AFI film school #15: Midnight Cowboy — I'm talking here


There is no movie like this one. 

Equal parts hopeful, cynical, funny, sad, sexy, disgusting, artistic, straight-forward, and, of course, weird-- it truly stands on its own. 

It was one of my favorites when I first started truly loving movies, and it’s still one of my favorites now. I’m stoked it’s on the list because it came out in the late 60’s, which was an experimental time for art. And like Abbey Road it was pushing things forward so much and so filled with creativity and talent that it’ll always be both representative of that moment time and also timeless.

With another entry the AFI top 100 list, (loosely following along with the order the podcast many people are talking at, Unspooled).

Here we are with 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, written by Waldo Salt and directed by John Schleshinger.

See what condition my uncondition is in


It might seem that as harsh and as trippy as this film sometimes is, the message is naturally a dark one. But au contraire! It leans towards a much sweeter one: “unconditional love is what we need.”

Joe Buck has a hard time finding this. As we can see from the snippets of his past, he has faced lots of loss. Even his grandma, who seemed to be his most loving parental figure, ditched him for a lover.

He pursues the life of a sex-worker, which is about offering love, but offering it with a firm condition: money. His early romp with Cass ends with them both trying to get money from each other.

Joe feels alone in both home and New York, sticking out like a gangrenous thumb in every environment and having no one who appreciates him or even really wants to talk to him.

But then when he becomes close to Rizzo, he finally has someone who gives two shits about him.

Rizzo is in even worse luck than Joe, but he gets sincere unconditional love back from him in return, sincere in that he screws Joe over, but Joe is still willing to be his friend. This is something Rizzo has probably never experienced.

Their odd friendship gives the movie a ton of heart. And, of course, it makes it even sadder when it’s ripped away in the last scene.

What to do with them dishes


As a teenager, thirty years after the movie was made, I watched it and not only loved it but connected with it. That goes to show how well-made it is.

There’s things that Schlesinger does to create this kind of appeal.


One advantage of books over movies is that books allow us to enter the character’s head, something that movies usually can’t pull-off without voice-over narration, which can often lead to more flaws than benefits.

Midnight Cowboy, on the other hand, is able to show us exactly what’s happening in the characters heads.

It’s filled with fast edits, usually showing us what’s going on in Joe’s mind. The cool part is that we don’t have everything spelled out for us. We only witness bits and pieces, and we’re encouraged to use our imaginations to figure out what happened. This is played out both with his reflections on the past and his fantasies. 

Interestingly, we’re shown that both major characters think in different ways. While Joe Buck’s thoughts are scattered and usually manic and all over the place, we enter one of Rizzo’s fantasies and see that his thoughts--namely the Florida dream sequence--is more detailed and refined.

These connections to their thoughts allow us to identify more with them in ways we normally never get to in film.


Music is a huge piece of the movie. It’s sometimes criticized for it.

But  it is for sure a character. Nilsson isn’t necessarily going for popular music at the time, he’s creating his own flavor. Along with “Everyone’s Talking at Me,” there’s a sad-sounding instrumental that we hear several times in the movie, and seems to be indicative of the way Joe Buck feels.

Music can often be a crutch, trying to create emotion that the filmmaker can’t quite create, but here, with its repetitive use, it becomes much more than that. It becomes an extension of the character. A recurring personal emotion that we’re allowed access to.


Fifty years after the movie was made, there’s still something fresh and even edgy still about it.

Its X rating wasn’t given on accident. This film pushes people out of comfort zones and takes some daring challenging.

But this is one of the cases where not only the AFI saw its importance, but so did the Academy, making it the first ever X-rated picture to receive the Best Picture award.

And it’s this sort of risk that creates new things and makes art better as a whole. The more we play it safe, the more we have the same movie over and over again (something we see a lot today). 

But when we have a movie that acts like Joe Buck, leaving a comfortable existence to achieve something new, then we get stuff that’s going to affect people forever.

If we follow imagination and inspiration, then we might finally arrive at a Florida of our own.

Thanks for reading!

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