Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Heaven's Gate (1980) New York Film Festival 2012

Heaven’s Gate…oh boy.

Legendary nightmare of film that sank United Artists, derailed Michael Cimino’s career and became a joke and a white elephant. 30 years on the film has slowly gotten a reputation as a lost classic. It’s due for a restoration by the Criterion Collection and is due for screening in its full version at the New York Film Festival Friday night.

Is it worth seeing?

Well that’s what this piece is all about.

The film is what Michael Cimino chose to follow his Oscar winning Deer Hunter. Things rapidly got out of hand with the film’s excess becoming the stuff of legend. Stories of Cimino’s insistence on using a certain small gauge train that had to be routed all over the west at great expense and the moving a specific tree complete with numbered leaves heading the incredibly long list of WTF moments. Costing an astronomical, for the time, 40 million dollars the film sank after playing week long runs to qualify for the Oscars. ( See Steven Bach's excellent Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists for wild stories.)

In the wake United Artists was dead as a real studio. There was some effort to recut the film; a version running about 90 minutes shorter was released to theaters about a year later (I saw it and loved it)- and there was talk of cutting it even further down to 90 minutes and even a third cut that would result in two new separate films. No further cuts occurred and the film was quietly released in its full version on home video.

The film is a memory tale of the Johnson Country Wars. Told from the point of view of a US marshal who graduates from Harvard and after being assigned to Wyoming runs into the clash between ranchers and the inflowing immigrants. The war was an ugly bloody affair that left a large number of people dead. Kris Kristopherson’s marshal is caught in between the sides with his best friend from school being one of the ranchers and his girlfriend being a hooker on a hit list.

When I saw the abbreviated film that was released in the hope of making some of the cost back, I was enthralled. Looking over my notes from when I saw it I was utterly floored by it. Sure it was a mess (Due to chopping out almost half the film) but the narrative thread and the surviving pieces were among the best westerns I had seen. I hoped one day to see it full.

And then one day I got the full version on video tape and promptly fell asleep.

As much of a mess as I thought the short version was the longer version, is in its way even worse.

Okay let me pause here and say one thing. As a visual work of art Heaven’s Gate is one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see. Its an amazingly beautiful film with sights that will bring you to tears. It has some fantastic performances, glorious set pieces and a killer music score…

..it’s also, in the four hour full length, ungodly long and desperately in need of trimming.

This is the film that never freaking ends. Sequences go on and on and on with nothing happening (watch the street scenes which drag on forever.) This should have been the greatest western ever made but it’s done in by a director whose head was so far up his ass that he was navel gazing from the inside. Self-indulgent doesn’t begin to explain it.I will never understand why did Cimino let so many sequences go on forever.

Its not a bad film, far from it, it’s just so long winded all the power is zapped from it.

Should you see it?

If you know what you're getting into yes you should. If you want to see one of the most beautiful westerns ever made on a big screen you should.(And trust me after 30 years the epic vistas haunt me).

Will you get one of the lost treasures of cinema?

Visually, technically and a few other ways you will, but the over length diminishes any notion over all greatness.

Ultimately if you have four hours and love movies go see it at the film festival.

1 comment:

  1. Robin Wood considered one of the all-time films.
    Cimino knew how to work big but the problem was he worked big even in moments calling for the small touch.