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I caught Michael Cimino's failed 1980 Western "Heaven's Gate" on US Netflix streaming recently. I understand that its undergone a bit of critical reassessment recently, and being aware of the history of the film effectively destroying UA and scuttling Kristofferson and Cimino's careers, was very curious to see it. I am not sure what version this was, somewhere between three and a half to four hours long.

I can see why it was a box office failure (4 hours long, languid pacing, self indulgent, narrative gaps, miscasting of roles, and a lack of rich characterization) and why its being reassessed (gorgeous cinematography, lots of risk taking thematically, subversion of an overwrought genre--though a little late to the game).

Anyone else see this? I'm still mulling it over, but for sure think its more than less of a failure--the Walken-Kristofferson--Huppert triangle was never really developed, but Cimino sure spent a lot of time on it. I saw an imdb comment that the film was an excuse to have Huppert walk around naked most of the time, and while I'm not quite there, I do find that content uncomfortable and in this case mostly gratuitous. I suppose Cimino's point was bringing to life the freedom experienced by the liberated Averill and Ella, vs the oppression and repression represented by the Stock Growers Association.

I also found it pretty muddled. How, with almost four hours to develop your story, is it still unclear what the heck is going on? Why is Billy (John Hurt) there? Who cares about Harvard? How does Averill function as a sheriff if all he does is hang out with Ella and drink? Where in the world did Christopher Walken come from? Why is he friends with Averill?

But its not always what it's about, its more about how its about what its about. And Heaven's Gate is about America, and evil capitalists over against the poor but innocent souls, and the liberated freedom of the enlightened and non materialists, and the corrupting power of materialism, and the spoiling of the natural beauty of the west. So, it's a big, sprawling film with a point of view that i don't always jive with, but for which I'm glad it has. I'll take an impressive failure over a safe success any day, but I sure wish Cimino had reined in his four minute takes of roller skating violinists and chicken fights, and Harvard speeches, and wolf hunters, and photographers, and propelled his story forward. I don't think it would have ended up being a failure had he exercised a different level of discipline.

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I saw this a couple of years back and I quite like it. Yes the film is messy and can be a bit unclear, but there's something majestic about it at the same time. I'm glad people are reevaluating it because it's certainly not worthy to be called one of the worst films of all time, there are too many true failures, this one is more like a film that fails to completely meet with its high ambitions.

I do need to rewatch it because people talk about scenes I don't remember seeing. I certainly don't remember Huppert walking around naked. Maybe I saw the shortened version. Plus, the Criterion restoration was much needed. The version I saw had a murky tint over everything which it looks like the Criterion version fixed.

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Majestic is a good word, but I can only think of a few scenes that realized any majesty--Averill and Ella's slow dance as Heaven's Gate empties (but this is offset by a rollerskating violinist), the initial ride of the mercenary army over the ridge, the strange and marvelously diverse craziness of Averill's quarters.

I think the compiliation of financial failures (in effect causing United Artists to collapse), career implosions--Cimino went from Best Picture winner to directing two bit genre pics (rarely), and critical rejection created the perfect storm of "worst picture of all time". I'd link to the thread about Spielberg's "coming Hollywood Apocalypse" if I wasn't lazy, but it's relevant reading. Certainly other films have lost more money, and other films have suffered worse critical fates, and other films have killed careers, but not sure any had as high profile as this one.

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  • 4 months later...

I also found it pretty muddled. How, with almost four hours to develop your story, is it still unclear what the heck is going on? Why is Billy (John Hurt) there? Who cares about Harvard? How does Averill function as a sheriff if all he does is hang out with Ella and drink? Where in the world did Christopher Walken come from? Why is he friends with Averill?

I wanted to wait until I'd finished watching the film to post here, but I can't resist: These are great questions. I was hoping the second half, which I started this morning, would address some of them, but I don't think that's going to happen.

 

That said, I've gone from scowling about how the film bored me during its first half despite some stately images to standing in awe of some of the imagery during the earlygoing of Disc 2 of the Crtierion edition DVD (standard def). Maybe I took the image-making for granted during my viewing of Disc 1, or maybe, as usual, I was too tired to be attentive, but the film opened up for me as I watched it this morning.

 

Here's the thing, though: I watched it this morning with the sound turned off, or so low that I couldn't hear it. I was walking on the treadmill in our basement. I turned on the subtitles so I could follow the story. But -- and I think I've written about this phenomenon in the past; I know I've sensed it while watching Martin Scorsese's New York, New York and Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette with the sound turned off -- just watching the movie rather than listening to it while watching it was revelatory. I'm now thinking I should rewatch Disc 1 before I return the movie to the library.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 4 months later...

I saw this the other night and I’m rather convinced that it’s a crazy masterpiece.  Maybe it’s all the criticism that the film has suffered, but I didn’t expect the film to be this good.  I watched the long, director’s cut Criterion version so I don’t know what the shorter versions would cut out.  But I certainly wouldn’t want anything that I saw cut out.

So it’s slow and leisurely, that’s never been a valid objection to a film.

The stereotypes of the evil rich oppressing the immigrant poor don’t really bother me.  I’m about as traditionalist conservative as they come, but even I can recognize that the rich oppressing the poor is a real historical phenomenon.  While Heaven’s Gate doesn’t pretend to be historical, it uses a few historical events and characters to tell a fictional story - and one of the most noteworthy things in the story that is true is that the Wolcott and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association really did hire a bunch of killers to murder whoever they put on their “list” of cattle rustlers.

Besides the pleasant surprise of seeing so many familiar faces here, this film is just gorgeous to look at.  It really is one of the most beautiful westerns that I have ever seen.  Cimino then adds to the sheer epic-ness of the landscape a whole number of long whimsical scenes that just show local community gatherings.  You watch it and think, did people actually do that back then?  Then you realize that even if they never did, they are doing it on screen for Cimino, and watching them is fairly stunning.  (I never thought I’d see a roller-rink in Western.  If someone had told me there was going to be roller-rink in this, I would have thought it was a joke.  But then when it happens, it feels right somehow.)

I also love The Deer Hunter.  But I’ve never really thought The Deer Hunter was a completely coherent film, and I’ve never minded.  Some of the same chaotic bustle is in Heaven’s Gate too. You just sort of watch people as they fellowship and celebrate with each other.  Often doing that could be quite dull, but I’ve never thought that it was dull whenever Cimino has been the one directing what the viewer should watch.  Are there a few plot lines that seem to be incomplete or don't really make sense?  Yes.  But that incompleteness was in The Deer Hunter also.  The acting and the imagery more than make up for it.

 

 

Did I mention the soundtrack?  After seeing the film, I now have to own the soundtrack.  I could listen to Mansfield's themes for the violin all day long.

 

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Slow and leisurely, I agree, is not necessarily a valid complaint for a film. 

 

If your film is about a love triangle between a sheriff, a gunfighter, and a prostitute in the middle of a genocidal war against immigrants on the frontier, however, slow and leisurely is a valid complaint.

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Great post, Jeremy.

Besides the pleasant surprise of seeing so many familiar faces here, this film is just gorgeous to look at.  It really is one of the most beautiful westerns that I have ever seen.  Cimino then adds to the sheer epic-ness of the landscape a whole number of long whimsical scenes that just show local community gatherings.  You watch it and think, did people actually do that back then?  Then you realize that even if they never did, they are doing it on screen for Cimino, and watching them is fairly stunning.  (I never thought I’d see a roller-rink in Western.  If someone had told me there was going to be roller-rink in this, I would have thought it was a joke.  But then when it happens, it feels right somehow.)

I also love The Deer Hunter.  But I’ve never really thought The Deer Hunter was a completely coherent film, and I’ve never minded.  Some of the same chaotic bustle is in Heaven’s Gate too. You just sort of watch people as they fellowship and celebrate with each other.  Often doing that could be quite dull, but I’ve never thought that it was dull whenever Cimino has been the one directing what the viewer should watch.  Are there a few plot lines that seem to be incomplete or don't really make sense?  Yes.  But that incompleteness was in The Deer Hunter also.  The acting and the imagery more than make up for it.

 

 

Did I mention the soundtrack?  After seeing the film, I now have to own the soundtrack.  I could listen to Mansfield's themes for the violin all day long.

 

Yes, gorgeous. I guess I never followed up here about my second viewing of the film. I fell hard for the movie; you can see the first blush of love in my post above Jeremy's. I do think the first half has some problems, as does the second half (Buckeye's critque above stands, and it stands strong), but I ended up yielding to this film's visual pleasure. The DVD extras explain how the film was basically reconstructed for this DVD release; it didn't look like this even to audiences who watched the premiere of the film, before it was cut. I get suspicious about post-release tinkering with film imagery, but I can't argue with this result.

 

In the end, I want the Blu-ray. I must have the Blu-ray.

 

EDIT: Buckeye posted a subsequent critique in this thread while I was typing up this post. I still think he's right, but I can't deny that the film got to me in ways that most films don't approach.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 1 month later...
  • 2 years later...

I saw this for the first time last night, on one of the better big screens in Hollywood.  Overall, I really enjoyed it. Wrote down a few thoughts tonight over at Letterboxd.

 

Quote

Where Cimino falls short in character development, he more than makes up in presentation. I don't think I've seen another western that more firmly placed me in location than HEAVEN'S GATE. It feels more like a time capsule of the actual era than a recreation of it. Cimino's use of space is astounding. The street scenes in Caspar, Wyoming - the Blue Danube sequence at Harvard - and the exquisite rollerskating sequence in Sweetwater - all make remarkable use of the screen. Every extra seems to have a specific function, and don't just serve as background filler. Every building has a lived in, aged quality that many westerns fail to capture. Ella's brothel/ranch, and Nate's little cabin are wonderful to behold in their dilapidated states.

 

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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On 8/8/2016 at 0:09 AM, John Drew said:

I saw this for the first time last night, on one of the better big screens in Hollywood. 

I bet this is amazing looking on the big screen.  It's been a couple of years since I've seen it, but it was on an iPad. I find it interesting that you mention Ella's character as being the most developed; I think my response was that her's was mostly there to be naked.  But I'm probably being uncharitable.

Edited by Buckeye Jones
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13 hours ago, Buckeye Jones said:

I bet this is amazing looking on the big screen.  It's been a couple of years since I've seen it, but it was on an iPad. I find it interesting that you mention Ella's character as being the most developed; I think my response was that her's was mostly there to be naked.  But I'm probably being uncharitable.

Yeah, she was naked quite a bit of the time, but I thought it was her character that led the other two (Jim and Nate) to come come to their final decisions about which side to fight on, or even to take the fight up at all.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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