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Decades After Critics Left It For Dead, 'Heaven's Gate' Returns on Criterion Blu-ray

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by Matt Singer
November 27, 2012 9:45 AM
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"Heaven's Gate."

Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" was released on Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD on November 20th, exactly thirty two years and a single day after Vincent Canby destroyed the movie in the pages of The New York Times, in one of the most infamous reviews in the history of cinema. Canby certainly did not mince words. "Heaven's Gate," he wrote, "fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of 'The Deer Hunter,' and the Devil has just come around to collect." And that was was one of the nicer parts:

"Nothing in the movie works properly. For all of the time and money that went into it, it's jerry-built, a ship that slides straight to the bottom at its christening. Vilmos Zsigmond's gritty, golden photography looked better in 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller.' The aforementioned performers, plus Sam Waterston as the principal villain -- each one a talented professional, have no material to work with. In addition they're frequently upstaged by the editing, which sometimes leaves them at the end of a scene with egg on their faces, staring dumbly into a middle distance, at absolutely nothing. 'Heaven's Gate' is something quite rare in movies these days -- an unqualified disaster."

Though he was far from alone in his merciless criticism -- Roger Ebert called the film "the most scandalous cinematic waste" he'd ever seen -- Canby was writing in the Times, and a review that negative, especially at that time, was like a death sentence, a doctor giving a patient three months to live. In fact, "Heaven's Gate" had even less time than that. After a single week in one New York theater, Cimino and United Artists pulled the film and recut it with almost as much brutality as Canby's review. It reappeared a year later, seventy minutes shorter, and received little more praise. Now, almost exactly thirty-two years after critics all but killed the movie, "Heaven's Gate" has returned to life, restored to Cimino's director's cut (with some new, minor tweaks made by Cimino himself) and backed by the imprimatur of the Criterion Collection and a wave of critical reappraisal. 

Some, like The New Yorker's Richard Brody, blame at least part of the overwhelmingly venomous critical response to "Heaven's Gate" on the bad press that hounded the film's out-of-control production. "Heaven's Gate" was the "John Carter" of its day -- an enormous boondoggle of questionable commercial prospects by a talented auteur who went wildly over budget, costing several studio executives their jobs in the process -- and its reception was eerily similar. Brody says he believes that Canby and company's responses "were not fundamentally determined by these reports, only intensified by them." Before anyone had seen it, "Heaven's Gate" had already become synonymous with bloated Hollywood excess. In cinephile circles, it still is. I'd never seen "Heaven's Gate" in any form before watching the Criterion Blu-ray last night -- but I read "Final Cut," former United Artists executive Steven Bach's tell-all book on the making of "Heaven's Gate," years ago. I've seen the documentary version of "Final Cut" too. Even if you've never watched "Heaven's Gate," you know it -- or at least its reputation as a movie that sunk a storied film studio.

In his piece on the critical reception to "Heaven's Gate" in 1980, Brody says that if "Heaven's Gate" had been released today, young Internet critics would have rescued it from infamy. The model for what he describes would be the recent death and rebirth of Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," which was also slammed with bad press and a troubled production, and then a disastrous first round of reviews. Then a second wave of critics, who were eventually dubbed "#teammargaret," found the film and began championing it on social media (in our recent panel on the state of film criticism in the digital age, Brody credited critic Vadim Rizov's enthusiastic tweets with convincing him to rush out and see it before it left theaters). "Margaret" lasted twice as long as "Heaven's Gate" in New York  -- two whole weeks -- but even after it closed, momentum and word of mouth continued to build. Eventually, critics' efforts paid off with a full-scale return to theaters, and a new, longer cut of the film on DVD. I was one of the folks who saw "Margaret" in its first two-week theatrical release, and who flew the #teammargaret flag proudly. The chance to do something similar with "Heaven's Gate" excited me.

Unfortunately, I can't quite pledge my allegiance to #teamheavensgate. The skeptics and the acolytes both have this one wrong. "Heaven's Gate" isn't an unmitigated disaster or a misunderstood masterpiece, but somewhere between those two poles. It's beautiful but languid, powerful but ponderous. It is definitely worth seeing; some of the imagery is stunning and a couple performances are really terrific. The runtime, though, is really outrageous. In fact, this 216 minute cut of "Heaven's Gate" made me curious to see the 149 minute theatrical cut of "Heaven's Gate" (which is unfortuantely not included in The Criterion Collection's release of the film).

Certainly, there are arguments one can make in favor of the film's length. If nothing else, Cimino's tortuous extension of scene after scene takes us out of our own time and place and into the past, specifically Wyoming of the 1890s. To say that life moved slower then would be an understatement; "Heaven's Gate"'s methodical pace evokes the deliberate rhythms of frontier life. With no phones, televisions, or even electricity, most of the film is spent waiting for the plot to actually happen -- a government authorized attack on European settlers in Johnson County by a band of mercenaries hired by local cattle barons. After a prologue set twenty years earlier at a Harvard University graduation, Cimino flashes forward to 1892, and the arrival of Marshal James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) in Sweetwater, Wyoming. There, he catches wind of the "Stock Growers Association"'s plans (based on a real-life event known as "The Johnson County War") to execute 125 "anarchists and thieves" in the area, and then goes to warn the locals that they will soon be under attack. And by soon, I mean in like 100 minutes of screen time. News -- and everything else, I guess -- traveled slowly in the Old West.

Vilmos Zsigmond's photography of Cimino's imagined Wyoming (actually parts of Idaho and Montana) is so hauntingly beautiful it's easy to understand why the director wanted to luxuriate in this time and place: the sights of wagons racing through the foreground, shadowed by those big skies and icy peaks are utterly intoxicating. Having spent all this money to conjure his highly authentic Johnson County almost entirely from scratch, it's as if Cimino got lost in the dream world he'd created and never wanted to leave. Like many of the other revisionist Westerns of the period, "Heaven's Gate" is set at the end of the Old West, when the frontier's promise of independence and freedom vanished as powerful business interests asserted their dominance over the land and its people. The end of the film is a sort of end of all of the West once and for all, and in dawdling to his tragic conclusion, Cimino also seems to be trying to delay the inevitable, to live as long as he can in that glorious myth before it's corrupted once and for all. If "Heaven's Gate" played as much of a role in permanently ending the artistic freedom of the New Hollywood era as many claim it did, then this theme takes on even more powerful resonance.

But even with all these possible reasons for Cimino's sluggish storytelling, I can't deny that I felt downright exhausted by "Heaven's Gate." This is a long film that feels even longer, that draws attention to its own length with scenes that extend well beyond their logical conclusions. I can understand Cimino's motivations for wanting to include all the details of his immaculate production design and costuming. But I can't understand his motivations for wanting to include all the details for so freaking long.

Oddly, the thing I liked best about the movie -- Christopher Walken's performance as Nate Champion, a hired gun who works for the cattle barons until they threaten the woman he loves -- is one of the few components that Cimino doesn't drive into the ground. With hollowed out cheeks and piercing eyes, a strange drawl and childish handwriting, he evokes the image of the Western outlaw in ways that are both fresh and familiar. Sadly, though the love triangle between Averill, Champion, and a prostitute named Ella (Isabelle Huppert) forms the crux of the film's personal drama, Walken himself appears infrequently. Meanwhile there are at least two very long frontier dance scenes, a musical performance on roller skates, and a baseball game. By the second ten minute plus battle sequence between the mercenaries and the settlers, I began to actively anticipate an ending. If Cimino wanted to convey just how hard life on the frontier was he succeeded all too well. As the credits finally rolled, I felt a little saddle sore myself.

That doesn't mean "Heaven's Gate" is an "unqualified disaster" though. I would absolutely recommend the film, as not only an important turning point in Hollywood history but as a significant (if bloated) consideration of the mythic American West. We'll never see the likes of this film again. That's sort of a good and bad thing all at once.

Read more about The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray and DVD of "Heaven's Gate" and Vincent Canby's original review of the film.

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