SHOOTOUT AT THE HEAVENS GATE CORRAL
A big showdown is coming in one of the longest simmering battles of filmdom? The question of whether Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is actually an unfairly abused masterpiece, or a properly abused misfire. At next month’s Venice Film Festival, a Cimino supervised restoration of the director’s cut of the film will be shown and the battlelines are already forming. Over at Hollywood Elsewhere, you can read the opening salvos with Jeff Wells’ anti-revisionist line and FX Feeney’s defense of the film.
It is hard to not want the film to be good. The revisionist storyline - that HG was a film whose scope and strive were just too much for Hollywood which had to take the film away from Cimino and destroy it - is irresistible. Anyone who struggles on the side of individual expression over corporate Hollywood mush is almost obliged to believe it.
And yet, and yet….I saw the film again at a screening about seven years ago. It was the first time, I’d seen it on the screen since its original chopped-up release and I came in believing, sight largely unseen the storyline. But…sadly it just wasn’t there.
Heaven’s Gate is about the most frustrating film you’ll ever encounter. It has sequences -like the skating sequence or the entrance into the town of such beauty and enormous technical achievement that they literally take your breath away and hold you spellbound even as the sequences go on 20 -30 minutes longer than they should. It is almost a dream cast - Kris Kristopherson, Sam Waterston, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert. There is sadness, poignancy, and huge conflicts played out on a very intimate scale. And then there are also sequences as bad and clumsy as anything in Showgirls. Moments so miscalculated and badly handled you can’t believe they are in the same film as the ones above. The dialoge is often laugh-out-loud horrible. The final sequence is a confused muddle that just collapses the whole film at its height.
But its a real problem we have to grapple with - would you rather have a film that shoots for enormity and falls short, even stumbles horribly, or a film that aims for the middle and pulls it off? The late 70’s - early 80’s was a period of huge, epic, overreaches by our great director - One From the Heart, New York, New York, 1941 and Heaven’s Gate. They literally don’t make flops like that any more. But those flops came in the context of the best five year period of the post-studio era. (I have in fact quantified that and will be revealing those results shortly.) Alongside those gargantuan flops, each of those directors made masterpieces like nothing made in American cinema today. So I guess that is how I would like to think of Heaven’s Gate. A cinematic tragedy, but the sort of tragedy you need to have room for if you are going to have greatness.