Heaven's Gate Revisited
Postmodern, in both word and concept, is often freely thrown about without a firm meaning fully affixed. Like irony or ontological. Frequently, this deliberate misuse masks a lack of understanding or a desire not to offend. ďInterestingĒ used to be a way to avoid the naked truth when asked to evaluate a friendís short film or piece of sculpture which you thought totally sucked and/or baffled the bejesus out of you. Nowadays, you might as well just come clean and admit ignorance or frankly say somethingís a piece of shit rather than try to get away with the ďinterestingĒ gambit. To label a work of art ďpostmodernĒ on the other hand, gives you a little wiggle room, suggesting you possibly might know what youíre talking about. If you donít, quickly move on before anyone has the chance to ask what you mean by ďpostmodernĒ.
Watching Heavenís Gate recently, it struck me that perhaps I was undergoing an actual postmodern experience. Not at all sure of my own grasp of the term, I can only rough the sensation out: critical revisionism of a revisionist western. The near incomprehensibility of that statement is the first clue that we may be approaching postmodernism.
For those unfamiliar with Heavenís Gate, it is a 1980 film that, along with Ishtar and Howard the Duck, has become synonymous with a box office bomb or flop. Legend has it that the movie single-handedly brought about the demise of the legendary United Artists studio although, in hindsight, other guilty parties may be heaping on the blame to avoid shouldering any responsibility themselves; a very postmodern rewriting of history. Combined with the industry infatuation with the Łber-successful post-Jaws/Star Wars Steven Spielberg-George Lucas juggernaut, the colossal failure of Heavenís Gate hastened the demise of high profile independent American auteur filmmaking. While it spawned a terrific behind-the-scenes book of late-70s Hollywood (Final Cut by Steven Bach), Heavenís Gate must carry the very heavy burden of having helped clear a path for the profit-driven, loud and execrable 1980s movies by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson, Jon Peters, Peter Guber et al.
Fresh off the multi-Academy Award winning success of The Deer Hunter, writer-director Michael Cimino found himself with absolute free reign in the wilds of Montana to film his re-creation of the 19th-century Johnson County War. Originally budgeted at a substantial but not unheard of $8-12 million, stories soon seeped from the set of stupendous directorial excesses, production delays and staggering cost overruns. Scheduled for a Christmas 1979 release, Cimino delivered the film 5 months late and to the tune of some $30 million. The critics were waiting, knives drawn, in preparation for cutting the director down to size. When Heavenís Gate premiered in November of that year, it was eviscerated, pulled from theatres after one week.
Living far from any sort of film hotbed at the time, I never saw the original three-and-a-half hour+ version. By the time Heavenís Gate arrived at a theatre near me, it was but a shell of its former self with more than an hour edited from it in a last ditch effort by the studio to milk whatever money they could from the carcass. Not being much of a western movie fan, I thought the filmís horrors might be lost on me. It wasnít great but it certainly wasnít as terrible as the buzz made it out to be.
By that time, the damage had been done and artistic merit was entirely beside the point. In order to reclaim the control they had lost over the previous decade to the uppity, creatively unpredictable and bottom line aversive auteurs, the studios had to make a show of not only diminishing Michael Cimino and his bloated Heavenís Gate but irrevocably destroying their co-mingled reputations. With the surprising compliance of a small circle of influential critics, they nearly succeeded.
However, ignoring (or ignorant of) the one essential rule of the revenge/vigilante movies that were popular in the `70s, the powers-that-be failed to finish off their mark. Left to die but with the slightest of heartbeats, Heavenís Gate continued to breathe shallowly, life slowly returning with the help of the staggering growth in new TV cable outlets, the VHS and then DVD markets. A critical (ha, ha) mass coalesced in defence of the movie over the subsequent two decades and a consensus eventually evolved: Heavenís Gate was not nearly as bad as originally thought and was, in fact, a lost treasure. Recently, eminent film critic, David Thomson, confessed that the movie has now entered his Top 10 list.
While the film has taken a critical upswing, its director remains lost in the wilderness. Some of this may have been his own doing. Given an opportunity to direct again five years after Heavenís Gate, Cimino made two unsalvageable messes in a row, The Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian. Neither displayed any of his earlier prowess, and he faded further into obscurity somewhere in France, taking up residence in Terrence Malick territory, making only two films after 1987.
Watching the full version of Heavenís Gate, itís hard to accept the shoddy fate inflicted on Michael Cimino. I mean, hacks like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay continue to pollute the cinematic landscape with their mindless vessels of triteness and James Cameron was showered with awards for his technically superb but emotionally empty Titanic. I know this is Hollywood weíre talking about but who loves redemption stories more than Hollywood?
Heavenís Gate may not be a masterpiece. On the other hand, it might well be. After a second viewing, I still havenít decided. I may need to watch it again. It is certainly a very, very good film. Its flaws are both magnified and rendered ultimately insignificant by its astonishing ability to deliver such a grounded human story on so grand an epic scale. Even a magnificent movie like Coppolaís Apocalypse Now didnít accomplish that feat as adeptly.
My biggest gripe would be with the filmís abrupt post-battle conclusion. I thought, dude, Iíve been with you for 3-and-a-half hours. Iíll happily grant you another 10, 15 minutes to finish this thing off in the manner it deserves. The ending felt tacked on and probably was, given the movieís production history.The filmís very non-traditional protagonist-antagonist relationship may also have put off audiences. Here was a western with no clear cut good guy or bad guy. Kris Kristoffersonís James Averill and Christopher Walkenís Nate Champion were morally ambiguous, both ultimately doing the right thing only after it was too late. In the end, there was really no one to cheer for, only against, in the form of the Sam Waterston led Association. When the cavalry does ride to the rescue, itís to save the villainous gang of mercenaries.
Heavenís Gate was certainly not the first revisionist western. Twenty years earlier John Ford, the architect of the western film genre, had begun dismantling the house he had built with The Searchers. Throughout the `60s and `70s, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Arthur Hill and Robert Altman piled on, all contributing a kick to the rotting corpse of the mythical American West. While late to the party, Heavenís Gate most assuredly earned its spot in the pantheon. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmondís beautifully shot ugliness captured the sordidness amidst the majesty of the frontier, and helped to reveal how the west was really won. It wasnít the indomitable pioneer spirit but rather murder, larceny, financial double-dealing, all foisted onto the backs of those who had travelled west in hopes of finding a better life. In look and feel, Heavenís Gate laid the groundwork for David Milchís Deadwood.
What is most striking about this film is its timely (and timeless) theme. In Heavenís Gate, everything boils down to class. It is startling to imagine a time when a major studio would pin its Christmas box office hopes on a movie that unblinkingly examines the class system. Now, 30 years later, America still sees itself as a classless society, refusing to even debate the possibility that who we are, the choices that we make, the outcome that transpires -- the whole shootiní match -- is determined by the echelon of society we inhabit. Twenty-five years after Heavenís Gate first screened, billionaire investor, Warren Buffet, echoed the movieís sentiments: Itís class warfare, my class is winningÖIronically, the curtain came up (and quickly fell) on Heavenís Gate in November of 1980, the very month Ronald Reagan was first elected President. While America seemed ready to turn a new page on a turbulent era and to embrace a fresh new beginning, Heavenís Gate cast a wary eye forward with its jaundiced look at the distant past. Now, as George W. prepares to ride off into the sunset, itís easy to see just how eerily (and sadly) prescient the filmís prediction of how the Reagan Revolution was going to unfold. Americans tuned out, not wanting to hear any discouraging word.
OK, so maybe this is more about irony than postmodernism. I know itís definitely not ontological. At least, Iím pretty sure it isnít. Donít letís get all tangled up in semantics. Whatever place Heavenís Gate is ultimately assigned in the hierarchy of film history, it is not the epic disaster many have classified it to be. It is a towering piece of work that anyone interested in film should watch and put into proper context, judged objectively against both westerns and all other films claiming epic status. This, I do believe, and my belief in the filmís importance proves such importance into existence.