The seasoned, storied and widely respected film maven and essayist F.X. Feeney tried and failed to post a response to two recent Heaven’s Gate pieces — last Sunday’s “Don’t Buy The Bullshit” and Monday’s “To All Heaven’s Gate Revisionists.” So he asked for help. Feeney is pretty much the founding father of the campaign to upgrade the reputation of Michael Cimino‘s calamitous 1980 film, and so I’m honored to hear from him and to provide him this forum.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘neglected’ masterpiece,” Feeney begins. “The firebombing Heaven’s Gate suffered at the hands of its first critics is evidence that it played on the deepest nerves in a viewer from the get-go. People wanted a masterpiece, didn’t feel they got one, and reacted with venom and scorn. Fair enough. There’s nothing a filmmaker, or admiring critic, can do or say. A film has to speak for itself.
“This was essentially the argument Jerry Harvey mounted by screening Heaven’s Gate in its entirety on Z Channel, 30 years ago this coming Christmas. The ‘director’s cut’ was thought destroyed. No copies existed in the United States. David Chasman, a studio exec and friend of Harvey, alerted him to the existence of an intact print in a British warehouse. That was what eventually aired at Z, and it was this rather fragile fading copy with its accidental sepia sequences which became the basis of every VHS, laser and DVD copy that has screened ever since.
“No negative of Cimino’s original version exists, and all the surviving elements have long been in decay. This is why he has undertaken a restored version at the invitation of the Criterion Collection, for premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September.
“I haven’t seen it yet, but Cimino’s excitement was palpable when I spoke with him, a few months ago. He has made global adjustments in color and sharpness. The visuals in this next iteration should be newly rich. He has also deleted the problematic intermission. His task ahead was to remix the audio.
“I haven’t spoken with him since he took this on, so don’t know how well it’s been resolved, but one acute technical problem that has afflicted Heaven’s Gate from its beginning, even onto DVD, is that you can’t hear the dialogue. The picture was originally mixed and its sound tested in what is now the Cary Grant theater, on the MGM (now Sony) lot. This optimal setting was deceptive. When Jerry Harvey and I screened the film in that setting, twice, late in 1982, we could hear every pin-drop. Nobody else anywhere has ever experienced the film under such perfect conditions.
“Here’s hoping others now may. This restoration should be a great event for anyone who already loves the picture, and an excellent opportunity for dissenters like my dear Jeff — my favorite sparring partner on this topic — to give this work of epic, unrestrained ambition a fresh chance to disgust them all over again. Or…? Is it possible even you may see it with fresh eyes, my friend?”