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Visualising Sound Pt. II - Midnight Cowboy

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Visualising Sound Pt. II - Midnight Cowboy

In trying to pick out a film for this, the second edition of Visualising Sound, I found myself trying to directly oppose my first feature on Under the Skin. If Mica Levi's soundtrack was knowingly abrasive, I looked for the soothing green pastures of The Sound of Music. If Levi composed original pieces, I pored over the cut and paste glory of Guardians of the Galaxy. If Levi belied the human voice, I listened to reams of acapella-only scores (oh, how I wish this last one were true). And, whilst a direct opposition would probably have been the 90s throwback stylings of Spice World, or, what I can only assume is, the bubblegum-pink pop orgy of The Emoji Movie score, I settled somewhere in between. A heady concoction of original compositions and period-appropriate psychedelia and soul, John Barry’s soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy actually shares a similar modus operandi with Levi's, in that they both seek to displace the familiar. Appropriately awarded at the time for its innovation, the score now appears decidedly postmodern thanks to its blend of archetypal Western scoring and 60s rock.

In what must be one of the defining shots of the New Hollywood era, the film opens on a blank oblong as a host of classic cowboy sounds compete for the audience’s ear; gunshots ricochet, horses trample rock underfoot, unseen cowboys holler and hoot. The speed and vitality of the hidden cowboys’ actions are audible even if their Stetsons aren’t, signalling, as they do, a very male-oriented conception of freedom. In the first of many successful unions between John Barry’s music supervision and director John Schlesinger’s vision of a bygone era, as the camera steadily pulls out and the sound fades away, we’re left with the image of a lone child rocking back on forth on a children’s playground horse, beneath the empty white of a Drive-In theatre screen. Unsurprisingly, the film that follows is deeply concerned with the male ego, its connection with sexuality and infantility, and the virile shadow cast by the hypermasculine imagery perpetuated by the Western genre.


When Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969, not only had the age of cowboys playing out their machismo fantasies on the dusty cusp of civilisation long past, but the age of the Western’s centrality to blockbuster cinema was also nearing its close. With the completion of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy in 1965 with The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the Western seemed fated to decline in favour. As with any genre that dominates popular culture for such a period, its idiosyncrasies had long since become standardised; just as every superhero film must end with a levitating object (man-made or otherwise) crashing towards the earth, so did every Western end with a showdown on the besieged town’s high street. But, whilst Midnight Cowboy avoids such obvious imagery, exchanging the open vistas of John Ford’s oeuvre for the knotted industrial maze of New York, it regularly makes use of aural and visual cues that serve to elucidate the film’s central themes.

Following the thunderous mission statement that opens the film, the hooting and hollering of engorged male larynxes gives way to the similarly disorienting repetition of a single phrase by multiple voices: “Where’s that Joe Buck?” Whilst this largely serves to characterise Buck as a layabout rebel, the reiteration of his name forces it to take on an almost lyrical quality before we're even acquainted with the figure in question – Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ this is not. If Eastwood’s anti-hero is defined by the fascination of those around him, alongside his enigmatic lack of backstory, Joe Buck is defined immediately by other's contempt. This aural medley plays out against our visual introduction to Buck (played with genuine empathy by Jon Voight) which only serves to further emphasise this distinction – though his tasselled silhouette wouldn't appear out of place looming in the background of a 50s film poster, in rural Texas he's a dated buffoon, with idealistic dreams far beyond his station. 

However, Buck's quixotic desires are by no means reflective of the American dream so often anthropomorphised in the good-hearted cowboy at the core of the Western – rather than pulling himself up by the straps on his laceless boots, Buck's intention is to pull himself up by his jockstrap. Instead of the Wild West, his sights are firmly set on the mythic East of New York – backed by the jaunty central tune of 'Everybody's Talkin'' he comically tells his colleague that “There's a lot of rich women back there, Ralph. Begging for it, paying for it too!” But, his barked tales of rich lustrous women paying for his sexual services are all too quickly juxtaposed with painful, half-glimpsed childhood memories indicative of past abuse, backed only by the haunting tones of a pitched-down choral vocal. His grandmother's voice shudders through Buck's head at a glacial pace, crooning in a cloying and claustrophobic fashion suggestive of a depraved interest in vulnerability, quivering with false frailty. For Buck, male sexuality is tied to experiences he'd rather leave behind – the fact that this short scene cuts through the non-diegetic sound suggests that the two are inextricably linked.

In the modern cinema landscape, the Bond series seems to be one of the few major franchises that still makes use of the original song as a core theme, but John Barry is much more conscious of the aforementioned central ditty, 'Everybody's Talkin'' by Harry Nilsson. In one of many recognisably postmodern flourishes, Buck stalks the streets of New York, leering at woman with a gradually decreasing confidence, all the while backed by the ironic inversion of Nilsson's yearning for isolation from the same contact Buck yearns for. The crushing realisation of his small-fish status comes when, just as people fail to acknowledge him, so to do they fail to take heed of a man collapsed in the street – free n' breezy Texas this ain't. Even those who do decide to take him up on his services are separated from him by illicit telephone conversations and the indistinguishable static of a rapidly-changing television set, barely ever understanding what transaction is taking place.

Buck's naïve interpretation of the city finally crumbles with his being conned by consummate scumbag Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), and the film accordingly caves in around him. Spurred on by the image of a toilet-dwelling, neon-lit Jesus, Buck runs through various hallways, alleyways and subways as a confused jumble of sexually violent images tumble through his mind and across the viewer's eyes, backed by propulsive psychedelic guitars. Just as black and white footage is juxtaposed with colour, so the relatively bombastic rock music is interspersed with unsettling vocal samples, like the incessant call of a raving religious maniac, and a subtly modulated siren straight from a sci-fi serial. As the montage reaches its fever pitch, a woman's scream segues into the screeching cry of a train, a sign of another scarring memory innately tied to Buck's sexuality. For a film of this era to delve so deeply into a character’s fractured mentality was not only bold, but disturbing, and the discordant psychedelia provides a unique insight into Buck’s delicate disposition.

Unlike Buck's later drug sequence which trades heavily in ethereal female vocals, oscillating synthesisers and impressionistic crossfading, there's something more sinister at play here, fuelled as it is by paranoia and rage. As he holds a bottle aloft threateningly, the sound of glass smashing repeats itself internally, but Buck finds his centre and places it back down in a disgruntled fashion. It's hard not to see this uncomfortable, drawn-out sound manipulation as a progenitor of the kind of sonic experimentation later found in the wave of electronic artists brought in under Aphex Twin and Autechre, such is the impact when coupled with the partially-concealed disquieting memories. When the film journeys into Buck's mind, we bear witness to a cacophonous orchestra of grating sound effects, protracted screams and sirens, creating a nightmarish soundboard formed of half-glimpsed abuse and half-forgotten trauma. Barry proves that embracing film’s capacity as a visual medium doesn’t require ignoring the audio-visual dynamic, but rather not being subservient to dialogue as the sole storytelling tool.

Buck’s pawning of his treasured radio for a measly five dollars signals another turning point from circling misery to finally plunging down the plughole. With it, he sacrifices his nuevo-cowboy image, and recognises the futility of his naive dreams. Rather than the liquid exchange he felt assured he’d engage in with a menagerie of beautiful spinsters, instead Buck is forced to drain himself of blood as a donor in the pursuit of a fistful of dollars, but instead of the handsome sum Eastwood’s character is left with, Buck gets less than ten. As the film continues along this despondent route, the recurring mournful harmonicas come to symbolise ever more a forgotten past, a time when the frontier was wide and a man might truly be able to pull himself up by his spur-adorned boots. It's telling that they swell once more in the final sombre scene, speaking of lost opportunities, and the uncaring face of modern America. Having lost his cattle suitcase early on, along with everything except the tassled clothes on his back, in the end, he discards the tattered rags with no more gravity than a balled-up newspaper.

In Rizzo's eyes, a cowboy is a thing of the past, an outdated style relegated to the homosexual hookers he refers to disparagingly, but simultaneously seems fascinated by. In a particularly heated exchange, he exclaims “No rich lady with any class at all buys that cowboy crap anymore! They're laughing at you on the street.” In this way, Midnight Cowboy reads as both cutting commentary on the lives of struggling hustlers, and the increasingly tone-deaf nature of Hollywood’s obsession with cowboys in a world far removed from them. Though his impact is less tangible than perhaps Mica Levi’s was, John Barry’s work embodies an attempt to refute simple narratives of tumid male members – Buck keeps telling himself he likes to fuck, but the cramped symphony of his interiority tells the audience another, more guarded tale. When asked by a prospective pimp as to the nature of his dress, it's telling that Buck responds “I ain’t a forreal cowboy, but I am one hell of a stud.” The fact that these two concepts were once synonymous, but were fast becoming parodical in their partnership, is at the heart of Barry and Schlesinger’s creation.