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Shelf Life | The Nation

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Shelf Life

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Reduced to the balance sheet, great directing is the strategic allocation of limited funds—or, in the case of the scandalous, studio-busting Heaven’s Gate (1980), the strategic allocation of seemingly unlimited funds. Flush from the success of The Deer Hunter, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director, and puffed up with Me Decade arrogance, Michael Cimino tossed $44 million of United Artists’ largesse into a savage and unorthodox passion project. He aimed for the painstakingly complete re-creation of a bygone world—Johnson County, Wyoming, 1892—and spared no sentiment for the careers, fortunes and studio he’d end up sinking in his wake. He built an entire period-specific town from scratch and shlepped to it a working steam locomotive from a Colorado museum. He shot 1.5 million feet of film, in part because he spent so much time waiting for the ideal alignment of sun and clouds. In other words, the studio money didn’t disappear; it saturates every frame. 

About the Author

Akiva Gottlieb
Akiva Gottlieb writes for The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and Dissent, and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Heaven’s Gate, now digitally restored and ready to bathe your living room in a twilight glow (Criterion; Blu-Ray $49.95, DVD $39.95), is a gargantuan and gritty spectacle that once had Roger Ebert reaching for his Windex but left me wanting to lick the screen. (To be fair, the ravishing restoration scrubs much of the grit and sepia tone off the original print.) The first half of the film skips from one ridiculously gorgeous set piece to the next, barely pausing in its world-creation to establish the particulars of a plot. Filtering natural light through layers of kicked-up dust, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures images of immense scope and incredible texture. The fastidious Cimino directs his energy toward mass choreography; several scenes must feature hundreds of extras.

In an opening-day Times review that torpedoed any chance at a fair hearing, Vincent Canby likened the film to “a forced, four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” Pauline Kael channeled her inner vandal, calling it “a movie you want to deface.” For Ebert, it was “a study in wretched excess.” The movie played for one day in New York City before United Artists yanked it from distribution and forced Cimino to cut it down to a more presentable length. If nothing else, the re-release of Heaven’s Gate at its original length of 216 minutes offers critics a chance to atone for a legendarily lamentable collective dismissal.

The film pivots on literal class warfare and what Cimino called a “white genocide.” Kris Kristofferson stars as James Averill, a Harvard-groomed aristocrat turned class traitor who, having relocated to Wyoming as a federal marshal, leads the battle against a group of government-backed cattle barons plotting to kill the resident immigrant farmers for their land. Though he opens the film with a glimpse of Harvard’s imperial majesty, Cimino’s sympathies are never in doubt; the polyglot frontier is his idea of pastoral utopia. The roller-skate hoedown sequence halfway through the film—in which Averill cavorts with his lover, played by a young, heavily accented Isabelle Huppert—is one of the most joyously choreographed dance scenes ever committed to celluloid.

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I understand Criterion’s desire to decouple the film from the history of its tortured reception, but Michael Epstein’s dishy and mostly unpitying documentary Final Cut—based on the eponymous 1985 insider account of the same name by former United Artists VP Steven Bach—should have been included as a special feature. (The curious can find it on YouTube.) Taken in tandem, the film and its even more dramatic making-of offer a referendum on the division between the uncompromising and the tyrannical.

If Heaven’s Gate marks the end of Hollywood’s infatuation with the director-artiste, this restoration provides both a stirring monument to the studios’ indulgence and an obvious, convenient excuse for never attempting—or allowing—such a thing ever again. Treasure it as the last artisanal “event movie.”

* * *

The new American cinema may have capsized under the weight of Cimino’s excess, but it was defined a decade earlier by an exercise in restraint. The narrative of Monte Hellman’s mesmerizing 1971 feature Two-Lane Blacktop (Criterion; Blu-Ray and DVD, both $39.95) actively strips itself down, like the ‘55 Chevy at its center, for maximum power. Our would-be heroes are credited as the Driver (singer-songwriter James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson), in part because their obsession leaves no room for personality. At the surface, there’s not a lot to groove on, unless you count the roar of engines and the chirp of roadside cicadas. It’s an eventful movie that largely passes without incident.

The introduction of a female stowaway, the Girl (Laurie Bird), who jumps from car to car, sets up a western-style showdown between competing forms of masculinity. Our two decidedly nonverbal dudes, committed to something like Zen as the art of forward motion, are pitted against the talkative grifter GTO (Warren Oates), reeking of whisky and desperation. Nobody wins.

Working at cross-purposes with a special youth division set up by Universal Studios to capitalize on the success of Easy Rider, Hellman made a film designed to frustrate. Taylor and Wilson “act” but don’t sing, neither gets the girl, and the big race fizzles out. Though Hellman was trained in Roger Corman’s quick-and-cheap process of movie-making, his films owe an existential debt to European auteurs like Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni. In a wishfully misconceived bit of advance publicity, the studio let Esquire publish the script (by experimental novelist Rudy Wurlitzer) in its entirety, with a cover labeling it “The Movie of the Year.” In retrospect, maybe it was.

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