Monday, January 26, 2009

DJG / Heaven's Gate

Heaven's Gate * * * * 1/2
Directed by: Michael Cimino / 1980

The opening credits to "Heaven's Gate" had me thinking the "sooooo bad" rumors were true as it listed four film editors. Not necessarily a bad thing to have more than one editor, but add this figure to a near four hour viewing time (cut from the premiere's five hours and out of over 220 hours originally shot!), an ill-fitted track record of critical punishment and industry controversy, a bloated budget and production blunders, outlandish animal abuse (which prompted humane movie regulations), immediate career failure and reputation to celebrated director Michael Cimino (Oscar winner for "The Deer Hunter") and the eventual fall of United Artists and loss for more director-driven pictures. So, I was expecting the eye-roll frustration of the butcher block equivalent to an old man "Southland Tales", one of the most disappointing blunders of the 2000's. But, what I found was the exact opposite, an amazing, jaw-dropping gorgeous and ambitious achievement in cinema art. I want to watch it again and again. I want to own it. I want the original 5 hour cut. I want to digest all 220 hours. "Heaven's Gate" is one of the greatest, most original Westerns ever made and although 1980 beat it to Hell, nearly thirty years has served it well.

My interest in "Heaven's Gate" started to percolate about five or six years ago as I began to explore the deeper cavities of the Western genre. However, every time I was about to make a move at getting my hands on the movie, I ducked out and trusted the reviews and the movie's infamous role as one of Hollywood's most epic blunders. But, at the same time something drew me to it as I just wanted to see it for myself, see what the fuss was about.

To paint a picture, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" is like a beautiful super-steroid-sized love child of Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven". And it's as big and sweeping as "How the West was Won" and "Once Upon a Time in the West". I don't like it as much as those, yet it's so much more and every bit worth the watch and some. And watch you must, as it boasts some of the biggest and brilliant cinematography and memorable scenes at the movies. I disagree 100% with legendary critic Roger Ebert's 1981 review when he claims, "...this movie is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture...It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen..." Geesh, Roger, I don't know what movie you saw, but my eyes were glued!

I think "Heaven's Gate" is a worth while piece of film history and American history. Set in 1890s Johnson Country, Wyoming, "Heaven's Gate" depicts the real life war between land owners and European immigrants who wanted a slice of the American dream, just like those before them. But, in the end I think it's Michael Cimino who got his dream, as "Heaven's Gate" may have paid the price and executioner's slice, but it's priceless film execution. I'm sure some movie goers and critics would call it fool's gold, but I find it to be the real deal. And in about thirty years I'm pre-inspired to revisit Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales". Well, not really, but I will revisit the Kevin Costner flop "Waterworld", as in 1995 it was introduced by critic's as "Kevin's Gate"!


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