. According to one interviewee, Schlesinger and his team captured the feeling of the era almost by accident. The homosexual Brit Schlesinger simply saw things in America that no one else was looking at, and by putting them on the screen in the vein of British kitchen-sink dramas, laid America bare. Plenty of connections exist to be drawn between the film, its makers, and the world around them, which can happen at length in a book but not so much in a film. Buirski clearly wants to leave no stone unturned in her analysis, trying wherever she can to draw connections solely through the interplay of footage from the film and stock footage from the period. This can be effective, but the connections made in this way don’t register as strongly as those made with images and words, leaving Buirski’s arguments feeling somewhat off-balance. In addition, since those involved with the production make up the majority of the interview subjects, their general feelings about how the film reflected the culture of the time take pride of place over those of the historians and more academically-minded interviewees, which doesn’t always lend the best credence to the arguments they try to bring forth.
All that said, however, “Desperate Souls, Dark City…” remains compelling all the way through. The recollections of cast members Jon Voight, Jennifer Salt, Bob Balaban, and Brenda Vaccaro carry the weight of people who have been thinking about this film and its place in history quite a lot over the past five decades due to their involvement with it. While some of the other interview subjects can feel shoehorned in (a film critic like James Hoberman makes some kind of sense, but the inclusion of De Palma, in an obvious Zoom screen capture, nearly breaks the film), everyone is well-spoken and compelling to listen to, which is often all you need for a good documentary. The film’s target, though, is so wide that any film covering it thoroughly would have to be longer than this and ideally would include more scholarly interview subjects to make its points more authoritative.
Buirski is merely the latest filmmaker to have fallen for the classic trap of sacrificing depth for breadth. While not necessarily a wrong approach, doing so leaves the audience outside of your subject looking in instead of placing them directly in the heart of it. “Midnight Cowboy” put its audience in the heart of its grimy world, ensuring they’ll never forget it. While Buirski’s analysis does an excellent job reminding audiences of that and analyzing how Schlesinger and his team accomplished that, Buirski never tries to do the same with her film. What results is a documentary that covers an impressive amount but doesn’t give the audience enough to take home and savor either.