HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)
Running Time: 219 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Michael Cimino
Distributor: United Artists
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterson, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotton, Jeff Bridges, Ronnie Hawkins, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mickey Rourke, T-Bone Burnett, Willem Dafoe
Don’t Be Fooled – It Stinks!
The recent death of Stephen Bach, one of the producers of HEAVEN’S GATE, has raised the specter of at least a partial resurrection of the reputation of this cursed film. Moreover, the original release, the “long version,” was recently shown on TCM exposing the film, in all probability, to its largest audience ever.
I saw the film when it first came out at a packed screening in a 3rd Avenue cinema across the street from Bloomingdales. I think it was released on a Friday and withdrawn on the following Wednesday. Maybe that wasn’t a fair release but it was and is a terrible film. Seeing the full-length version recently confirmed that judgment and with some thirty years more experience watching and writing about films I am better able to articulate why.
First, there is the dreaded phrase “mise-en-scene” whose definition is at the same time so simple yet so amorphous that it puzzles even after being defined. Basically it’s everything that happens in front of a camera. For example, a crowd extra will be given a piece of action, say just walking by on the sidewalk and a spot to start from. When the assistant director yells action the extra will go through their action. If there’s another take the extra will return to the start spot and go again on “action”. All of the extras do this. Then say a cab drives up to the sidewalk and the star gets out and embraces another principal while all the while the crowd extras are doing their thing. This is mise-en-scene. In the theatre they call it blocking but cinema is far more multi-dimensional.
The importance of defining mise-en-scene is because when the French critics developed their theory of the auteur the opposite of an auteur was a métier-en-scene, even more derogatorily referred to as a “traffic cop”. An auteur was intimately involved in the meaning of a film and through the director’s body of work a theme or themes discerned. The metier-en-scene was basically a company man rendering in film what had been handed to him on paper. It is the difference between say John Ford and Sam Wood.
The second point is how the director, Michael Cimino, got into the position of directing films. Cimino first gained prominence directing the first million-dollar TV commercial. This depicted a Chevrolet floating down the Grand Canal in Venice. This commercial never appears on any lists of greatest TV commercials of all time and is notable solely because of how expensive it was and how utterly exaggerated it was. The effect is like that of a three year old girl brought out to entertain company who gets her biggest response when she flings her dress over her head. Cute for a three year old, embarrassing for a thirty year old. So Cimino was praised early on for spending a huge amount of money for some over-the-top image and so he learned.
His first film, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) has a scene where Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are passengers in a lunatic’s car that drives back and forth, back and forth, until it drives off the road and the driver opens the trunk full of rabbits, which he proceeds to shoot one by one. I have the feeling that if the producer, Eastwood, hadn’t stepped in, that the scene would have lasted until every rabbit had been killed.
Which brings us to HEAVEN’S GATE. I guess if one watches the film on a DVD in snatches like a mini-series it can be impressive. This is because scenes are directed with such a dense mise-en-scene that each scene is like an encyclopedia, it’s just plain exhausting to sit through nearly four hours of this. Its like sex, at some point it just becomes a whipping. There is the opening 40 minutes, which takes place at Harvard. Brilliantly photographed at Oxford, it is something of a non sequitur. I personally favor the artistic way of unfolding a story as opposed to the more commercial “Now I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna tell you” of most films. However, the whole preface adds up to only one line – Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt went to Harvard together. Now twenty years later… All of that time, money and effort, not to mention all of the audiences’ attention and energy just to deliver this almost useless piece of information.
Then there’s the scene in the street between Kristofferson and Masur which just goes on and on with a populated city of background extras and horse drawn vehicles in the background in continuous motion to deliver a tiny bit of expositional information. It’s just so exhausting. There is one scene after another like this. It’s like trying to eat a thirty- pound pizza. Then there are these long conversations of inconsequential details and unintelligible, witless dialogue, which go on and on and are exhausting and boring.
Of course any single scene excerpted looks brilliant. Overall it’s a rich piece to spin praiseworthy articles about. Seen in snatches with the possibility of fast-forwarding through the boring bits or turning it off if feeling mise-en-scene whipped, it’s basically painless. But don’t let anybody tell you it’s a good film. When I saw it in 1980 there was a guy sitting in front of me who commented on the scene where Kris Kristofferson is on his horse and he turns one way and then the other and does this about six times. “That’s symbolic,” he said, “of he doesn’t know which way to go.” That is basically, at its kernel, the basis of every pro- Heaven’s Gate critique.
Watch it, if you must, but be forewarned, this is not a film whose time has come, this is a stinker that will smell for all time.
HEAVEN’S GATE is historically inaccurate in the extreme. I recommend the book BANDITTI OF THE PLAINS by Asa Mercer on the Johnson County War.
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