“Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” is a documentary as unwieldy as its title. It’s undermined by the sheer scope of its examination, which includes details that are hammered into its study so oddly that they strain credibility. It’s important to note the word “legend” in the title, because this film occasionally feels like myth-making.
Director Nancy Buirski’s film seeks to educate audiences about the history and legacy of 1969′s “Midnight Cowboy,” which, the following year, became the first (and only) X-rated film to win the Oscar for best picture.
When it focuses on the making of “Midnight Cowboy” and weaves in the voices of those involved, “Desperate Souls” is informative and entertaining, if not exactly breaking new ground.
For the uninitiated: “Midnght Cowboy” tells the story of a Texas dishwasher, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), who tries to make it as a gigolo in New York City. He meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly, street-smart drifter whom he befriends. Their friendship comes to a tragic ending, like the film itself, and many other films of this era. Shot on location in New York, “Midnight Cowboy” confronts the viewer with a realism no soundstage could emulate.
These details are explored well. But the documentary gets into trouble when it starts showing side-by-side clips of “Midnight Cowboy” and footage of historical events, a visual strategy of drawing parallels without verbal explanation. Providing context of time and place is always important in discussing movies, but some of the tenuous connections made here feel too much like a reach. For example, what do the race uprisings of the 1960s have to do with a film with so few Black characters in it? A clip isn’t the same thing as a clear answer.
Making matters worse, Buirski uses the same tired needle drops that lesser movies use to evoke “the Sixties” (paging “The Sound of Silence”) and resorts to some really tasteless juxtapositions. An early scene of Voight’s screen test (which is so bad you wonder how he got the lead) suddenly fades into Vietnam War footage of body bags. There’s even a clip from “Apocalypse Now” to go with it.
Early on, we hear from the late author James Leo Herlihy, who wrote the 1965 novel “Midnight Cowboy.” He says in the documentary that he wanted “to write a book about how cruel we are to each other, in such a way that the whole world will cry.” His book wound up in the hands of English director John Schlesinger, who had just made the flop “Far From the Madding Crowd” and was overly cautious about his next project. (He would win the Oscar for “Midnight Cowboy.”)
“[Schlesinger] made the movie because he saw something in the culture that was great to take pictures of,” says Jennifer Salt, the daughter of “Midnight Cowboy” screenwriter Waldo Salt who also had a small role as Buck’s old Texas girlfriend Crazy Annie in the film. Along with critic Lucy Sante and Schlesinger’s nephew, Ian Buruma, Salt’s insights are the most interesting “Desperate Souls” has to offer.
They all speak about something that’s always bugged me about “Midnight Cowboy”: its skittish, harsh treatment of homosexuality and its insistence that Buck could actually solicit rich women when he looks like a walking advertisement for a gay bar. Sante speaks of the unwritten rule that cowboys are inherently homoerotic, and Buruma says that his uncle, who was out and gay, was “never comfortable in his own skin.” Salt chimes in that a lot of Herlihy’s book made Schlesinger nervous, which may explain why I interpret his film the way I do.
We also hear from Schlesinger himself, discussing his childhood, his films, and his sexuality. Clips are shown from his next film, the 1971 bisexual character study “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which is, to me, a far more interesting and controversial work.
Perhaps my mixed opinion of both this documentary and “Midnight Cowboy” stems from the fact that the Times Square of Schlesinger’s film is the same one I knew growing up, and therefore holds none of the shock value that audiences got out of the film. In “Midnight Cowboy,” Bob Balaban plays a gay customer of Buck’s — a role that was erroneously cited as the reason it got an X-rating. Here, Balaban correctly points out that Fifth Avenue “didn’t look like ‘Easter Parade’ and Judy Garland was going to come down singing. It looked as scuzzy as any other part of New York.”
Buirski scores an onscreen interview with Voight, who’s on his best behavior and seems genuinely moved when discussing his most famous role. (Hoffman is only heard in an old audio recording.)
For those unfamiliar with “Midnight Cowboy,” this film may inspire you to see it. For me, “Cowboy” is a product of its time and, as much as “Desperate Souls” wants me to believe in its lasting influence on cinema, I remain unconvinced. Movies like “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde” are better examples of longevity.
DESPERATE SOULS, DARK CITY, AND THE LEGEND OF MIDNIGHT COWBOY
Directed by Nancy Buirski. With Jon Voight, Jennifer Salt, Bob Balaban, Ian Buruma, Lucy Sante, John Schlesinger. At Coolidge Corner. 101 minutes. Unrated.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.