Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Heaven's Gate

(Dir Michael Cimino (1980), with Kris Kristofferson (Jim), Christopher Walken (Nate) and Isabelle Huppert (Ella)).

This is a movie reputed to be so big and so awful that it broke the film studio that made it (it was budgeted to cost $7.5 million, actually cost $44 million for a return of $2 million because it was pulled from screens after three days - the biggest flop to have been made at the time) and has inspired a reputedly wonderful documentary, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of 'Heaven's Gate'.

So, when it turned up in Dunedin, I had to see it, to see why it was such a disaster. What I found was a movie that I really enjoyed and, what's more, one that the several people I talked to after the screening enjoyed as well. I'm told the French regard it as a masterpiece.

Even as I watched it, however, I could see where problems might arise. Take the opening 27 minutes - a scene showing Jim and another fellow, Billy (John Hurt), graduating from Harvard. A scene that was made after the rest of the movie was finished because Cimino thought there was something missing. As far as I can tell, its only point was to establish that Jim and Billy were at Harvard, and it was incredibly boring. We see Billy as orator, addressing his fellow students with an incomprehensible speech, then all the graduating students go outside and dance in two circles around a tree in the quad. That double circling pattern actually arises later in the movie, but I still can't work out its point. And Billy - he just shambles in and out of the subsequent action, generally drunk and spouting poetry, serving no point at all until he's shot dead.

My colleague could add some details to this opening scene: it was shot in his Oxford College while he was there. Unfortunately, Cimino needed a quad and the College had but three walls, so a false one was needed. A tree was also needed, around which the graduates could dance. The tree they brought in and planted had the misfortune to die and shed all its leaves, so someone had to procure a tree's worth of fresh green leaves and glue them on to the tree. Then, the scene had to be shot, over and over and over (apparently 50 times were not unheard of) to be "right". A more economical director could have established these two were at Harvard together in a 30 second bit as the credits roll - particularly as it served no point to the actual film! While Cimino is many things, being economical is not one of them. There are stories of the thousand extras all needed proper period costumes, how all the central characters had to have real life training on the roles they were playing so they'd be authentic. Then there were all the tantrums the director threw, just to make things run smoothly.

Anyway, once that was over things picked up markedly. The action is out in the midwest, Jackson County, Wyoming to be exact. Big country, leading to some wonderful cinematography. Big landholders have snapped up huge tracts of land but there is immigration - from all those "Go West, young man" types. They're setting up small-holdings by the hundred, on the land of the big land-holders. I've read about this in the past - apparently it was quite legal, but (a) made the big land-holders really grumpy and (b) the small bits of land were too small to provide a living, so made the little guys steal from the big guys, who were then even more grumpy. This led to the stockholders group having a meeting and making a list of the worst 125 offenders. $50 would go to anyone who killed anyone on the list. Again, this was legal, sanctioned by the President himself, but made for a certain amount of tension in the community. As far as I could make out, Heaven's Gate was the little township in the middle of all this.

Jim represents the law in this area - he may or may not be the marshall, it is never made clear. What we do know is that he's there to do a hanging. Despite the Presidential sanction, he is very much on the side of the little guy, and he knows how much trouble is brewing. Nate, on the other hand, is the stock-holder's foreman and initially quite happy to do their dirty work.

Things come to a head thanks to Ella - she is a madame, but has a relationship of sorts with Jim: he's pretty reserved, may or may not love her, may or may not be unable to love thanks to some prior disastrous relationship - his wedding picture is a recurring image. He wants her out of there, but she's afraid of going. She's also in love with Nate - and stays in love with him, or at least willing to marry him, despite his henchmen killing all her women and raping her. Jim rescues her and shoots the lot, but that's not enough for her!

From this point, the movie gains momentum. Nate confronts his bosses, they decide he's trouble, and go after him, there are maybe 100 of them against him and his room mate. Once he's out of the way, they decide they'll just work through their list. Luckily word gets to the good folk of Heaven's Gate, leading to a pitched battle. Here, there was an echo of the dancing at Harvard: the stock holders are circled behind their wagons around a tree, with the villagers riding in a big circle around them. It might have been an ironic comment on the lack of civilisation here in contrast to Harvard - Cimino doesn't make the easiest to read movie, at times it felt like we were still just getting the tip of the ice berg.

Jim is completely wasted, and won't help the villagers at first, he's completely lost any energy or faith he might have had. But ultimately, he goes to their aid, using his knowledge of Roman history to construct armoured wagons, from behind which they can attack the stockholders. Their boss (played by by Sam Waterston), he's really evil, its been his idea all along to do this and he's shown no problem with shooting innocent men. Now he is all "I'll get help"; he slinks away and in a fairly bizarre twist, brings back the army which arrests the few stockholders who survive.

When all is settled and Jim and Ella are finally getting ready to go off together, she's all beautiful in white, there's a really horrible scene: a random gunman kills her. I have to say that this was really the second time at which I felt any emotional involvement with the movie (I think I actually said "oh fuck" when it happened) despite the fact that there was a fair amount of historical accuracy to the rest of the movie. The death list actually happened.

One critic has said the film is:
an enigma, as difficult to like as it is to dismiss. It is arrogant and it is beautiful. It is thematically clever and rhetorically dull. It is sensitive and it is condescending. It has enormous ambition and winds up with nothing to say. Eventually, it’s just sadly exhausting.
Another has said that thanks to this particular film there was quite a shake up in the movie industry as a whole, with directors losing complete creative control and becoming accountable to the financial managers and producers, so there wouldn't be any huge ego driven productions again.

I would actually happily go see this film again, despite its whopping near four hour length. I'd even watch the first bit, it might give me some insights into why it was there.


Blogger Herge Smith said...

Well that's as maybe, it is a much better flick than the critical and commerical drubbing it received - BUT IT ENDS THERE!

Don't be fooled into thinking 'cause Heaven's Gate was good that equally massive disasters like Ishtar and Waterworld also need re-evaluating, let me tell, they don't

Nice piece by the way, very well considered.

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember sitting in the theater
watching Heaven's Gate upon it's initial release. It was & is a beautiful movie. It was a matinee. There were only four or five souls present. The ending shocked me. In the row in front of me sat a lone woman. I could hear her sobbing. It was so profound,so pitiful that I felt I should somehow comfort her, to say something.(I am normally a very shy individual). Several of my contemporaries also viewed the film before it left town. At the time we were all in graduate school. A powerful, beautiful film. I have since purchased a copy. The sets are magnificent. Truly a picture is worth a thousand words.

9:10 AM  

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