I N   S E A R C H   O F   M A S C U L I N I T Y
P a g e   F o u r :   J o e   B u c k   a n d   H i s   I d o l
J o e   B u c k   h a n g s   a   p o s t e r   o f   H u d   i n   h i s   N e w   Y o r k   h o t e l   r o o m .
A R T I C L E   B Y   A N N   B A R R O W

An example of John Schlesinger's use of intertextuality in Midnight Cowboy can be seen when Joe hangs a poster for Hud on his hotel wall while settling into New York after leaving Texas. In the movie poster, Newman stands aloof, dressed in tight jeans, shirt, and cowboy boots, removed from and disdainful of the reader, as he is in the film. He mirrors Hud's contempt for others. The caption beneath this towering image of masculinity reads: "Paul Newman is The Man with the Barbed Wire Soul." Soft to the touch, yet lethal to embrace. The theme of masculinity as performance, or as commodity, resounds through both texts. The fact that Hud is Joe's idol speaks volumes to his growing sense of disillusionment, desperation, and estrangement from the traditional values of the Western. For Hud symbolizes a man who is tough, gritty, and sexually successful, a predator of women, yet as hard as Joe tries, he finds that he cannot make it in the hustling world of men like Hud.
A customer (Sylvia Miles) hits up Joe Buck (Jon Voight) for cash in Midnight Cowboy.
[click photo for larger version]

Another subversion of the Western genre can be seen in Joe's traveling from west to east, rather than east to west. Cowboys typically try to escape from the greedy, villainous easterners; whereas, Joe travels east to New York in pursuit of cashing in on the market of sexually desirous and desiring middle-aged, rich women, because the men in New York are in Joe's words, mostly "tooty-fruities." Unlike the inverted direction of his travels, however, Joe's attitudes to both genders parallel the Western genre's attitude towards civilized society.

Joe's journey from Texas to New York to Florida symbolizes his inner-struggle against America's gender construct of masculinity that, in Fiske's words: "teaches men that their masculinity depends upon successful performance (which is typically measured by material rewards and social esteem), and then denies many of them the means of achieving this success."NOTE 4

Joe Buck, in the tradition of the "Social Contract theory" as examined by Will Wright in The Wild West: The Mythical Cowboy & Social Theory, has a "lowly or illegal job, or he may be unemployed. He is still, however, a social hero, the equal of anyone and superior to many."NOTE 5 He may not be a real cowboy, but in Joe's words, he is "one hell of a stud." Yet, for Joe, this ironic position unravels by the film's ending when he disengages from his cowboy persona and exclaims, "I'm really not much of a stud." Prior to Joe's re-absorption into mainstream, civilized society, he must first embark upon a dangerous journey. Joe's picaresque adventuresNOTE 6 comprise geographical travels that mirror his psychological journey through America's ideology of gender performance.
Joe (Jon Voight) struggles to perform when he gets a beautiful, rich client (Brenda Vaccaro).
[click photo for larger version]

Midnight Cowboy opens with a screen filled with white, a tabula rosa, on which Schlesinger will write his ironic portrayal of the modern cowboy. The camera pulls back from this white screen to show that it is a drive-in movie screen. Schlesinger's opening frame creates disequilibrium in the reader that reflects the film's ironic positioning of the white male who is symbolically imbued with power within American ideology, yet in reality is at the mercy of others. The opening shot immediately creates confusion in the reader of the text as we are not sure what to make of the blank screen before us. Northrop Frye describes this sense of uncertainty, or puzzlement, as characteristic of irony: "[W]henever a reader is not sure what the author's attitude is or what his own is supposed to be, we have irony."NOTE 7 Schlesinger's film creates from the onset, to borrow Walter Benjamin's concept, an "aura"NOTE 8 of irony, caused by the appropriation of known signifiers for unknown reasons. Schlesinger makes a bold statement by appropriating the very sign of entertainment, the projection screen, in order to project his critique of America. The reader, therefore, is challenged by Schlesinger's disrupting opening shot to forego preconceived ideas of the Western and to embrace the absence of the cowboy and other signifiers of the Western genre.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) in the opening sequence from Midnight Cowboy.
[click photo for multiple photos from this scene]

Schlesinger further disrupts the reader's security by introducing a male voice singing in the background. The film begins with a white absence that begins to be filled with white noise. First, the projection screen within a screen, and that of the actual screen we are viewing and the film's empty screen combine to enhance the film's puzzlement. Schlesinger, however, avoids the ambivalence that Hans Robert Jauss speaks of that can result from too much tension within a text on the part of the reader by having the camera pull back from the blank, white screen in order to reveal other signs of the Western—signs that his reader is familiar with, and therefore, can recognize and accept.NOTE 9

As the camera pulls back, we see beneath the drive-in screen a few horses grazing in the desert, next to children's deserted toy horses that are rocking in the wind. While watching quizzically the screen blending into the horizon, along with the real and toy horses, thereby suggesting beneath the banner of Hollywood's prime signifier of make believe that the boundaries between the two are illusionary, Joe sings a cowboy folk song, "Get along little Doggies." The singing continues with interspersed shouts of "Where's that Joe Buck?" from workers at a diner. This cry is answered by Joe Buck, talking to himself in a mirror, he says, "You know what you can do with them dishes, and if you ain't man enough to do it for yourself, I'll be happy to oblige.... I really would." The contradictions within the opening scenes reveal the overwhelming demands of modernity on the lost male.

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