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.