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Monday, February 17, 2014

HEAVEN'S GATE (1980)

The current ‘Party Line’ in academic film circles holds that the Hollywood Auteur Era rose from the wreckage of the old Studio System in the late ‘60s only to fade when JAWS/’75 and STAR WARS/’77 established a new (and evil) BlockBuster mentality. But the case is weak, not only because those days (and films) look less golden than they once did (though you’ll nay convince a Baby-Boomer of it), but equally because those two iconic hits are as personal to their makers as they are commercial; more ‘70s apogee than death knell. To find a tipping point, Michael Cimino’s legendary artistic & commercial fiasco is the more plausible pivot. Sold by United Artists as a David Lean of a Western, this historic travesty of the Johnson County Wars follows that oldest of Western standby plots, the immigrant farmers against the free-range cattle barons. Handsome to look at, but dramatically inert, it moves along one useless set piece at a time: Commencement; Waltzing grads; Roller skating Slavs!; Snobby gentlemen’s club fight; and a drunken philosopher for wry commentary. And, for romance, it does indeed find a David Lean film to ape . . . RYAN’S DAUGHTER/’70!, his disastrous MADAME BOVARY rip-off. (Surely it can’t be the same plot . . . but it is! Older lover (Kris Kristofferson/Robert Mitchum); Young military oppressor as rival (Christopher Walken/Christopher Jones); Orgasm-friendly love object (Isabelle Huppert/Sarah Miles); Revolting ethnic community under threat from Militia.) Of course, Lean’s flop merely stopped him from making films for 15 years; Cimino took United Artists down with him. But now the film is back, restored to (more or less) it’s original cut thanks to new ‘Party Line’ dogma that claims it as unsung masterpiece. Led by the French cineasts (who else?*), who no doubt respond to the film’s vague anti-capitalist/anti-militaristic/pro-Marxist leaning and love playing contrarians, the film was overdue for cult plucking.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The best thing about HEAVEN’S GATE (other than Sam Waterson’s portrayal of Simon Legree) is Vilmos Zsigmond’s spectacular cinematography. If you’d like to see what he can do with a Western, by all means watch Robert Altman’s terrific McCABE & MRS. MILLER/’71. Note that the new Criterion DVD of HG has a telling Restoration Demonstration that looks less like a clean-up operation than a complete color palette overhaul. The old print has the ‘tasteful’ autumnal look that helped separate Old & New Hollywood at the time. Now, Cimino has opted for something less consistently mournful. Does it rep the original look more truly?

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Steven Bach, the UA production exec on HG, recollects every behind the scenes horror in his classic tell-all FINAL CUT written in 1985. *He even forecasts: ‘HEAVEN’S GATE was over . . . . Perhaps European reaction would be more enthusiastic. It is well known, after all, that the French revere Jerry Lewis.’

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