Venice Film Fest 2022 Review: “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” Gets Everybody Talking Again

“When people express their own time, it’s generally by accident,” the cultural critic Lucy Sante says near the outset of “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of ‘Midnight Cowboy,’” a history of the improbable 1970 Best Picture winner that emerges in director Nancy Buirski’s view as a remarkable confluence of shifting cultural tides and a raft of artists all swimming in the same direction out of different but no less passionate impulses. A powder keg at the time that carried an “X” rating for its suggestions of gay sex and its largely unprecedented street-level view of New York, flying in the face of Hollywood fare such as “On The Town,” “Midnight Cowboy” may seem a bit tame by today’s standards thanks to the doors that it opened, yet its fire is restored when Buirski builds upon Glenn Frankel’s 2021 book “Shooting Midnight Cowboy” to summon the kind of feverish engagement around its inciting ideas that is perhaps the best tribute that could be offered to its enduring legacy.

Vividly illustrating how John Schlesinger and Waldo Salt were drawn together to speak to the moment they were in, with the director reeling from the period misfire “Far From the Madding Crowd” and Salt reemerging from the Hollywood blacklist, the film initially acts as a stealth biography of the underappreciated filmmakers, articulating how Schlesinger was ready to tell the story of the outcasts Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) after seeing Manhattan as a Brit and bringing to bear his background in documentaries and his own experience living in an unkind world as a gay man while Salt, remembered by his daughter Jennifer, was an ideal partner when he was robbed of his livelihood during the Red Scare. Buirski and editor Anthony Ripoli have developed an engrossing signature style over the years on films ranging from “By Sidney Lumet” to “A Crime on the Bayou,” seemingly scattershot at first when only loosely intertwined with a chronological timeline – here, learning of how “Midnight Cowboy” got the green light comes well after Voight talks about losing out the Oscar to John Wayne for “True Grit” – but inviting and expansive in their conversational affect, giving each dimension of complicated histories their due.

It’s rather canny that “Desperate Souls” begins and ends with clips from their corresponding place in the film it’s about when it mirrors the expansive experience audiences in the late ‘60s must’ve had with “Midnight Cowboy,” each scene a trigger for a torrent of images of the sociopolitical circumstances it was responding to and provocative notions about how it fit into the larger sweep of cinema history, with thoughtful analysis from Sante, J. Hoberman and Schlesinger’s nephew and scholar Ian Buruma ruminating on its connections to post-war Italian cinema, a tradition of Westerns to reflect international conflicts and how homosexuality was handled under the threat of censorship. Despite the absence of Hoffman, who is only heard in audio interviews given to Frankel, there are also plenty of delicious tidbits from the production, whether it’s Jennifer Salt remembering her then-boyfriend Voight getting on well with Abbie Hoffman or Brenda Vaccaro thanking costume designer Ann Roth for coming up with a fur robe as a novel solution to obscure her body during a sex scene. Still, in “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of ‘Midnight Cowboy,’” the juiciest parts are digging into the film itself, a work of art that warrants the lavish treatment Buirski gives it and can be expected to get everybody talking again.

“Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” will screen again at the Venice Film Festival on September 2nd at the Sala Volpi at 5 pm.