Friday, March 29, 2013

Shot Through with Greatness: Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate

A scene from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate

Reading the various comments on my Critic at Large’s colleague David Churchill’s evisceration of Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic western Heaven’s Gate proves one thing. Filmgoers are not indifferent to the film, either hating it with a passion or loving it equally intensely. My own view has always been somewhere in the middle, but having now seen the officially approved (by Cimino) 216-minute director’s cut of the movie, stunningly transferred to DVD on the Criterion label, I find my view has shifted somewhat from when I first saw the shortened version of the film more than 30 years ago. (The studio brass forced the director to cut it by more than an hour, destroying it entirely.) Then, I felt the movie was quite impressive but I was most disturbed by all the dramatic licenses it took with history (the lead characters from the movie, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) were killed before the main events of Heaven’s Gate ever took place and didn’t even practice the professions the film had them doing). I had only been reviewing movies for a few years then and still perhaps had something of a naive belief in the ‘truth’ of films based on facts. (I know better now, of course.) But even then, for all my doubts and concerns, I could tell there was something more to the film than the infamous disaster it was supposed to be – and that was even before seeing the (then pre-restoration) full version (219 minutes) of the movie. (Unlike David Churchill, I’ve only ever seen the movie on video or DVD or TV because the one time it played in Toronto on the big screen after its initial disastrous opening, I was not able to go. My loss.) What I sensed and later came to believe and still do, is that Cimino’s epic, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (which came out a year earlier and had similar issues concerning length and hubris and controversy), was that it was not at all a great movie but a movie with greatness within it.

Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson
Today, I find it even more interesting and infuriating that it got all the grief it did in 1980. After all, wasn’t it as ambitious (and far more coherent) than Terence Malick’s idiotic The Tree of Life (2011), which makes no sense whatsoever but yet was praised to the rafters by so many of my colleagues? Didn’t Cimino’s film at least try to, provocatively, get at something telling and relevant about the dark side of America, in a much more fascinating manner than Paul Thomas Anderson’s inept The Master (2012), another dud which inexplicably received no shortage of raves from the critical establishment? Wasn’t Michael Cimino, at least, trying to do what a great filmmaker does: stretch the boundaries of the medium and try to create something new in the process? I think he was but greatness, after all, is a relative term, subject when it comes to cinematic evaluations, to all manner of biases, prejudices and, yes, sometimes laziness on the part of those who are doing the evaluating. (I don’t mean David Churchill, by the way, who is always thoughtful and open-minded in his criticism.)

I am currently teaching a course on What Makes a Movie Great?, based on British film magazine Sight & Sound’s poll, conducted every decade, on The Greatest Films of All Time. While the 2012 Top 100 poll, which saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo knock Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane out of the number one slot it held for fifty years, had its share of worthy choices (Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Samurai, The Battle of Algiers, Pather Panchali, Taxi Driver, Yi Yi), any number of important films and filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg (E.T., Schindler’s List), Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Three Brothers) and Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers, Pigs & Battleships) weren’t represented at all. If you consider that Vertigo, which is a fine film, reached the top spot with less than 25% of the 846 critics polled picking it for their Top Ten list, you know you need to take such lists with a grain of salt.

But while I can usually see why critics label a film as great or classic – despite a few inexplicable exceptions such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers and the two films mentioned above – when it comes to the movies stuck with the moniker of worst of the worst, I’m often baffled by the films that are included in that rarified category. Howard the Duck is a turkey, for sure, and Brian De Palma (who’s made more than a number of great films) deserves opprobrium for his maladroit adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, but other ‘worst’ of all time movies hardly deserve that appellation. Neither Ishtar nor Gigli, admittedly mediocre but still somewhat likeable comedies, are among the worst of Hollywood’s offerings. And Last Action Hero is quite a clever take on the action movie genre and celebrity culture. But of all the movies so savaged by the critics, Heaven’s Gate is, probably, the least deserving of such vituperative criticism.

Heaven’s Gate's director Michael Cimino (w. Kristofferson) on set
The film (very) loosely chronicles the history of the Johnson County War, the late 19th-century conflict over land between rich homesteaders and poorer farmers. In the movie, unlike in reality, this has been changed to a battle between the cattle barons and dirt poor Eastern European immigrants, who, driven to starvation, were stealing and killing the rich men’s livestock, the film’s message being nothing more than a cry to arms for justice for the poor and downtrodden – you know the folks who are supposed to be welcomed to America as written on the base of the Statue of Liberty. In fact, with the exception, perhaps of Paul Schrader’s 1976 drama Blue Collar, Heaven’s Gate may be the most Marxist movie ever to be put out by a major Hollywood studio. (I’m hardly that left, but I am not unsympathetic to films about poor folk being exploited by the rich.) That in itself is not why the movie got no end of vicious attacks, though one foolish newspaper piece I read recently said its politics doomed it. Hardly, as United Artists, the studio behind the film, wasn’t really paying that much attention to what Cimino was up to during filming, at least when they weren’t in fact indulging his every excessive whim (Check out Steven Bach’s incisive book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists for a riveting behind the scenes account of the making of the movie.) Besides, if Hollywood smells a hit in the offing, and after Cimino’s enormous success with The Deer Hunter, which won the 1978 Best Picture Oscar, it certainly did with Heaven’s Gate, it’ll bankroll and push it even it attacks its very own belief system.

Much more plausible is what was said in the fine 2003 TV documentary about 70s American cinema, A Decade Under the Influence, namely that that suits were looking for a way to take down those filmmakers who they felt were getting out of hand, such as William Friedkin (Sorcerer), Martin Scorsese (New York, New York) and Cimino, who were making ‘uncommercial’ personal films the powers that be didn’t want made. (United Artists was probably the only studio that took cinematic chances on a regular basis.) If the films failed – big time – then all the better: Cimino and his like wouldn’t be allowed to make those kinds of movies again. Of course as Peter Bogdanovich, whose filmography includes one of those big budget flops (At Long Last Love) pointed out in A Decade Under the Influence, the directors were their own worst enemies, becoming besotted by their success and the monies funneled to them by their bosses to do whatever the wanted even if the projects they picked were clearly headed for disaster. In another time and with a different outcome, Heaven’s Gate’s reputation may not have fared the way it did. But in 1980, it and Cimino were headed for a fall. (He likely lost his mojo because of it, too, as nothing since – the vile Year of the Dragon, Desperate Hours, Sunchaser – even hinted at a major talent behind the camera.)

I’m not sure it actually matters why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly other than its essentially signalling the end of a certain qualitative Hollywood era of filmmaking, which is very sad. It’s the film itself that needs to be looked at, without all the other detritus and negative publicity cluttering up what one makes of it. In that light, this is a masterfully shot (by ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) and often gripping drama that in its ravishing detail and look is the most realistic Western since McCabe & Mrs. Miller and a direct influence, I would say on HBOs first rate TV series Deadwood (2004-6). It’s also a movie which tries and often captures the grandeur of the western landscape in a way rarely depicted on screen. (Interestingly, Cimino has changed the look of the film in his director's cut, eliminating the original film's striking sepia tones entirely in favour of a brighter, sharper, more naturalistic appearance. It's not an improvement necessarily but it's just as impressive.) Some of its set pieces, the opening 20-minute 1870 Harvard graduation, which turns from exuberant to violent in a blink and then back again to celebratory, the crowd scenes at the train station in Casper, Wyoming, the skating rink sequence, the cock fight and the final attack on the immigrants by a hired band of mercenaries and killers, are as astounding as the Playboy Bunny scene in Apocalypse Now or that movie’s "Ride of the Valkyries" segment, that is to say as fine as any sequences ever set to film. Add to that David Mansfields’ evocative score, still one of the finest in Hollywood history, and Cimino’s laudable attempt to castigate his country for not living up to the dreams and myths it’s always proffering in its culture and you can, at least, show the movie some respect if not praise. (The Europeans certainly always did.)

The negatives of Heaven’s Gate include the stock-thin characterization, except for Christopher Walken’s conflicted turn as Nate Champion, a hired gun for the movie’s villainous Wyoming Stock Growers Association (who is also involved with French prostitute Ella Watson, who in turn is the lover of Nate’s friend Marshall Jim Averill, the immigrants’ protector and possible savior), and Jeff Bridges’s amusing role as the skating rink owner and town entrepreneur John L. Bridges. (I certainly could have done without John Hurt’s Holy Fool, a constantly intoxicated lout and classmate of Averill at Harvard who seems to exist solely to drunkenly spout homilies and exhortations, until he is mercifully – for the audience – blown away at the conclusion of the film.) The movie’s dialogue, written by Cimino, is often leaden and banal and unlike in The Deer Hunter, Cimino fails to display a proper balance between the intimate and epic juxtaposition of key scenes. The movie isn’t badly edited but its segues from moment to moment are often jarring. The movie also ends badly with a contrived sequence and a final underwhelming one.

Christopher Walken as Nate Champion
Yet, those flaws, which would and have sunk many a putative epic, somehow don’t detract from the movie as much as they might have. I kept watching, even as I sometimes cringed, because I was also viewing a director doing what he could to bring his singular vision to the screen, one that even though its good versus evil viewpoint was a bit too simplistic, wasn’t entirely black and white, either; the Eastern Europeans, who are in the wrong for killing and stealing others’ cattle, are memorable as sympathetic but not romanticized victims. (Okay, Sam Waterston’s near mustache twirling role as the villainous head of the Stock Growers Association comes close to sheer cliché but he’s still believable). The film’s scope and breadth even on DVD – it’s one of the best Criterion transfers I’ve ever seen and their standards are uniformly high – is still enthralling and breathtaking.

I guess I like the fact that Heaven’s Gate takes so many risks even if many of them don’t pay off. Enough do, and in a present day era when so few movies, within or outside America, do scale the heights of any real achievement, that’s nothing to sneer at. Far from it, in fact. Its new DVD release is actually a timely reminder of a period when American movies regularly took those types of chances and even second-tier movies like Heaven’s Gate had something of value to offer. I suspect, we won’t see its or its era's like ever again.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute. His current course, What Makes a Movie Great?, runs through April 12..

1 comment:

  1. This film isn't Gone With the Wind etc... but what is?
    Watched it last night in the 219 minute form and was entertained. My main problem was that the pace was just too damn slow! I thought that it needed to be tightened up (ie, shortened) but that was done and I agree that it decimated the movie. i didn't hate the film like so many others seem to but do have the nagging feeling that a major opportunity to do something special was lost.