Monday, May 20, 2013

Heaven’s Gate 1980

I finally saw this film the other night, and although not a masterpiece (though it comes very close to being one) it’s hardly the piece of shit that many have said it is. Thanks to the beautiful new Criterion restoration the complete film and vision of its director Michael Cimino is now available for us to watch and ponder. Spanning time from 1870 to 1903 the film opens with a leisurely wonderful and beautiful sequence of a late and running Kris Kristofferson rushing to his graduation ceremony at Harvard that ends with an intoxicating swirling waltz on a lawn to the music of Strauss. This opening alone is enough to make one sit up and take notice, to maybe even swoon a little. The film then moves forward in time some 20 years to Wyoming where Kristofferson is now the marshal of a county where a shocking war that is sanctioned by the government and run by the nasty land baron played by Sam Waterston is being waged against the newly arrived immigrant settlers and this is where the film really begins. It’s very loosely based on the actual Johnson County War but don’t go looking to this film for a history lesson. Vast and beautiful it’s also complex and layered, which some found dull and incompressible. That may be true for some, but I found it compelling and impressive in its narrative and pictorial flow. It certainly is not a film for the multiplex popcorn chewers, it’s way too demanding and sometimes unclear, with characters who are do not always conform or behave the way we want or expect them to, but I like that sometimes in a movie. The large cast besides Kristofferson and Waterston includes Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, John Hurt and the magnificent Isabelle Huppert as the town whore who is deeply loved by Kristofferson and Walken.  I think one reason that it never found its audience is that many were expecting an old fashioned western and this is not what Heaven’s Gate is dressed up for. There are of course good guys and bad guys but they are not wearing black and white hats and the characters are all flawed and somewhat unlikeable to a degree. It simply does not do what we want and expect our Westerns and indeed our movies to do. It’s not linear and there are too many ands and ifs and moral fussiness lurking among all those grand and magnificent vistas.  It also paints a critical picture about the greed and destruction that fermented and oozed out of our country at the end of the 19th century just as the second industrial revolution was gearing up and is in some ways a political indictment against the policies of our country which still hit home more than 100 years later and 33 years after the film’s initial release. Then there is all that heavy baggage the film carries, the way over budget and long delays in the filming, the extravagant and some say unnecessary production costs and that long running time, which the studio forced Cimino to cut making it even more incompressible to most viewers and critics alike on its initial and troubled release.  One of the ten best films of 1980.   


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