Heaven's Gate (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
those of you who have been living in a mountain monastery,
this film is the standard by which all other
underperforming high budget fiascos are measured. Waterworld was called
Kevin's Gate, Sliver was Evans' Gate, und so weiter.
The version of Heaven's Gate on the DVD has rarely been seen. It is the first version screened for the public in New York on November 18, 1980, and it runs more than three and a half hours. The response to it was so negative that the nationwide roll-out was postponed and a shorter version was prepared for national distribution. Amazingly enough, the 3:39 edit is not the longest known version. Before the public ever saw Heaven's Gate, director Michael Cimino had screened a 5 1/2 hour version for the same studio execs who had originally approved a $7.8 million dollar budget and had watched the total costs increase to $35 million as of that moment. It is amazing to me that Cimino survived that meeting. I'm pretty sure that if I had been head of the studio, I would have killed him right then and there, irrespective of the legal consequences. At least his death would have created a big enough scandal to bring curious people into the theaters.
In fact, I would like to see a movie about that screening day, starting from the moment the lights went up. Now that would be a good movie. Those studio boys must have had some tense talks that night, because every man in the room must have realized that the studio's money was lost forever, and that they would either have to write off the forty million or approve even more for a rescue effort. The smartest boys in the room must have known right then and there that their careers and maybe their company would go belly up no matter which choice they made, and that their own negligence had created the financial debacle. The management of United Artists then consisted of tyros, a team which had recently taken over after the previous senior management had walked out following a power struggle with the parent company, Transamerica. So desperate were the new kids to make their mark, to generate their epic classic, their Lawrence of Arabia, that they had virtually given Cimino a free hand. United Artists had given the director such laissez faire treatment that the studio had assigned Joann Carelli, Cimino's girlfriend, to be the studio's line producer on the project. It was her job to check his excesses. This is not as bizarre as it sounds. United Artists provided similar laissez-faire arrangements with other directors, like Woody Allen for example. The movie "business" doesn't work like a real business. The studio suits might have defended their lax management techniques as "allowing the freedom necessary to the artist," and they might even have laughed off all the budgetary excesses - if a blockbuster had resulted. But when they saw what they had received for their money that day, they must have known that their heads would soon roll, and that many of them would never again work in the industry. It's surprising there weren't any suicides that day, ala the 1929 stock market crash.
Yup, I'd go to a movie about that.
NOTE: Since I wrote this article, there has been no fictional treatment of that episode, but a documentary film has been released.
After that November 18th public screening in New York, there was a party at The Four Seasons. Virtually nobody attended. That was a harbinger of the bad news which would come in the New York Times the next day. Respected film critic Vincent Canby called Heaven's Gate "an unqualified disaster" and pointed out that it "fails so completely that you might suspect Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect."
In a completely unprecedented move, United Artists immediately canceled the L.A. premiere and Cimino withdrew the film in order to try to cut it to a reasonable length. When it was re-opened in April of 1981, in a version pared down to about two and a half hours, it grossed a pathetic $1.3 million in 830 theaters. Andy Albeck, the head of the studio, resigned between the New York premiere and the L.A. re-release. He had been with United Artists for 32 years. Shortly after the film's final release, United Artists ceased to exist as a company.
In a sense, Heaven's Gate was an important film in the history of the industry. The film not only broke the United Artists studio and destroyed its executives, but changed the entire system for making movies. Directors had taken control of the industry in the 1970s and the best ones could even obtain "final cut." There was nothing then present in the system to rein in the talent and force it to be cohesive, coherent or succinct. Heaven's Gate forced the studios to stand up and take notice of the problem, and thus to take control back from the directors so that the Cimino debacle could not be repeated. Martin Scorsese said, "Heaven's Gate undercut all of us. I knew at the time that it was the end of something. That something had died." Francis Ford Coppola said, "There was a coup d'etat that happened after Heaven's Gate. The studios were outraged that directors ... had all the control. So they took the control back."
The final casualty of the film was, of course, Michael Cimino.
So is Heaven's Gate really that bad?
Of course not. It isn't a bad film in the sense that it is incompetent. Indeed, many of the bad things you have heard about it are wildly exaggerated. Heaven's Gate is not a bottom-dwelling grade-Z movie. Cimino is not Ed Wood, so he doesn't suffer from lunatic ideas. He is not Kevin Costner, so he is not susceptible to mawkish sentimentality. Michael Cimino did have a monumental ego, but he also had great talent, and there is a lot of it on display in this film. There is some rich characterization and some of the actors deliver excellent performances. Chris Walken plays a complex good/bad character, the most richly written in the film, and turns in possibly the most nuanced performance of his career. Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif and Mickey Rourke are good in small roles. Many of the visuals are artfully and beautifully composed. Filmgoers were actually awed by some scenes.
But the film has two monumental problems: the pacing and the sound editing.
First and foremost, the pacing is languorous. Heaven's Gate can be exquisite from time to time, but overall it is an exercise in tedium.
With the notable exception of "Run Lola Run", Heaven's Gate may be the only movie longer than the events it portrays. At least it seems that way. Of course, the events in "Lola" occupy about 20 minutes of real time, while Heaven's Gate spans 20 years. Oh, Lord, this is one slow-movin' film! And all the ponderous gravity of its four hour running time is brought to bear merely to develop the ever-hackneyed Western subject of "the farmers versus the cowmen."
It's kinda like watching Oklahoma! without the singin'.
I have exaggerated, of course, but not by much. Several scenes are shot in real time or nearly so.
The first two tedious scenes at Harvard actually place take place in the introduction, before the story even starts, in what seems to be an all-but-irrelevant prologue. This may be the only movie in history which put some people to sleep before the story even began! By the way, that marginally relevant prologue was never in the studio-approved version of the screenplay, and was not even written until the filming was supposed to have been completed. It was a Cimino brainstorm that just had to be added, and was filmed eight months after the rest of the film.
Boy, that was worth the wait.
Those scenes not only droned on at a length unnecessary to make their points, but Cimino had spent millions on elements of those scenes which were not critical to the presentation, arguably not even relevant. To film the tacked-on Harvard prologue, Cimino flew the entire crew to Oxford, which played the part of Harvard. To get the right centerpiece for the graduation waltz, Cimino uprooted a gigantic tree from a nearby town and re-planted it in the Oxford courtyard!
The second major problem in the film is the sound track. In fact, audiences found this even more irritating than the slow pace. Cimino decided to throw out the old movie saw which states that the audience should always hear what the actors are saying, even if that would not actually be possible in the situation being portrayed. In the old fashioned style of Hollywood movies, we can hear Nelson Eddy even if he is standing in front of a foghorn, or in a rioting crowd. The background noises are never loud enough to drown out the principal dialogue. OK, that is obviously not realistic, so maybe that old chestnut needed some cracking, or at least some tweaking, in the mode of Robert Altman. But what did Cimino choose as his alternative to the trite conventional approach? Complete anarchy. We sometimes can't hear what the main actors are saying over locomotive noises, raging rivers, and angry crowds. Let's face it, Kris Kristofferson's mumbling is difficult to decipher under ideal conditions, but with ambient noises he's nigh on to impossible.
Cimino seemed to save all of his legendary attention to detail for visual details, and to ignore or deprecate the sound problems. Cimino brought an authentic period locomotive to the set over thousands of miles of track, on a circuitous route mandated by the fact that the 19th century engine didn't fit into 20th century tunnels. He recreated every scene in the film from authentic period photographs. Yet he wouldn't spend a few minutes to get the dialogue comprehensible. In addition to the ambient noise issues, Cimino allowed Isabelle Huppert to misread some dialogue in the final cut, even though a fix would have required nothing more than re-taking a simple two shot. Cimino's editor, William Reynolds, a competent old-time pro who had edited The Godfather and The Sting, told his director about the dialogue problems, but the auteur huffed, "I don't know what you're talking about. I can understand every word." Reynolds knew it was true only because Cimino had written those words, but he could not convince his boss to make any changes.
I guess I would be remiss if I fail to point out that the film's claims to be based on real events are, to say the least, fanciful, although the authenticity claims of the marketing campaign persist to this day. The current DVD box says, "this lavish epic Western retells the true story of Wyoming's famous Johnson County War - a brutal conflict in which wealthy cattlemen, backed by the U.S. government, hired mercenaries to murder 125 immigrant settlers." In the real Johnson County War, two guys died, one of whom was a notorious cattle rustler. The U.S. Government was involved, but only insofar as the U.S. Cavalry arrived to break up the standoff before any further casualties could occur. The troopers did, in fact, take the mercenaries into protective custody, thus saving their lives, but the invaders were arrested and jailed - at least temporarily - and were driven from the county permanently. In other words, Michael Cimino's dedication to the historical accuracy of his visuals did not extend to his facts. When informed of this, he said, "It was not my intention to write a history book. The specific facts of that incident recounted in a literal way would be of no interest. One uses history in a very free way."
Or to put it another way, if history refutes our preconceptions, we need to change it.
Heaven's Gate has some beautiful visuals created from period photographs, and some good moments scattered through the film, but in general is a bloated and tiresome cliché with sound problems. On the other hand, it doesn't deserve its reputation as an utter disaster. If you ever watch it (which I don't recommend), you'll see that there is tremendous talent on display, but it is out of control.
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