Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Good Gone Days

Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate has a reputation that it can hardly be expected to live down to. Or rather, it had such a reputation, one you all know about: it bankrupted United Artists, Vincent Canby dubbed it an "unqualified disaster," Roger Ebert threw up his hands and claimed you couldn't even tell what was happening on-screen, Cimino had it pulled in order to frantically edit out a full hour in the futile hope of salvaging some level of critical and commercial success, and so forth. The point being that a revisionist take on the film was bound to happen at some point, and from what I can tell that revisionism has been going on for a good couple of decades now. The most persuasive voice in defense of Heaven's Gate has always been, for me anyway, F. X. Feeney's, so it's a little surprising to see him absent from the special features of the new Criterion release of the film. But it's the film that matters, obviously, and the Criterion Blu-ray is gorgeous, and goes a very long way for allowing Cimino to make his own case, all by himself.

Not that it's perfect, or anything. In fact, Heaven's Gate begins with a twenty minute prologue set at the 1870 Harvard graduation ceremony, and it's a testimony to something or other, nothing good, that in the course of this sequence it was proved to me that not only was it possible for me to be bored by both Joseph Cotten and John Hurt, but to be bored by them rather quickly. Each of them gets a speech: Cotten as the Reverend Doctor representing the Harvard faculty telling all these young dudes a bunch of boring old people stuff, and John Hurt as Billy Irvine representing all these cool young dudes with his valedictorian speech telling those old people what's what. Also made clear from this sequence is that Michael Cimino is not funny. Billy Irvine is a hopelessly obnoxious class-clown-type dork, but the only way Cimino was able to communicate to me that he was meant to be funny was by constantly cutting to Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averill, Billy's friend and fellow graduate, laughing his damn guts out at all of Billy's random capering. However, crucially, the one thing this prologue does achieve is it successfully sets a tone, or rather a pace, which the rest of the film, the full three-plus hours that follow, hews to, but because once Cimino skips the action ahead twenty years, and Heaven's Gate becomes his particular form of beautiful and infernal Western, it all suddenly makes sense. Anyway, it's just Cimino being Cimino, this being roughly the same structural idea he had when he began The Deer Hunter with a sprawling wedding before it moved to Vietnam. Even Billy Irvine becomes interesting once Heaven's Gate really gets rolling.

The film is a (highly fictionalized, it must be said) recounting of the Johnson County War, which was an 1892 range war between rich cattlemen and European settlers who the cattlemen viewed as encroaching on their land. Which they were, but the cattlemen drew up a hit list and hired, in essence, hit men to check off the names. Cimino politicizes this even more than the true story would already be naturally by, for instance, claiming that President Harrison was in on the whole hit list idea. Somewhat hypocritically, because this isn't really like me, I'm able to look past, or forgive, or get over, Cimino's silly need to ramp up history, and look at the film as a vast wash of Vilmos Zsigmond at his best, all brown and smokey and yellow and red, Cimino's strange rhythms, violence, Isabelle Huppert, the barely sketched moral journey of Christopher Walken's Nate Champion (I actually mean this as a compliment, it being of a piece with Cimino's approach to storytelling, which can work if you let it), "The Blue Danube," Sam Waterston saving his role from Snidely Whiplash-dom by virtue of simply being Sam Waterston, the endless final battle that caps off with a horrific suicide, which I first saw, I can only assume due to a momentary slip in adult supervision, on TV at my aunt and uncle's back in 1980-something, and which I've never forgotten, and that awful little twerp Billy Irvine, whose conscience is not entirely different from that of Kristofferson's Averill, but where Averill's spine is steel, Irvine's is at best tin, and watching him pop up throughout the film beside Sam Waterston's evil cattleman Frank Canton and stumble through Hell and allow it to spread, is almost fascinating. I say "almost" because Cimino can lay Irvine's persona on a little thick, but when people complain that they don't see the "point" of the character, I always want to say, and would if I ever talked like this, that they have just expressed the "point" of Billy Irvine rather succinctly.

Another famous, or semi-famous, or infamous, takedown of Heaven's Gate back in 1980 came from Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News, who told Tom Brokaw that the film contained nothing worth looking at, and further had no great performances. Her first point is rubbish, but she's not wrong about the second thing, and it is a bit strange to see so many great actors in a film as epic as Heaven's Gate contain no performance that is...I can't say "no performance that is memorable," because there are a number of good performances here, but nothing knocks me out on an acting level. I'd say Walken comes closest, and Huppert, and even Waterston, who does kind of stick in the brain, and Kristofferson is typically solid, but every human being, and therefore every performance, is ultimately beaten down by Cimino's manic attention to detail. It's kind of petty to hold that against the film, though. If Heaven's Gate doesn't move me, and ultimately it doesn't, not in the way I'm moved by the films of, say, John Ford, one of Cimino's major influences, I nevertheless find it a very easy film to become lost in. There's a shot in Heaven's Gate where Cimino's camera is panning along the main street of a town, and as it's passing a photographer taking a picture in the middle of the road, the flash from the photograph sends up, and back, a gust of smoke that keeps pace with Cimino's own camera. It's a breathtaking shot. Sitting on my couch, I almost gasped. There's a lot of that in Heaven's Gate. I'm not complaining.

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