For some reason, I was thinking about Midnight Cowboy. I’m not that fond of the movie or the novel. It’s so dark. But as dark as the movie is, it is nothing compared to the novel. The movie only hints at Joe’s early life and pretty much all of the homosexuality is washed away. Joe is a far less interesting character in the film. But what I’m interested in is the friendship between Joe and Ratso. This is the part of the book that the film is most faithful to.
I’ve noted before that the film is a lot like Waiting for Godot. Basically, you have two characters who have nothing but each other. And outside their friendship (which is hardly without its problems), the world is a very nasty place: lonely and cruel. In Godot we never learn what Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for. Godot is little more than a symbol of hope that even if life can’t be better, it can at least be different. Joe and Ratso do hope for a better life — some kind of success, but it is hopeless.
The ending of the movie is the only part that I can force myself to watch anymore, because I’ve always seen it as so sweet. Just as in the book, Ratso dies on the bus to Florida. Joe tells the bus driver who says that they just have to continue on and then they will deal with Ratso when they arrive. So Joe goes back to his seat and puts his arm around Ratso. For decades, I always thought that Joe did this as a sign of love and a symbol of their friendship. But that’s totally wrong.
The nature of friendship is interdependence. Joe and Ratso need each other. And as bad as Joe’s life was with Ratso, it was the best that it ever was. When he goes back to sit with Ratso’s dead body, Joe is terrified. Of course he loved and honored Ratso. But what will Joe do without him? Joe is such a wounded character — a beaten puppy beneath the thinnest veneer of bravado. And now he is so alone.
I worry that as a society we only become more and more like Joe and Ratso. We have a society in which success is a commodity. But there is no expanding market. There are only a handful of “greatest” violinists and rich executives. And even if the market were expanding, it would only push greater absolute numbers of people into the category of the worthless.
But that wouldn’t matter, except that we have all bought into this lie and allowed a society to develop that denies the validity of the kind of connection that Joe and Ratso shared. Friendship is something that exists between equals. And who is going to choose to be friends with Ratso? Well, Joe — because Joe has no one else. But do any of us? Joe starts off alone and he ends alone. Maybe he’s wiser now. But that’s likely to make the loneliness all the more acute.