In this continuing series devoted to reviewing motion pictures ideal for this season of celebration and gift giving, here is KLYMKIW CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEA 2012 #11: The exquisite Criterion Collection Blu-Ray (or, if you must, DVD) of Michael Cimino's notorious, unfairly maligned, utterly mad, strangely compelling and yes, classic epic western Heaven's Gate.
Heaven's Gate (1980) *****
dir. Michael Cimino
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis, Paul Koslo, Richard Masur, Ronnie Hawkins, David Mansfield, Terry O’Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mickey Rourke
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Heaven's Gate is a sprawling, glorious, poetic, elegiac, subversive and stark ravingly bonkers epic of the Old West, and why, oh why, shouldn't it be?
Written and directed by a passionate, movie-mad iconoclast of the first order, director Michael Cimino had already delivered the memorable Clint Eastwood/Jeff Bridges crime bro-mance Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and the heart-stopping Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter (1978). Heaven's Gate came two years after the The Deer Hunter's multi-Oscar-cleanup. (Best Picture was presented by John Wayne just prior to his death, and a somewhat bittersweet moment considering how Wayne's own Vietnam tome, The Green Berets was universally reviled for its pro-war stance some ten or so years earlier.)
Heaven's Gate was and continues to be a worthy third feature for Cimino, but only now, thanks to Criterion, it can finally be appreciated for what it is (a $40-million-dollar art film of the highest order) than for what it isn't (a bloated piece of crap).
Did the film befuddle American critics? Indeed. Did the film die a merciless death at the box office, destroy an entire studio (United Artists) and put the power of green-lighting and having final say over all aesthetic matters into the hands of pencil-pushing accountants? Sadly, yes - but the fault is clearly not the picture's, but that of all the boneheads at every level of the process who just didn't get it.
Heaven's Gate - now, and in its current form and all its shining glory - is a movie that has outlasted virtually every pathetic, forgettable box office blockbuster that followed in its wake during the worst period (artistically) of movie history, the 1980s. The movie now exists, in the form its director envisioned and it's clear it will live well beyond even the present.
As for the time being, or rather the present, Heaven's Gate brilliantly speaks to the current political and financial position the world finds itself in NOW. We live in a world ruled by a money=and-power-hungry New World Order, a One World government comprised of only the very wealthy and bereft of any concern beyond personal interests and, most chillingly (and at any cost), the culling of what they view as the dregs of humanity. The state of the America right now is not a far cry from the days depicted in Cimino's masterpiece.
His picture is loosely based upon the Johnson County War that occurred in the state of Wyoming in 1892. Similar shameful incidents were happening all over America in the Post-Civil-War period, but none were as blatant and horrendous as what happened here. This was a war waged BY Americans (rich, of course) UPON Americans (poor, naturally) and with the blessing of the American government at Federal, State, military and even County levels.
The 216-minute director's cut of Heaven's Gate follows a group of Harvard graduates who have eventually settled in the wild west and built-up huge cattle empires. James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), though wealthy and well-educated has chosen to uphold the law of the land as a local marshall. His old college chum Billy (John Hurt) ineffectually opposes his cattle-grubbing colleagues with little more than nasty quips and avoiding overt confrontation by burying himself deeper and deeper into alcohol.
Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) is a struggling rancher who finances his desire for success by coldly working as a hired assassin for the cattle barons looking to wipe out new settlers. Both James and Nate are in love with the same woman (in classic Western tradition). Ella (Isabelle Huppert), a wealthy brothel-keeper and prostitute loves both men, but as she doesn't charge James to sleep with her, it's safe to say her hankerings slant a bit more in his direction.
And, of course, no western will ever be complete without a big-time villain and in Heaven's Gate, it comes to us in the form of the downright greedy and villainous Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) who convinces his wealthy colleagues into creating a death list to wholesale slaughter their competition (asserting that the poor New Americans are thieves and anarchists). An army of assassins is hired and the inevitable clash between rich and poor is only a matter of time.
When things look their bleakest during the battle, Cimino delightfully resorts to the last minute salvation of bringing in the calvary. (This, however, is a Michael Cimino film, and as such, this mad dash perversely resembles a similar climax in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation wherein the calvary turns out to be . . . well, you can watch both great movies from opposite ends of cinema's century to see for yourself.
This is pretty much all the plot. There are a few tributaries that run from it, but it is, for the most part, extremely simple and straightforward - AS IT SHOULD BE. The best movies always have a simply crafted and solid wooden coat hanger to drape a whole lotta cool shit upon so it looks magnificent. (As Joan Crawford would have her adopted daughter Christina believe, wire hangers were much too flimsy and should only be used - if at all - for product puked-up by bargain basements.)
Oh! And what glorious cool shit Cimino delivers. Not that I think any of it is superfluous - it's precisely what gives the film its poetic qualities. Infusing the simple narrative with the stuff dreams are made of, Cimino treats us to one sequence after another. Each provides stunning set pieces that place you directly in the WORLD of the film and furthermore, the blend of sumptuous images (rendered by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) and aurally tantalizing music (by David Mansfield) verge on the hypnotic.
Alas, many of these scenes (which frankly are some of the greatest in film history) were, at the time of the film's release and in subsequent re-assessments, treated by most lazy scribes as self-indulgence of the lowest order. To them, I politely say, "Fuck you and the nag you rode in on!"
One sequence the pseuds always crap on is the film's opening 20-or-so minutes - a graduation ceremony at Harvard which rivals the wedding scene at the Lemko Hall in The Deer Hunter. The difference, of course, is that Heaven's Gate features hundreds of young men and women in their finery, partaking of their revelry in the most cultured, privileged manner, whilst in The Deer Hunter, Cimino gives us a whole whack of Ukrainians who go from the solemn pomp of the Orthodox cathedral to the mad, furious, drunken pigs-at-the-trough debauchery that resembles a Cossack victory piss-up after an especially successful day of pillaging.
Just prior to the stunning waltz on the lawns of Oxford (standing in for Harvard - as if I, a lowly Ukrainian would know the difference anyway) Cimino delivers an insane series of speeches that go on forever - one by Joseph Cotton as the Reverend Doctor and a graduation oratory from John Hurt. Critics also complained these went on forever and made no sense. They can auto-fellate themselves for all I care. I'd have been happy for those speeches to go on even longer.
In Heaven's Gate, Cimino uses this entire opening sequence to visually establish the ideals and rituals of a privileged class of youthful Americans and lulls us with a complete waltz before we're jack-hammered with the severe contrast of the wild west, the heat hanging thick as a good, hearty borscht and the swirls of dust muting the glorious blazing sun.
Cimino also continues his seeming obsession with the glorious lifeforce of piggish Ukrainians and other assorted Eastern European barbarians. In The Deer Hunter, they work in the steel plant and in Heaven's Gate, they're up to their eyeballs in cow shit. In both, they're especially adept at boozing, fucking and fighting.
I have no idea why Cimino has chosen "my people" for such hilariously accurate depictions, but it's pretty welcome to this fella'. (In 1985's Year of the Dragon, Mickey Rourke plays a Pole - same diff'.) Hell, even David Mansfield's beautiful Heaven's Gate score occasionally makes use of a Ukrainian folk song that was a HUGE part of my childhood, "Ой чорна я си, чорна" (transliteration: "Oy, Chorna Ya Sy, Chrona" and translation/meaning of song: two dark-haired, dark-skinned Uke lovers who coo too each other how they're made for each other because they're black as Earth). What's strange is that Mansfield only makes use of the folk song as revelry once and for the rest of the movie, he slows the tempo and manages to pull out every ounce of all Ukrainian music's dirge-like qualities (even "happy" Uke songs sound like funeral dirges or can be easily adapted into said dirges).
Mansfield's work is phenomenal all round. His various waltz themes are so haunting and romantic that you'll not get the main waltz out of your head - EVER! What I love about Cimino's use of Mansfield's music is that he's never afraid to lay it down wall to wall. This is a bold move that pays off since the film is all about VISUAL storytelling and as such, Cimino employs a combination of old studio styling with that of silent cinema.
Mansfield, is however, something else altogether and his virtuosity is on display in the movie as a character also. In an astounding sequence in the social hub of Johnson County, the "Heaven's Gate" roller rink, bar, community hall and flophouse (its manager is played by Jeff Bridges), all the settlers assemble for a glorious, old fashioned western dance. Cimino goes a step beyond John Ford here and puts everyone on roller skates. Does this sound nuts? Well, it kind of is, but he delivers a sequence that is so indicative of the film's emotional core that this "indulgence" pays off in spades.
And, of course, he gives us Mansfield on-camera with his band and a scene that will burn itself into your cerebellum to your final death gasps - Mansfield, on roller skates, fiddling like there's no tomorrow.
Cimino's eye throughout his western epic is the stuff only truly great artists in visual mediums are blessed with. His lengthy set-pieces are on a par with any of the finest delivered throughout the ages.
This is really such a great film, it still shocks me how it was used as a scapegoat to deflect responsibility from incompetent studio weasels to an artist who should have been allowed to create a steady canon of work.
My memories of its first release are still vivid.
I was, in those halcyon days, a huge Cimino fan. I loved his first two features, followed his pre-directing solo career as a screenwriter with considerable interest and in 1980, I could hardly wait until his new movie would be unleashed. That said, I briefly regarded an old friend's prognostication prior to its release when he declared that "Heaven's Gate has 'box office disaster' written all over it." Though he had yet to see it, I respectfully mulled over my sage-like mentor's explanation. "It's a $40 million dollar western starring Kris Kristofferson," he dryly observed.
Fair enough. I still pretty much ignored the occasional media reports of cost-overruns and wild tales of Cimino's bloated ego during the making of the film. Besides, all this stuff suggested - at least to me - that a great filmmaker was going whole hog to deliver another terrific picture and a bunch of persnickety pencil pushers, crew-monkeys and loser journalists had bees up their assholes.
Sadly, Heaven's Gate did not open in my hometown of Winnipeg. After a few days of limited release in two North American cities, reviews and audience response was so disastrous that United Artists pulled the 219-minute cut and many months later released a 149-minute cut for wider release.
I saw the latter version. In this form, the movie made no sense whatsoever and I staggered out of the cinema with a handful of similarly befuddled viewers. And the result was a picture that grossed $3 million dollars. United Artists, the studio that backed it, was completely decimated, powers shifted right across the board to a more aesthetically conservative approach. And again, this led to the most mind-numbingly awful decade in American cinema. Lots of hits, but very little that makes any aesthetic difference to the medium (in positive ways).
The survivor, the victor, if you will, is Heaven's Gate (and by extension, Cimino himself). In its pure glory, the film proves its worth well beyond the highly-sought-after ephemeral qualities the industry placed on cinema. (Thank Christ for Tarantino in the 90s - his work somehow put a bit of life back into the art and business of cinema. Sadly, one can only imagine what Cimino might have accomplished if not relegated to pariah status.)
As I look over the myriad of criticisms of this film, I'm reminded how so many people had their heads up their assholes on this one.
The big complaint was the sound mix. Many whined that the tracks were so layered and busy that one could barely hear dialogue. Yes, true, but ONLY when warranted - amidst the bustle of train stations, general town life, revelry and war. (Occasionally and brilliantly, dialogue is hard to make out when we get an audio POV in the same room. It kind of forces us into characters' aural shoes, as it were.)
Frankly, this issue of dialogue was never once a problem for me. Try watching the film with the subtitles, you'll see most of the dialogue is NOT subtitled, and when it is, it's perfunctory dialogue of the "if you hear it, fine, if you don't, no matter" variety. It's all part of the natural cacophony of, uh, life - but heightened to epic proportions of said life. (Another criticism was a cacophony of chatter in various Eastern European languages, often WITHOUT subtitles. Granted, when I could make out the words, I pretty much understood what everyone was saying without subtitles, but even if I didn't have a smattering of understanding of Slavic languages, I doubt it would have been a problem. Most of the chattering is of the aforementioned "if you hear it, fine, if you don't, no matter" variety. And WHEN it matters, there ARE subtitles.)
In many of these sequences, Cimino is telling his story VISUALLY and the soundscape is its own entity at play in this landscape. In fact, when I first watched this astounding Criterion presentation, I didn't even THINK about the dialogue during these scenes - I was too busy WATCHING the movie, thank you very much. I didn't miss a thing. I had no problem following the action, the characters and most of all, I was completely head over heels in love with the film's deeply immersive qualities - part of which is the GREAT sound design and mix and the other part being the expressive visuals.
Another head-up-the-ass complaint from "critics" was in the area of acting. Yes, Kristofferson's Jim Averill is withdrawn and often taciturn. Has anyone ever watched a western before? Most heroes (or anti-heroes) have this quality. Yes, Isabelle Huppert seems out of place as a madame in the wild west. So too did most immigrants. I can only imagine my own forefathers from Ukraine stumbling into turn-of-the-century White-bread, old-monied Winnipeg. Christ, they were out of place in any age, but especially so back then. Duh!, Grab a fucking brain, people! This is not a valid criticism. Besides, Huppert is a total fucking babe and we get to see her naked. A lot! I have no problem with this.
Another complaint from the army of knot-heads was how so many great actors were "wasted" in small roles. Cimino presents a dreamscape, a tapestry of a bygone era, one that finally exists as an entity unto the silver screen itself. There's not a single performance in the film that's bad and I personally applaud actors of this calibre agreeing to be part of a tapestry and giving their all.
Yet another utterly idiotic charge against the film is how Cimino plays fast and loose with the historical facts. More bullshit! He does what every great artist does - he doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story. Almost all the characters in the film were real people. Cimino, if anything, does his job as an American myth maker and renders the likes of Jim Averill, Ella Watson, Nate Champion, etc. into bigger-than-life entities. It's the American way, but it's also what makes great movies. For example, the fact of the matter is that in real-life, James Averill was was hung by the cattle barons. Here, Cimino has him living a life of sad memories - a living death, if you will. It's fucking romantic. All the knobs who had a problem with this, are more than welcome to do me a favour and bugger off. Besides, I'm sure none of the real-life personages would have had any problems at all with their depictions.
I could continue mentioning all sorts of thing people crapped on for all the wrong reasons, but the bottom line is this - Heaven's Gate would probably never have been a hit at the time, but the cowardly studio heads were the ones who fucked up. They should have stuck to their guns, or at least, had Cimino's back on this one. I suspect the outcome might have been preferable to what transpired. Besides, the cowardice of the bozos at United Artists killed their studio, almost killed a great director (and severely hamstrung him for much of his career) and worst of all, changed the way movies were made and marketed. The film deserved, at the time, to be regarded as a noble financial failure at worst.
Besides, distributors (especially at the studio level) deep down know the catalogue value of most films and that eventually, almost all pictures pay for themselves and then some. (God knows I've been responsible for a few with that potential.) Time is on the side of studios/distributors. Besides, studios with in-house sales/distribution arms almost ALWAYS make money because they're generally crooks and find ways to ascribe in-house costs as production costs and they ALWAYS take their fees first (including guarantees).
When shit goes wrong, they never blame themselves. They look for handy scapegoats. In the case of Heaven's Gate, it was Cimino.
The whole debacle reminds me of the scene in Roman Polanski's The Tenant (put Cimino in Trelkovsky's shoes here) when the shuffling harridan landlady, played by a gloriously sour ball Shelley Winters answers Trelkovsky's pleas for help after being besieged by an inordinate number of affronts in his new home and says to him dryly, "You only have yourself to blame."
People who fucked Cimino over have made a very nice living since that time by blaming him. Blaming Cimino became a cottage industry. I hope this new lease on his picture's life will give him the last laugh. Frankly, Heaven's Gate completely knocked me on my ass in this Criterion Collection Director's Cut. Cimino reminded me throughout this great film why I have lived and continue to live my WHOLE fucking life for the movies. Using the medium to its utmost power, Cimino did his job - to draw me into HIS dreams - dreams fit for a King, a King so benevolent he allows us, the mere peons, to share them.
Thank you, Michael. You rock.
So does your $40-million-dollar Kris Kristofferson western.
Heaven's Gate is available on a truly amazing Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. The film itself is gorgeously remastered for HD and appears alone on Disc 1, while a solid clutch of supplements can be found on Disc 2.
This scene should speak for itself why anyone who loves movies needs to own this great film:
I wanted another number and sequence like that and would have been happy to watch it. When you see the film, you'll see a heart-achingly romantic sequence that follows-up on the roller skating sequence in a similar fashion. Visual storytelling at its best!
Take a look at this opening waltz from the film and then try telling me this is bad filmmaking:
And so you don't think the whole movie is all fun and games, try this scene on for size:
Now, for any Ukrainian-o-philes out there, here's a gorgeous a capella rendering of the great Ukrainian folk song "Oy Chorna Ya Sy Chorna" that David Mansfield adapted for his Heaven's Gate score:
And here's a version by the brilliant Veryovka Ensemble of Ukraine under the artistic direction of Anatoly Avdievsky. My late Uncle Walter Klymkiw was one of the world's leading authorities on Ukrainian folk music and spent much of his life devoted to studying, archiving, arranging and cataloguing this wealth of music. He was a great friend and colleague of Mr. Avdievsky and the only non-citizen of Ukraine to win its highest artistic honour, the Schevchenko Medal (Kind of like a Pulitzer in the USA or a Governor-General Prize in Canada) for his work in bringing the ancient music of Ukraine to life after much of the culture was wiped out by Joseph Satlin during the Holodymor and purges. Uncle Walter and Avdievsky collaborated closely to bringing this music to the world. David Mansfield can thank both of them. Enjoy:
AND NOW, BUY THE FUCKING MOVIE AND SOUNDTRACK