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One of the more comic moments in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy is when Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) begins to play the glockenspiel in the pawn shop. The notes begin unexpectedly and quietly, as Joe (Jon Voight) sells his radio. For a time, Ratso is visibly relived of his illness. He plays well but, after a few moments, he coughs and puts the mallets down, leaving with his friend and his five dollars. The viewer is left wondering where he learnt to play. There is another narrative hinted at, a backstory of sorts, which may explain things, but it is never explored further.

As well as this light-hearted example, the viewer is allowed glimpses of more sinister narratives from past events. She sees flashes, when Joe’s mind wanders, of a former lover. The pair cower terrified in a car, as the piercing light of many torches pointing inwards is rendered even more jarring by black and white film, which separates the reminiscences from the cinematic present. The film is punctuated throughout with fragments of this event: one moment the viewer sees the pair running; the next, Joe is being raped; then, she screams. It becomes all the more haunting for never fully being explained or revealed.

The film exposes hypothetical situations too, unfulfilled narratives that could (only ever possibly) come into being. As Ratso stands outside a hotel, waiting for Joe to make some money, Schlesinger repeatedly cuts between a shot of Ratso’s face (progressing from medium close-up to close-up), his fantasy, and what is actually happening inside. In his day-dream, he can run, rather than hobble: he sprints past Joe as they both frolic along a beach in Miami. The pair sips drinks. Ratso cooks for the entire resort and everyone admires his dishes. But, earlier, Joe only smirks at his cooking and, with a crash of the doors, he runs out the hotel, having offended one too many women.

There is an interplay in the film between anteriority, possibility and actuality. While the viewer is aware of this blend on occasions because of Schlesinger’s formal distinctions (between, say, colour and black and white film), it is present throughout the picture in subtler ways. Both Joe and Ratso are chasing alternative circumstances: one hopes to find them in New York, the other in Florida. The potential for change is frustrated by the shackles of the past and the hard-knocks of the present: it is only in his dreams that Ratso can escape his ever-worsening physical fragility; Joe is haunted by his (forced) former sexual experiences and at the mercy of his New York clients. Is he quite so vicious to the elderly male customer (Barnard Hughes), near the end of the film, because the man embodies physically the obstruction of the possible (the trip to Florida) by the past (the homosexual desire of other men) and its appearance in the present (the homosexual desire of this man)?

Two shots in the film are emblematic of the relationship between all these conflicting narratives: the first is a close-up of a bag slowly filling with blood, as Joe donates his own for money; the second is a wide shot of the graveyard in which Ratso’s father rests. Just as the red blood spirals and swirls with the white passing through the transparent bag, so too do past events and future wishes intermingle in the present for Joe and Ratso. (The shot above, for example, visually blends the only slightly dulled hopefulness in Joe’s eyes, the sickness of Ratso now at peace and, reflected in the window, the palm trees of their dreams standing tantalisingly close.) The viewer notices also that it is easy to lose the pair as they walk through the graveyard, among black and white tombstones that tower above them. The scene looks at once like an enormous forest after a fire, with the charred remains of many trees, and a collection of chess pieces, scattered about a board. Life, here overwhelmingly embodied by the dead, is presented as a dangerous game. The difficulty to keep the pair in perspective, as the eye seems so susceptible to refocus on the many monoliths, stands as a reminder that these two lives are two among countless.