Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Unsung!: Heaven's Gate
Heaven’s Gate was infamous for being one of the worst films ever made and for closing United Artists Studio. Neither is true. This is yet one more example of the STINK that gathers around certain films, a stink that has nothing whatsoever to do with the films themselves or, for that matter, critics thinking for themselves.
Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece, albeit a slow-moving one.
GUILTY ADMISSION: I had never seen it, until recently. Oh, I had read about it in Stephen Bach’s Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate and the Medved brothers’ sneering “Worst of…” books, but until the recent Criterion Blu-Ray was released, it was yet another film that had slipped through my personal viewing “crack.”
(No jokes, please. Patrick has never seen Jaws.)
The movie was inspired by true events; many people object to the liberties that writer/director Michael Cimino took with published history. One IMDb user took umbrage that Cimino used the real names of historic figures in this largely fictional tale and actually went on to suggest, “The movie could have been much more interesting if it had dwelt on the political ramifications of the Federal Government intervention in a State Government's affairs and what happened after the [Association] gunmen were saved by the Calvary.”
Yes, that sounds much more dramatic than Cimino’s tale of lawlessness, whores, and bloodshed. Most moviegoers, when polled, will choose “political ramifications” over “Isabelle Hupert’s naked left breast” EVERY TIME. Why don’t more practicing screenwriters and directors listen to these “anonymous geniuses” on the IMDb?
Opinions differ on how much Heaven’s Gate actually cost – estimates range between $33 million and $44 million, equivalent to as much as $248 million in today’s dollars. Ironic, isn’t it, that the budget for this summer’s The Lone Ranger was almost this exact amount—and that was a shit fest! (Sorry Adam Riske, but this is not an opinion; Armie Hammer’s head was literally dragged through shit.) The budget for Star Trek: Into Darkness was $190 million; for Iron Man 3, it was $200 million. So, yeah, $44 million? No one would EVER want to spend that much on a MOVIE. (And Heaven’s Gate is almost TWICE as long than any of those other three, and has more roller skating!)
Many critics at the time were only reviewing the budget, as many small-minded, mediocre critics still do today. They express outrage that so much money could have been spent making a film—as if they are being asked to pay part of the budget themselves. Don’t most movie tickets cost the same? What difference should it make? This same “budget review” bias killed last summer’s John Carter (which, incidentally, reports the same $250 million budget as The Lone Ranger.)
In the case of Heaven’s Gate, a single lawsuit was filed; it was settled out of court. Orson Welles subsequently apologized for taking such a strident position.
Of course, the film’s reputation was not helped when terrified studio heads recut Heaven’s Gate after a disastrous opening weekend in New York. The film’s original running time is 216 minutes. If you did not get to see it during that single week in New York in 1980, the version you saw was the studio’s cobbled-together 148-minute recut. In a recent conversation Patrick reminded me that almost the same thing happened four years later with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America and a year after that with Brazil. He commented, “There’s a masterpiece somewhere… too bad people were not allowed to see it.”
My son and I occasionally trade affectionate vocal impressions of Martin Scorsese (“Well, if I remember correctly, that was a picture…”) We remind ourselves that one thing we like best about Scorsese (besides his FILMS) is his penchant for calling his movies “pictures.” I have to think that this is deliberate: it reminds us all that film is a visual medium.
Heaven’s Gate is one of the most stunning films I have ever seen. I am not usually one to fawn over scenery, but so many images in this film are breathtaking: the waltzing scene at Harvard; the endless Wyoming sky; the smoky, authentic look of the interiors. They built an entire, working steam locomotive for this movie, and then built an entire town in Glacier National Park to run the train through. The money is certainly on the screen. The long shots are full of teeming humanity; no one fills the frame like Cimino. I would like to think that the democracy of his long shots (Cimino lets the audience choose what to look at) is somehow tied to the deeply democratic theme of his film. This movie is nothing short of a visual feast.
CAVEAT: The dialogue is incredibly difficult to understand. Perhaps Cimino was aping Robert Altman’s famous multi-layered soundtracks to accompany his multi-layered visuals, but understanding the dialogue is a chore, even when watching the new Criterion Blu-Ray, which claims the soundtrack was re-mastered to make the dialogue more pronounced.
With its theme of class warfare, Heaven’s Gate is still trenchant, perhaps even more so today than when it was first released thirty years ago at the dawn of Reagan’s election and the new “morning in America.” I do not want to get on a soapbox here, but perhaps when we go to the movies we do not enjoy being reminded that, in both big and little ways, we are being fucked every day of our lives by the very rich. In this way, Heaven’s Gate joins the parade of other “social problem” films (Intolerance and Salt of the Earth, for example) that are misunderstood and vilified upon their original release.
TCM/DVR ALERT: The Twelve Chairs, which I wrote about two weeks ago in this very column, is being shown tomorrow night (Wednesday, July 24) on Turner Classic Movies. It is part of a night of Mel Brooks, featuring the very entertaining AFI testimonial dinner, a television interview he did recently with Dick Cavett, and screenings of The Producers and The Twelve Chairs. F-Heads! Now is your chance to see this film!