Feb 28th: “Heaven’s Gate” (1981)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
The last underrated movie also became the most toxic film ever made, and affected the success (or lack thereof) for many of the films in this list. Heaven’s Gate did to the new wave era of cinema what the invention of television had done to the Hollywood studio system. But in a way, that’s the same as blaming the monitor for a crashing computer.
The film, Heaven’s Gate, is a decent, well crafted, grand scale movie that, if you watched on the whim without knowing anything about its history, could even be considered a worthy follow-up to Cimino’s The Dear Hunter.
On the flip-side, it’s extended cut is very indulgent, if not consuming. You have to be into it. You have to let it in. You must be open and receptive, otherwise you miss all that this film has to offer. If you’ve already seen The Deer Hunter, it will help as you visit the many complete slices of life that move slow, and steadily by like an anthology of different events. It’s not about cutting to a moment. It’s about living in it. There’s no arriving late, or leaving early. You’re in it for the duration.
To say that Michael Cimino was riding on high when he came into production on Heaven’s Gate was an understatement. Having just won the oscar for The Deer Hunter, he was the number one guy in the industry… well, perhaps king for a night would be more appropriate here. For his follow-up he wanted to go one bigger. His ambition was grand, and in the spirit of new-wave, the director was king.
Sadly, Heaven’s Gate was never meant to be. The list of issues with the movie made the making of this epic western more notorious and memorable than the movie itself. It was supposed to be the most vital American movie of history. It nearly was, but for all the wrong reasons.
The sequences in this movie are very much broken up into events, not that Michael Cimino ever dares to arrive late to a scene or for the interest of pacing, leave early. If he wants to have a graduation as an opening, then you’re invited, from beginning to end. It was as important in The Deer Hunter as it was for this movie. He wants you to be absorbed with events. You are fully committed, and that puts the audience closer to the action when it does come around.
It’s not that he relies wholly on real time, as transitions can also be stark and jarring. Think of the transition in The Deer Hunter when we go from sobre piano piece within a local tavern to helicopters flying in hot over Vietcong territory. Cimino was a perfectionist, who would often do scenes with multiple takes, not just because of wanting that lightning in a bottle moment, but to also give himself options in the editing room. He was a painter. He positioned his actors, extras, props and ensured that every frame was indeed a piece of art. That was very true of his set pieces, such as celebrations that all had a certain texture that looked spontaneous. For any other director, these moments were happy accidents. For Cimino, it was a game of numbers. The more takes you had, the more guarantees you had when it came to getting things interesting.
Trouble began with a small issue: the casting of French actress Isabelle Huppert who was a questionable fit when it came to United Artist’s point of view. For “the Great American” movie, they would have preferred a great American lady to head their cast. Indeed the clarity of Hubbert’s delivery in clear English was the deal breaker, but Cimino wasn’t having any of it. He wanted her cast, and that was that. It was the start of a long falling out with United Artists. I can imagine the scenario between Cimino and UA to be similar to scenes between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in the movie Crimson Tide. Cimino never once backed down and hid behind the old adage of “tell the studio what they want to hear, and then do what you have to do behind their backs.”
I would agree that Hubbert was not the greatest choice, but the idea of having characters grounded in a grand epic all American movie was indeed a conflict of interests. Most of the cast worked subtly within the narrative, much like they did, being affected by things around them and internalising it with long lingering moments of silence which were effective. The length of the shoot was meant to be 60 days, but it ran long over 11 months. There were comparisons made with Apocalypse Now, and indeed, the movie had gained enough notoriety in the media, the expectations were already there. Everybody wanted this film to fail as it had already been slated as the biggest flop ever in the history of Hollywood. With that in the back of everybody’s mind, the critical eye was unforgiving. When it was eventually released, the film was slated, most notably for its length and to the idea that the story wasn’t really epic at all. To say anything else other than what was expected wouldn’t have been the popular thing to do.
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times did stand out from the rest by giving the movie a positive review, stating it was “a true screen epic”. He later noted that because of his opinion, he had never felt “so totally alone.” When it came to giving his point of view.
Hollywood looked at Heaven’s Gate with hurt and anger. United Artists could have made a handful of other movies, giving work to an array of other artists who had to be rejected because all their budget was riding on Cimino completing Heaven’s Gate.
As a consequence to Heaven’s Gate, United Artist was sold away to MGM.
Heaven’s Gate also marked the end of the “director has full creative freedom” over all aspects of the project, and those ripples were felt like an immediate shockwave, with many great young directors hitting a wall, losing control, which snowballed into a string of failures. Coppola’s One from the Heart failed, and David Lynch had quite a number of problems with retaining his final cut rights for Dune, and Ridley Scott also had struggles over the final cut of Blade Runner.
To add insult to injury, in 1997, the suicide cult who ended their lives at the calling of the Hale-Bopp comet was also called “Heaven’s Gate”, and so from that moment on, Cimino’s movie was “kicked when already down”, through association, in name only. Google search can’t guess which way you want to go, but to have a cult muscle in on the legacy of this movie is, unfortunate.
But before this essay becomes over budget and too long in the tooth, you would want to know why this film could ever be considered to be underrated? As I said before, the knowledge and expectations of those who followed the story of Heaven’s Gate in the media came in with certain expectations. No minds could be clear to watch a film free of the weight of controversy, so naturally, it wasn’t really seen for what it really was: a very beautiful film that has to be given the time to be seen.
To watch this would be like slipping into a warm bath. You simply have to lock in and enjoy it. The attention detail is there, if only you can see past the veil of expectation, your efforts will be rewarded.