Why The Hate: The verdict of “Heaven’s Gate”
The version being reviewed is the recent 216 minute “Restored” cut which can been seen on its Criterion DVD and will be the only version examined here.
Before I get into my thoughts about Micheal Cimino’s lost magnum opus, let me explain some history I learned after seeing a
documentary on the making of the movie and Steven Bach’s account on not just the making but even what was going on during the production. Once upon a time, United Artists was a studio were filmmakers could have next to free reign in making movies. But in the late 1970s, their popularity dwindled as studios turned to having more even films with explosions and less art house pictures. This left UA with being only noted for the Rocky movies and the James Bond films but they wanted better notification. They wanted to be up there with 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios; and it didn’t help either that some of their head people left to form Orion Pictures.
The solution? Find a suitable picture and a director to go with it to show the studio still had legs. While managing every project on the block from Woody Allen’s Manhattan to Moonraker, executives were curious in a new form of talent by the name of Micheal Cimino whose movie The Deer Hunter was getting much acclaim and Oscar talk. UA got curious, brought him on and learned his ambition to make a movie based on the Johnson Country War. The funding started at $ 11 million but then ended at $ 35 million (before advertising costs and additional budget funds for a prologue and an epilogue). How was this possible?
As it turns out, Cimino had a different way of directing as he normally took things with a patient but snails pace. This didn’t sit well with the executives at UA as Cimino started to spend more money and go over-schedule while perfecting and fine tuning his “Oscar worthy” Western. At one point, the executives even considered firing him and replacing him with a different director but felt it would be unethical and go against Michael’s rights of making a movie. Unfortunately, news leaked to the public, the press had a field day constantly reporting about the “crazy things” going on, but Micheal was positive his movie would change all that.
On November 19, 1980, the first cut of the movie premiered in New York to a near four hour length. And considering the bad publicity it was getting, and the attitude Cimino had towards it believing it would change much like with The Deer Hunter and seeing UA was starting to have a bad year, things didn’t work out so well. The film was left with dead silence upon its audience, critics who saw that movie on its premier were polarized and even left one to quote it as an “unqualified disaster.” What solution came available? After its New York premier, Cimino requested to pull the film before it even hit anymore theaters and chopped it further to a 149-minute cut and even that didn’t fair much better. As a result, critics savaged it even more and United Artists was
sold to MGM. A once prosperous studio is second banana to another.
Over the years, Heaven’s Gate has been back and forth some viewers with those feeling it was misjudged to those feeling it deserved its status as a flop at the box-office. But more recently, Heaven’s Gate has been deemed a “lost masterpiece” and been giving a Criterion DVD release. So now, it comes to this. How does Heaven’s Gate fair up to my expectations after three attempts to sit down and watch the movie in one full sitting? Well, I understand what Michael Cimino wanted to do as well as the film’s target audience. But I’m unfortunate to say this is not my kind of movie.
Heaven’s Gate influence comes from the Johnson Country War as foreign immigrants took cattle from rich farmlands causing wealthy ranchers to try and settle things by gunning them down. They form an origination with plans to kill over 120 settlers for
stealing their cattle and causes an uproar with the newcomers who wage a battle with the high-powered people. Odd enough, this paper thing idea takes about 2 hours and 56 minutes until the action goes into high gear. Within that time frame, we see Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) trying to romance Ella Watson (portrayed oddly by Isabelle Huppert) who is the owner of a bordello and accepts stolen cattle as a payment for the service.
Now in any historical drama, there is some form of center. The romance of Averill and Watson is the element that tries to hold the film together but something about it seems off. Upon first watch, I didn’t see the bordello connection nor get the impression of Watson being a prostitute. In the first scene they share, Watson tries to hint the idea of getting intimate but Averill complains of hunger. What does Watson do but offer a piece of pie she made and after a few bites, she strips her dress off and heads to the bedroom while Averill tries to finish his slice with eagerness. Again, these are our two leads and the chemistry feels not very interesting. I respect the performance of Kristofferson and Huppert (seeing she had to learn a bit of English at the time for this role), but nothing click “on-screen couple” to me.
I think the problem comes from the Averill character who just feels forgettable. He doesn’t do much aside from visit bars and act distant and sad. I guess you can make the argument that he misses the good old days of being a young college student at Harvard
University. But the transition from his youthful appearance to his tough beard and stern attitude feels like a jarring transition as the character doesn’t share similar traits with his prologue counterpart. Even the opening prologue in Harvard, which are present in the first 18 minutes of the movie, appear shot in a different tone and style that it clashes with the melancholy tone as peasants work the field in miserable conditions, mishandled by on-walkers in the city and even some get shot down. The violent tone might upset many viewers as much as the rape scene with Eill Watson that serves purpose for Averill to show his care in the foreign love interest. Even that moment fails because we are distracted by the shock and tasteless nature to even care about her savior to come in and shot up the accused offenders.
Even a second love affair is added in the form of Nate Champion who is played by a surprisingly straight forward performance by Christopher Walken. I’m not kidding. Christopher Walken is in a Western as a man who is part of the alliance to take down some
“rustlers” and yet has a heart for the bordello owner. So much so, he asks her for her hand in marriage but because that element is played off-screen and because of there isn’t much of an implication of the relationship between Champion and Averill as friends, this plot element feels tagged on for conflict that doesn’t amount to much. They share some scree time but like the relationship between Averill and Watson, it doesn’t feel well established. They don’t acknowledge how close they are or even set up the connection between the two. It got lost in translation to the point I felt they were bitter rivals more so than two pals competing for the affection of a woman.
I feel this would have made more sense if Billy Irving (John Hurt) was in this affair and not Champion. And its not just because of my fan appreciation for John Hurt, but the whole love triangle aspect would make more sense. We see Averill and Irving together having a good time in the Harvard prologue, we have a moment where they talk to each other during a game of pool and discuss how much time has gone by and even come off as long-time friends. Instead, they don’t go in this direction and have Hurt’s Irving leave the movie for a good 70 minutes until the climax showing he is with the association of wealthy organization set out to hunt the cattle thieves and yet, his character is very much laid to waste. Shame seeing a good actor who gives it his all in what could have been a bigger part get sidelined for duller and uninteresting characters. Supposedly, John Hurt was left with nothing to do and went off to work on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man; but when he came back, he was just in time to film his scenes. Good move, Hurt. Good move.
I can’t say everything in this movie is completely bad. I do admit that Cimino has a good attention to set design and cinematography as we see gorgeous landscapes and amazing wide shots of Casper, Wyoming in the 1890s. Just looking at these sets alone feels like one is moving through a series of paintings in an art museum showing the past in its atmospheric beauty and grace. In fact, the sets and camera work try to make it look like a dramatic sweeping epic like Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. But there is a problem. There are times when a scene is delivering important dialogue and the camera work will be lost in the wide shot its placed at that we find ourselves lost in the scenery more than the story on the screen. One example is when Averill is being told he is fired from the Mayor as we see huge interiors of the room and barley get a close-up of the Mayor. We see an over the shoulder angle from the Mayor’s perspective but during the scene, we only see the Mayor’s reactions reflected on the mirror in the background. Wouldn’t it make more of an impact to have a close up instead of holding on one shot to see the reaction of both characters?
Another example of a mishandled moment is the shoot out at Champion’s cabin in revenge for not participating with them. We cut between shots of the organization firing away at the small log cabin and cut back to the inside of the cabin as we see Nate’s friends get gunned down one by one. We cut back and forth between the guns outside firing to Nate trying to evade the bullets that we don’t know where the placement for this or even where they are firing from. Or even how close they are to the house. They even have a shot of a group of people moving a burning wagon towards Nate’s cabin and it cuts back to inside the cabin without an establishing shot or wide shot showing where the action is being directed to. Stuff like that is important to establish even if it is small but it means a lot to show what position your gunmen are and what side of the house being blasted at.
Even the last 30 minutes showed signs of wear as the first battle scene felt like a confusing array of dust and smoke as the peasants circle around the caravan of baddies and try to shoot them down. There is so much confusion in the direction and so much smoke and chaos builds that I had a hard time trying to figure out who was winning and who was losing. Word to filmmakers, adding cloud
and smoke doesn’t add intensity. It only makes it harder to see the action on the screen. Even the climax feels anti-climatic as Averill and a group of peasants take on the remaining cold-blooded ranch owners with a shied made out of logs as they toss sticks of dynamite but get gunned down one by one. The slow moving pace doesn’t help either as the group trudges closer and closer as each one of the gunners on both sides gets shot down one by one like fish in a barrel.
More strange is how the action is played out where even if you are in front of the line of fire, you still won’t get hit. In one scene, Averill and his friends are ambushed by a group of people and as the hail of bullets his his pals, Averill comes out scratch free even if he is in front of the carnage. Even during the destruction of Nate’s cabin, I wondered why the raining bullets from outside managed to eliminate his accomplices and yet leaves him standing with close to nothing but a scratch on him. Call it a nitpick but it just kept pulling me out of the moment.
Even odder is the way certain scenes play out like they are meant to have some historical context but its execution feels dated and silly. Case and point is the roller skating rink scene as tons of people gleefully roll about on wooden floors as they experience “the next big thing” as the moment itself feels oddly executed and akin to something from a 1970s movie where people are at a disco/skating rink. It just felt that way to me for some reason experiencing my days of going to an arcade and roller skating rink with groups of people flying around the wooden floors.
I could excuse Heaven’s Gate for any of this, if it wasn’t for one thing. The main story (or what ever there is of it) doesn’t work. And believe it not, its with the romance plot that tries to be the center of attention. We don’t see Averill and Watson until 67 minutes in when they start to develop their relationship but it doesn’t even feel like one due to Kris’ cold performance and Huppert trying to act with her French accent getting in the way. I would be fine with Huppert but her chemistry with Kristofferson feels cold and heartless. They act like a couple at times but nothing feels really there. My guess is that Kris is trying to channel actors of the great Western genre like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood but I can’t see Kris Kristofferson doing this kind of role. He channels it but it feels like an intimation as opposed to naturally acting his own way in a Western. And I’m not saying he’s a bad actor. I’ve seen him in Big-Top Pee Wee, Blade and even an appearence on Saturday Night Live when the show was still fresh. So I don’t blame this on acting but more on limitation of what Kristofferson can really do.
Even the final message feels off and uneven. One minute, its about remembering the days of youth but then it becomes Citizen Kane and asks what is the true meaning of happiness and then its a love story but then its trying to tell a struggle story and it all doesn’t come together. I can see why critics and news press had a field day as the premier in New York didn’t do well because of how polarizing and unsure it was. But does it deserve this continuing negative reputation even if its starting to wear off? No.
Films are made to entertain or simply enlighten but we all have a certain taste that will subject to what we think is funny or not. We know the difference between a mindless blockbuster and an art house feature. And obviously, Heaven’s Gate is trying to be more of an art house feature than a mindless blockbuster. My theory is that with all the bad press going about viewers were disappointed to see all that negative hype was nothing but over a movie that critics on its premier couldn’t make heads or tails of. As a result, some went by those harsh reviews while others tried to view it on its own terms but couldn’t resist referencing those who bashed it.
Unfortunately, this is a practice that is still going on today and it all started with one movie that tried to captivate audiences but instead got them annoyed at the price tag. While I don’t think it deserves being labeled the worst movie ever, I still didn’t enjoy it. When the only good thing about your movie is the production designs, some of the performances and the mis en scene of the picture, the only thing missing is a good story, good characters and at least a better handle at the pace. At 3 hours and 36 minutes long, it trudges at a snails pace to the point you really feel its meandering too much or hope that it all pays off in the end. Sadly, it didn’t for me but yet others harbor it as a masterpiece and a lost spectacle. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m glad I finally saw it to voice an opinion but I don’t have the sudden urge to buy its Criterion release or watch it again to marvel at is beauty. Its just a movie with beautiful images that doesn’t have much else riding on it.
Posted on July 5, 2014, in Rental Corner, Why the Hate? and tagged 1980, Art House, Distaster, Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino, United Artists, Western, Why the Hate. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.