I have been watching a fair number of Sergio Leone films as of late, and the Italian director’s ubiquitous use of wide shots (particularly of various desert locales in Spain) spurred my interest in directors who have a desire for the best big-wide compositions. And this brings us to essayist Jorge Luengo Ruiz’s silent, almost melancholic, assembly of the wide angle photography from various films of Michael Cimino. Of course Heaven’s Gate is very well represented, being the height of Cimino’s power and spending power, but also some quite remarkable compositions from The Deer Hunter, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Sicilian and even his lower budget works from the 1980s and 1990s.
Wow, 2016. Just stop.
Cinema legend Michael Cimino has passed on at 77 (albeit nobody seems to trust that was actually his age.) While he started his career in New York making Television commercials, he quickly moved into screenwriting (he wrote the Bruce Dern hippie-sci-fi near-classic Silent Running, as well as the second Dirty Harry picture, Magnum Force) before starting to direct features in the mid 1970s.
Michael Cimino was perhaps best known for making one of the great Vietnam War pictures, The Deer Hunter, the film which made Christopher Walken a star, and included fine performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. He was also infamous for his studio crushing Heaven’s Gate, a film so expensive it put United Artists into receivership with its financial excesses, but nevertheless, nearly 40 years later, is now hailed by many as a true American masterpiece. It killed his career, although he made a few more modest films in the 1980s and 1990s, nothing of the massive, deliberate scale of his two great films. It is notable that the man has more unrealized films in that period that most directors, in part due to his budget bloating fastidiousness directing method.
Cinimo always felt like the odd man out of the cinema-brats of the 1970s (Polanski, Friedkin, Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg & Lucas), maybe because his films were considered slow and pondering, even by the standards of the era. The man nevertheless had a great eye for imagery and knew how to craft a setpiece.
Michael Cimino’s famous film that broke United Artists with his out of control spending and ultra-perfectionism. That he did this by spending $40M kind of puts things in perspective, when today a blockbuster can spend $100M on just marketing alone. But I digress. The film became a bit of a pile-on, and given enough time (and Z-Channel’s airing of the director’s cut in the 1990s), has found its way back from being a pariah of 1970s auteur filmmaking. With the tagline, “What one loves about life are the things that fade” and it’s gorgeous photographic motif of nature and reflection, this quad style poster is a winner, and a rather different way to sell the picture, which in the past, has typically employed American flags and bullet holes. Now I’m kind of itching to revisit Heaven’s Gate on Blu-Ray, or better yet, a restored 35mm print in the cinema.
Most people who love the movies know the story of Heaven’s Gate. Here it is again in a nutshell. After winning three Oscars for The Deer Hunter (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor), director Michael Cimino went on to write and direct a western epic about the Johnson County Wars. Due to massive cost over runs and film delays the film ended up being 44 million dollars (while that number seems quaint in an age where the lowliest of romantic comedy costs about 40 Million – BEFORE PRINTS & ADVERTISING – it was an unheard of amount of dough to spend on a film in 1980.) At one point, the cut of the film was 5 1/2 hours long, some say this over-indulgence was mainly due to Cimino’s perfectionism and ‘man of the moment’ status.’ Case in point: After 5 days shooting they were apparently 4 days behind schedule. The film was eventually pared down to 3 hours 40 minutes. After the Deer Hunter, critics were expecting the second coming of Christ (which wouldn’t happen until 2004 with Mel Gibson’s fetishistic passion play) and lambasted the film so bad that the studio waited on the film for another 8 months, and chopped it down by another hour. Nobody went to see the film when it was released, and United Artists, the studio, went bankrupt and was bought at a fire-sale price by MGM (there is no small irony in that MGM has been similarly fire-sold several times, for varied reasons, 20 years onward.)
So how is the film? Well, I liked it. A lot. The class struggles in the film between the rich corporation (i.e. state-sanctioned rape of the working class) and the poor immigrant farmers is as relevant today as it was in the 1890s. I loved the contrast between the Harvard graduation celebrations and the frontier life celebrations. The frivolous game of defending bouquets of flowers with concentric rings of faculty holding hands while the students try to grab the flowers for honour is nicely revisited as a bloody game of survival as the residents of Johnson County defend their escaping families and attack the 50 odd armed bounty hunters. The love triangle of Kris Kristofferson’s rich man behaving like a poor man, and Christopher Walken’s poor man behaving like a rich man with Isabelle Hupert’s confident middle-class prostitute is as interesting for the relationship dynamics as for its symmetry: She charges Walken’s character for sex so as to no be ‘cheating’ on Kristofferson’s character.