Wrapped loosely in the packaging of a documentary, “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of the Midnight Cowboy,” is written and directed by Nancy Buirski. It features Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Brian de Palma, Charles Kaiser, Lucy Sante, Brenda Vaccaro, the voice of John Schlesinger, and many others who either were in “Midnight Cowboy,” involved in its production, or were admirers of the film.
When the documentary opens with a closeup of Jon Voight, recalling an existential crisis by director John Schlesinger after the completion of “Midnight Cowboy,” the film almost implicitly states that it will be about the creation of that film. Yet, “Desperate Souls” only lightly touches on the creation of “Cowboy.” Instead, this film spends most of its time investigating the era during which it was made. “Midnight Cowboy” lived at the nexus of a war, the civil rights movement, and the early beginnings of the gay rights movement.
The first examination in the film is how the Vietnam War framed it. The war is cited as the major factor in turning the world from the happy-go-lucky land of movie musicals to gritty reality-based films like “Midnight Cowboy” that did not flinch from portraying the city of New York in its reality. Schlesinger began in Europe and was exposed to the work of other creatives like John Richardson, who used a certain reality in making their films, a style Schlesinger adopted.
When the film abruptly shifts gears to speaking about John’s homosexuality and the impact of the world upon him, we begin to understand the motivations that he and writer Waldo Salt had in creating the relationship between the movie’s stars. Schlesinger, a closeted homosexual who flirted with communism and was nearly banned by Hollywood, was buoyed by the confidence he received with “Midnight Cowboy” would later release “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a story that depicts what was called one of the most open and honest on-screen portrayals of homosexuality.
The documentary then shifts to a discussion of the civil rights movement, starting with the death of JFK. In one scene, Charles Kaiser notes that the gay pride movement “co-opted” the ideals and used them “unfortunately, better than the civil rights movement” in furthering their agenda.
If this review seems a little scattered and clumsy, it is because it is an intentional recreation of the tone and direction of “Desperate Souls.” The movie’s direction is not unfocused but is very non-linear in its presentation, allowing it to meander from subject to subject with loose connections. One of the interviewees, Lucy Sante, even audibly wonders how she got on a certain train of thought as she is relating a story.