Don’t Buy The Bullshit

On 8.30 the Venice Film Festival will honor director-screenwriter-producer Michael Cimino with a Persol Award, and then screen a digitally restored edition of Heaven’s Gate (’80). In a statement, festival director Alberto Barbera called the ceremony “a belated but long overdue acknowledgment of the greatness of a visionary filmmaker” who was “gradually reduced to silence after the box-office flop of a masterpiece to which the film producers contributed with senseless cuts.”

Nope, that’s not accurate. Heaven’s Gate has always been and absolutely always will be a stunningly bad film, very handsomely composed, yes, but flaccid and showoffy but absolutely seething with directorial wanking and certainly without any narrative or thematic substance, at least as I define these. And yet Cimino kept his hand in after Heaven’s Gate and made four subsequent films — Year of the Dragon (’85), The Sicilian (’87), The Desperate Hours (’90) and Sunchaser (’96).

For those who haven’t read Steven Bach‘s “Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate” (which was later retitled as “Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate“) or seen Michael Epstein‘s 2004 doc based on the book, please take the time. The entire Epstein documentary, lasting 78 minutes, is on YouTube in eight parts.

I hated Heaven’s Gate when I first saw it nearly 32 years ago, and I couldn’t stay with it when I tried it a second time at home about nine years ago. Should I try it a third time when Criterion puts out their Bluray version?

I attended the second critics screening at the Cinema I on November 17th or 18th of 1980, and stood at the bottom of the down escalator as those who’d seen the afternoon show were leaving. I asked everyone I knew what they thought on a scale of 1 to 10. I’ll never forget the deflated, zombie-like expression on the face of journalist Dan Yakir as he muttered “zero.”

Don’t buy the Criterion Bluray (if and when it appears), and don’t buy the bullshit. This whole “Heaven’s Gate is a misunderstood masterpiece” crap was started by F.X. Feeney way back when. I dearly love Feeney, one of the most impassioned and mountain-hearted film essayists around (and also a first-rate screenwriter) but I respectfully dispute this revisionist drool.

  • Glenn Kenny

    Well, if DAN YAKIR hated it…

    All you’ve done with the above post is nicely illustrate the great Harold Rosenberg phrase “the herd of independent minds.” What happened to the only free man on this train, dude?

  • Ray DeRousse

    Your description of HEAVEN’S GATE perfectly describes THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, but you loved that.

  • GeorgePrager

    Interesting stuff in it. I loved how evil Sam Waterston’s character was in it, but, yeah, it kinda blows. The middle hour with Huppert and Walken’s romance is absolute torture to sit through. And is Cimino a woman now? Or does he just want to look like a peasant version of Robert Evans?

  • Kakihara

    The problem with Heaven’s Gate is Oregon Trail did it first and better.

  • Luke Y. Thompson

    Been a while since I saw it, but isn’t there this one dance scene with Kristofferson on roller skates, that just goes on forever and ever?

    Defenders of the movie complain it’s misunderstood because it’s cynical. The real reason is long-ass scenes like that with no point.

  • Kristopher Tapley

    It’s not misunderstood, but it’s too gorgeous and detailed to disavow.

  • Bob Hightower

    Jeff, you are just wrong. HEAVEN’S GATE is a masterpiece. Robin Wood was another who thought so. He and F. X. Feeney are not exactly chopped liver as film critics. I suspect the raving hatred so excessively directed against the film stemmed from (1) critics and journalists wanting to tear apart auteurist filmmaking now that the ’70s were over and Reaganist corporate filmmaking was taking charge; and (2) the fact that it is a Western, and a very ambitious one, which was shocking enough, but also a Western that is highly critical of American imperialism and capitalism. That was unpardonable, and the film had to be torn to shreds and the ruins pissed on. We owe it to the late lamented Z Channel in LA for having the insight and guts to show the full version eventually.

  • Mr. Gittes

    Devastating ending. I can’t wait to buy the Criterion.

  • Alan Jones

    “Been a while since I saw it, but isn’t there this one dance scene with Kristofferson on roller skates, that just goes on forever and ever?”

    Yes, and it’s AWESOME.

    Anyway, not sure if it’s a “masterpiece,” whatever that means, but I caught it on 35mm at a cinematheque in Brussels (of all places!) and it certainly held my interest, which is pretty good for a 4 hour movie. Beyond the length of the film, I can’t really see why anyone would call it “stunningly bad.”

  • Robert Cashill

    I’ve seen it five times, the last in an actual theater (Film Forum). Looking forward to revisiting it in comprehensive Criterion form. If only all boxoffice failures were as fascinating.

  • GeorgePrager

    Can we hear from someone who has actually had sexual congress with a consenting adult in the past five years?

  • cyanic

    Its not misunderstood, but it’s too gorgeous and detailed to disavow.

    Dune (1984).

  • Jack Razor

    Well Cimino is Italian, right? There you go.

  • JoeTanto


    One of the most brilliant movies ever made, absolutely one of my favorites, Cimino is a GOD not just for this and DEER HUNTER, which are both the cinematic equivalent of watching family funerals for 7 hours while terrible depressing acoustic guitar music plays over STUNNING SHOTS OF GIANT HAZY GRAY-BROWN SKIES– but also YEAR OF THE DRAGON, ARIANE POWER, STAN WHITE POWER, God Rourke all 27 years old with donut powder in his hair inexplicably married to an overweight 74-year-old Italian grandma who may or may not be Sonny’s female wife in DOG DAY AFTERNOON. I guess the Mick is SUPPOSED to be playing like 50 in YOTD, but HOW COULD ANYBODY EVER CARE TOO MUCH?

    Roller skating setpiece AWESOME early Rourke AWESOME ENDLESS OXFORD graduation, Hurt, Huppert feet and nudity, ALL awesome, and that years later epiloge on the big-ass steam ship = genuine, evil, depression masterwork of American bombast, just a TOTAL downer that ends with all the immigrants getting wiped out and the evil shot of the one killing themselves with some GIANT PISTOL while aforementioned MISERABLE music drones on, silenced gunshot = genius.

    Also Cimino has a real Jon Lovitz quality.

  • reverent and free

    I hadn’t seen that documentary before. More entertaining than HG for sure.

  • berg

    I liked it better when it was called The Virginian

  • Tristan Eldritch2

    An understood folly that was eventually misunderstood by some to be a masterpiece.

  • Glenn Kenny

    @ George Prager: Ahem…

  • York “Budd” Durden

    The problem is that it has to be either the ‘greatest failure in history’, or else a masterpiece. There is in fact an in-between, just as there is a cut between the horrid and nonsensical theatrical release, and the far too long original cut (or restored cut or however we are to think of the long version). HG is an epically middling misfire, one of equally epic financial proportions (but somehow spending $250 million on Green Lantern isn’t??), and one for which the long knives were out before a frame was ever screened. Wells’s 2012 attitude is the same one that ossified in his and others’ minds before they’d even screened the damn thing.

    My theory: The power of suggestion clouded everyone’s minds, and nothing has changed. As someone above wrote, the film’s unsympathetic view of capitalist expansionism and imperialism became known among the media elite, who made CERTAIN to lay the groundwork that the the film would be seen as a failure no matter its actual quality. The word got out on the politics of the story, and so a whispering campaign (or shouting, if you will) about how this huge expenditure of capital could not be allowed to have it both ways took hold in the imaginations of the industry, the critics, and the public. Whatever HG’s considerable narrative flaws, Cimino was on the right thematic track, but ego and indulgence got in the way of the art and the message. It’s a worthy and watchable, beautifully crafted, overlong American benchmark of a movie, and more than deserving of restoration, release, and reconsideration. I know what I know.

  • Robert Cashill

    Cimino himself felt it needed work. There is a middle ground, and I’m standing on it. Looking forward to a lot of discussion when the disc is released.

    And, hey, Prager, I fathered two kids between viewings. At least I thnk they’re mine.

  • T. J. Kong

    I’ll second Bob H.’s recommendation of Robin Wood’s essay of Heaven’s Gate (and Deer Hunter), which appears in “Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.” Wood makes a convincing case that critics though Heaven’s Gate was a mess because narrative structure was simply too innovative.

    Personally, I’m kind of in the middle, having only see it once on laserdisc about 15 years ago. But I suspect that if the film had simply appeared out of the blue with no fanfare it certainly wouldn’t have been subjected to the slew of criticism that it received.

  • Joe Leydon

    Does anyone know whether this documentary — which, by the way, is great — will be available on the Criterion disc?

    Oh, and BTW Jeff: Telling folks not to buy a Blu-Ray is probably not a good way to ensure you’ll get a freebie from the distributor.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    I don’t think you guys understand. You might think you’re deeper, smarter, wiser or more perceptive than the New Yorkers who saw the full-length Heaven’s Gate at that disastrous afternoon-and-evening screening at Cinema 1 in November of 1980. But I have to tell you (and maybe you need to sit down first) but you’re not. Or not necesarily, at the very least. By and large you’re roughly on the same level of brain power and sensitivity.

    And I was there, man. I was in that audience, and in all my years of watching films I have never felt such a sucking sensation in a room…a feeling of almost total inertia from the oxygen having been all but vacuumed out by a filmmaker with a ridiculous and over-indulged sense of his own vision and grandeur, and by a resultant approach to filmmaking that felt to me like some kind of pretentious waking nightmare.

    I could feel it in one of the earliest scenes, when John Hurt is addressing his graduating Harvard classmates in a cocky, impudent, self-amused fashion and Joseph Cotton (as a character called “Reverend Doctor”) is shown to be irked and offended by the tone of Hurt’s remarks, and right away I was saying to myself, ‘What is this? I can’t understand half of what Hurt is on about and I don’t give a damn why Cotton is bothered…if this in indicative of what this film is going to be like for the next three hours then Cimino is fucked and so am I because I have to sit here and watch it.’

    What happened? How could Cimino have made such an oppressive and impenetrable film as this? The basis of the “misunderstood masterpiece” revisionism is basically about the fact that (a) it’s very pretty to look at, very pastoral and majesterial, etc., (b) it offers a severely critical view of the vicious tendencies of gangster capitalism (hence the admiration in certain lefty and left-European circles), and (c) it’s very expansive and meditative and serene in a certain 19th Century fashion. I understand how some could glom onto these three talking points and build that into a revisionist mentality.

    But don’t start up with the “oh, what did they know back in 1980?” crap. They knew. I know. I was there.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Didn’t Raging Bull get mixed critical reviews when it was initially released? Fuck a critic in 1980, New York or otherwise.

    For better AND worse, this is exactly the kind of movie you rarely see anymore (the initial cut of GONY one of the few exceptions I can think of offhand). That’s too bad.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Although, I must say, Cloud Atlas (and its inevitable divisive response) could potentially come pretty close.

  • Cadavra

    Why are we wasting cyberspace making something more of this than it deserves? It’s a lousy movie. There are tons of lousy movies. This is just one of them. End of story.

  • GeorgePrager

    “Didn’t Raging Bull get mixed critical reviews when it was initially released? Fuck a critic in 1980, New York or otherwise.”

    Wait, what?
    Raging Bull:

    Heaven’s Gate:

    And Joel Seigel called it (RB) one of the best movies ever made!

  • Raising_Kaned

    I say “mixed critical reviews,” and you link to Academy Award nominations, Prager?

    “Wait, what” yourself….you silly motherfucker.

  • GeorgePrager

    You were comparing the two movies. And Pauline Kael not liking Raging Bull doesn”t equal “mixed critical reviews”.

  • torrren

    You were comparing the two movies. And Pauline Kael not liking Raging Bull doesn”t equal “mixed critical reviews”. prom limousine services

  • geo

    You were comparing the two movies. And Pauline Kael not liking Raging Bull doesn”t equal “mixed critical reviews”. graduation transportation

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