Sunday, February 10, 2013

Criterion #636: Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (Part One)

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is widely held to be the end of a “golden age” of Hollywood filmmaking that began with Bonnie and Clyde and the end of the old studio system. Directors like Scorsese, Altman, and Bogdanovich (and Cimino himself with The Deer Hunter) produced personal and revelatory works financed by major studios in the late 1960’s and 1970’s; for the first time it seemed as if Hollywood was talking to the country as opposed to talking at it. By the time Heaven’s Gate arrived in 1980 (on the heels of Apocalypse Now, another film perceived by many in its day as a piece of directorial megalomania) our tastes had changed. In the wake of Jaws and Star Wars audiences wanted spectacle and studios wanted franchises and films with foreign box-office potential. Heaven’s Gate, expensive for its time and politically out of step, was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. Cimino’s career was effectively over. All of this is well-covered ground of course, but in late 2012 Criterion released a 216-minute “definitive” version of Heaven’s Gate on video. Michael Cimino was involved in the film’s restoration and re-release; the Heaven’s Gate we have now is finally the film that its director wanted to make. It seems fair to take a look at what exactly we have on our hands.

Heaven’s Gate grew out of Michael Cimino’s interest in The Johnson County War, an armed conflict between ranchers and immigrants in 1892 Wyoming. Cimino wasn’t afraid to edit the facts to suit his message about class and the ways money corrupts the American spirit. Two of the central characters in Heaven’s Gate, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), were actually hanged before the War began. Part One begins in 1870 at Harvard, as Averill graduates with his friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt). This sequence was filmed at Oxford and includes an exhortation to service by a college elder (Joseph Cotten) and an amazing number of extras for a celebratory post-graduation dance sequence. The point of this prologue is to establish Averill as a product of privilege, but it’s easy to think of ways this fact could have been established more quickly and cheaply. Twenty years later Averill is traveling back to Johnson County after a trip to Saint Louis. He has become a federal marshal, though I only learned this from reading the Criterion liner notes; Cimino could have been clearer on the reason why anybody listens to Averill. Hearing about the planned “invasion” of Johnson County by mercenaries hired by the Stock Growers Association, Averill invites Ella to go away with him while at the same time preparing himself for violence. In Part One the Association is represented by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken, miscast I think), a foreman who also holds a place in Ella’s heart, and Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). Canton gives voice to the Association’s “death list” plan, which offers money to hired guns who kill Johnson County’s immigrants.

It isn’t hard to see where the 40 million dollars spent to make Heaven’s Gate went. Cimino talks in an interview on the disc about the craftsmanship required to construct period buildings and restore old buggies doesn’t exist today. What effort must have gone into the roller-skating sequence, which includes live music (led by the film’s composer David Mansfield as a skating violinist) and another platoon of extras. This scene is a celebration of community on a par with the weddings in the Godfather movies, but in Coppola’s films those scenes also advanced the plot and deepened our understanding of family dynamics. The roller-skating and the dance between Averill and Ella that follows are a visual and musical feast but they don’t have the same storytelling impact as Coppola’s work. This seems like a good point to stop and acknowledge cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Heaven’s Gate contains both epic images of America’s promise and the finest gradations of light. The restoration only serves to highlight what a gorgeous looking film it is. Part One ends as Averill learns that he won’t be able to count on any help from the military in fighting the Assocation, thus effectively sealing the fate of the immigrants. Of course it isn’t fair to consider Part One on its own, this isn’t a Harry Potter film, but the film’s length demands it. Heaven’s Gate feels epic, personal, and underwritten all at the same time; the film’s seams show even in this cut. The fact that the government Averill works for turned on Americans is a central irony, so why isn’t it clearer that Averill is a marshal? What is the basis of Ella’s attraction to Champion? What are the loyalties of the bartender Bridges (Jeff Bridges), who runs a healthy side business making book on cock fights? Some of these questions may be dealt with in Part Two of course, but one wonders if Cimino had been willing to temper his vision and tighten his script if the film and his career might have turned out differently.

(An essay by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan included in the Criterion package was helpful in the writing of this post.)

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