Worst or “Worst”: Heaven’s Gate

How does one begin to discuss Heaven’s Gate, arguably the single most infamous film in the entire history of the medium, and this is with the likes of Cannibal Holocaust released in the same year mind you. Michael Cimino, fresh off his dueling Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director for The Deer Hunter, his famed dissection of American malaise and disconnect pre, post, and during the Vietnam War, was given an ungodly amount of money by a major production company to make his next film. He then proceeded to greet that money with a severe and aggressive lack of regulation or order. He went over budget many times, and nearly destroyed his production studio, not to mention doing his fair share to sour the relationship between Hollywood production companies and American New Wave directors and ending the great long chain of challenging, pulsing American films to win over both the box office and the critical consensus in the 1970s. Never again would a Coppola or even a Scorsese have almost unmitigated access to the Hollywood well whenever they wanted, and for the next decade, Hollywood drama would be reduced to arguably the most sanitized, antiseptic period in its entire history.

Puzzling the question of where to begin, I suppose I shall do what the film never once does and make it easy on myself. I shall begin the way the film does: sheer sensory overload and a transcendent, cascading beauty disconnected from but not tangential to narrative and characters, and one of the most beautiful scenes ever essayed in a film (a scene the film will go on to better several times over). We open at a Harvard College graduation in 1870 with a duo of young men listening to a speech, but nothing about the characters register outside of their physical forms and the heaving grandeur of the omnipresent space dwarfing them and reminding them of their limits as mere people. Limits, which, as the speech informs us, the men will try to break by cultivating a land they do not know, they do not respect, and they do not care for as anything other than an avenue for their own superiority.

An elitist superiority that the film runs headfirst into when the prologue manifests as a lengthy longueur with motion in lieu of dialogue. Before long, the film is in the business of losing itself to the physical movement and color of the abstract ballet that is the characters indulging in their own ostentatious showpiece of self-serving art. In other words, the characters have themselves a dance, and for a good long time at that. An indulgent amount of time, in fact, and the film enjoys that indulgent beauty even as the beauty is meant in part to critique the characters for their grandiose and elitist focus on such formal beauty over anything else. Right from the beginning, then, Heaven’s Gate is a film that develops a complicated, contradictory strain of both romanticizing the late 1800s and critiquing that romanticism. This is a contradictory morality the film never truly solves, and arguably never even recognizes as a contradiction in the first place. But it proves astounding and deeply, unspeakably moving as a fascinatingly sensuous experience while it isn’t solving anything.

There is no more fitting, bellowing introduction to the film than its own introduction, this aforementioned scene of transcendent beauty detached from character, a scene that is ultimately a parade of human motion as it exists in relation to physical space. It showcases everything that drove Michael Cimino mad with passion, everything that caused the film’s shooting schedule to extend into outer space, everything that failed the film at the box office and killed its director’s reputation forever, and, most importantly, everything that makes it, today, a feeling, potent, exciting, and essential work of narrative cinema. The film that follows that opening scene is a resplendent ode to Western iconography, an anti-ode to the humans that utilize and pervert that iconography for evil, a nihilist romance with the nihilism and the romance turned up to eleven, and, when all is said and done, one of the most transformative, gushingly, inelegantly elegant films ever made. It is a mess, plain and simple, but just try to look away.

Heaven’s Gate is, above all, a work of form and painterly, elusive cinematography by the incomparable, abominably perfect master Vilmos Zsigmond, working in perfect harmony with the monomaniacal genius of Cimino’s anti-Western vision. The way these two reject the characters, or at least reject the primacy of those characters relative to the physical spaces of earthen awe that dwarf them, is a bold, diabolical critique of human egotism. Of course, Cimino’s film is of the most egotistical caliber, marinated in his own frontierist vision and inability to compromise lest his heart be skewered. This mash-up of full-blown human passion firing up against its better instincts is an endless, savagely beautiful fascination on the screen. It is an egotistical film that is a critique of egotism.

There is a “story”, as it might be conventionally defined, but the film seems so uninterested in telling that story that it barely passes muster for space in a review. It involves two males in the 1890s existing on either side of a female, contesting their personal space in the American lexicon through the female form, as so many men have done throughout American history (the romance, love, and gender angle being Cimino’s first object of critique). Within, Cimino draws in class conflict (one of the two men runs the bases for wealthy cattle barons and the other sides with local European immigrants in poverty hoping to stake their turf in the American great wide emptiness). Not to mention, it is, as we might expect, a parable for the way things were in the 1970s and early ’80s with Vietnam and social cynicism rampant in the American consciousness. But, as is the defining, all-knowing fact of Cimino’s explicit and entirely non-covert vision, the story is a backdrop for a much large tapestry of space and place, both on the screen, and in the mind.

The breathy, hound-dog beauty ought to constrict the film. It ought to drown it. But something mystical happens in between the first impossibly luxurious tracking shot of the Old West and the hundredth, not to mention the stately ten-minute dance that serves as the film’s beguiling centerpiece (as if the opening dance sequence wasn’t enough). The relentless formlessness and gliding, elegiac, highly artificial take on the Old West approaches revisionist Western with an impressionistic, Malick-infused touch as the film lingers and floats on and streams out into the ether. It is, on one level, a resolutely, and one suspects deliberately, artificial slice of myth-making wherein characters are notable not for their lived-in humanity but for their abstract representations of the mental space of the American Conquest. For this reason, the actors in the film (Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken filling out the central triad) register more as presences than people, but this is entirely fitting with the knowingly artificial texture of the piece.

Tambi Larsen’s production design accentuates this metaphysical aspect, drawing up the Old West not as a place that actually existed, but a place that we in the modern era remember with rustic beauty and all-seeing romance. That Zsigmond’s photography exemplifies this texture as well indicates a centrality of vision in the film, but this vision is not singular. Another contradictory strain exists: a rather anti-romantic sense of dirt and elemental earth keeping the film grounded in a murkish immediacy, a strain that absolutely does make the film feel lived-in and brutal and which contrasts hopelessly with the romantic nature of the piece.

A contrast which, itself, may be the point in a film that both wishes to elevate the Western to the level of grand poetry and may seek to chastise itself for even attempting to fulfill that wish in the first place. Like the American history it ponders, Heaven’s Gate is exceedingly messy and unsure of itself even as it pushes forth with a raging and probably unearned self-confidence and inability to simply stop and listen. Like many of the characters he depicts and critiques, Cimino was a casually egotistical person whose total and complete lack of humility creates a necessarily incomplete but nonetheless fascinating display of pure filmmaking that often loses the point of its vision several times over.

Which is probably why Heaven’s Gate is not of a class with something like Badlands. Unlike Malick’s works, and unlike Tarkovsky’s, to name the other major influence swimming around here, Cimino’s film doesn’t as holistically and categorically use its visuals as elements for its themes. Cimino doesn’t so much direct to a point or a purpose; Heaven’s Gate is too confused to fully use its impressionist artifice as an avenue for understanding the fiction of the human mind, the thematic core of Malick’s film and something Cimino dances around but never quite arrives at. Nor does he evoke the misty expression-of-a-dream focus of Tarkovsky.

Rather, Heaven’s Gate is a much more vocal and expressive display of purely lush talent that, unlike Badlands, remains untethered to theme as the film moves along into pure imagery. While Malick’s framing comments on and constructs the themes of his films, Cimino’s visuals exist somewhat at odds with cinema-as-theme, and they confront us more as showpieces of pure sight and sound. The images somewhat fail the characters, and they somewhat fail the narrative, but so little of Heaven’s Gate operates in direction to its narrative and characters that Cimino ends up blowing down the doors of cinema two or three times for every scene where he falters.

Make no mistake, Heaven’s Gate is an unruly, carnal film with a great many scenes that do not belong or extend well past their sell-by date. For a Hollywood production, it displays, and even flaunts, a shocking, mesmerizing disregard for narrative and characters and a total and totalizing commitment to the sensuous power of cinema as its own form of character. Few films induce a special place for the human mind to marinate in, to drift around within, and to become one with their senses. Heaven’s Gate, even with its formless flab and recalcitrant non-commitment to everything that film school had taught it, remains one of those permeating visions of singular, and singled-out, identity. That the film has been reduced to the violence of narrative cinema all these years later is one of the great shames of cinematic misunderstanding.

A misunderstanding that is also, in the end, a melancholy statement to the film’s power. Watching all these years later, thirty five years of fallout and baggage intact and only recently re-opened for cataloging, it is difficult to witness the settlers’ great feud with Big Cow and not think of Cimino attempting to settle his own region of the American cinema space, gnashing his teeth up against the Hollywood machine and coming out the other end with a failed work of genius. It is difficult to say whether Cimino had a premonition of his own filmic death with Heaven’s Gate, but all these years later, the story it tells, or refuses to tell, is a poetic irony about Cimino and his dragged-out quest for acceptance. As it exists today, Heaven’s Gate and its rebellious, exotic, quixotic vision of what cinema can be remains ever-imperfect, but ever-moving, and ever-important.

Score:

So how good is it really?: 4.5/5 (certainly not for everyone, and it is a potently flawed film, but it is also a mesmerizingly flawed film, and that is all that matters)

But how “good” is it?: 1/5 (very little about the film would be endearing as a “so bad it’s good” film, and it is far too long to hold up as drunk entertainment, but, then, it is also a wonderful “good good” film, so who cares?)

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