Credit: Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist Films
by Conor Truax Featured Film Horizon Line

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy — Nancy Buirski

June 28, 2023

There’s been a recent trend of revisiting the makings of great Hollywood classics, and with her new documentary — Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy — Nancy Buirski adds to this retrospection, tapping into five decades worth of articles, interviews, and media footage to create a portrait in collage of the making of the 1969 watershed film Midnight Cowboy. Over the course of her doc, Buirski makes a compelling case not only for the existence of Glenn Frankel’s 300-page, 2021 book Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic, but for Midnight Cowboy’s veneration as the best of the decade it concluded, and the mark of the decade born anew.

By relying less on the Netflix-docu sterility of relentless talking heads, Buirski creates a living, breathing depiction of an unsanitized New York during a time of incredible, destabilizing change — the moon landing, the Manson murders. With an adept fluidity, Buirski zooms in on and out from subjects big and small, from the social context of the Vietnam War to Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman’s brilliant performances, and from the blacklisting of screenwriter Waldo Salt to the near collapse of the grimy metropolis that is distinct in form and texture from the New York City that remains today. Importantly, Buirski also threads thought-provoking context around the personal and social histories of the cast and the worlds in which they grew, allowing the viewer to understand, empathetically, Midnight Cowboy’s role in symbolizing a widespread acceptance of homosexual subject matter that would have previously drawn censorship. The year 1969 was not only a year of moon landings and murder; it was the year of the Stonewall Riots and the birth of national gay liberation.

At times, the didactic repetition of this same theme speaks to a broader lack of focus throughout this documentary that is at odds with its more fluid style. With a runtime of an hour and 41 minutes, Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy ambitiously tackles the diagnosis of the state of a society through the critical lens of the making of the film, and perhaps unfairly so. If this was not challenging enough, Buirski also focuses, with meandering tangentiality, on personal stories of the cast and crew. The result is a film that richly arranges itself in a state of disorder, but that sometimes doesn’t give enough time for interesting subject matter to coalesce into something meaningful; something strong and firm rather than soft and gaudy. A stark example of this can be found in the treatment of James Leo Herlihy, the author of the novel that was adapted into the original film, and a close friend to Tennessee Williams and Anaïs Nin. He’s only mentioned once with any real focus, and the message imparted is cursory at best. The other two mentions are swept away within the film’s rhythms, unfortunately filtering salient signals of a time gone by into background noise.

In certain moments, it feels as if Buirski’s film is overflowing, the volume of information that it tries to condense too great. But the flow of that motion is also often beautiful, and can be completely engrossing, especially as it shifts between film footage and archival footage of New York — of America — in the 1960s. There are moments of contradictory confusion between the creeping score, the original footage, and the talking head narration, but even in these moments — which are sometimes totally jarring — Desperate Souls, Dark City captures the cultural ferment of a decade, as well as the brilliance of an accidental synergy found at a critical point of shifting societal tectonics. Director John Schlesinger was able to cohere all of this in a meaningful way, made all the more impressive by doing so at a scale as simple as the tender platonic love of two hustlers in New York.

But as is said in the documentary, “It’s not all about culture. It’s about what’s good.” At the end of the film, Michael Childers, John Schlesinger’s longtime partner, comments that after a stroke on New Year’s Day in 2001, John was mostly confined to a wheelchair for the remaining three years of his life. Michael notes, “He couldn’t sleep, but we had more communication than ever through our eyes.” With Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy, Buirski does Schlesinger’s spirit justice with her rich and melodic visual style, which proves itself a worthy means by which to study one of America’s great films.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 25.

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