02 January 2013

Oh Heavens! That Gate's About to Bust


Used to be that New Year's Day was for being depressed and hungover watching bowl games in which teams I didn't like defeated teams I didn't care about. Yesterday I had a massive headache as if at least part of my body wanted to relive the old days. The rest of me was fine and not at all hungover owing to my being abstemious.  These days I generally eschew watching football except for the real kind they play in England and other parts of the world. And so today I watched my favorite British footballers, Arsenal, battle to a one all draw with Southampton. That was it for me and sports for the day.

I tittered at twitter. I body surfed the web and was sucked momentarily out to the sea of ennui that comes from idle interneting. I dabbled unsuccessfully at chores the best of which was planning the France/Italy trip the missus and I are taking in May. But a sizable chunk of my first day of 2013 was taken up by my first ever viewing of Heaven's Gate (1980). All three hours and thirty nine minutes of it.

I paused a few times to stretch my legs get a bite to eat and yell at the stupid cat who couldn't decide whether she wanted to be in the house or out stalking mice. During one of my earlier breaks I went to Amazon.com and added the new Criterion edition of Heaven's Gate to my wish list in hopes that I get it for my birthday (hints all around).

So yes. I liked it a lot.

Of course the film has a notorious history having brought down a studio and destroyed a brilliant young directing career. It cost a J.P. Morgan like fortune to make and critics were not initially wowed (in that they hated it) and audiences stayed away in droves. This is as much as I knew about Heaven's Gate for decades aside from Christopher Walken and Kris Kristofferson being in it and being set in the range wars of 1890's Wyoming. In recent months I have become increasingly aware that an increasing number of film enthusiasts have increasingly warmed to it and increasingly there have been those who have called it a masterpiece. Increase.

Much of the reassessment came after a director's cut release at the Venice and New York film festivals last Fall followed by the Criterion release two months ago. Of course Heaven's Gate's first  reviews were based on the butchered version then released to theaters. They were also negatively influenced by the stories of director Michael Cimino's wretched excess during production including astronomical cost overruns. To be charitable Cimino's behavior during filming was eccentric and uneconomical. Perhaps a more even handed assessment is that he went bat shit. But that's a story I'm not well enough versed in to detail. The book Final Cut by Steven Bach evidently details the whole story. Goddamn it I guess I need to read that book now too.

The Heaven's Gate I watched yesterday is in the great tradition of American historical fiction story telling. Epic. In its sweep and intent Heaven's Gate is as rich bawdy brash unapologetic and outsized and ambitious and bloody as America itself. There is an unflinching and focused eye on the very rough and tumble and murderous and ugly forming of the continental United States. It is also one of the most gorgeous films I've ever laid eyes on. Scenic backdrops like Glacier National Park in Montana have a little something to do with that.

Cimino likes grandeur. As his previous film  -- Deer Hunter (1978) which won the best picture Oscar and made him a hot enough property that he could call his own shots -- demonstrated he's not averse to long scenes of pomp circumstance and dance. One of his idols a fella by the name of John Ford also loved these types of long pauses in his action films but Cimino took them to a new level. Some feel these scenes are drawn out. Well not me.

I really liked pretty much every frame of Heaven's Gate. I loved the attention to detail the minimalist dialogue the well drawn characters and the manner in which the camera held certain shots just a tick longer than you'd expect. I loved the fearlessness of it. No bloody wonder it took a studio down with it. No wonder it was reviled and mocked and avoided. It ate itself. A victim of its director's excesses. How symbolic that a story of this nature detailing greed and unbridled hatred and perversions of justice would wreak so much havoc itself. Yet here it is over 30 years later and it is alive and well in a new form and is as vibrant and meaningful as the best of Ford and Tarantino. In fact I'd argue that there is a bit of Heaven's Gate in Tarantino's last two films (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained -- if you don't know) but with less seriousness and more dialogue.

Heaven's Gate also features scenes at a Harvard graduation and on a yacht off Newport. It has a mean as bad whiskey Sam Waterston and a young Jeff Bridges and old Joseph Cotten and a luscious Isabelle Huppert and a perpetually drunk philosophizing John Hurt.




Made for a New Year's Day well spent and the headache is gone and I really need to get to the gym and thank you for reading this far......Hug?

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