Sometimes the greater cinematic spectacle ends up not being the film itself, but the ability to watch the film crash and burn. And Hollywood history has arguably seen no greater spectacle of failure than Michael Cimino’s epic anti-western, Heaven’s Gate. Credited as the film that destroyed United Artists, the bloated-for-its-time production has come to represent for some the last hurrah for a New Hollywood whose challenging artistic visionaries eventually stumbled over their own escalating egos.
But decades after the hype, damage, and demonization of the film faded away, audiences can finally see Heaven’s Gate’s depiction of the Johnson County War for what it really is: a gorgeously realized, largely misunderstood, admittedly far from perfect but heavily underrated film. The Criterion Collection’s addition of Heaven’s Gate is a significant step in complicating the story of the film’s overwhelmingly bad reputation. But unfortunately Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray packages make for a strange release that doesn’t go far enough in recontextualizing a movie whose tattered history always threatens any potential appreciation of it.
Conflict Over Cooperation
Heaven’s Gate did do some significant damage in its day. But judging by its hyperbolic-and-then-some reception in the news media, you’d think Cimino made his film through a kitten-strangling factory run by an army of child laborers. As chronicled in the amazing documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate (which is much better than the book it’s based on), Heaven’s Gate didn’t have a chance to win with audiences after trade publications filled months of printed space with stories of bloated budgets, an endless schedule, and clashes between megalomaniacs. Venerable King of Serious Criticism Gene Shalit even famously took Cimino to task in utterly stupid moralizing terms on television, asking him about the ethics of spending $40m on a movie when the money could have helped society elsewhere. Apparently the “modest” $20m that Steven Spielberg spent on Close Encounters was obviously a far better decision than helping starving children.
The story of Heaven’s Gate’s production is a fascinating one. As a cautionary tale, it doesn’t have much to say unless you’re a studio executive; but as a piece of film history, it’s essential. And the film has only grown richer from the perspective of the present. Heaven’s Gate captures a final, fleeting moment of the role of the director as a position of assumed absolute power. The director has never been “king” in the way that most New Hollywood histories idealize the period (nor does Peter Biskind’s hero/director vs. villain/producer binary always apply); the stories of New Hollywood’s greatest triumphs are often annals of clashes between powerful men, masterpieces born of conflict rather than cooperation. What distinguished New Hollywood is that directors were respected enough as visionaries to be in a position to negotiate and demand. Heaven’s Gate is thus consistent with the overall arc of New Hollywood, but on a grander scale that ultimately turned out to be a swan song.
But what’s even more remarkable about Heaven’s Gate is that it captures an era where a filmmaker’s vision could only be realized through physical materials. Jeff Bridges, who plays a supporting role in the film, would go onto star in Tron two years later and inaugurate the slow but eventual dominance of the fabricated image in supposedly “live-action” filmmaking. But when you see that awe-inspiring crane shot introducing the main street of Casper, Wyoming, realizing that every element captured within that frame is real and every detail made specifically for the film leads to an uncanny sensation of unfamiliarity for the viewer unaccustomed to inferring that moving images made by Hollywood have any direct relationship to reality.
Easily the strongest aspect of Heaven’s Gate is its masterful cinematography. Here Vilmos Zsigmond rivals his achievement in that other great New Hollywood anti-western, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The weakest element of Heaven’s Gate is its characterization. It’s strange to spend over three and a half hours with a cast of characters played by actors as compelling as Christopher Walken and Kris Kristofferson and come away from the experience feeling like you don’t really know any of them. As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s driving obsession as a director seems to be a depiction of environments and the movement of people within them. Thus, the similar extended prologues of a large wedding in The Deer Hunter and a crowded graduation in Heaven’s Gate – it’s about the duration of the interaction, not the interaction itself.
This experience is strangely alienating in Heaven’s Gate. It’s hard to ever get lost in the film instead of merely sitting at the point of observation, so it’s good thing the film is so vast and pretty for the majority of its duration. But Heaven’s Gate is, to its absolute credit, a deliberately quiet and meditative film, and hardly feels like the work of hubris and arrogance it is so often accused of being.
Heaven’s Gate might at times feel like watching paint dry, but it’s some of the most gorgeous paint you’ve ever seen. Heaven’s Gate is about cinematic worldmaking, and what a world Cimino, Zsigmond, and production designer Tambi Larsen brought to beautiful life.
I hesitate, as some have, to call Heaven’s Gate a misunderstood masterpiece, but it is a good film. However, it’s so very easy to see the masterpiece Heaven’s Gate could have been. It feels as if, in some alternate 1980, Walken’s stunning introduction is celebrated as one of the best entrances for a villain (at least, an initial one) ever committed to film. And the roller skating sequence is an incredible feat of spectacular choreography if there ever were one. In some alternate history, audiences would understand the warm lifelong friendship between Kristofferson’s James Averill and John Hurt’s Billy Irvine instead of viewing it for what it is: the seeming camaraderie between a blank slate and a class clown, but who is only funny in a 19th century way that makes no sense at all.
Since that other reality doesn’t exist, there are two prominent stories to be told about Heaven’s Gate: that of its production and the media campaign to wipe it off the map, and that of its critical re-evaluation since. It’s the intersection between these two stories that makes Heaven’s Gate a singular piece of Hollywood history. Nobody is telling this recuperative story about Ishtar or Polanski’s Pirates, after all. After Robin Wood called Heaven’s Gate “among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema” in 1986, the film has seen its share of apologists and defendants, culminating in the recent repertory screenings of Cimino’s full 216-minute cut of the film at the Venice and New York film festivals.
The problem is, you won’t see either of these rich histories present in the detail they deserve in Criterion’s release. The disc doesn’t offer a preservation of the film’s significant production history (which, admittedly, one can find elsewhere). But even more surprisingly, there’s a glowing lack of extensive critical (re)evaluation that would otherwise serve as direct justification for including one of the most despised productions in Hollywood history amongst other works of “important classic and contemporary cinema.” Heaven’s Gate seems a perfect choice for Criterion’s library because it prompts contemporary evaluation of a film for which “classic” status seemed forever denied. There must be many critics and scholars that’d be excited to speak to this very point. (The booklet provides only a single, brief contemporary critical analysis, which brings me to another point: when did the feature-length scholarly commentary go out of fashion? Harumph.)
With scant special features, Criterion’s position on the film seems neutral and ambivalent, and this for a film that seems impossible to have a neutral position on. But then again, there’s something admirable about forcing a film that has been overwhelmed by context to speak for itself: maybe placing the film in a position where it can not only stand alone, but in pristine condition, is the most definitive attempt made thus far at allowing Heaven’s Gate a pure, fair, unencumbered reception.