Heaven's Gate [Blu-Ray]
Director : Michael Cimino
Screenplay : Michael Cimino
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1980
Stars : Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotten (The Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L. Bridges), Ronnie Hawkins (Major Wolcott), Paul Koslo (Mayor Charlie Lezak), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper Fred), Richard Masur (Cully)
Like the billowing columns of smoke and clouds of dust that blow through virtually every frame of its epic 219 minutes, the initial commercial and critical disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate will forever hang over it, obscuring its finer qualities while drawing excessive attention to its various failures and shortcomings. Neither the “unqualified disaster” that the usually reserved New York Times critic Vincent Canby famously called it after its ruinous premiere in November 1980, nor the great American epic that many European critics claim it to be, Cimino’s sprawling anti-Western is above all a great paradox—or, better yet, jumble of paradoxes.
Here is a film of great ambition that is hobbled by almost rudimentary failures in storytelling; a film of gorgeous cinematography that captures the rawness of the American West in a way that virtually no other western ever has, yet has a soundtrack that is so bizarrely muddled and unbalanced that some of the most important dialogue is drowned out by background noise; a film with an impressive roster of actors and actresses, almost all of whom feel either miscast or simply lost; and a film that celebrates the rough-hewn humanity of the poor and downtrodden and castigates the wealthy elites as literal cutthroats, yet went tens of millions of dollars overbudget (the final cost was some $44 million) and became the leading example of monetary waste, excess, and hubris in Hollywood.
More than anything, though, Heaven’s Gate marked the end of an era. Produced and distributed by United Artists, the studio founded in 1919 by director D.W. Griffith and actors Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford as a means of escaping the yolk of studio control over their artistry, Heaven’s Gate is in many ways the apex of the kind of bold “New Hollywood” cinema that had taken over in the 1970s, clearing out the last vestiges of the old studio system and infusing it with ambitious young filmmakers and producers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and Robert Evans who sought to remake Hollywood as a crossroads in which European art cinema and the classical Hollywood titans on which they had been raised fused together into something new, vibrant, and vital. The result was The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Nashville (1975), Taxi Driver (1976)—a new era of new classics that literally redefined the American cinema on the world stage.
It was in this atmosphere that Cimino rose to prominence, first grabbing attention with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which starred and was produced by Clint Eastwood, and then solidifying his reputation as a new enfant terrible with his devastating, multi-Oscar-winning Vietnam war drama The Deer Hunter (1978). Although Heaven’s Gate was already in production before Cimino took home the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, those statuettes helped encourage UA to essentially write him a blank check, thus turning his third film into a litmus test for how far a New Hollywood auteur could take talent and ambition. The combination of Cimino’s uncompromising vision and an almost complete lack of oversight turned out to be toxic, as it resulted in a film that was critically savaged and did so poorly at the box office, even after a massive re-edit that brought it down from 219 minutes to 149 minutes, that it nearly bankrupted United Artists (its parent company, the insurance giant Transamerica, quickly sold it off).
The irony is that, for all its flaws, Heaven’s Gate embodies virtually all of the characteristics otherwise celebrated in ’70s American cinema: an unconventional narrative structure rooted in genre revisionism, progressive politics, and an uncompromising approach to the realities of human violence and failure. The real problem, one could argue, is that Heaven’s Gate was simply too much too late. Had it been released in the wake of Watergate or the thick of Vietnam, it might have been heralded as a bold reassessment of the ideals of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Instead, it arrived at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” when the country was craving a silver screen full of winners, rather than another bleak downer about shattered ideals and death. The New Hollywood had, for all intents and purposes, come to and end.
Shattered ideals and death are at the heart of Heaven’s Gate, which opens at Harvard College in 1870, where a class of idealistic youths including James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) are graduating. As he did with The Deer Hunter’s lengthy first third, Cimino takes his time in these opening sequences, establishing the youthful optimism of characters we will soon follow into a heart of darkness and the epic nature of the film itself. A beautifully swirling dance on the college grounds to Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube Waltz” is a visually captivating metaphor for the openness of life at this point, where everything is possible. With a single cut the story then leaps forward 20 years, where we find Averill is now a stoic, disillusioned federal marshal in Johnson County, Wyoming, and Hurt is a drunken, even more disillusioned but less admirable member of the Stock Growers Association, a powerful lobby of wealthy ranchers bent on taking over the West for their own profit.
The narrative backdrop is a highly fictionalized version of the Johnson County War, a battle between the Stock Growers Association and a group of immigrant farmers and ranchers, most of whom seem to have come from Eastern Europe and left virtually none of their culture behind. The immigrants are struggling to make ends meet, in some cases starving, and as a result some of them have taken to stealing cattle from members of the Association to feed their children. The wealthy ranchers, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), decide to paint the immigrants as anarchists, thieves, and killers and get the government’s support to get rid of them. They draw up a death list of 125 names and pay a recruited mob of killers $5 a day plus $50 for each of the people on the list who are shot or hung.
Averill is determined to protect the immigrant farmers from the Association, of which he was apparently a member before being driven out (the exact reason for this is left tantalizingly vague). Averill’s commitment to the immigrants is also driven by his relationship with Ella (Isabelle Huppert), a local madam who is simultaneously involved with Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), an immigrant-turned-hired killer. Ella believes that she can love two men at once, although she seems more drawn to Averill, who is wealthy, but has not lost his soul to his economic advantage. The romantic triangle and the impending war between the Association and the immigrants converge when Averill learns that Ella’s name is on the death list because she accepts cattle (presumably stolen from members of the Association) in payment for services.
The narrative in Heaven’s Gate is structured around class warfare, and Cimino paints his characters with broad strokes. The members of the Association are unambiguously inhumane, willing to murder if it means more profit. Sam Waterston, usually cast as upright and noble characters (see, particularly, his role a few years later in The Killing Fields), is particularly noxious as Frank Canton, who mills about in a floor-length fur coat and hat while fomenting what can only be called genocide. The immigrants, on the other hand, are depicted as decent and hard-working, albeit rough around the edges and given to such unwholesome activities as cock fighting and brawling. Clearly positioned as the underdogs, Cimino overplays his hand by making them far too interchangeable, a mass of dark clothes and dirty faces spouting various Eastern European languages. He gives us a few faces to humanize the immigrants, including Ella and John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges), who owns a skating rink and meeting hall where the immigrants converge. Cimino had already displayed a propensity for symbolism (it was how he explained the historically inaccurate use of forced Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter), and Heaven’s Gate is heavy with it, which often weighs down the narrative when it should be propelled forward. Trained in art and architecture, Cimino tends to think in patterns and pairs, such as the earlier waltz at Harvard being reflected in the roller-skating folk dance held by the immigrants, which is nice from an analytical perspective, but doesn’t always translate well in terms of storytelling and pacing.
If Heaven’s Gate doesn’t always work from a narrative perspective, it is consistently impressive in the sheer grandiosity of its visuals. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who had previously shot The Deer Hunter, as well as Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Heaven’s Gate is a film of great visual poetry that features some of the most arresting cinematic compositions I have ever seen. Cimino, ever the perfectionist, scoured the American West looking for the kind of ideal, previously unfilmed locations that would convey the raw beauty and power of the untamed landscape. Already impressive in its own right, the land is brought to lyrical heights by Zsigmond’s cinematography, which employed a highly stylized, yet determinedly realistic aesthetic of heavily diffused golden light that renders the mud, smoke, dust, and blood of the West very nearly ethereal. Cimino and production designer Tambi Larsen’s close attention to detail and historical realism (virtually all of the sets and costumes were based on period photographs) provides a powerful counterpoint to the lighting, suggesting a world in perpetual conflict.
While this approach creates individual images of such intensity and beauty that you want to pull them out of the film and frame them, it also runs the risk of becoming counterproductive, particularly in the climactic shootout between the Association’s posse of killers and the immigrants, which is so shrouded in dust and diffused light that that it becomes almost impossible to determine what is happening at any given moment. The film’s editing is likewise uneven (four editors are credited in the final version), with some scenes, such as the final battle, feeling borderline incompetent, while other moments, such as a hard transition from the loud din of a bustling frontier town to the rarefied silence of the club where the Association members meet, beautifully and meaningfully rendered.
In the end, Heaven’s Gate will always be burdened with its legacy of excess and collapse. All of the revisionist takes on the film are certainly laudable and worthwhile for drawing our attention to the finer points of a film that has for too long been the butt of jokes about Hollywood ego. For his part, Cimino never quite recovered. After having been anointed the next big thing, he was quickly taken down and shunned, an object lesson in the fickle nature of fame and artistic adulation. He has made a number of other films, notably The Year of the Dragon (1985), a controversial crime thriller co-written by Oliver Stone, and The Sicilian (1987), a roundly criticized portrait of the Italian bandit-hero Salvatore Giuliano. In fact, it was in response to The Sicilian that Washington Post critic Hal Hinson wrote a cutting, but incredibly astute description that is also applicable to Heaven’s Gate: “There’s a difference between watching a Volkswagen and a Rolls-Royce go plunging over a cliff, and this is definitely a Rolls. And just as definitely, it goes plunging, all in flames.”
|Heaven’s Gate Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray|
|Heaven’s Gate is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 20, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|First of all, it should be noted that the 216-minute version of Heaven’s Gate on Criterion’s new Blu-Ray is not the same as the original 219-minute version that premiered in New York in November of 1980. The version here is director Michael Cimino’s new director’s cut, which is extremely close to the original version (which was apparently forced into release by the studio before Cimino felt it was fully finished), with only some minor trims and the removal of the intermission. That said, Criterion’s Blu-Ray is absolutely outstanding, allowing us to fully appreciate the raw visual splendor of Cimino’s controversial epic. The transfer could not be made from the original negative because it was chopped up following the film’s disastrous premiere to create a shorter, even worse 149-minute version (which, unfortunately, is not included here, which would have been great, ala Criterion’s release of Terry’s Gilliam’s Brazil, for comparative purposes). Instead, the transfer was made under Cimino’s supervision from the 35mm YCM color separation masters of the original version. The image was then digitally restored, bringing it to a nearly pristine condition that hasn’t been seen for 32 years. Colors and contrast are gorgeously rendered (much, much brighter and more saturated than previous video releases), and the image displays a strong interplay of film grain, particularly in the wide expanses of open blue sky. The soundtrack was taken from a 6-track magnetic mix and remastered into a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix. Cimino oversaw the remastering of the soundtrack and tried to improve the audibility of dialogue, which does seem better (although by no means perfect) than when I previously saw the film on video years ago. The mix is otherwise quite good, with impressive separation and depth that creates a sonic equivalent of all those impressive widescreen vistas.|
|While Cimino does not contribute an audio commentary (perhaps he felt that 216 minutes was simply too long to talk, even about a subject as fascinating as Heaven’s Gate), he does participate in a half-hour illustrated audio interview along with producer Joann Carelli (although this is definitely the Cimino Show). The interview is accompanied by clips from the film, bits of raw footage, and behind-the-scenes photographs. There are also three new 9-minute interviews with actor Kris Kristofferson, soundtrack arranger and performer David Mansfield, and second assistant director Michael Stevenson. Of the three, Kristofferson is the most direct in defending the film, while Mansfield and Stevenson focus primarily on discussing their roles in the production. A four-minute restoration demonstration provides ample evidence of how different the film looks now that it has been transferred and color timed under Cimino’s supervision, providing a substantially different, much color-intense look than the desaturated, sepia-toned look most of us have seen on video for all these years. Also included on the disc are a teaser trailer and a TV spot, and the insert booklet features an essay by critic and programmer Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan and a lengthy 1980 interview with Cimino that was originally published in American Cinematographer. Unfortunately, the disc does not include the true holy grail of Heaven’s Gate lore: footage from the supposed five-hour rough cut that Cimino originally showed United Artists executives. There had also been rumors that they might include Michael Epstein’s 2004 documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, but unfortunately it is also MIA, which isn’t surprising given that this is a director-approved release.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and United Artists