Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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*. What I’ll be talking about here is Criterion’s 216-minute director’s cut that was pulled out of the original five hour and twenty-five minute version that was screened for United Artists executives. Before that screening Cimino told the studio that he might be able to cut fifteen minutes from it. That is comedy gold! Later he cut another hour from the version that premiered in an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage, but by that time it had all gone down in flames and there was nothing more to be done.
*. Since then there’s been some revising of opinion. The ink has stopped running on the balance sheet and we don’t care any more about the bottom line. This is art, damn it! What does it matter if the public and the media made fun of it?
*. It’s typical of this kind of thinking to blame studio interference for butchering the director’s creative vision. Just look at what they did to Touch of Evil! But in this case such criticism is misapplied. Cimino blew it, and in any event he was the one who wanted to recut the film, and indeed publicly campaigned for the chance to do so. But the problem he had was that there just wasn’t a good three-hour, or two-hour, movie hiding inside just waiting to be released. In fact, it might have worked better at three or four times the length as a television miniseries. As it is, he lost a lot but didn’t gain anything in the editing process.
*. Cimino’s arrogance led to the worst kind of excess. The skyrocketing costs weren’t for expensive sets and effects or even actors. Instead they were eaten up by fussiness: meticulous, painstaking detail work in the tradition of Von Stroheim or Visconti. Why is this a bad thing? Because hardly any of the money shows up on screen. This was a hugely expensive movie, but for the most part it doesn’t look like one. The only big things about it are the mountains and the sky.
*. You can’t say that it’s always bad news when the story behind the making of a movie turns out to be almost as big as the movie itself. After all, Apocalypse Now and Fizcarallado were great films. And indeed the studio here took heart from the example of Apocalypse Now. Steven Bach explained their wishful thinking as “Somehow we’re gonna pull Apocalypse Now out of Heaven’s Gate.”
*. It was Cimino’s hubris that took a greater toll than the mere logistical nightmares faced by Coppola and Herzog. With Heaven’s Gate I’m more reminded of the story behind the making of Beat the Devil, though without all the good times on set.

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*. Let’s say something about pace. When we refer to a movie’s pacing we’re usually talking about one of two things: the editing or the structure of the story. I blame the tedium here on the latter. In the documentary Final Cut (which I highly recommend but which is unfortunately not included with the Criterion DVD) Jeff Bridges talks of how the audience at the premiere thought the “rhythm” of the story too slow and found the whole thing frustrating. I can relate. This is a movie that doesn’t go anywhere, and in addition it’s all perfectly obvious what’s going to happen (at least until the very end). The climactic battle is in some ways a perfect metaphor, with everyone riding around in circles and raising up clouds of dust until the cavalry arrive to stop the movie (I couldn’t help but think of the police showing up at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
*. Speaking of that ending, I did think it was amazing how the cavalry arrive, ride around in a pretty circle a couple of times, tell everyone to stop fighting, and then . . . ride around in another circle and head off again. Where are they going? Shouldn’t they have at least stuck around long enough to take some names and see about the wounded?
*. I don’t blame the editing for the deadly pace, but I do blame it for making the movie look like it was cut with a chainsaw and put back together with hockey tape. There are far too many continuity errors, especially for dialogue scenes when characters’ heads don’t match up as looking in the same direction as previous shots. And then there’s the scene where Walken’s Nate Champion leaves Canton’s tent to go to the captured immigrant who is tied to a wheel and Canton rushes out ahead of him to executes the man. We immediately cut from a shot where Walken is standing nearly alone to one where he is surrounded by Canton’s men. This shouldn’t happen in a movie that, by all accounts, had more than enough coverage to play with.

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*. You’ll have guessed by now that I don’t like this movie much, and that I think the pendulum of revisionism has now swung too far in a charitable direction. I find Heaven’s Gate to be a dull, unoriginal, unaccountably sloppy film that, without all of its back story and historical significance, would probably have been forgotten by now.
*. Another opinion? I put that as a question because I’ll ask you to try and figure out what David Thomson thinks. He calls it “close enough to a real film to leave no worthwhile gap.” Hm. He also writes that “it is not impossible to have a good film that destroys not just itself, but its business enterprise and many settled ideas of what makes a movie.” I have trouble untying this. I’m inclined to think that it is impossible to have a good film that destroys itself, because if it did destroy itself then that would mean it wasn’t a good film. But that still doesn’t tell us if Thomson thinks this is such a film. He seems nervous.
*. Thomson does say that on a second look you’ll have to “have a large basket for the . . . virtues” you may have missed the first time. He notes the photography and the music (which I found forgettable). He also likes the title, which is the name of the meeting hall/roller-skating rink but which means nothing in the film as far as I can tell (the closing of the frontier perhaps?).

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*. Yes, Vilmas Zsigmond’s photography is nice (though note the counteropinion of Roger Ebert: “This is one of the ugliest films I’ve ever seen.”). But mountains, especially when we just see them out in the distance, are nice. Clouds are nice. Nature is nice. And it looks even nicer when it’s just used as a backdrop for shots that are staged for their prettiness. Otherwise, the outdoors stuff reminded me a little too much of Doctor Zhivago. The only effects I really liked were the drifting clouds of steam from the train engine, that were poetically captured in a couple of shots. Wind is a visible presence throughout the film, adding to the effect.

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*. Indoors, I didn’t think it was a big advance on the soft and smoky way Zsigmond shot McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But instead of the look of the film, what bothered me most about this connection was how Cimino seemed to have also borrowed Altman’s muddy soundtrack, making a lot of the dialogue inaudible. I watched the movie this time with subtitles, and was a little surprised to notice a couple of errors. Even the good people at Criterion seemed to be off their game for this one.
*. Wow. I didn’t even recognize Joseph Cotten. That’s embarrassing.
*. Do you think filmmakers honestly believe it’s possible for a human being to take that many gunshots and still keep going? Christopher Walken gets to go full Scarface here, dying in a hail of rifle fire no less (rifle bullets do a lot more damage than handguns). It’s absurd.
*. Is it a political film? Only in a cartoonish sort of way: the fat cats with their cigars in their smoke-filled parlours (though every interior seems smoke-filled here) vs. the tired, poor, huddled masses who believe in the promise of America.
*. One would have thought that after all the wailing about the way The Deer Hunter played fast and loose with Vietnam that Cimino, who after all was going for “authenticity,” would want to stick a bit closer to the historical record. Instead he jettisoned it entirely, to the point where one wonders why he even bothered making any connection to the Johnson County War. He should have just gone full spaghetti. The Western as a genre has always been tugged in two directions: toward history and myth. Myth always wins so it’s better to just give in.
*. Personally, I think you will need an even larger basket for all the times the movie clearly goes wrong, in ways that demand notice be taken. As Roger Ebert put it in his scathing contemporary review: “The ridiculous scenes are endless.” I’ll just present three here.
*. One: Nate Champion’s introduction, where he shoots a man named Kovach with a shotgun through a blanket that’s hanging like some kind of a windbreak, is a famous set piece because it was meant to be. It’s the kind of scene that asks you to admire it. But it makes no sense at all. Why does Kovach just stand there yelling at Champion when he can see from the shadow on the blanket that Champion is pointing a shotgun at him and has not come visiting with friendly intentions? Couldn’t he have just run into the house, given that Champion, you know, can’t actually see him? And would a shotgun really blast such a neat hole in the blanket, to give us such a nice frame for the shot of Champion walking away?

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*. Two: How painful is that tongue-pulling scene in Champion’s cabin? It isn’t funny, or relevant, or even probable (you can’t hold on to someone’s tongue like that, it’s too short and slippery to keep a grip on). What’s worse, how can you watch this scene and not feel for poor Ella (Isabelle Huppert), as she looks on with rising horror at what the rest of her life might be like stuck in a one-room shack (albeit wallpapered) hanging out with guys like these? She has to make a choice between running her fabulous bordello and this?
*. Three: The final battle. I’ll admit I laughed out loud. The immigrants hear the the mercenary army is coming to get them and instead of adopting a defensive position and taking them by surprise they decide to all get on their horses and pile into their wagons — women too! — and charge the professionals, yelling “yee-haw!” and “yay!” while they uselessly ride around in circles getting picked off. After a night spent thinking about things they then adopt the “Roman” expedient of pushing barriers up to the enemy position. I didn’t think this would work that well given the angles of fire that would exist. The sticks of dynamite were a good idea, but it’s a pity we never see one come anywhere close to falling within the army’s defensive circle. So what was the point again?

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*. The Wyoming ending seems almost like a joke. It makes little sense and comes almost as an afterthought. Indeed, it’s abruptness gives the sense that somehow, after exposing over a million feet of film, Cimino had finally run out. As for Averill on the boat that is a gilded cage, I guess I get the point but I don’t find it very deep.
*. I mentioned the pendulum of critical revisionism and reappraisal. For a while, because of its disastrous box office and impact, this was considered one of the Worst Movies Ever Made. It doesn’t belong in that company, though I still see the argument being made various places. It is, however, a long way from being a good movie and not an experience worth reliving, no matter what you’re putting in your basket.

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