Friday, July 26, 2013


Cimino's breathtaking Heaven's Gate: cinema as stunning landscape painting

This review is available as a podcast below or by subscribing to Bina007 Movie Reviews in iTunes.

True story.  In 1892, the rich cattle-ranchers of Wyoming declared war on the newest influx of poor immigrants for old Europe. A few of these famished immigrants were rustling, to be sure, but nothing to justify the wholesale butchering of men on trumped up charges of anarchy and theft.  What makes it worse is that the stockmen apparently had the tacit, and then the explicit support of the US government, even though no actual warrants were produced in advance of the action. The result is the Johnson County War - although massacre would be a closer description.

Fast forward to the 1970s, and New Hollywood director Michael Cimino, flush from the success of THE DEER HUNTER, used that leverage to get United Artists to let him make his passion project, originally titled The Johnson County War, but known to us as HEAVEN'S GATE.  

That movie comes to us today freighted with notoriety and tales of hubris, excess and abuse.  Cimino was, like most of his auteur counterparts, so bloated with success and flush with cash, that his projects became journeys into addiction and ego-maniacal tyranny. It could have been RAGING BULL or APOCALYPSE NOW that sunk a studio, and pulled the curtain down on that Golden Age - both of those pictures were helmed by drug-addled geniuses who went massively over-budget, and were tortured in editing - but it happened to HEAVEN'S GATE.  And so offensive was Cimino's arrogance and so lurid the tales of sets rebuilt on a whim, millions of feet of stock printed, actors exhausted after take after take, that the press were rabid before they even saw a frame of the finished picture.

Cimino's went into the editing suite with 220 hours of footage, that had cost the studio $44m, on an initial budget nearer $10m.  His initial cut was 325 minutes long, and deemed unreleasable.  He cut it down to 219 minutes and it played New York in November 1980 and bombed.  He eventually cut it down even more to 149 minutes, which played in 1981.  It bombed again. Ebert called it the worst movie he'd seen.  It won Razzies rather than Oscars. It became an industry joke, except with dire consequences, as United Artists effectively went bust and got sold off the back of it.  Studios started making heavily produced action flicks rather than risky visionary films.  And it was all Cimino's fault.  He never made another movie of any note or scale or vision.

Amid all the hype and the hoopla - the moral superiority and told-you-sos - the reality is that HEAVEN'S GATE is, to my mind, one of the greatest films ever made.  And now, with the painstaking restoration and recompilation of a 216 minute cut*, supervised by Michael Cimino, we can all see why, projected on the big screen, where this movie belongs.  It is, to my mind, visually stunning; beautifully acted; incredibly accomplished in its use of music; and deeply politically relevant today.  There are so many scenes that I remember vividly - so many one-liners that I can always recall - and watching it anew this week - so much that is relevant in our post-global financial crisis world. 

What follows here is less of a review than a long-form critical appreciation, full of spoilers. 

Kris Kristofferson as the world-weary Jim Averill.

The movie opens with a PROLOGUE set in Harvard in 1870 as two friends, Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) are graduating.  They are ebullient, triumphant, the kings of summer. The college priest (an ageing Joseph Cotton) lectures them on their obligation to civilise the uncivilised, but Billy, already a jovial drunkard and master wordsmith, warns them that change is impossible in his fateful, but little understood, valedictory address. But even as the boys dance with their sweethearts to the Blue Danube on the college lawns, violence breaks in. There's some kind of kerfuffle - town vs gown perhaps? - and Billy is bleeding.  He realises that this is the happiest they will ever be. It's all over.  They will never again be this full of hope and life and promise.  

I found this segment especially poignant, not least because the scenes, though claiming to be in Harvard, were filmed at my alma mater, and the waltz scene was so redolent of those drunken high summer balls.  But despite that personal connection, it's surely impossible not to be swept up in that opening triumphant march, the Battle Hymn of the Republic sweeping our lads into their elite ceremony, the gilded hall pullulating with pretty girls. And as we transition to the lawns for the extended waltz scene, the fluidity of Cimino and DP Vilmos Zsigmond's camera allow that energy and vitality to lift us up and into that moment. 

The FIRST ACT of the movie proper takes place twenty years later, with a quick scene setting up at once the brutal struggle to survive in Johnson County. A poor immigrant is slaughtering a cow that he has stolen, when from behind a white sheet, the shadow of a mercenary comes up and shoots him cold dead.  It's a brutal and stunning expressionist shot that defines so much of what is to come.  We then move into St Louis for the remainder of this act, as a now grizzled Averill learns of the war that the stockmen have declared on the immigrants.  

As his train rolls into town we are faced with the awful dichotomy of his empty first class carriage, and the quite literally huddled masses on top of it. The sound of the train, the people, the horses, the traffic is so loud that we can barely hear the dialogue.  This isn't a mistake.  Cimino is making a point about the chaos, industry and anarchy of a frontier boom-town, and of the savage brutality of a world where a starving child is pitied by a working class train-steward but nobody else.  His recreation of that world is immersive and worth every production decision to build and rebuild.  I've never before felt the industrial machine so tangibly - and the steam engine whipping up dust and cloud, is like something out of Whistler. 

Isabelle Huppert as Ella and Kris Kristofferson as Averill

As soon as Averill makes his way from the station to the exclusive club where the stockmen are hatching their plot, the hushed luxurious silence is stark and obvious.  Only the rich have the luxury of peace in which to think.  Averill is told the full details of the 125 man Death List by his old friend Billy Irvine - now so drunk he barely has the courage to stand against the plan - the most tragic post-college drunk since Sebastian Flyte.

As we move into the second hour of the film, ACT TWO takes us to Johnson County, and into the crazy, down and dirty world of John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) emporium of cock-fighting, drinking, gambling and, somewhat improbably, roller-skating!  Averill tries to warn everyone of the coming war, but no-one seems to take action because they have too much tied up in the town, and perhaps because it seems so fantastical a threat.  The interiors are dark, crowded, richly decorated and drip with authenticity.  Cimino shows immigrants speaking their own dialects and doesn't translate.  We feel for the first time what it must have been to be in settler country.  In the words of John Bridges: "It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country." Averill replies: "It always was."

One of the most exhilarating scenes - the roller-dance at Heaven's Gate

We also meet Ella (Isabelle Huppert), the brothel madam with whom Averill is having a relationship.  He gives her a grand horse and carriage and her exuberant ride into town is filmed with wild POV shots that communicate the danger and exhilaration of the ride. That joyful energy carries over into a scene that mirrors the formal dancing of the college lawn waltz - the roller-skating dance at the rink known as "Heaven's Gate." I've never seen a better use of music in film to communicate a sense of community, time, history and motivation.  As for the production design - just the posters on the walls of Heaven's Gate should've won this picture an Oscar. 

This takes us into the central emotional triangle of the film.  Ella loves Averill and he wants her to leave, but won't leave with her. By contrast, the mercenary Nate Chamption (Christopher Walken) will keep Ella safe if she marries him.  She needs to be kept safe because she's been accepting the pilfered cattle as payment, incurring the stock association's ire. Behaviour that might appear coquettish in another comes across as genuine love of both men. It's a subtle and modern portrayal that few other films have managed to convey.  As for Averill, it's not clear if he really loves Ella.  When he's deposited, drunk, back in his digs by Nate, we see that he still has a framed picture of his college sweetheart.  

And while we're here, let's stop a minute to appreciate that amazing set of the rooming-house, full to the brim with poor immigrants - a set that extends in depth and height, to hammocks slung across the narrow corridor, bodies everywhere, claustrophobic and stifling. The beautifully, deliberately framed visuals continue.  We see a team of old women, bundled in rags, pulling a plough-share until they fall from fatigue.  A drunken man atop a horse, backlit in deep blue against the night sky.  And finally, one of the most powerful scenes in the film, entirely without dialogue: Nate pulls out a chair for Ella at his table, inviting her to marry him silently - will she sit down?

The war begins - expressionistic framing and choice of camera angle.

ACT THREE sees the war start, and opens the third hour of the film. Fatefully, it's the poor good-hearted train-steward who's the first to be killed in a shot whose power is enhanced by the camera angles and colour contrast - red blood against lush green grass. This truly is paradise turned to hell. Averill reads out the Death List to the gathered immigrants in Heaven's Gate. It's basically the whole town. The townsfolk bemoan the fact that they have been disenfranchised - that the rules of the game are rigged for the rich - and that it has always ever been thus.  "Your hopes are exaggerated. In the end they got it all anyway."  We move to the brothel where Ella is gang-raped - a scene that is shot sensitively despite Cimino's easy use of full frontal nudity earlier. Averill comes to her rescue, but even then can't offer her a way out - because he won't marry her, and she won't leave otherwise. It all seems utterly hopeless.

There is a futility and nihilism and rage that seems to reflect our own contemporary angst in movements such as Occupy and the Tea Party, at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Somehow the system seems rigged against the poor, and even the rich are resorting to extra-judicial measures to protect their wealth.  The immigrants see themselves as the real contributors to society - wanting to improve and work the land, and make something of Wyoming. They characterise the stockmen as "Eastern speculators" just creaming off profit but holding Wyoming back as just a cow pasture.  The debate seems redolent of our current opposition between the nostalgia for an economy that made "things" rather than abstract and complex derivatives.  

The mercenaries ride into town.

As we move into the third hour of the film, we enter ACT FOUR, which is, basically, the massacre. Poor Nate Champion, who had discovered something like a conscious and nobility after Ella's rape, turns on his masters and is smoked out of his cottage in turn and shot down in a scene that has visual punch equivalent to the final scene of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Ebert says he thinks it's absurd that he'd write a final not to Ella in that moment, but I felt it was utterly credible and psychologically correct.  Moreover, there was something heartbreaking of seeing his precious walls - wallpapered in newspaper adverts - go up in smoke. So much for the Harvard Reverend's attempts to civilise the uncivilised. 

Meanwhile, the townsfolk have been butchered, and those that remain hole up overnight.  Averill prolongs their pain with some Roman tactics, but it's all shut down when the US army intervenes, on the side of the stockmen.  Somebody washes his hands of it, saying "it's not me that's doing it to you, it's the rules."  Once again, that modern cynicism is staggering - it's not a particular person that's evil - not even Sam Waterston's swaggering elitist Carron - but the impersonal, arrogant, immovable "rules". It's like some kind of nightmarish Leonard Cohen song: "everybody knows that the dice are loaded."  Averill turns his back on the men, he's already resigned as marshall, and for one forlorn moment we think he might leave with Ella, in bridal white, but that's obviously absurd.  As absurd as the idea that poor drunkard-savant Billy, having declared that "all flesh is dust" would survive the cross-fire.  This isn't a place for romance or romantics.

So, from the glorious lawns of Harvard, the Blue Danube now plays over the dusty, wagon strewn field where the immigrants have been butchered and a widow blows her brains out.  If Averill survives to the EPILOGUE, three hours and twenty minutes into the film, he's living a kind of death too.  Dressed like a dandy on a yacht with this college sweet-heart, now aged and dessicated. He's suffocating under chintz and roses.   

HEAVEN'S GATE closes with most of the characters we loved butchered, Averill trapped, the rules of the game unchanged, in fact, validated by the highest authorities.  Nate Champion's triumphant "fuck you" achieved nothing, neither did Averill's pleas and idealism.  Even Billy's descent into alcoholism couldn't save him. And third generation asshole Carron has probably spawned another three generations of state governors.  If the message of EASY RIDER was "we blew it", the message of HEAVEN'S GATE is that we were never in a position to blow it - the game was blown before we even got here. In it's all pervading disenfranchisement and nihilism, it speaks eloquently to our times and in visual and musical poetry that matches anything in cinema history.

HEAVEN'S GATE was released in 1980. The digitally restored 216 minute cut opens on 2nd August at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide. *It's basically the same as the original 219 minute cut except without an intermission. The original YCM negative has been 2K scanned and recombined and then restored under Cimino's direct supervision. This cut has been rated 15 in the UK for strong violence, sexual violence, sexualised nudity and language.  One scene of unsimulated animal cruelty was cut.  It is rated R in the USA. 

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