Monday, April 28, 2014
Heaven's Gate is often referred to as the death of the 1960's and 70's Golden Age of American filmmaking. Its director, Michael Cimino, was coming off the back-to-back successes of 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and 1978's Oscar winner The Deer Hunter. Always known as a meticulous filmmaker who had no problems going over schedule and over budget, Cimino got even more carried away on Heaven's Gate, with shooting lasting around 6 months, and the budget nearly 4 times what it was supposed to be. Cimino continuously either missed editing deadlines or turned in cuts far off what the studio wanted (the first cut screened for executives was reportedly 5 1/2 hours long, two full hours longer than the very long cut we know best today), and the movie's production nightmare kept dragging on as the film and its maker got more and more infamous before anyone had publicly seen a frame. Similar production problems would later befall movies like Dances with Wolves, Waterworld, and Titanic. What differs Heaven's Gate from those pictures is that it was such a financial disaster that it nearly bankrupted United Artists (Waterworld eventually made back its money, and the other two had gigantic box office, and a bevy of Oscars to keep them warm at night). Critical opinion at the time was harsh and loud and plentiful. But over time the movie has gained admirers and through reevaluation is even thought of as a sort of misunderstood masterpiece by many. This was my first viewing...
The plot mostly concerns a love triangle between Jim (Kris Kristofferson), Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and Nate (Christopher Walken, coming off his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter), set against land squabbles, class warfare, and immigration difficulties leading to a "kill list" where 125 immigrants have bounties on their heads for any number of legal transgressions. The problem here is that it's an hour and a half before this love triangle ever starts developing, and the characters aren't sufficiently developed enough for us to care at the level we should at that point in the movie. And even with so many other great actors in the cast (Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, and even a tiny role for a VERY young Mickey Rourke), the movie doesn't have the novelic feel that it so easily could have with such a scope and runtime. I expected to really care about the characters, especially since Bridges and Kristofferson are two of the best actors in cinema history at giving us characters with a minimum of dialog or scripted character development. I feel they were hung out to dry by Cimino in this movie, from a storytelling point of view. I feel like I was hung out to dry by Cimino. The first time a scene came and went and I thought "damn, that was a great scene, it developed the story and told us something about these characters, etc." it was 45 minutes into the movie. That's just unacceptable storytelling if you ask me.
So, what kept me watching so long? It's pretty simple, really. This is the most beautiful movie ever made. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had just won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had already worked his sepia toned western genius on Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but this movie, this movie is his masterwork. I'm not kidding, it's the single most beautiful movie I've ever seen. That's why I kept watching for 45 minutes before I gave a shit about what was happening on screen. Normally, even with a beautiful movie, I would've turned it off long before that point, but not here. I really cannot express how masterful the partnership between Zsigmond and Cimino is on this movie. It's been said that Zsigmond went into a deep depression over the critical and commercial drubbing this movie took, because he was so proud of the work he'd done. This movie alone should get him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar or something while he's alive (still working at almost 84 years old). Sadly, the only competitive Oscar the movie was nominated for was for its production design. A deserved nomination, there was obviously no expense spared, and the movie is better off for it.
So this is among the hardest movies to rate that I've ever watched. As storytelling, it's an F. As visual filmmaking, it's a 10/10, but as a whole, I can't give it more than 2 stars.