Sunday, July 21, 2013

Everything can be done, in principle.

As long as I'm talking about Westerns, here's a piece that was supposed to go up last fall but never did.

In 1978, MGM/UA gambled about $44 million (around $150 million in today’s dollars) on Michael Cimino’s Western HEAVEN'S GATE. The director was running hot off of the critical and commercial success of his Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER and seemed like yet another auteur in the Scorsese/Coppola mold of Hollywood young turks poised to continue the paradigm shift of '70s American filmmaking.

Unless you’re a cinematic dilettante, you know how this story ends. Far more famous than the film itself is HEAVEN'S GATE’s troubled saga of floppery. The film’s name became shorthand for a sort of filmic Waterloo, a bloated folly that was too big not to fail. HEAVEN'S GATE: The Film has played second fiddle to Heaven's Gate: The Symbol of (Fill In Your Thesis Title).

Last fall, Criterion released a deluxe Blu of Cimino's definitive final cut, a grand occasion for those of us who'd never seen any version of the film. Their Cimino-supervised restoration has beautifully rendered his original vision and (hopefully) will steer attention back to the film itself, rather than the hash made of it by trade magazine pundits and industry wonks. I, for one, went into the film fully expecting to love all 216 minutes of it - I have a soft spot for long films, westerns, and crazy pet projects.

Well I’m here today to tell you that HEAVEN'S GATE is not all that bad, which is hardly a radical statement. Even during its pained stillbirth, the film had its staunch defenders (Robin Wood and Z-Channel savant/noted murderer Jerry Harvey among them). The film is one of those that has been assessed and reassessed enough over the years to where I think it’s not generally regarded anymore as a bad film. I boldly stand in the camp between the people who think it’s a disaster and the people who fall over themselves in fits of contrarianism to laud it as some overlooked American masterpiece. It is a solid film, brilliant in places, with more than a few missteps.

The film certainly begins with a misstep: a tedious scene devoted to depicting the tribal rites of blue bloods as they graduate Harvard. Here we're introduced to central character James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) as he runs across the campus, gets caught up in a graduation procession, and - after several infernal zoom lens flourishes - ends up in the graduation hall where Billy Irvine (John Hurt) delivers a long, rambling oratory to send the grads on their way. Beyond Kristofferson's magnetic presence, there's nothing to draw us to Averill during this sequence. If you watched this scene alone, you'd imagine that the dandy fop Irvine was GATE's protagonist.

The whole thing feels like a deleted scene, like if Coppola had opened APOCALYPSE NOW with the French plantation dinner. I think Cimino intended this sequence to serve the same function as the opening wedding in the DEER HUNTER by introducing our heroes within the context of his happiness so as to provide a stark contrast to the embattled life that follows. It doesn't work that way. First of all, Hurt is front-and-center here but his screen time in the first scene probably matches his combined screentime for the remainder of the film. Secondly, after a protracted post-graduation celebration - complete with hundreds of extras, swooping crane shots, a perfectly choreographed waltz on the Harvard green that's as pattern-obsessed as Michel Gondry's "Let Forever Be" video (but nowhere near as fun) - we flash-forward twenty years and the real business of HEAVEN'S GATE can begin.

Cimino's focus shifts to hardscrabble frontier life - an generic immigrant family tends to some large chunk of greasy meat while their sheets flap in a merciless wind. An enforcer for the local cattle barons (Christopher Walken) creeps up and shoots the immigrant paterfamilias dead, leaving wailing women and children in his wake. This is a microcosm for the rest of the film: the civilized cattlemen versus the immigrants. Averill belongs to the former class but comes to stick his neck further and further out for the latter.

The plot pits Averill against the Cattlemen's Association and their genocidal plan to seize all of the land for themselves. The Association is led by a painfully one-dimensional Sam Waterson (who's only lacking a mustache to twirl). Waterson holds a backroom cigar-and-brandy session that results in a kill list naming most of the immigrant men. Averill, whose laconic front and hickory-smoked voice mask a volcano of pioneer justice just waiting to erupt, aims to frustrate the Association's plot.

The film's first hour nicely raises the stakes but then GATE comes to a crashing halt when Averill drops in on Ella (Isabelle Huppert), an immigrant who runs a bordello. At this point, the film desperately needs Huppert's femininity as much as it needs to "go micro" in its focus, but Cimino isn't up to the task. Despite an amazing cast - Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis, Tom Noonan, Terry O'Quinn and a pre-monsterism Mickey Rourke among them - we don’t know these people. Each stereotypical immigrant is indistinguishable from the next; the documentarian’s distance Cimino employs works  on a spectacle level but fails on a very basic human one (which reminds me: soon and very soon on these pages I’ll be studying the cinema of Godfrey Reggio! Stay tuned!).

GATE finally picks back up once the wrath of the Association is unleashed. “There’s an armed mob of paid men about to invade your country,” Averill tells the immigrants, “with the open threat to destroy the lives and property of your friends.” This pronouncement comes nearly three hours in. Most westerns would practically open with this line and this, in essence, is the type of scenario John Ford or Budd Boetticher could make for about $5 (with an 80-minute running time), granted with much less obvious production value.

In one of the supplemental interviews, Cimino humbly boasts that he “didn’t study writing or movie-making” and that he’s “not an intellectual” and “can only write about people.” Unfortunately, all of this shows through. GATE is basically composed of few awe-inspiring moments strung together with rather standard dramatic connective tissue (“you can’t fire me, I quit!” is used as an actual, pivotal line). The scenery writes a check that the screenplay can’t cash and the story unravels exponentially, culminating in a protracted battle scene (where, among other monotonies, Jeff Bridges’ character has nothing to do for about twenty minutes but gallop in circles yelling “get down!”).

The most consistently amazing thing about HEAVEN’S GATE is the production design, which is especially brought to life by the Blu (which is one of the most gorgeous I’ve seen - even the more fogged/degraded elements are polished to near-perfection). Cimino’s background in architecture shows through here; the attention to detail and texture is insane and I mean that literally. Cimino is clearly OCD in his approach to production design and I wonder if maybe he missed his calling to be the next Dante Ferretti. The noise, dirt, and stench of the Old West is palpable in each frame (and I haven’t seen frames this full in a while; just to reset the background for a retake would take hours). There are plenty of “how did they do that?” moments (unfortunately, the answer is most likely “with gobs of money!”).

Earlier, I criticized using GATE as a symbolic catch-all for whatever thesis you want to posit regarding Hollywood filmmaking. Well, indulge my hypocrisy while I say that, in a way, GATE straddles the two types of films that the '70s became known for: the blockbuster spectacle and the gritty, street-level dissection of human behavior. The world GATE presents exists somewhere between the stark depravity of Scorsese’s New York and the permanent adolescence of George Lucas’s starry-eyed action figure-verse. On the one hand, you have the full-blooded, unblinking look at the horrors and corruption that drove Westward Expansion. On the other, you have a golden-hearted hooker and (at times) too cutesy, generically Eastern European immigrants straight out of central casting (though I guess they're not quite as offensive as that quasi-Jamaican fish-rabbit everyone hated in Lucas's STAR WARS, TOO or whatever it was called).

In the end, HEAVEN'S GATE is an all-in proposition. You're either on board for three and a half hours of brilliant failure or you're not. Barring the false start, the first hour is amazing and as exciting a bit of filmmaking as was produced during Hollywood’s period of 1970s fecundity. It’s traditionally epic (think late period Lean) but shot through with the energy and iconoclasm that marked the Easy Rider/Raging Bull generation. The film never again quite achieves the cohesive greatness of the first hour, but there are enough fitfully brilliant moments to reward the viewer's patience. 

Oh yeah and this: