So much has already been said and written about the Heaven’s Gate saga – countless articles, a book, a documentary, and much more – but apparently, it ain’t over yet. Michael Cimino’s 1980 “flawed masterpiece” – ask any French critic – or “unqualified disaster” (Vincent Canby, New York Times) has just received the Criterion treatment over in the States, and is ready to march again to your nearest cinema/Blu-ray player after an extensive festival tour which unspooled in Venice, the director at hand to receive one of the many sponsored collateral lifetime achievement awards that the Vienalle has to offer.
If nothing else, a digital rerelease of Heaven’s Gate will finally allow anyone intrigued by its legend to watch it in its original length (approx. 3 hours and 20 minutes) which was previously available on DVD and on by-now worn-out 35mm and 70mm prints that made the rounds in the world’s cinematheques. Contemporary audiences might be more keen to embrace the film’s lack of a straightforward narrative, its sketchy, episodic form, and will marvel at the majesty of its scope (sets, extras, landscapes), given its pre-CGI origin. Alas, these elements don’t make it an Apocalypse Now (1979) of the Wild West.
Ironically, marquee value on Heaven’s Gate actually increased with time – any film now starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterson and Mickey Rourke would be on top of anyone’s to-watch list. Cimino definitely had an eye for casting actors, but was he good at directing them? Dialogue scenes are too often over-long, under-written and under-acted. No editor could fix such material (several tried), which is why leaving one hour of it on the editing room’s floor for its 1981 European Premiere in Cannes didn’t really help.
The director is at his best with music and choreography – maybe for his background in sixties advertising. An opening sequence at Harvard, the roller skating dance – that’s where Heaven’s Gate shines, a mix of Minnelli and Visconti stomping to David Mansfield’s marvellous musical score – still the best element of the film, along with Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography. But the tale of James Averill (Kristofferson), son of aristocracy turned idealistic Marshall, trying to defend the poor and oppressed immigrants from cattle barons in 1890s Wyoming will always go hand-in-hand with the one of Cimino, son of Hollywood’s ego-boosting.
Will it ever be possible to watch Heaven’s Gate for what it is? “You know, being infamous is not fun” Cimino said in Venice, regretfully, as if looking back at the missed opportunities in his career. “It becomes a weird kind of occupation in and of itself.” He probably wished he had spent his time honing his craft as a filmmaker instead.
The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.