Michael Cimino

deerhuntertruth-4

Back in 1978, director Michael Cimino gave the world one of the early cinematic examinations of the traumatic experience of the Vietnam War. A film that was vastly ahead of its time, The Deer Hunter took a stark look at how soldiers returning from the war dealt with what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder. The film was a hit with critics and audiences, earning nine Oscar nominations with five wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. However, The Deer Hunter was not without its controversy. Not only was the final scene in which the veterans sing “God Bless America” criticized and analyzed, the film was notorious for depicting the torture of American POWs by the Vietcong by forcing them to play Russian roulette. While powerful and effective in the picture, there was no evidence that Russian roulette was forced on prisoners of war in Vietnam, leading to a raging debate at the time of Cimino’s artistic license. Still, no one can deny the effectiveness of these scenes. This got us thinking. Just in case we found ourselves in an artistically-licensed Vietcong jail, how long could we survive playing Russian roulette?

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Criterion Files

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.

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Culture Warrior

As much as I admire the incomparable films made during the era, New Hollywood (the term referring to innovative, risk-taking films made funded by studios from the mid-60s to the mid-70s) is a title that I find a bit problematic. The words “New Hollywood” better characterize the era that came after what the moniker traditionally refers to. Think about it: if “Old” or “Classical” Hollywood refers to the time period that stretches roughly from 1930 to 1960 when the studios as an industry maintained such an organized and regimented domination over and erasure of any other potential conception over what a film playing in any normal movie theater could be, then if we refer to the time period from roughly 1977 to now “New Hollywood,” the term then appropriately signifies a new manifestation of the old: regimentation, predictability, and limitation of expression. Where Old Hollywood studios would produce dozens of films of the same genre, New Hollywood (as I’m appropriating the term) could acutely describe the studios’ comparably stratified output of sequels, remakes, etc. What we traditionally understand to be New Hollywood was not so much its own monolithic era in Hollywood’s legacy, but a brief, strange, and wonderful lapse between two modes of Hollywood filmmaking that have dominated the industry’s history.

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Michael Cimino has gone over budget, beyond his schedule, and generally through hell for Heaven’s Gate. Now his cut is 5 and 1/2 hours long. Is artistic freedom really what Hollywood needs?

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