Spotlight on NYC in film series

In Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight, left) and Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) stand around with nowhere to go because of the power the city has over them.By Emily Landgraf

To combat the economic problems plaguing the nation’s cities, Hollywood stepped in during the late ’60s and early ’70s to portray the crisis.

Midnight Cowboy is one of the most important movies on the subject from that time period, according to Dr. Art Simon, a professor of English and cinema studies at Montclair State University.

Simon, who has written on American film, spoke about “Midnight Cowboy and the Urban Crisis” on Oct. 20 as the first guest speaker in the Movies in America series.

Simon spoke about what he refers to as a “fascinating cycle of films” produced from about 1968 to 1975 in the United States that focused on the American city in crisis — particularly New York City.

“Between 1968 and 1975, the American cinema turned back to the city, and New York City, in a very concentrated way,” said Simon.

The number of films produced and filmed in New York City during that time period is considerable. Many of the most acclaimed films of that time, such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Seven-Ups, French Connection and Midnight Cowboy, were filmed in part, or entirely, in New York.

There was an explosion of interest in the city during this time, according to Simon, “and the most resonant image is that of the city in decline.” In these movies, the city is a symbol of a larger concern over the unraveling of the social fabric.

Simon said the city is a condition of existence, which keeps the protagonist from really exerting control over his or her life. The city-in-decline image rose from the economic problems of the time such as unemployment, inflation, enormous trade deficits and an energy crisis.

“The period was widely understood as the end of post-war abundance,” said Simon. “These films about the city in crisis in many ways marked the end of a
certain feeling of optimism about America and life in the city.”

Just as things were really starting to look bad, Hollywood showed up on the scene with cameras in hand and a documentary impulse.

These films represented a way for filmmakers to be topical and serve as a kind of barometer for the division and violence in American cities during this period, said Simon.

Simon used clips from Midnight Cowboy, French Connection and The Seven-Ups to demonstrate this new style of film. According to him, Midnight Cowboy is the most important of these urban crisis films.

The film speaks to several genres, including the Western, the urban crisis movie and the road movie.

Usually, the city is viewed as nurturing to immigrants. Midnight Cowboy explores the other side of the story: the failure of the immigrant and the immigrant’s children to become successful in America.

One of the main characters, Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), is the son of an Italian immigrant, and has no more success than his father, who died poor and crippled.

Also, in Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), the cowboy, is overwhelmed by the city. By taking the cowboy and impoverishing him in the nation’s economic capital, all of the values attributed to the Western figure are called into question.

These films were realistic and gritty in a way that American films had not been before.

Simon stated that Midnight Cowboy is a film that points in many different directions and is a gateway to studying the films made during this time period, which was a very important period in American film.

“I think it’s important for students to study the history of film,” he said.

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