“Skating Cures Nervous Disorders: A Moral & Exhilarating Experience.” – Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate


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Please Note – This article is a reprint timed to coincide with the UK theatrical release of Heaven’s Gate. It originally appeared on the site last Autumn, to tie-in with the film’s US home video release.

Over the course of the three decades that have followed in the wake of Michael Cimino’s most elaborate movie the title of the film itself has come to be leant on as a kind of shorthand for unmitigated failure, as a descriptive for a production out of control, and for any film which struggles at the box office. While it’s very difficult to look to the film, or indeed engage in any kind of discussion of the work, without falling in to the traps of gossip and hypothesis, in recent years a second wind of sorts has swept under the sails of Cimino’s bold epic. 

Re-evaluation. A term often banded about, but seldom fully adopted. There are any number of films that deserve a second chance, away from the drama and politics of theatrical release, and detached from the contextual hype of the times, and yet only a select few manage to achieve complete redemption. Cinephiles and film historians have re-appraised the due merits of a number of movies once considered failures, and now recognise some as true greats, with such canonical classics as Blade Runner and The Shining initially facing antagonism from critics and public alike. With Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick’s films in mind, perhaps no greater challenge awaits the concept re-appropriation than another film from the early 1980’s, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. In 2012 the director finally had the opportunity to complete his desired cut of the film. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival to great praise.

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Anarchy and chaos reign in Cimino’s vision of an America being tamed. The director re-textualises the political hot points of the post-1950’s; Vietnam, gun laws, America’s reaction to the Second World War (specifically the Holocaust), poverty and topographical development in his grand tale of America. It’s impossible not to be affected by the scale of the whole thing. Cimino starts small, with a lone figure on an empty street (albeit an “empty street” that was lavishly built for the scene, the first of a number of fascinating contradictions contained within the film). Eventually a body of mass consumes the figure, as the filmic organism builds up, with a rowdy marching band swallowing the man. This crowd/mob/gang marks and plays with viewer expectations of commons scenes of Americana witnessed across a spectrum of cinema from Mr. Smith To Washington and Advise & Consent, to the work of D.W Griffith and The Birth Of A Nation.

It’s during this opening sequence that the first of three circles are revealed. As the rowdy mob of passing out students celebrate they take to a nearby tree, around which dancing and brawling takes place. The image of the circle is recycled later, as the immigrants of Wyoming celebrate in a circular manner around the centre pole of the Heaven’s Gate, a titular skate-rink from which Cimino’s film takes it’s title, before being subverted and reappropriated one final time in the campaign design of the final battle between townsfolk and outsiders. The opening and closing circle’s provides Cimino with his purest form of symbolism, with the adoption of the state exposing and commenting on the hypocrisy of the classes.

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It is in this respect where Cimino’s film remains most explicitly relevant. While the film was initially borne in to an America on the brink of Reaganism, the 2012 cut is coming in to being in an America aware of the one per cent, with the idealism of the privileged few who orchestrated manoeuvres in 19th century Johnson County making for neat parallels to the current political climate. Cimino’s vision of poverty is brutal, and unforgiving. Note the manner in which Christopher Walken’s Nate Champion is introduced, in silhouette and shooting a man without trial and through a veil, aware of the fact that the family of the man in question will no doubt die of starvation as a result of his unblinking actions. Chaos reigns. As organised cock fights the adoration for chaos can be seen all over the face of John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges), the local entrepreneur, as he steps in to the proverbial fire. As the film nears it final act the barbarism of the situation becomes even more clear, with the slaying of a popular town figure and the slaughtering of a band of prostitutes, the brutality blossoms towards a tone of utter fear with the onset of war in Johnson County.

In his casting Kris Kristofferson as the lead of Heaven’s Gate Cimino again subverted the conventions of the type of film that he was crafting. While having appeared in a number of films to date, such as Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Convoy and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia for Sam Peckinpah, Kristofferson was far better known for his work as a musician. When one looks to Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, or even his directorial debut, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot it is the headline performances that strike first (and arguably most). With Heaven’s Gate it’s almost like Cimino is striking out against what it was that made his name. He directed Walken to an Oscar in the immediately preceding film, and De Niro and Meryl Streep to nominations, while it is the imagery of his protagonist’s faces that remains the most memorable piece of The Deer Hunter paraphernalia, and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is very much a Clint Eastwood vehicle. By developing his vision in to one focussed on the sweeping, coupled with the casting of Kristofferson and the downplayed nature of the introduction to Walken, Cimino is seemingly replacing the other-personal with the large scale.

Walken’s Champion is the films most complex and interesting figure, and would ordinarily be the protagonist of a film like Heaven’s Gate. He boasts of “civilising the wilderness” of the Wild West with wallpaper. That he sits out the film’s third act, having been murdered away from the heroic set-piece and having failed to have been rescued by female love interest says much about Cimino’s unraveling of the mythology of the old West. In the casting of Joseph Cotton in a brief performance in the opening moments of the film Cimino evokes memories of The Great American Picture, and it might even be said that John Hurt’s over-privileged Billy Irvine, is a re-appropriated George Amberson.

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There’s a wonderful sense of physicality to the town, an unsurprising occurance given the aforementioned scale of the project. Geographically convincing on every level (not only does the town feel legitimate, but the relationship between Wyoming and “civilized” America too feels suitably marked), the influence of Cimino’s vision is clearer when one takes in that large-scale productioneering became more financially viable. The legacy of Cimino can be seen in productions like David Milch’s Deadwood, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York and even Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. Sound is as pivotal an element in creating the complete atmosphere of the town, with the bustle of the streets made all the more immersive when placed next to the relative silence of the more refined spaces that the film occasionally cuts away to. David Mansfield’s omnipresent violinist provides a diegetic compliment to the musicians own score to the movie, which is built around Strauss’ The Blue Danube and William Steffe’s The Battle Hymn Of The Republic. A mixing pot of languages, many of which go by sans subtitles makes for the film’s most effective use of sound. It’s in the audible reactions to the reading of a “death list” that the chaos builds to it’s apex. There are clear parallels between the “death list” sequence and the scenes of the over privileged college kids at the beginning, who we see develop in to the people who have made this call, yet arguably put less in to the AMERICA the capitalised than the people they’re decrying. The films closing battle is a further analogy for America itself, with the virtuoso employment of technique playing with every rule of aesthetics.

Heaven’s Gate acts as the perfect barometer for where the American cinema was at the time in which it was made. Excess, greed, the relationship between the creatives and the moneymen, Hollywood’s position as the pre-eminent poacher of international talent on the world’s stage, Cimino’s film encapsulates and tackles it all. While there are issues with the text, as a piece of anti-hype one would no doubt struggle to find the film lives up to it’s misplaced label of “The Worst Movie Ever Made”. One can’t help but think that certain commentators are getting caught up in the legendary tales of the film’s chaotic production, and mistaking that with the content of the film (I). One might even dare to suggest that many of the things held up as being problematic with Heaven’s Gate are equally present and correct in the consensus accordingly successful The Deer Hunter. Staggered narrative? Check. Chaotic presentation of a world alien to that of the typical viewer? Check. In pursuing a definitive vision Cimino placed himself in a vulnerable position, and paid the price. 

(I) it would certainly go some way to explaining this piece, in which the author seems to be trying his hardest to convince even himself that the film is bad by merely listing things that happen in the film, as if they were in someway unusual or “terrible” merely for the fact that they happen.
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