Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I had scheduled its Netflix arrival to coincide with Christmas break, but I never got around to watching it then, and so it sat here for a couple of weeks while I looked for a four-hour time bloc. Today I finally got it, so I took the plunge. I watched Heaven's Gate.

A whole lot has been said and written about this movie, and I found it hard to watch without all that baggage. But I tried.

In case you didn't know, Heaven's Gate is a Western from 1980. It was Michael Cimino's first movie after he was annointed the next big thing when The Deer Hunter swept through the 1978 Oscars. United Artists gave Cimino a lot of leeway in developing his next project, and the production hemorraged money. Then he turned in a first draft to the studio that came in at five hours long. It was cut to 220 minutes for the New York critics' screening, where it was met with stunned silence and a slew of horrific reviews. The studio recut the movie to below three hours and ultimately to a 90-minute version, both of which were incomprehensible. The movie only grossed a couple million dollars, and bankrupted United Artists in the process. (UA continued only as a brand owned by other companies.)

The version I watched was the New York critics screening cut, which has been continuously available on video and now DVD for a while. Looking across the Internet reviews from 1980 and from more recently, the original set is abysmal while the newer ones tend to say that it wasn't nearly as bad those reviews suggested, and some even suggest that critics were out to get the prima donna-ish Cimino. (It worked; his subsequent career is slim pickin's.)

I'm hear to tell you that the newer critics are right that the 1980 critics were too harsh, but they weren't too harsh by very much. That is to say, there are a few things to like about this movie. The underlying story (not the way it's told, mind you) is compelling. The cinematography can be kinda cool at times, with differing levels of sepia-tone and other color effects. It's fun to see Christopher Walken in an understated role, and to repeatedly see Isabelle Huppert naked. There's one belly laugh at about the two-hour mark.

And that's about it. The movie plods. Every scene is a minute too long, some are 5 minutes too long, and some are just pointless. I don't know whether to blame the editing, the cinematography, the directing or the script, but you often can't tell who you're looking at. The dialogue is poorly rendered, often difficult to hear, and often in untranslated Eastern Europe languages that I don't speak. The epilogue is even more pointless than the famously pointless prologue. The climactic battle scene is in two acts, and while the second act is well done, the first is just hopeless chaos. And for some reason people go around calling each other "citizen," and no one ever explains why.

The Heaven's Gate debacle was so bad that it made people re-examine The Deer Hunter and question whether it was really that good in the first place. I've never been a huge fan of that movie to begin with, and I should have anticipated all of the problems in the later movie, because I'd already recognized them in the earlier one. If the debate over Cimino has three positions (1. Unrecognized genius screwed by critics; 2. Mixed bag--Deer Hunter really was that good and Heaven's Gate really was that bad; or 3. He was never that good to begin with), I'd have to lean toward the third choice.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I've also never been a huge fan of "The Deer Hunter" and have never bothered to see "Heaven's Gate." (Although I am a big Kris Kristofferson fan, but that's a different story.) I think that "The Deer Hunter" was a movie that affected people at the time but wasn't necessarily a great film. I mean, "Coming Home" probably had an impact on some people, but you don't hear people talking about that movie thirty years later.

"Apocalypse Now," on the other hand, despite its weaknesses, has some truly interesting moments, in my opinion.