by • November 26, 2012 • EditorialComments (1)808

How to Build a Bomb: A Re-Examination of Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE

Upon release in 1980, HEAVEN’S GATE was yanked after the first week of its initial run in New York theaters, due mostly to a slew of unfavorable reviews. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film an “unqualified disaster”. Roger Ebert labeled it a “study in wretched excess”, all the while defending “Brother Canby” and his vitriolic review. The movie, which ran notoriously over-budget to the tune of $36 million, arguably tanked United Artists, who were also producing Francis Ford Coppola’s “untamable” classic, APOCOLYPSE NOW, near simultaneously. Michael Cimino, who had just won a Best Director Oscar for THE DEER HUNTER, watched his career vanish in little over a week and his leading man, Kris Kristofferson, also saw a lack of leading offers once HEAVEN’S GATE reached “notorious” stature. In the years following, film professors would use the movie as an illustrative “cautionary tale”; an unfortunate example of a young filmmaker going unchecked and getting drunk off of his own ego and seemingly endless power and resources.

Watching the film in 2012 (thanks to the beautiful Criterion Collection blu-ray released last week), it’s hard to see why the film became such a legendary story of excess and reckless artistic abandon, as HEAVEN’S GATE is neither a “bad” movie, nor is it a masterpiece. Rather, the film is a flawed, opaque epic; a work more in league with Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and Walter Hill’s WILD BILL. Unorthodox to the very core, HEAVEN’S GATE is a movie whose ambition was its own undoing and whose critics seemed to delight in making themselves and their flame-throwing negative reviews just as big a story as the film itself.

Cimino was a man obsessed with the American landscape. Starting with 1974’s Clint Eastwood starring THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, Cimino had an almost Malickian fascination with the emotional repercussions of men being swallowed by the vastness of the United States. HEAVEN’S GATE is probably the best example of this, as the film’s protagonist, Harvard grad James Averill, sets out West upon a “mandate of imperative duty” to share his “cultivated mind” with the “uncultivated”. Twenty years on, we pick up with Averill as a hardened soldier, his face weathered and his beard and hair greyed by work and worry. A federal marshall in Johnson County, Wyoming, Averill is gearing up for an invasion of assassins sanctioned by the government and a ruthless cattle baron, Frank Canton (Sam Watterson). Bestowed with a near unshakable sense of moral authority, Averill is determined to defend the land from the seemingly inevitable, as the gunmen carry a one hundred and twenty-five name “death list”, and are just as adamant about carrying out their mercantile duties.

There’s an odd air of sadness that permeates every frame of HEAVEN’S GATE; a melancholic ambiance that sets it apart from the majority of its Western comrades. From the moment he leaves his ornate graduation ceremony in the extended prologue, Averill has placed himself squarely in the bulldozing path of power and history, and there is a sense that he knows he can do nothing to prevent what’s coming. Once we begin to dig into his doomed relationship with prostitute Ella Watson (a heavily accented, yet luminous Isabelle Huppert), it seems that Averill is, in himself, recognizing the unstoppable destruction of all that he loves. While his infatuation is tender and poignant, it is set against such savagery that it’s hard for the audience to view it as anything but futile.

Adding to the impotence of Averill and Ella’s romance is the arrival of Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), Canton’s most lethal hired gun.  One of the biggest shames that came from Cimino’s career utterly imploding is the fact that no one got better work out of Walken, who was still in the infancy of his career when HEAVEN’S GATE was released. But where his portrayal of Nick, the hopelessly lost Vietnam vet who becomes addicted to both heroin and Russian Roulette by the end of THE DEER HUNTER, was full of sadness and loss, there’s a much angrier streak of violence that runs through Champion. Entering the movie with a deafening and bloody shotgun blast, Champion is a mascaraed maniac who, at first, is presented as being beyond any kind of redemption. But as the Johnson County War and his love with Ella progresses, we find a wounded soul who has been shredded by his years chasing and murdering poor cattle thieves on his master’s lands. It’s a haunting, difficult performance the likes of which Walken was once a master (Champion almost feels like a more feminine Western counter-part to Frank White from Abel Ferarra’s KING OF NEW YORK) and the character’s final moments (which Roger Ebert wrong-headedly belittled in his original review) are some of the most affecting in the film’s four hour whole.

So much of HEAVEN’S GATE surrounds men in a specific time and place that a viewer with any familiarity with Cimino’s past will find it hard to divorce themselves from the knowledge that he wasn’t a director first, but an artist (he studied painting at Yale) with a keen sense of space. Much of Vilmos Zsigmond’s lovely frame (and make no mistake — HEAVEN’S GATE rises to DAYS OF HEAVEN levels of golden beauty) is spent putting men into wide open vistas, oftentimes on their steed of choice. Cimino even takes a page from John Ford, who once famously said:

“The three best subjects for movie camera: a running horse, a dancing couple, and a great mountain.

Exploiting all of these images ad nauseum, Cimino creates a cacophony of Western iconography as Averill’s relationship with the vast emptiness of the Wyoming fields and its migrant workers grows deeper.

The first seventy-five minutes of HEAVEN’S GATE are damn near perfect, beginning with a protracted prologue set at Averill’s 1870 Harvard graduation. It’s here that Cimino establishes theme and place the best, as we witness Averill’s bourgeoisie, restricted existence before he sets off on his journey into the open spaces of America. The contained setting and attention to detail evoke the earliest moments of Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON, right down to the period design and naturalistic lighting. Averill and his best friend, class orator William C. Irvine (a foppish, drunken John Hurt) frolic and make eyes with female onlookers while participating in arcane rituals that end in a full-on melee and fist fights. Cimino shows us how limited both Averill and Irvine’s worldview is, and set up diverging paths for the two men that further illustrate how they will both respond to their “educated duty”. Their lives are suppressed by the walls of their great academic establishment at this point, and their youthful days will soon be far behind them, replaced with an expansive world that tests both their moral fortitude and “privelaged” status. Smash cut to twenty years later: Averill is a deputy and Irvine is a drunken buffoon, questioning the “death lists” Canton hands out at a meeting of the Ranchers Association. Their reunion will be the last time these two interact on friendly ground, as Averill declares war on the ranchers’ proposed “cleansing” of the fields, and Irvine (however questioning of the powers that be) slumps in his chair as his peers threaten his long lost friend to never return, lest he desires to be shot on sight.

It’s the film’s second ninety minutes that begin to reveal the crushing weight of Cimino’s commitment to his own vision. While his eye for set pieces is unmatched (something that was proven during THE DEER HUNTER’s opening wedding sequence), the film begins to feel more like a series of disconnected vignettes than a cohesive, epic motion picture. Take for example the the roller skating “dance” sequence, which is oftentimes recognized by critics as the defining centerpiece of the film. The seqeunce is beautiful, lovingly realized and executed, but adds nothing to the whole besides establishing how the people of Johnson County live and celebrate their lives. And while some may view this as a necessity for the audience to fully connect with those who are about to be completely wiped from the face of the earth, you could literally excise the entire piece and lose none of the narrative. To add insult to the injuring excess, very few of these settlers are given unique characterizations (with the exception of Jeff Bridges and Brad Douriff, who both give wonderfully colorful supporting performances) so, in the end, the scenes begin to drag on and pull the story down with them. In the illustrative interview contained on the Criterion set’s “Bonus Features” disc, Cimino says that making “intellectual pictures” is beyond him, and describes his writing process as being one of “following the character” (as opposed to “following an idea or political stance”). But his set pieces fly in the face of that motto, as it seems he’s more interested in historical accuracy than he is in driving Averill’s (or any of the other characters’) journey forward.

Also hurting the film is Isabelle Huppert, who is so woefully miscast as Ella Watson that every scene she appears in feels wooden and forced. While Huppert is beautiful and it’s easy to understand why Zsigmond’s camera is in love with the woman, her line delivery is so stilted and lacking in sentiment that it’s hard to emotionally connect with the numerous scenes of her and Averill’s love affair. For the majority of the time she’s onscreen, it was hard to decipher whether or not the flaws in Huppert’s performance came from her struggles with the tongue (this was only the French actress’ second English language feature after Otto Preminger’s ROSEBUD and Cimino reportedly battled with United Artists to allow him to cast her in the role), or if she’s simply not a good performer. I tend to believe in the former, as Huppert has proven throughout the rest of career that she is, indeed, a very talented actress who, more than likely, was just a bit out of her depth when appearing in HEAVEN’S GATE.

Also concerning for most the middle of the film is the fact that Nate Champion is a much more interesting character than James Averill. While Averill’s “moral quest” is admittedly a righteous one, Cimino’s script gives him very little else in terms of development or an arc. Meanwhile, Champion is a fascinating man brought to complete life by Walken’s smoldering performance. His transition from cold-hearted assassin to defiant defender of of the people feels complete and infinitely more compelling. Every time he exits, the audience is left with only Averill and Ella to cling to, and it recurrently feels as if the air is being let out of the proceedings.

HEAVEN’S GATE springs to life once Canton begins trucking in a fleet of hired guns to clear the settlers from his land. Starting with the cold blooded execution of Averill’s friend, Cully (Richard Masur, whose death scene turns out to be the film’s most affecting moment), the movie regains a sense of purpose and ceases narratively meandering. What transpires is a bloody, thundering shootout for the ages, and Cimino directs the scenes of carnage and violence with gusto, whipping up enough dust and fire and smoke to make the final battle scene one of the better Western set pieces of all time. Unfortunately, for most viewers this may feel like “too little, too late”, as there’s still another hour to go before we reach the credits.

By the time the dust settles and the body count is tallied, the mournful cloud that hangs over the whole of HEAVEN’S GATE is undeniably earned. Cimino esstentially made not a Western, but the definitive “anti-“ Western; a film where truth and justice are trumped by evil capitalist interests. The epilogue finds Averill living on a private yacht with the debutante he made eyes with at his graduation. As he watches her sleep, we can see in Averill’s face just how broken the events in Johnson County have left the once good man. The coda is brilliant in its simplicity, capping off the death of virtue with Averill literally adrift in life, his one major mission to save the “uncultivated” having been thwarted by his peers. His yacht washes into the sunset, leaving the audience mourning, not triumphant, which is what most have come to expect from their tales of the untamed West.

All the while, none of this fully explains why HEAVEN’S GATE was the epic failure it became during its single week run at the Cinema One in New York. While the film is flawed, it is certainly not a travesty nor the “unqualified disaster” Vincent Canby labeled it. In many ways, the movie’s horrid performance seems more orchestrated by critics wanting to dogpile on the film and create their own story than let HEAVEN’S GATE be what it truly is. Recently, on his Hollywood Elsewhere blog, Jeffrey Wells posted a long rant about how there will be revisionists coming out of the woodwork to declare the film a “masterpiece” and point out just how “wrong” those initial New York critics were. His predicition of mass heterodoxy is probably true, as Criterion lending the film its name instantly equates to “quality” in the brains of most cinephiles. But Wells’ post also stirs up another question revolving around the film’s torrid history that some won’t like the answer to, and whose professional egos dictate must not be asked:

What if the critics WERE  wrong?

The truth is, the subject of who was “right” or “wrong” is utterly irrelevant. In celebrating the epic failure of HEAVEN’S GATE, film writers were also rejoicing in what was essentially the death knell of the Hollywood auteur. While most film students are quick to (wrongly) label Steven Spielberg and JAWS as point where the “Blockbuster” dumbed down mainstream filmmaking, in all actuality it’s HEAVEN’S GATE that ushered in a new wave of corporatized cinema. Following the film’s demise, studios began to hold the reigns on their productions instead of handing them over to the director whose vision was being executed. Costs were scrutinized and scripts had to receive the “stamp of approval” by not just studio heads, but studio bean counters before they were even considered being greenlit. The age of the “visionary” that had been ushered in during the ‘70s was over, as the ‘80s proved to be a decade where the dollar trumped artistic integrity.

Criterion labels their releases as “a collection of important classic and contemporary films”.  “Important” is the key word when sitting down with HEAVEN’S GATE, as it is a piece of film history that many in Hollywood would like forgotten. And while the film is fascinating to behold as a study in excess and ambition, it is better viewed as a mile marker in the history of filmmaking. Here is one of the best examples where the press set the narrative and the general movie-going populace bought into their story without being given a chance to question its veracity (after its cataclysmic first week, the film was pulled and cut down to a 149 minute version that was briefly re-released in April of 1981). Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert may have been dancing a jig when they sent Cimino’s bloated epic to an early grave, but they also enabled studios to have a much more controlling hand in their product than ever before. Context is key, and Criterion’s release should be hailed as an excellent way for us to not only re-examine a maligned piece of filmic history, but to also question just how film criticism can either doom or empower the men and women who create the art we consume on a regular basis.

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