Sunday, December 30, 2012

HEAVEN'S GATE (Blu-Ray) - #636


As John Ford so often demonstrated (and as Ford-hater Quentin Tarantino barely took advantage of in the sometimes-cramped Django Unchained [review]*), the western is the ideal vehicle for widescreen motion-picture filmmaking. The vast, open spaces of the American frontier (or, if you're Sergio Leone, Italy and Spain), show us how large a movie screen really can be--and the movie screen in turn teaches us a little something about the size of our world. This is something Michael Cimino learned from Ford, and something he puts to great use in his late-70s western Heaven's Gate, a film where everything is massive, where going small is never an option. Even in the most intimate moments, the frame turns lovers into giants. Isabelle Huppert is here to kiss you puny humans to death.

Most importantly, perhaps, and what maybe separates Ford and Cimino from some of the rest, is this vision is of an idealized America, a belief that these vistas represent everything the country could be, and the nostalgic glow that they seek when they photograph the mountains and the blue sky provides a kind of warmth, soothing the sadness they feel at all the ways we have gone wrong, all the bad we have done in the service to the democratic experiment. The melting pot requires a certain amount of fire, alas.


Heaven's Gate, fittingly, is a movie about an idealist made by an idealist, and both lose control of their situation, ground beneath a machine that is larger than they ever imagined, and yet tragically heroic for doing so. At least unlike his fictional avatar, the rich-boy sheriff James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), Cimino has found some vindication. Though vilified on its release, and mostly for its budgetary excess to the exclusion of its storytelling success, Heaven's Gate has increasingly found new life and new audiences. Having never seen it prior to this Criterion release, I am now in awe of it. It's a phenomenal, audacious masterpiece.


For the plot-minded amongst us, the bulk of Heaven's Gate is set in Wyoming in 1890. (There are also bookends on the story, of Averill graduating Harvard as a young man in 1870, and of the old man reflecting in a brief epilogue set in the early 1900s.) Averill, we quickly learn, is a man who puts his mouth ahead of his money, a true do-gooder who dislikes injustice and human indecency. He promotes fair play where he can, and wearily accepts when the scales are tipped against the little guy. Those scales, he discovers, are soon to take on more weight than they can bear. The wealthy industrialists in his state, a group that previously blackballed Averill for failing to take a hard stance against the lower classes, have shored up their power and are preparing to patch what they perceive to be a hole in the law. Wyoming has become a home for European immigrants, many of whom find the land harder to work than they anticipated--due in no small part to the prejudice that awaits them from "real" Americans. According to the rich men, and at least based partially in fact, some of these immigrants resort to stealing their cattle when times get desperate. Up until now, the courts have done little to prosecute these "thieves and anarchists," but thanks to the efforts of one Frank Canton (Law & Order's Sam Waterston), they now have a bureaucratically approved kill list. 125 men and women in Averill's county have been marked for death for alleged crimes. Canton and his cohorts are hiring men at $5 a day, and $50 for each dead immigrant they deliver, to wipe these people out. As Averill notes, that's nearly everyone in the whole damn town where most of these farmers have set up shop.


And so it is that Averill returns to his township with a heavy heart, unsure if he can stem the tide that is coming. The town itself, named Sweetwater, is muddy and in progress, a microcosm of the U.S. Beyond its dirty streets is the perfect blue sky, the snow-capped peaks, the lush land that will sustain them all if everyone would just share. At the center of the town is the dancehall/skating rink, Heaven's Gate, surely named such as a gesture of hope, if not just for the earthly pleasures it promises. It will be a name that will take on a deadly irony, however, as it becomes where the townsfolk huddle in fear and anger to learn their seemingly inescapable fate.

Amidst this expansive drama there is, of course, a more personal story. For all his gruff ways, Averill is a lover. (Indeed, his last name is a variation on Aphrodite, goddess of love. Heaven's Gate is a movie where the names of its heroes have meaning.) The sheriff has a rather sweet romance with the French madame at the local whorehouse. Ella Watson, played by a young Isabelle Huppert, is the kind of frontier gal who has learned to take care of herself, who runs her own business, and runs it well. For all intents and purposes, she is on her own, but no one wants to be alone forever, and so she hopes Averill will one day step up and offer her something different. If not, the lawman has a rival. Ella is also having an affair, though one of a different stripe, with Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), a dapper gunslinger who works as foreman for the secret association, but who is also conflicted about their goals. Champion is the embodiment of the American Dream, a man who has come from nothing and who is trying to make something. He resents Averill for his money (the sheriff, some argue, is engaging in an early form of ghetto tourism), and fantasizes about being his equal. His proposal to Ella is to tell her he has enough income to cover them both. And to prove such things are possible, Champion takes her to his shack to show her his wallpaper, a sad and endearing symbol of how out of his element he really is. It's not the kind of decoration we would expect; rather, he has merely covered his walls in newspaper. He's done a nice job with it, but no cigar.


And so this love triangle will play out as the bigger story comes to a boil, with Ella caught between the two men, and the two men needing to learn that just as they love the same women, they believe in the same things. They can't keep up the tug-of-war without tearing everything in two. This becomes an undeniable fact when it is discovered that Ella is on the kill list because she has accepted cattle as trade for her wares, some of which is most assuredly stolen, at least according to the propaganda. There are no hard facts about how rampant this "immigrant problem" is, how many are the thieves and anarchists that Frank Canton keeps harping on. The idea that anyone would forego feeding their family and steal a cow to get laid is, of course, reprehensible; yet, for all we know, it's little more than fear mongering. They're coming for your food and your women! Fox News via pony express!

The narrative of Heaven's Gate, which was written as an original screenplay by Michael Cimino (remember original screenplays?), is grandiose in scope, full of characters and character alike, not unlike a great Russian novel. It is sweeping and human, giving its different participants their moment in the spotlight, allowing for digressions into real life even when it may not obviously serve the plot. Scenes run long, conversations are allowed their natural course. There are two different dance sequences, the waltzing at Harvard (which breaks out into a brawl) and the roller-skating linedance at Heaven's Gate (which breaks into a two-person slow dance for Averill and Ella), both shot as a constant wave of movement by the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond, dizzying and yet locked down. The dancers keep spinning, but the movie screen maintains its own keel. The sea may be rocking, but the ship will never go under.


Which is maybe what critics and audiences failed to see when Heaven's Gate was first released. They had lost sight of the forest, too concerned with what money was falling from its trees. Does Michael Cimino go overboard? Maybe. But it's only in pursuit of authentic expression. Tolstoy could build bustling crowds and the activity of a city life with words; Peter Jackson can pull an army of orcs out of his digital ass; but Cimino had to make 19th-century Wyoming come to life using flesh and wood. He had to show the human traffic by gathering the numbers together, show where they traveled by building the towns. Once the map was drawn and the sets erected, the mythology had to be lived. In one memorable scene, the first time we really see Champion and Averill talk, the younger man visits the sheriff at the bar where he lives and where he's having his breakfast. (The sibling establishment to Heaven's Gate, both owned by John H. Bridges, and portrayed by Jeff Bridges, who appears so lost in the role, it's almost savant-like the way he plays it.) As they speak, our eye is drawn to the window behind Kristofferson, and the man outside, a juggler, who, via optical illusion, appears to be standing on the actor's shoulder. Is it necessary? Not really. But it does add something to the moment, providing a visual metaphor for the dangerous game Averill is playing. As constable, he is intended to serve all sides, but eventually, he either has to walk away from it all or accept something is likely to drop.


I'm a defender of movies of length. It's a fallacy to say that movies should always be somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. It's an artificial number concocted by theater owners to maximize the number of showings, to sell the most tickets in a day. Other media have suffered similar fates. Prose fiction and comic books are a certain number of words or pages due to cost of paper and shipping; long-player records famously got longer when CDs were invented because compact discs could hold more music. While artists in all of these fields learned to cope with these restraints, and make an art out of how to meet the economic demands, that does not vindicate the idea that such restrictions are somehow inherent in this mode of expression. Heaven's Gate runs over three-and-a-half hours. There is something refreshing about watching a movie like Heaven's Gate--or, indeed, Bertolucci's 1900 [review] or Leone's Once Upon a Time in America or more recently Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [review], which tellingly are all examples of stories about eras ending and centuries turning--where the scenes are not trimmed to fit, where the dialogue is not manicured to move everything forward**. You can have five minutes of two people talking as people are wont to do, can step back and enjoy the dance, can walk the streets of the town and see the sights. Heaven's Gate is the movie equivalent of a semester abroad. You really live there for a suitable length of time and truly experience the culture; by comparison, most other movies are just two-week package tours.


For as much as Heaven's Gate maybe went from a well-planned cattle drive to an out-of-control stampede during shooting, I don't think that shows on the screen. Or if it does, only when it counts. The film's climax, its true one, not counting the subsequent stinger and the epilogue, is pure chaos. In both of its battle sequences, Cimino unmoors the whole thing and lets the herd run wild. It's impossible to tell who is shooting whom, and where one side has drawn its line and where the other is in relation to it. The pointlessness and confusion is by design, it erases any notion of clear victory, of well-defined winners and losers. And even if it wasn't, even if the auteur had lost control and had to spend time revising, reworking, reimagining--well, this takes us back to novelists again. No one would blink if Steinbeck went beyond his allotted schedule, if his word count exceeded expectations. Not when it meant getting East of Eden.

And so busted budgets and extra cans of film are also worth it when the result is Heaven's Gate. It's an engrossing movie event, deserving of all the time it demands, deserving of you opening your mind wide to accept it.


* Having only seen Django Unchained once, and not really considering how much of the landscape Tarantino does or does not use until now, I concede in advance that my memory could be playing tricks.

** Back to Tarantino, this is also something he does incredibly well, particularly in how he writes conversational sequences.

Please note: The images used here were taken from promotional materials and other sources, not directly from the Blu-Ray.





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