Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy professes to be something more than just a documentary about the making of Midnight Cowboy: an extremely ambitious film attempting to navigate the impact and cultural presence of John Schlesinger’s masterpiece while also exploring the history of American queer cinema, the death of the Western in the mainstream, and the counter-culture of the ’60s transforming into the nihilism of the 1970s. Packing so much information and so many perspectives into 101 minutes occasionally comes across as overstuffed. But Desperate Souls’ sheer enthusiasm for Midnight Cowboy and the cultural period is infectious, a vibe that compensates for certain faults holding it back from becoming a truly great documentary. 

While structurally ambitious in its approach to montage, the precise cutting is flawed and fragmented. Transitions between interviews and archival footage are often awkward and lackluster, and editing plays slightly rushed during some of the deviations from its main subject. And if many of the different paths Buirski takes are welcomed, particularly the exploration of queer cinema’s history, they can feel clunky in their insertion. Nancy Buirski’s documentary particularly struggles to justify its transition into discussing the death of the mainstream Western, playing unnatural in its departure from the more thematically relevant sections. 

There is a sense of rawness throughout the text, not just in its scattershot focus but in the presentation. The film is texturally rough, with a lack of slickness and calibration in presentation. Most of the archival footage is grainy, beat-up: these shots often contain flair, presence, texture, and when paired with the dull interview footage there is an abundance of bleak grays in the color palette. (Non-archive footage is largely talking-head interviews largely set in gray rooms with dull sunlight.) It only really sings when Midnight Cowboy’s cinematography is featured, DP Adam Holender’s images creating a sense of total immersion in this world of deadbeats and hustlers. Such images maintain that power and immersion, even through the prism of this documentary. 

Any criticisms notwithstanding, Desperate Souls boasts many charms and goes down easy. Its wide range of interview subjects often offer genuine insight into whichever topic they’re discussing. (Controversial co-lead Jon Voight proves particularly revealing and compelling.) And its deviations have a rambunctious, gleeful charm that match the subject. Buirski clearly wants to show as much as possible about the time period and fit in as much history as allows––an admirable trait, not least in a time when the cultural perception of film history seems to be eroding. At best, Desperate Souls suggests a series of passionate stories being told by a beloved family member, occasionally sprawling but never anything less than compelling. By the end there’s a sense of sadness that its shaggy pleasures are now in the past, rendering its faults comparatively minor.

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy is now in limited release and will expand.

Grade: B-

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