Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Watching Midnight Cowboy (1969) In Hong Kong

I hesitated to watch Midnight Cowboy (1969) while I was alone here in Hong Kong.

But, as I'm sort of re-watching a lot of Western films these days before I start my full-time job here, it seemed like I needed to.

There's a certain resonance to some of the shots -- like the one below -- and it's no exaggeration to say that I flash-back to those images from John Schlesinger's classic on certain days here.

A few hundred yards from my apartment, there's a spot under the highway where legless -- or worse -- beggars sometimes set up shop.

The sort of guys who would panhandle in D.C. look like well-fed Marines next to the people in these spots.

Then, a walk of a few hundred more feet will take you to shops and stores offering goods at astronomical prices.

It's a jarring juxtaposition every bit as vivid as that film still. And I know I sound a bit naive for just now writing about it but, frankly, it never seems normal.

Those are the only moments where I feel a real sense of culture shock.

I have never felt more alone than I do on a routine basis in Hong Kong. Is it the language barrier or the cultural differences? I am not quite sure.

Now, I didn't write that for sympathy.

It's the sort of loneliness that I don't mind, actually. I feel like I can finally hear myself think.

Without very many fears for my safety -- it's remarkably safe here apart from the pollution -- I can relax.

So back to Midnight Cowboy (1969).

I watched the film for the first time when I was 13, in 1980, when it was shown in a heavily-edited version on WTTG Channel 5, late one Saturday night.

The film stunned me as, obviously, I was sharp enough to get a sense of most of what was cut-out.

And, oddly, it's the one film that I've never gotten tired of, or bored with. It works the same way every single time I sit down with it.

For both its intellectual and emotional effects on me as a viewer, I'd have to be honest and say that it is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time.

Oddly, it's also one of the very rare films where the sad ending does make me cry.

(I'm one of those oddballs who cries easily at happy and joyous films and not at the ones trying hard to be sad.)

Just like when I was 13, the ending is a punch in the stomach. It's heavy, sad, beautiful, poetic -- just perfect.

It's one of the greatest moments in the history of cinema as far as I'm concerned.

But that ending, unlike most sad endings, is earned. It's earned through the character development of the film.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) is wildly dated in spots -- the flashbacks, the editing, the very style of some sequences -- but it's also so...filmic that it's almost impossible to imagine the story working in the original novel.

Somehow both gritty and impressionistic, realistic and experimental, the picture presents a lot of little moments and little of an overarching plot.

But, miraculously, the effect is there every time I view it because all of those little moments add up to the story of two souls that connect in New York City.

The plot is literally that simple.

A story of friendship, Midnight Cowboy (1969), while harshly downbeat in that gut-punch of a finale, reminds us to cherish whatever connections we can make in this life.

We won't soon get another chance.

It's only a matter of time before each of us is just a big X like Ratzo says.