[FSR Retro] Heaven’s Gate: An Auteur in Trouble

Editor’s Note: This article was part of our April Fools 2010 project, in which our site was transported back to April 1, 1980. To see all of the retro articles written for this event, please visit our April Fools 2010 Homepage.

According to a studio leak, director Michael Cimino finished his first cut of his notoriously troubled production Heaven’s Gate in March and showed it to the executives at United Artists. Did the tens of millions of dollars gone over budget and months of delayed production, schedule bending, and changed release dates pay off, you ask?

Well, there is reportedly at least one major problem coming out of the screening: the movie is 5 and ½ hours long.

Cut at an undistributable (yes, it’s a word) length and costing an unprecedented $42 million (some reports are much higher), Heaven’s Gate is simply the latest example of unlimited filmmaker freedom backfiring on the studio and its financiers. Of course, we were saying the same thing last year about Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and the visionary epic turned out to be one of the most highly praised movies of the year. But, then again, 1979 was also the year of Caligula and 1941 – epic visions, even from the most talented of filmmakers, sometimes clash with bloated productions, compromise, or too much ambition.

It seems that whenever some of the best filmmakers of the past decade have sought to make their crowning epic recently (how on earth will Scorsese recover from New York, New York, for instance?), it’s been a major disappointment and has incurred huge financial loss. It seems like some of the best cinematic minds born of the 60s and 70s might have reached the limits of the meeting between their imaginations and what they’re actually capable of doing.

It isn’t just their fault; the open contracts of studios, giving free reign to the filmmakers no matter how long it takes to complete their vision even under the most insurmountable of circumstances, have made this occurrence almost inevitable. When did limitless budgets and director control become synonymous with creative freedom? Scorsese made Mean Streets, Coppola made The Godfather, and Freidkin made The French Connection without bloated budgets and open contracts, and those still turned out to be some of the best recent American films. Perhaps, in the tradition of these directors’ elevation of their European influences, we as journalists have praised their work so much that we’ve elevated them to a level beyond human, one that assumes that their great artistry automatically carries with it a degree of infallibility. But even Shakespeare must have written a bad draft or two.

While Heaven’s Gate will inevitably have its running time significantly chopped, it could come out of the Hollywood windmill a great film. My fellow critics and journalists have been watching the chaotic production like hawks – or, more accurately, like vultures – using set reports as Hollywood gossip.

Like staring at a traffic accident, we as film journalists and readers have consumed every dirty detail of trouble on set and with the studio. I get it: it’s candy, and it sells. But it’s getting nasty, from reporters sneaking on set pretending to be PAs to the endless unsourced rumors being published and posing as actual reporting. The risk being undertaken right now is that the production of Heaven’s Gate will never be viewed as separate from the movie itself. No matter how good or bad the movie may be, it will always be perceived in the context of this exhaustive (and exhausting) coverage. Unlike Apocalypse Now, the coverage of Heaven’s Gate has become so ugly, speculative, and endless that it seems like it would be impossible for the movie to turn out to be good enough to hush the existing legion of people thumbing their nose at it. If Heaven’s Gate is a good or bad movie, if it fails or if it succeeds, it should occur solely on its own merit as a film, not as a result of news stories on its production.

Sure, if the stories of animal rights abuses on set are true, there’s an ethical argument to be made in rejection of this film (supposedly there’s now legislation being put forth to make sure members of the American Humane Society are on set whenever animals are used in Hollywood productions), but all the other news coming from these alleged secret set visits are irrelevant to the film itself. Michael Cimino yelling at a visiting executive or ordering endless takes of a turn-of-the-century rollerskating scene or Kris Kristofferson complaining about Isabelle Huppert’s broken English may be fun gossip, but it’s hardly new, and it definitely isn’t an honest discussion of the film itself.

Unfortunately, it seems that now in the world of film journalism the two are conflated. All we hear is talk of budgets and set troubles, as if they determine the quality or artistry of the film at all and, an even more frighteningly, these discussions operate under the assumption that a film’s box-office is somehow directly related to its quality. It’s sad to say that so many people who call themselves film critics and film journalists have already made their verdict on Heaven’s Gate without even seeing it, assuming no distinction between its story of production and the resulting product.

Heaven’s Gate will most likely not be a success with audiences. With the much-anticipated sequel to Star Wars opening this summer, audiences are more interested in popcorn-action and stories of extra-terrestrials than a butt-numbing slow-paced epic Western meditating on the evils of bureaucracy and the early death of the American Dream. Sure, audiences jumped at the chance to follow Cimino into one of the darkest chapters in American history with The Deer Hunter two years ago, but in that short amount of time the sentiment of the American filmgoing audience has gone through a sea of change.

With Apocalypse Now as the sole exception, we see mounting evidence that audiences aren’t quite keen on the idea of following the auteurs of the 70s to the end of the earth – or, at least, decided to stop at the end of the decade.

Like my colleagues will no doubt do as well, I’ll continue reporting on Heaven’s Gate’s troubles as they develop. It is, after all, part of my job. But what I won’t do is treat these reports as a qualitative, self-righteous, premature judgment on the film itself. I won’t correlate box-office disaster with artistic failure. I won’t go into any movie assuming it will be good or bad. Whenever Heaven’s Gate is finally released, I’ll treat it with just as open a mind and with as blank a slate as any movie I see. And I urge my colleagues to do the same, for confusing the reporting of a film with the film itself is a potentially dangerous path with troubling implications for the future quality of film journalism. I urge you all to be objective journalists and fair critics. Please, for the love of movies, just take them as they come.

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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