Thursday, May 8, 2008

Remembering (What’s Worth Remembering of) Heaven’s Gate

The catastrophe of unfulfilling excessiveness that is Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate can be felt just by skimming the scene selections on the DVD. “Cock Fight,” “Breaking Up A Fight” and “A Thoughtful Talk” are just three of the chapter titles that inflict pain by so completely encapsulating the sprawling yet inconsequential scenes they represent. Like Waterworld after it, Cimino’s film was sunk before it even reached theaters, but it deserves almost all of its reputation as perhaps the biggest bomb in cinema history, especially when one considers its aftershocks (it ruined both United Artists and Cimino). At 219 minutes – and that’s edited down from Cimino’s initial cut, remember – Heaven’s Gate frequently feels like an attempt to spend as much time as possible doing as little as possible. Watching it is an excruciating test of survival.

But there’s one sequence in Heaven’s Gate when time stops instead of drags – a sequence that when I first saw it made me wish the film would go on forever rather than fearing that it might never end. It’s a sequence of three parts, any one of which I’m sure has been criticized for being too long or too superfluous, for in essence being too much like the rest of the agonizingly bloated film. It’s a sequence that some might think typifies just how out of touch Cimino was with his follow-up to The Deer Hunter, and yet for me it’s the only sequence that hits home. It is the sequence of movement and dance at the town hall of Heaven’s Gate, which acts as the too-small heart for this artery-clogged picture. And my appreciation of the sequence is my submission to the “Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon” going on this week at Ferdy on Films, etc.

To truly appreciate the sequence’s splendor you must consider its context. Preceding it are more than 80 minutes of almost universally lifeless storytelling: The graduation ceremonies of the Harvard class of 1870 are so prolonged that by comparison the wedding sequence at the beginning of The Deer Hunter feels like a Las Vegas quickie. The crux of the plot’s conflict – the immigrants of Jackson County, Wyoming are going to be hunted down on the order of the wealthy Stock Growers’ Association – is needlessly repeated to about everyone except those who need to hear it (the immigrants don’t get find out there’s a bounty on their heads until after the intermission). And immediately preceding our entrance into Heaven’s Gate we suffer through the aforementioned cock fight, the spit-filled quarrel among immigrants and the not-as-urgent-as-it-aims-to-be conversation between Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill and Isabella Huppert’s Ella Watson.

And then it happens.

We cut, without any explanation whatsoever, to the interior of the town hall, warm with a sepia-toned radiance. All those immigrants, those poor peasants from the fields who have no clue they’re about to be hunted, line the walls. They are clapping and cheering. A bushy-browed fiddler we recognize from the brothel tunes his instrument on a small stage. The clapping and cheering continue. The fiddler nods to his bandmates and then steps off the stage, toward the empty floor of the hall. Only he’s not walking. He’s gliding. He’s…wait a minute, he’s on roller skates! And only then do we notice: Holy fuck, they’re all on roller skates!

But the floor belongs to the fiddler. He plays and skates, making loops around the floor, delighting the mob, the room throbbing with exuberance. Then they join in, the band kicks into gear and it’s nothing if not dancing. Remarkably organized at first, this second act morphs into a freestyle session of controlled chaos that’s graceful even when it isn’t. When the tune ends, the crowd cheers, and Averill wrestles a drunk bartender (Jeff Bridges) into a wagon just outside the door. Ella surveys the vast room, already emptying, and when Averill returns the floor has cleared and Ella has gathered their coats to leave. But the fiddler plays again. Averill takes Ella into his arms and a playful swing becomes a third-act waltz.

Save some unintelligible mumbling from Bridges’ drunkard, this eight-minute sequence is entirely without dialogue, yet Heaven’s Gate is never more plainspoken. In this three-act dance we glimpse the community at their most vibrant and see the love between Averill and Ella at its most affectionate. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera moves as elegantly as his dancers, capturing the rustic lavishness of the town hall (the nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Direction must have come with this sequence in mind). Inside a film that would be better off forgotten, this is a dance that must be remembered. I cherish it, and all its odd dignity.


Richard Bellamy said...

Heaven’s Gate is flawed, frustrating, and it takes patience, but I love its dazzling visual sprawl – and amidst the awkward sequences in dire need of cutting, there are many gems. Yes, one of my favorites is the roller-skating/dance sequence. Cut and slash the Harvard graduation sequences but don’t cut a frame from this one.

Despite its negative reputation (it was one of the coffin nails of excess that put an end to the Director’s Revolution of the 1970s) Heaven’s Gate has its fans. Alas, I don’t have the book, but I found Heaven’s Gate in a listing of the Best 100 Films Ever Made. Granted, it was number 100, but it was on the list! The film was hugely successful in France – Huppert, the cinematography, the stamp of the auteur, the American West – also, they liked the socialist commentary – a critic called it the first socialist Western. I liked its examination of the class struggle and the injustices of that time period.

For the most part, the film’s gems are visual – though they also include Christopher Walken’s performance – and here are some of the images that are worth the patience it takes to return to this film (I watch it about once a year):

-Averill gets out of the train and the camera pulls back to reveal the smoky, dusty, congested sprawl of a street in Helena, Montana (sure – Helena was probably not that crowded back then – but you get the Industrial Era commentary).

-Driven by Averill, the buggy glides along a glistening river, mountains like paintings in the distance – and you move along with the buggy in a memorable tracking shot to a very Russian-sounding musical score that turns this movie into a Western Doctor Zhivago. Cut to: Ella bathing in the nude in the sun-reflecting water.

-Nate (Walken) emerges from the blazing cabin into a storm of bullets – one of the great riddled-by-bullets sequences in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather.

-The battle between the cattlemen’s gunmen and the immigrants, who hide behind rolling breastworks made of logs and wagon wheels (“Damn Romans”), takes place in a green meadow amidst the snow-covered Grand Tetons.

I admire Cimino’s passion for the epic. To coin a phrase from Anthony Lane’s recent New Yorker article about David Lean, Cimino had the “imaginative generosity to build an epic” around a story set in the Old West. Also, like Lean, Cimino took the risk to present a grand vision. With the scarcity of originality today – all the sequels – all the superhero movies – we need more of that passion for the epic today.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this, Cooler and for your comment, Hokahey. I never would have seen these beautifully entertaining scene(s).

What a lovely dance scene: My nomination would have been the very poinent, slow dance scene from created by Gabriel Yareds sequence with Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas in the "English Patient."

As a Fred Astaire fan, choosing a hoofer film seems like a cop out for this topic. Choosing a completely unconventional film makes you a great blogger.

I really enjoyed this and your thoughts on it.


Fox said...

I second Ghibli's sentiment about your choosing an unconventional film for the blog-a-thon.

You've dug deep again! Excellent post.

p.s. Also, I love the screen caps. These along with the No Country screen caps are great codas to your entries.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, all. Great rant, Hokahey! You certainly pick all the right things to praise (though the horse-and-buggy sequence is a bit tedious for me). That said, we would have had to throw-down if you'd celebrated anything from the final battle other than the scenary. Can anyone think of a more boring gunfight? It certainly doesn't reflect well that when watching "Heaven's Gate" I consider the film over once the battle begins. Terrible. Just terrible.

But back to the skate-dance sequene: "Cut and slash the Harvard graduation sequences but don’t cut a frame from this one." Amen!

Anonymous said...

Your job as a future mother is to learn the god's ways and to help your child understand despite the negative reinforcement and conditioning of today's society. Without consciousous parents the child will have no hope, and may even exaserbate their disfavor by becoming corrupted in today's environment.
Your ultimate goal is to fix your relationship wiith the gods and move on. You don't want to be comfortable here, and the changes in Western society in the last 100 years has achieved just that.
1000 years with Jesus is the consolation prize. Don't be deceived into thinking that is the goal.

The gods tempt people for which they are most weak. Artificial Intelligence will create desire in people's minds for the following sins:::
1. Alcohol
2. Drugs
3. Preditory "earning"
4. Homosexuality
5. Gambling
6. Something for nothing/irresponsibility (xtianity)
7. Polygamy/superiority over women/misogyny (Islam)
Much like the other prophets Mohhamed (polygamy/superiority over women/misogyny) and Jesus (forgiveness/savior), the gods use me for temptation as well. In today's modern society they feel people are most weak for popular culture/sensationalism, and the clues date back to WorldWarII and Unit731:TSUSHOGO, the Chinese Holocaust.
It has been discussed that, similar to the Matrix concept, the gods will offer a REAL "Second Coming of Christ", while the "fake" Second Coming will come at the end and follow New Testiment scripture and their xtian positioning. I may be that real Second Coming.
What I teach is the god's true way. It is what is expected of people, and only those who follow this truth will be eligible to ascend into heaven as children in a future life. They offered this event because the masses have just enough time to work on and fix their relationship with the gods and ascend, to move and grow past Planet Earth, before the obligatory xtian "consolation prize" of "1000 years with Jesus on Earth" begins.

The Prince of Darkness, battling the gods over the souls of the Damned.
It is the gods who have created this environment and led people into Damnation with temptation. The god's positioning proves they work to prevent people's understanding.
How often is xtian dogma wrong? Expect it is about the Lucifer issue as well.
The fallen god, fighting for justice for the disfavored, banished to Earth as the fallen angel?
I believe much as the Noah's Flood event, the end of the world will be initiated by revelry among the people. Revelry will be positioned to be sanctioned by the gods and led for "1000 years with Jesus on Earth".
In light of modern developments this can entail many pleasures:::Medicine "cures" aging, the "manufacture" of incredible beauty via cloning as sex slaves, free (synthetic) cocaine, etc.
Somewhere during the 1000 years the party will start to "die off", literally. Only those who maintain chaste, pure lifestyles will survive the 1000 years. They will be the candidates used to (re)colonize (the next) Planet Earth, condemned to relive the misery experienced by the peasantry during Planet Earth's history.
If this concept of Lucifer is true another role of this individual may be to initiate disfavor and temptation among this new population, the proverbial "apple" of this Garden of Eden. A crucial element in the history of any planet, he begins the process of deterioration and decay that leads civilizations to where Planet Earth remains today.

Only children go to heaven. By the time you hit puberty it is too late. This is charecteristic of the gods:::Once you realize what you have lost it is too late.
Now you are faced with a lifetime to work to prepare for your next chance. Too many will waste this time, getting stoned, "Hiking!", working, etc.