In my endless, seemingly obsessive attempt to understand and document the evolution and genetic mutations of the Art Form of the 20th century, I'm publishing again a column I wrote five years ago: "In Search of Heaven's Gate" as a backdrop to:
"This is the way it was and this is the way it is - 35 years later."
What Michael Cimino wrought in 1980 is de rigueur today. Take the critique below and substitute any of the blockbuster monstrosity titles you enjoy: from "Transformers" to "Iron Man" to "Avatar" to "Gravity" to (I hate to say this) Scott's "Prometheus" to "Noah" among 100's of others. Redact any vestige of a Cimino-effort to find depth and meaning in words. What you have is Bruckheimer (and Scorsese and Spielberg and...?) mixing Cimino-concentrate with aqueous digitalis into an incredible and bedazzling money-printing juice.
Take a look!
In Search of Heaven's Gate (2009)
Courtesy of my angst-ridden, overpaid healthcare (sic) provider, I've just received a final diagnosis for a lingering and terminal condition: I suffer from cinemagrophobia—I cannot go out amongst audiences in movie theatres, and there is no drug, including medical (sic) marijuana (sic) that can alleviate the condition. The prognosis is: no hope!
I prefer to see films as they have been purposed, on the big screen in an illusion-casting darkened theatre. But audiences, particularly in the dull-brained area to which I've been exiled, are intolerable—they smell bad, they laugh at all the predictably wrong places, their television-goosed posteriors force them to get up at all the predictably wrong times to go pee, to go see if the botox is holding up, to twitter (sic), and, of course, to get something to chew on. Movie-house audiences were once an embracing adjunct to the movie-going experience. Now they are the side-show.
Somewhat fortunately, I have an expanded screen, excellent audio home theatre system. It's not the same, no, it's not the same. But with my diagnosed condition, it serves me as best as it can to keep me wandering in the ether of cinema. Recently, I wandered back some 30 years to revisit Michael Cimino's 1980 toxic epic, "Heaven's Gate." When I first saw this film, I sat through it, for lack of a better cliché, in awe! I remember thinking, afterwards, that I would have to see it again, because, either I was 'stoned' out of my mind and tripping over my distended senses, or the projectionist was 'stoned' out of his mind and running the film backwards. I went home, got drunk and forgot about it.
It happened again at this recent viewing. Let me say, off the top, without any qualification: of all the films I have seen from around the world, from the silent era, through the "throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks" Hollywood production-mill days of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and beyond, "Heaven's Gate" is the worst film ever made and released. Worse than any of the spewings of Quentin ("The only way to cut a film is with a bread knife") Tarantino, or Martin ("How do you tell a story?") Scorsese, or Steven ("Isn't directing just like producing?") Spielberg. At least, these three make money for their investors. Cimino, with "Heaven's Gate" spent, in today's dollars, nearly $250 million with a return, in today's dollars, of about $18 million. It was not only a financial disaster, it destroyed the legendary United Artists studio and shook the Hollywood financial machine like a perpetual earthquake. And it ruined Cimino's career.
The only good thing that ever came from this movie-'masterpiece of a nightmare', was the outcry over the brutality and horror in the treatment of animals in the film which lead to a historic agreement between Hollywood and the American Humane Association to monitor and control the mal-treatment of animals in film production.
Cimino got to play director-auteur cum blank check on the strength of his Academy Award for "The Deer Hunter", two years earlier. That under-written, over-edited (or maybe assembled and unedited) non-entertaining parade of a film, garnered Hollywood's accolades despite its chaotic presentation, foreshadowing the calamity that was coming two years later. After the Vietnam War had ended three years before, Hollywood was feeling sentimental and wanted to create a new, young "star-filmmaker"; the competition wasn't very interesting or very good. So they gave Cimino his golden ticket and set the stage for his self-destruction. (Foley in a snap of the fingers!). So much for how perceptive, honest and critical the circus of the Academy Awards is.
Begin with the screenplay for "Heaven's Gate". Label the dialogue, sparse, as it is, label it drivel, strung together words not only in ways that live people do not speak but also as devoid of imagery and purpose as a high-schooler's first essay. The acting is even worse: a miscast Christopher Walken (playing... whomever!), a miscast Isabelle Huppert (a great actress... lost), John Hurt (a good actor in a one-note role), Sam Waterston (a good actor in a cardboard cutout role), Jeff Bridges (playing... whomever!), and Kris Kristofferson (one of those that the camera loves but in a performance that could have been delivered by a mumbling stunt man).
The rest of it is Cimino, sans potty training... he simply could not let go of anything he shot and recorded. When he presented the final cut to his overseers at United Artists, it was 5:25 long, that's five hours and 25 minutes with a one-hour battle scene at the end. That's one hour! The studio's hue and cry cut the film to two hours and 29 minutes and a subsequent re-cut restored the work to three hours and 39 minutes. In both of these cuts, the now substantially reduced battle scene still remains a boring redundant mess, coupled with a five-minute scene of a fiddle player on roller skates going round and round and playing the same tune round and round.
Cimino's film was not decimated by the extensive cutting. It was decimated by Cimino's extensive self-indulgent shooting and recording... scenes that are intentionally clouded with dust and shadowless light minus any sense of composition. An audio track that forces you to go back to the earliest days of "talkies" circa 1928 for comparison and then not as good with scenes that recorded every sound on a set including cockroaches scampering on the rafters to the point that you cannot understand the few pieces of dialogue.
Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" was also hacked to pieces, but it survives as a near masterpiece. "Heaven's Gate" survives only as a teaching tool in some film classes as "how not to make a film." Better to teach with it as "why not to make a film."
I challenge you to see "Heaven's Gate". Don't bother turning off your phone. It actually gets better if you stop and go, something Michael Cimino never realized. Or... maybe he did.