This completed my trio of films from the ‘End of Innocence’ strand of archive Hollywood films at the festival. Allan Hunter had his largest and most appreciative audience yet for his introduction. He made a strong argument that Midnight Cowboy marked a fundamental change in Hollywood, a ‘passing of the baton’ from one generation to another – at least in terms of stars. He reminded us that this was the first ‘X’ film to win Best Picture Oscar and he told us an anecdote about how Jon Voight, backstage at the Oscars to collect the Best Director Oscar on behalf of John Schlesinger, was congratulated by Fred Astaire. I’m amazed that the film still had an ’18’ certificate in the UK when the bbfc certified the most recent video copy in 2007. I don’t really understand why it was an ‘X’ in the first place. Hunter argued that Schlesinger was only half ‘out’ as gay at the time (but his next film Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971 features the bisexual young man played by Murray Head who is the lover of both Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch). Midnight Cowboy has a distinct homo-erotic subtext, but the original novel was more clearly the work of a gay writer. I’ve read that the issue in the US was the oral sex scene in the film. I guess we are more used to such scenes now but it must have been ‘shocking’ at the time.
If you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, the narrative sees a a young man from Texas dreaming of a better life in New York. It certainly has been a difficult life so far for Joe Buck (Jon Voight), currently washing dishes in a greasy spoon café. Having saved for new cowboy boots he sets out on a long-distance bus believing New York and ‘rich ladies’ in particular, are waiting for a handsome cowboy stud like Joe. Inevitably he is the naïve rube in the city and is quickly reduced to hustling – which leads him to meet Ritso or ‘Ratso’ (Dustin Hoffman). The pair become an odd couple who attempt to survive a New York winter and then to head for Florida and warmth with tragic results.
Allan Hunter’s definition of ‘New Hollywood’ is based on slightly different ideas than mine I think. Whereas both Alice’s Restaurant and Medium Cool were, in their different ways, offering something new and in the rest of the strand Easy Rider certainly shook up the industry, I think most of the other selections were mainstream films made in the classical manner. True, Voight and Hoffman, when they made Midnight Cowboy, were not yet Hollywood stars and Hunter told us that Schlesinger was able to film them on the street without turning heads. And in the sense that this was a film without established stars it was certainly a surprise that it won so many awards. I’m not arguing that it didn’t deserve them. It still comes across as a very well-made and enjoyable film and I was surprised how much I remembered from it. It also has the benefit of the Nilsson song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ as part of a memorable soundtrack and the little bits of ‘business’, concocted by Hoffman in particular, still work. On the other hand, Schlesinger was already the director of four major UK films, one of which, Darling, won 3 Oscars in 1965. He would go to make four more major pictures in the 1970s but all were mainstream features. The film was also a literary adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel which first appeared in 1965. Herlihy had also written plays and an earlier novel All Fall Down (1960) that became a 1962 film for John Frankenheimer. Herlihy, like Schlesinger was a man of the 1950s and 1960s and not part of the New Hollywood as such. His Wikipedia entry states that he attended Black Mountain College, where Arthur Penn had once studied and later he would appear as an actor in one of Penn’s late films, Four Friends 1981.
But does Midnight Cowboy fit the ‘End of Innocence’. I’m not convinced. Most of the attempts to categorise the changes in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, as the studios declined and the brief interregnum when some offbeat and ‘counter-culture’ influenced films got into mainstream distribution in the 1970s, are problematic. There are no simple cut-off points or starting points. No single film marked the boundary. I would argue that Hollywood changed over a ten-year period from the mid sixties to the mid 70s. Hollywood shrank, most films got smaller. Directors became more important but then films got bigger again and they were sold to audiences more efficiently again. Perhaps the only boundaries are those associated with the so-called ‘Movie Brats’. Francis Ford Coppola made his first mainstream feature You’re a Big Boy Now in 1966 and Stephen Spielberg directed Jaws, one of the first films to have a major national marketing campaign and a wide release building across the summer in 1975. Midnight Cowboy is just one of a number of enjoyable and interesting films that came out in that ten-year period. It could also be approached as a ‘buddy movie’, a film about two men which became a genre staple around this time
The print we watched was a DCP from Park Circus. GFT1 is listed as 2K digital projection.
Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.
I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.
Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.
Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.
So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:
Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)
It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.
The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.
In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.