{Second Take} [1969] Midnight Cowboy

It is through his music preferences, not his dress, that the audience first learns of Midnight Cowboy‘s protagonist, Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight), cow-pokin’, cattle-ropin’ ways. Despite the iconic image of Buck’s unironic fringe jacket and cowboy boots strutting around grey New York, Buck’s home-on-the-range origins are first evinced by his singing “Git Along, Little Dogies” to himself in the shower during the opening credits. The soundtrack to the film and the use of music within the narrative provide much of Joe Buck’s characterization, but viewers may not know the final track list was almost drastically different.

Midnight Cowboy provided two immutable contributions to American culture: The disgruntled pedestrian and reckless cabbie interaction of “I’m walkin’ here!,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the film’s theme. The movie propelled the song to the status of enduring hit, far outweighing Nilsson’s other significant contributions to American music culture, despite the song being a Fred Neil original while Nilsson’s own original track was overlooked. This was neither uncommon in the late 1960s folk scene nor Nilsson’s career specifically, as folk musicians and record labels swapped covers and songwriting credits almost haphazardly, and certainly without so much pretense regarding copyright as they do today. Continue reading

[1969] Midnight Cowboy

What a difference a year makes. Between 1969 and 1970, between Midnight Cowboy and Patton, some monumental shift realigned what kind of film could earn the Most Prestigious Award in western filmmaking. Not only are both movies enshrined as Best Picture winners, but are almost thematic polar opposites released just a few months apart. If we extend a film metaphor, that what we capture and release on film accurately reflects some kind of zeitgeist, it follows logically that we can assume the world changed significantly between the end of the decade and the start of the next. But let’s talk about a film’s MPAA “rating:” the elusive “X” given to Midnight Cowboy and the harmless “PG” awarded to Patton in 1970. Was public attitude shifting away from the queer and more towards the centre and the normal?

Since its creation, the Motion Picture Association of America has attempted to create some soft and hard guidelines as to regulate the movie-making process. Originally founded in 1922 (making it older than the Academy), the MPAA sought to create a standard for filmmakers, actors, producers and financiers to ensure stability, both financially and, for a while, morally. For the first 46 years in existence, the MPAA sought (especially under Will Hays) to standardize theme, content and production to a code up to focus on “wholesome” films and ones that don’t include “profanity” or “indecency.” In 1968, after several revisions and unraveling of the restrictive code, Jack Valenti sought to rework Hays’ code into the modern rating system still in use today – shifting the morality burdens off of the producers and onto the viewers, and specifically the parents of children Hays tried to protect.

Curious, then that Midnight Cowboy won an Oscar as the first (and only) X-rated film. This fact is mostly irrelevant seeing as the definition of an X-rated film has changed even more dramatically from 1968 to 2014 than the code has from 1922 to 1968; the definition of profanity has changed more than the actuality of the content; the technology and clarity of the filmmaking process has overshadowed the content somewhat. More likely than not, the rating created fantastic hype around the film, whose only true X-rated premise delves into the correlation between male prostitution and homosexuality. These themes in 2014 most likely would earn this film a soft R-rating – and in fact the newly reformed MPAA rerated the X-rating into an R fewer than 2 years after its release. Continue reading

[1969] Z

At the end of the alphabet is the letter “Z.” In our youth we could breathe a sigh of relief that we, in fact, did remember all 26 letters of the alphabet and that we weren’t doomed to a life of illiteracy; to be a statistic of the lower, lower class , who among other things cannot afford themselves the ability to read or write or to communicate successfully with the outside world. For too many of these people, the letter “Z” means nothing; mimicable in dirt but without tangibility, dramatic in construction but flaccid in interpretation.

But for those whose language is of a Latin or Greek descent, the letter “Z” – zee, zeta or zed – signifies rarity, hundreds or thousands of words instead of tens or hundreds of thousands. We perk up at the sight of it or hearing of it because it usually signifies an interesting or scientific term. In that way, it’s striking in its rarity. But when Costa-Gavras titled his iconic third film Z he wanted to strike the audience with its ubiquity. Masterfully maddening, meddling and caustically blunt, Z succeeds in pushing its message organically where many of its logical influences, contemporaries and where modern films fall comically flat. This film feels genuine.

The ingenuity most likely has to do with the immediacy of the subject matter and the political zing afforded to it; it helps that this story takes place before the deux ex machina era of cellular technology and the Internet. The story has to be logical and syllogistic becaiuse there is no quick out to a discrepancy in logic here. Title character Z (Yves Montand) plays a rather pensive leader of an anti-war faction, whose rallies upset the incumbent profit-focused regime. Fittingly, the military whose “democracy” takes extreme liberty with the word does everything it can to upset an impeding rally and speech by our main character – sudden venue change and lack of active protection – and in the midst of the rather obvious confusion that follows the speech (radicalized youths + “freedom” of speech and expression; what could go wrong), Z is struck on the head, and after several quick surgeries, dies. Continue reading