Coulda Been a Contenda
Heaven's Gate Directed by Michael Cimino At the Sack Charles
MICHAEL CIMINO GOT LUCKY. Back in 1978, Vietnam was just becoming hot movie material, Cimino, the spunky young director with one movie under his belt (the insipid Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), sold the British recording company EMI the idea for a terrific film--a gut-wrenching Vietnam drama. The Deer Hunter. A hot idea, Vietnam laced with contemporary American pop romanticism. The Vietnam War the way Bruce Springsteen would probably sing about it. Workin' class guys, they go and they fight for their country, 'cause their country ain't so great, you know--it's real bad sometimes--but they go anyway, 'cause it's their country and they're men. So you get tortured in P.O.W. camps and one of your buddies dies and the other loses his legs, but you fought hard--for what you don't know--but you got back okay and you got your girl and she loves you. "God Bless America," you sing, "Fuckin' A!"
Michael Cimino thought he was John Ford. Everbody told him he was. His movie was a hit, America, the critics said, was ready to grieve over its tarnished honor and indomitable spirit. Despite its relentlessly bland directorial style, its contrived, overdone script, its torturous three-hour length, The Deer Hunter moved audiences with its sheer emotional power. The movie got all its force from an amazing cast that included Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken, Cimino, though, was a talented, but unimaginative, amateur: it was obvious in every frame. Yet the movie "touched a chord." While the socially conscious called it narrow-minded and racist--declaiming it as a disgusting, reactionary lie--most critics drooled over it. One critic, in her delirium, even hailed it as "the most honest and political film about Vietnam to date." The movie glorified the common man, it told you it was okay to love your country right or wrong. It copped five major Academy Awards. It made money--and, in Hollywood, profits are the measure of genius. Cimino, the overweight preppy from Long Island, thought he was John Ford. He posed for photos in a cowboy hat. He announced his next project: Heaven's Gate, an epic of the American West.
Michael Cimino screwed up. Professional hubris. With his cast and crew, out in Kalispell, Mont., for six months of shooting, Cimino became the compulsive perfectionist. Every detail had to be just so. Every scene had to be BIG. Hey, he was a genius. He was making an epic Western. He was hot. He had an unlimited budget. But a painfully limited talent, $35 million worth of hubris. When the film opened in New York last November it received universally poor reviews. The New York Times called it "an unqualified disaster." The film's distributor, United Artists, withdrew it from N.Y. theaters after only one week. Cimino promised to re-edit the film from its 225 minutes to a more conventional length of 2 1/2 hours. Unprecedented humiliation in Movieland.
AFTER FIVE MONTHS, Heaven's Gate is back, a magnificent, elephantine joke of a movie. There's preverse pleasure in watching such a grandiose bad movie, a $35-million B-picture.
The plot concerns the "Johnson County Wars." In the late 19th century, rich cattle barons hire an army of well-trained assassins to rid the Wyoming territory of poor immigrants who steal their cattle in order to survive. Cimino wanted to make a bold statement about the injustice of the American aristocracy, he wanted to show the corruption of the Frontier Spirit. Not a bad idea. And crawling through Heaven's Gate's quagmire of chaotic, irrelevant scenes, unexplained connections between events, unclear alliances between people, and awful dialogue, you can find traces of that original idea.
Heaven's Gate is not "an unqualified disaster." Cimino has discovered that cameras move, so, unlike The Deer Hunter, his new movie isn't almost entirely composed of long and medium shots with the camera staring. There are some exhilirating, sweeping pans of the vast homestead and interesting tracking through the streets of Casper, Wyo. In two parallel scenes--a waltz in Harvard Yard (it's actually Oxford) at the beginning of the film and a party at the Heaven's Gate Skating Arena in Wyoming--Cimino's camera moves with a lovely, fluid grace, catching you up in the excitement of the event. Cimino captures well the spirit of social gatherings, contrasting the stodgy coldness of an infamous Stock Growers Association meeting with the raucous and ugly cheer of a cockfight tournament.
The exquisite cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond enhances Heaven's Gate's bright moments. Cimino's most striking images of the Old West, shots of gunmen riding across the plain or through smoky streets, their long dustcoats flapping in the wind, have a haunting glow to them, a strange old photograph quality.
Perhaps the film's performances were hurt by the re-editing. Brad Dourif, for instance, seems to be an important character, though he has only about a dozen lines and lots of close-ups; he's always standing around, looking important, but never really doing anything. Throughout the entire film, Cimino cuts away from key scenes before they seem even half over. It's like a two-and-a-half-hour-long coming attraction. We get only fragments of performances from fine actors like Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, and Sam Waterston. And then there's Kris Kristofferson as James Averill, the film's central character, a Harvard-educated Federal Marshall: He's a zombie.
Michael Cimino will be lucky if he ever gets another job, perhaps not because his movie is terrible, but because it is so huge and terrible. The golden boy stands in shame. The kid had potential. He coulda been a contenda. And instead, he's a bum--with nothing to console him but his delusions of grandeur.