Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nothing Quite Like Watching an Artist Take a Baseball bat to His Career's Kneecaps.

"Never give an epic saga an even break."
--Mel Brooks (tagline for Blazing Saddles)

Well, as people may have noticed, things got a bit quite here for a few weeks there.  This has been due to a couple of larger scale projects in the works for the future that will be turning up in due time in the future.

In the meantime, what better way to show that there's still life here than to salute it with exploring one of the all-time great 'career killers' of film.

That said, this is a movie I'd always heard about in passing prior to finally deciding to watch it.  One of those films where you hear almost nothing about the movie itself, and everything about its reputation.  In fact, I had no real idea what it was even about until reading the review from The Onion's 'My Year In Flops.'  I filed it away to look into later, but hadn't acted on it at the time.  Then this year, to the surprise of many on the web, this film, infamous for its borderline legendary history of production problems, and its renowned failure at the box office that the director still never quite bounced back from, was tagged for a release by the esteemed Criterion Collection.  This latter moment is what bumped it back to the forefront of consciousness that leads us to where we are now.

Have you guessed it yet with this clues?  For those playing at home who haven't guessed it yet, we're talking about Michael Cimino's infamous career-killing epic 'Heaven's Gate.'

That's right.  I blame you guys for this.

The weirdest thing about this movie is, taken just on paper it sounds good.  I mean REALLY good.  At the time this was made, Cimino was fresh off the success of making The Deer Hunter, netting wins for Best Picture and Director, and was effectively given the keys to the kingdom by United Artists.  Thanks to 007 movies keeping them pretty consistently in the black, they were a bit more free-flowing with the money for ambitious directors.  Much to their surprise, this would come back to haunt them later, but that's getting ahead of things.  Alongside the director, the cast is a veritable who's who that actually sounds even better nowadays thanks to several of the actors being established further since (to list off just a laundry list of players: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Joseph Cotten, and in smaller side roles Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke, Tom Noonan and the uncredited debut of Willem Dafoe.)
...suffice it to say, this was a loaded cast, with an epic storyline to go with it, setting a love triangle against the larger scope of the Johnson County War of the late 19th century.

Taking this into account, one could see how this seemed like a good idea.  I mean, even on looking at the initial pitch, I was stunned to hear the absolute failure it turned into.  So going into this, I was expecting a crash the likes of which would make the Hindenburg look like a mild slip-up.

However, it's worth noting in advance half of this film's grave was dug before it was even released.  Cimino's production history has been fairly well known and documented, especially in the book "Final Cut" by former UA executive Steven Bach.  Nowadays, it's known alongside Apocalypse Now as a spectacle of production mishaps, budgetary problems, and one director who seemed to be dancing on the line to madness.  Several stories have circulated of Cimino's rampant perfectionism and the copious amounts of money it bled from the film, including as many as 50 takes for shots as a baseline.  In fact, the idea that there isn't a documentary about the movie's production (that I'm aware of) floors me.

Looking at him back in the day, it's a little like seeing Stanley Kubrick clean-shaven.  Sadly, this also suggests a Samson effect - remove his beard and he keeps the perfectionist from Hell at the cost of the successful results.

Why am I going on so much about the production history?  For two reasons.  One, because it puts the film's subsequent failure into a much better sense of context.  Two, to be honest, it's actually the more interesting story to tell.

This isn't to say Heaven's Gate is a bad film per se.  The story is one that has potential to be good, and at times even touches on said goodness.  The problem is, like the production of the movie itself, the movie's story tends to go overboard on moments that, while sometimes very well filmed, don't add that much to the overall film.  Cimino definitely has an eye for arranging some of these sequences, and makes for some great individual shots: Walken's first scene on-screen, for example, is a well-arranged little piece of suspense to his reveal as a cold-blooded killer.  Other sequences, however, including two full dance sequences and a cockfight scene add little to the overarcing proceedings beyond padding the movie's run time.  It's even hard to argue that they can be seen as development moments, as many of them focus on characters that don't really come back later on, or their roles for the main cast are then reaffirmed in other scenes anyway.
A sample of one of the dances for those who didn't believe me
Because it was the 70s and roller dancing was still big!

It feels like part of the problem lies in Cimino on this one.  Again, this isn't to say the man has a lack of talent, because he certainly proves he's got some skills in shots such as the above mentioned Walken arrival.  At the same time, his desire to make this film truly epic is as problematic on screen as it was off.  Extra sequences like the above mentioned dances could have been done in less time, and often don't really seem to do much for the greater scope beyond simply padding for time and distracting from the core narration.  Saying this really creates a conflict for me since, while I usually will side with a director and argue it's important to maintain their vision, in this case it feels like Cimino's ambition is his own worst enemy.

Which is probably the saddest part about this movie.  It's a film that feels like there's a very good movie buried within it.  Somewhere, under the close to 4-hour running time of the Director's Cut (3 hours, 40 minutes to be exact), there's a fairly well acted tale of the darker side of American history, as Kristoffterson's somewhat idealistic James Averille travels out west and has his view of the country run through a wringer when the local immigrants in the county he's sworn to protect are targeted for elimination by cattle barons.  Even the love triangle between Averille, brothel owner Ella Watson (Huppert) and friend turned rival Nate Champion (Walken) has some interesting moments and a nice dynamic at times, but unfortunately falls apart as the movie speeds into its violent second half.  With more attention paid and a bit more guidance, these ideas could each have made great stories, and even potentially been run together in a film that could have played like David Lean takes on Americana.  Unfortunately, the overall effect feels like, as stories gain new focus, the older stories are neglected until it's convenient to prioritize them again.  With the stakes in play here, it's a hard balancing act even for a director at the top of their game to do right, and sadly Cimino just feels like he keeps trying to throw more things on to make the balance even more impressive, only to throw it off by mistake instead.

Further adding to these strands of good movie buried within, the cast are largely in good form on this one.  Despite his Razzy nomination for this, Kristofferson makes for a fairly good lead, or at least as good as the script allows for, and Waterston as the head of the cattle barons plays a suitably despicable, but plausible villainous bastard, ordering the deaths of over a hundred people without so much as batting an eye.  Further, in a sort of sad 'then and now' moment, Walken and Dourif both remind us that, for a while there, they were both known as respected actors who would get some great work sent their way; a reminder made even sadder by realizing they still have this talent nowadays, though they sadly don't get as many opportunities to show it anymore.  As the female lead, Huppert carries her role well, though admittedly there are a few scenes where she comes across as flatter than she was likely meant to.  Especially strange, given many consider her to be one of the greatest living actresses even now.  Still, when the emotions run high, she proves she can deliver as needed after all.  Of the other main performances, the two others worth mentioning are Jeff Bridges who, despite being only a supporting role, makes for a pretty show-stealing role as a local businessman with a charismatic way with the locals, and John Hurt as one of Averille's old college buddies who has long since turned to drink out of his own disillusionment with the west.  The latter is another case where this movie leaves me conflicted.  Hurt plays the character well, and he's an interesting character at first, in particular thanks to the dynamic the movie's (rather long) prologue builds for him alongside Kristofferson.  We start the film off with the impression that his friendship with Averille will be a larger element of the film than it turns into.  Instead, when we meet him during the movie proper, his appearance in the beginning never really winds up adding much to the movie beyond a fairly impotent voice of protest among the cattle barons.  About his only real purpose in the film seems to be to tell Averille what they have in mind.  After this, he simply floats around in the background of scenes, quite drunk and wryly commenting on the situation.  By the time the movie's bloody climax is unfolding, his stay in the film sadly feels so overextended that his final scene feels less tragic and more a sort of 'waiting out the clock' to the fate we all can see barreling down on him.

To bring the history back around one last time, as stated above, the movie itself landed with a resounding thud.  While the film itself was panned critically, the brunt of the damage, it's important to remember, was done by Cimino himself during production.  Even before the film came out, the numbers it cranked up meant it would have to perform with a vengeance in order to even come close to making back what it cost to produce.  It was half-way to a dead man walking by the time it came out.  The fact that the movie then underperformed from there just ensured the film would take UA and a good chunk of Cimino's career standing down with it.  People have since speculated its production history may have had a hand in why people came down so harshly on it when it first came out.  Given people still speak of it in somewhat mixed tones, I would say there's something to that.

At the same time though, watching it for myself all these years after, doing my best to keep the shadow of its reputation from swallowing it up, I would be lying if I said I didn't agree with the critics of yesteryear on this one.  Not entirely, anyway.  I certainly wouldn't call this movie the worst I've ever seen by any stretch.  At the same time, however, I can't say I'd call it a diamond in the rough or a lost treasure of a film.  More than anything, it stands out to me as a curious piece of film history - a would-be epic, both on and off screen that collapsed under the sheer weight of its own ambition more than anything else.  That said, I will admit, the more I read on the history of it, the more I would be legitimately interested in seeing a film based on the movie's production itself.  It could actually make an interesting companion piece to the movie itself, in a way - two tales of a man's journey into a bold new frontier and the mishaps and tragedy that ensued.

Overall, I will admit to a certain fascination with this movie.  Just strong enough to not be bad, but flawed enough to keep me from really calling it good, I actually feel kind of glad I finally got around to watching this.  I just wish it could have had a stronger sense of itself than what we got.

There's reports that the Criterion release may be a restoration, with some talk that it may come closer to the movie's talked about, and somewhat infamous, 5 hour cut.  I'm not sure how true these stories are, but if they turn out to be legitimate, I may just feel inclined to check it out when the time comes.  It may risk adding the already problematic bloat that has hampered the film as it is now, but at least it will be impressive looking bloat.

Well, this was a rather curious one.  I mean, after the last 'you were warned' entry here, this one went pretty well...albeit long...very long.
Still, I feel like it was worth the experience.

Till next time!
I tried to promise myself I wouldn't make some sort of Walken-based caption.
...then I saw him sporting a Ron Swanson mustache and that went out the window.

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