Mr. Feeney Responds

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?”

  • Robert Cashill

    Coming in November from Criterion.

  • Mr. F.

    “Coming in November from Criterion.”

    Sure, but in a 1.85 aspect ratio.

    At least it will fill up my HDTV screen.

  • JoeTanto

    For the exactly zero people who probably care, the so-so looking MGM standard DVD of HG I bought about 8-10 years ago is completely missing all the subtitles for the immigrants’ Serbo-Croatian dialogue. Kind of a pain in the ass to try watching it, since whole long scenes go on with the characters talking and no subs for it.

    Then again, not like anyone’s gonna ever bust out their HEAVEN’S GATE DVD on any semi-regular basis. Great movie but ain’t exactly a Bourne movie on the USA Network-rewatch scale. Which makes me wonder why ANY OF US ever bought DVDs or buy BluRays.

    There’s only like 11 or 12 movies anybody ever “needs” to own, the term being relative and with the understanding that some kid in a soccer jersey in a Brazilian favela doesn’t “need” to own TOP GUN.

    Interesting words there from FX… though I never get when people moon over this Z CHANNEL, who the fuck lived in LA before 1994? That’s like SUPERNATURAL, I grew up in New England and we had DANA HERSCHEY WITH THE MOVIE LOFT, and they damn sure didn’t have TWO YEAR OLD big studio movies on LOCAL TV…. Did Heaven’s Gate ever air on HBO? I don’t remember ever seeing it and I studied that goddamn HBO Guide every day of my life from 1979 through 1984. How did it bypass HBO entirely?

  • suburbanvoodoo

    A nice read.

    Not only does Mr. Feeney (the heart, in my opinion, of the excellent Z Channel doc from a few years back) make simple and articulate points for revisiting this admittedly flawed film, but the technical asides also are interesting.

    It seems as if I remember Siskel & Ebert’s pan on Sneak Previews, and they pointed out the film’s shoddy mix as just one of the many problems they had with Gate, but I may be dreaming that particular event.

    I’ve always been in the pro-camp on this film, with the positives dominating the negatives. And I will admit, the opening John Hurt and Joseph Cotten back and forth gets old and pretentious, but when that waltz unfolds outside on the beautiful courtyard, I’m hooked.

  • MilkMan

    Lex, I lived in Los Angeles before 1994. I was born and raised here and watched the Z Channel every night, twiddling the little clickers on my parents enormous cable remote box whatzit. Contrary to what most of you permanent tourists think, there are Los Angeles natives. And we’d appreciate it if you would leave.

  • JoeTanto

    Dude, living in the same town as your parents your whole life ain’t nothing to brag about, whether it’s Parma, Ohio, or Los Angeles. Mad props on having the same life experience as DeeZee.

  • Thom Phoolery

    Loved F.X. Feeney’s book of short stories. One of them became the basis for Million Dollar Baby. That movie was as overrated as Heaven’s Gate is underrrated.

  • cyanic
  • Fxfeeney

    Joe Tanto, I don’t know if HBO ever ran the film, but I’m pretty sure Showtime & The Movie Channel eventually did. Curiosity got the better of everybody when they heard a full length version was out there — and shortly (1982 being, so to speak, early morning in terms of home-video), the director’s cut became the only version available.

    Tom Phoolery, it is an honor to be mistaken for F.X. Toole — author of “Million Dollar Baby” — but my book of fiction has yet to appear. Perhaps one of these days!

  • TimDG

    “For the exactly zero people who probably care, the so-so looking MGM standard DVD of HG I bought about 8-10 years ago is completely missing all the subtitles for the immigrants’ Serbo-Croatian dialogue. Kind of a pain in the ass to try watching it, since whole long scenes go on with the characters talking and no subs for it.”
    Did you try the subtitle key on your remote? MGM’s Mystery Train DVD plays without subtitles unless you turn them on via the remote.

  • MarkJ

    Hi F.X., nice to see you here. Off-topic but are there ANY plans at all to release ‘The Keep’ on Blu/DVD? Thought you might have some insight as the author of the masterful Michael Mann book from Taschen a few years back.

  • lazarus

    See what happens when Thom Phoolery actually thinks he knows who the fuck someone is?

  • Fxfeeney

    Mark J,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the Mann book — and I don’t know what to tell you about “The Keep.” There had been talk of a special DVD back in 2004 when I was first working on the book, but –? Nothing came of it. It would be a pleasure to own one…

  • Mr. Peel

    Hey F.X. —

    I was reminded of the shorter version earlier which I remember hearing was shown at UCLA in the late 90s at a screening advertised as the full cut. Isn’t there a certain amount of footage that only appears in that cut? Does it still exist? Should it still exist?

  • Fuzzy Dunlop

    Lex, why you lock yr tweets?

  • Terry McCarty

    Re Mr. Peel’s comment:
    Would like to see the short version preserved for posterity. Also would be interesting for those with stamina to have the reputed (from the book FINAL CUT) approximately 5 1/2 hour version (with allegedly 90-minute battle sequence) made available.

  • algarcia’shead

    I was just wondering why the shorter version never comes up. Isn’t that the version that actually was completed by Cimino and released to the public, however briefly. And what Kevin Thomas saw and went against the grain to praise (that was sort of his thing I think). (p.s., Lex you didn’t have ON or SelecTV where you lived? I also miss your tweets)

  • Rashad

    Yeah, Lex unlock that shit.

  • Fxfeeney

    Regarding Mr. Peel & Terry McCarty’s comments.

    I don’t know about any longer cut — it would be great to see such a version — but completely agree that the theatrical edit released in April of 1981 should be preserved. Cimino oversaw that version, and it isn’t bad.

    The main deficit is that the Harvard opening is too harshly cut into and that later Christopher Walken’s character loses some dimension. (That wonderful bit where he clangs his spurs while walking through a bunk-house at night, filled with fellow immigrants, lording his position as a self-made “American,” was taken out.)

    The benefit is that there are also one or two funny bits that the long version could have used. During the battle scene, one of the heads of the cattlemen association angrily flashes his bare-ass at the peasants in their rebellion. The Kristopherson hero turns to Huppert and says: “That man is a close personal friend of the President of the United States.”

  • Robert Cashill

    “It seems as if I remember Siskel & Ebert’s pan on Sneak Previews, and they pointed out the film’s shoddy mix as just one of the many problems they had with Gate, but I may be dreaming that particular event.”

    Nope, you’re correct. And I think it was Ebert who got a chuckle out of subtitles like “Help!” during the battle sequence.

  • Fuzzy Dunlop

    Just want to say it is really cool to see Mr. Feeney posting here. thanks!

  • patches23

    Mr. Feeney, I enjoyed your piece on Gore Vidal in the LA Review of Books very much. Thank you.

    I lived in LA in the ’80’s and I miss the Z Channel something fierce.

    It just occurred to me, I’ve been reading Mr.Feeney for close to 30 years. Lord.

  • Pete Apruzzese

    The original release that I saw in 70mm had no subtitles anywhere. They’re not needed, the dialogue in those scenes is very easy to figure out in context.

  • Glenn Kenny

    Mr. Feeney’s quite the gentleman. I am glad that he regrets the loss of that line about the “close personal friend of the President of the United States” in the long version as much as I do.

  • Jack Razor

    When they say the Director’s Cut, is that whole 5 hours film?

  • EdHavens

    The Z Channel was the single, greatest movie channel in the history of movie channels, bar none. We had Z in our home from 1977 until 1982, when we moved up to NoCal, but those four years were amongst the greatest years a young cinephile could ever have. (Anyone with Z at the time can tell you Annie Hall won the Oscar for Best Picture in part because it played in Z almost every three nights in the winter of 1978 leading up to the ceremony.) I missed the director’s cut of HG playing on Z by a month or two, but by the time I hit 18, I had decided any “great” movie I hadn’t already seen I wouldn’t see until I saw it in a movie theatre and it wouldn’t be until 2004 the opportunity to see HG’s DC presented itself.

    I just about shat a brick when I got a screener copy of Xan Cassavetes’ documentary, and I still watch it at least once a year. If only some channel today would take Jerry Harvey’s lead…

  • RoyBatty Returns

    Ironically, I think it was folks like FX Fenney that had me dislike the film once I finally saw it years after the initial release. In their zeal to make this a “artist vs corporate suits” story, they oversold the merits of the film. It’s not terrible by any stretch, but it’s also completely forgettable. And this is coming from someone who loves realistic, revisionist Westerns.

    But I can tell you that in the 15 years since I saw this thing on laserdisc I have not remembered a single scene other than the roller skating one – and that’s probably because it’s mentioned in “Final Cut.”

  • berg

    I dig Heaven’s Gate … “Nate I’m gonna kick your ass” …. and I also dig John Carter

  • berg

    from a guild point of view …. consider how much employment HG provided for the camera guild … there were multiple cameras on many set-ups …. the small town where the crew was housed experienced a raise in consumption prices of 35% during the duration of the shoot … in the first week you could purchase boots in the local boot store for twenty-five bucks, after six weeks the same boots where going for $125

  • Pete Apruzzese

    Regarding my comment on subtitles in post #23, subsequent info given to me and research leads me to believe that there were, in fact, subtitles on the 70mm print I saw in 1980.

  • Fxfeeney

    Xan Cassavetes did the world (and me) a huge favor with her Z Channel documentary, because she managed to dramatize the impossible — how deeply the public’s love of movies, a kind of erotic madness about movies, drives the history of film as much if not more than any individual filmmakers do.

    Roy Batty makes an important point — and how good of you to return from the shoulders of Orion, Mr. B! — that my ardor and that of other partisans of “Heaven’s Gate” has created an unjust expectation which hurts the film with newcomers. You’re right. This is a grim fact. This doesn’t in any way diminish my passionate defiance of the huge jeering section that spontaneously assembled in 1980 and still plagues the picture — but it challenges me to argue for the film in fresh terms.

    So much of the back and forth about “Heaven’s Gate” becomes a war of opinion. “I hated it!” “I loved it!” I’d like to point out that the movie has several distinct virtues and strengths that outlive everybody’s reactions, however you might react.

    First, this is not a movie based on other movies. Its maker refuses to imitate any predecessor. The rhythms and atmospheres of “Heaven’s Gate” are so unique to it that any of us making films in its wake would be unwise to emulate it, even if the result had been universally celebrated. The same is true of “The Deer Hunter.” There too we have a film whose most excellent footsteps (the wildly risky bravura of that long wedding; the seamless transition to the hunt at daybreak that follows; the bold jump to Vietnam) no other filmmaker has ever tried to follow, not even Cimino. In “Heaven’s Gate, he was uniquely determined not to repeat success but make something altogether new.

    Second, “Heaven’s Gate” is preoccupied by questions of class in American life with an intensity few films have ever shown, and the statement is as bleak as anything out of Karl Marx. The poor are devoured by the wealthy. The poor strike back in self-defense, but their efforts are doomed — the cavalry literally rides to the rescue of the bad guys in the final reel. Okay, it’s long; okay, with few exceptions (Isabelle Huppert) the characters aren’t warmly lit from within the way Hollywood tradition has massaged us to expect. The effort is to create a mural of American life. The “alienation” effect is entirely deliberate, by way of immersing us in a long-ago time, in the terms of that time. Our sympathies are invited in any number of directions, but we’re not being told how to feel. We’re being trusted to meet what’s onscreen halfway, and seek our own interests.

    [I have two more points to make, and will do so on my next post, below. Stay tuned!]

  • Fxfeeney

    [My argument for "Heaven's Gate," Part II:]

    Third, the settling of the American west had never up to that point been so thoroughly dramatized as a European migration. Twelve years later, Michael Mann would reiterate this beautifully in “Last of the Mohicans,” and earlier John Ford’s films had always reflect this idea with a suave off-the-cuff air, but prior to the directness of the presentation in “Heaven’s Gate,” movies about the west offer it for granted that the cowboys on view are all-Americans, acting out their stuff for matinee audiences of fellow Americans, or those foreigners out there who want to be like us.

    This is why Isabelle Huppert is so perfectly cast as the brothel-owner. She is the warmest, most empathetic of the characters. (This suits her social role: she has to welcome strangers in for a living.) One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Nate, Christopher Walken’s character, a hard-nosed brute till now, becomes honestly tender as he shows Huppert’s Ella his newly decorated cabin — wallpapered with old newspaper. The awkwardness is heart-breaking, as is the kindness she projects by way of protecting his feelings.

    Such moments are indelible. They’re what great movies are made of. If “Heaven’s Gate” fails to be a great movie, it sure ain’t for lack of trying — indeed, from where I sit it succeeds far more than it fails. To steal a lovely line of David Thomson’s from another context, “It’s a big enough film to carry its flaws.” And that’s why I’ve never been at peace with the schoolyard ridicule heaped upon it. Cimino’s in the arena, risking his neck. Hats off to him.

  • Fxfeeney

    A brief post-script, as I was racing the clock in my earlier post and accidentally omitted a key point:

    It is essential to the film’s vision that the brothel-keeper be played by a European. This is why Cimino fought so hard to cast Huppert. The reason he fought so hard for this particular actress is because she could bring a warmth to the role as well as an authority. Huppert always projects a tough pragmatism — this is why she is so good at playing sly criminals in her French films — yet there is a dreamy “listening” quality to her work, and that is essential to opening up the other characters in “Heaven’s Gate.”

    Chris Walken’s Nate becomes more human around her, and so does Kristofferson’s Jim Averill. So indeed does the carbon-coated Mountain Main played by Jeffrey Lewis, in comic relief after the sad wallpaper scene in the cabin. (The other warm listener in that moment in the young Mickey Rourke, and he has been cast for this specific quality, to underline what is true about Huppert’s Ella.) People drop their masks around her. It takes a rare actress to communicate such magnetism without words. The producers were wrong to press for Jane Fonda or Diane Keaton in Huppert’s place, and Cimino was right to fight for her.

    A great deal of the tension in “Heaven’s Gate” aims at the internal life of the characters. Who they think they are, who they are pretending to be, who they really are. The whole movie orbits around this question — in the concluding scenes, the Kristofferson hero must look back at his life and wonder who he really was as if trying to understand a bewildering dream.

    This is an awfully complicated thing to make a movie about — perhaps impossible — but one must try.

  • JD

    So nice to see FX posting here. For reasons outlined above — having to do with “erotic madness” driving the history of film — Mr. Feeney needs to get a blog going as soon as possible. Or if one already exists, please point me in its direction.

  • Mr Bohemian

    where does the que form for Once upon a time in America

  • MilkMan

    Hey, Lex, you know what else is something you shouldn’t brag about? Having a micropenis that can’t achieve erection, masturbating to underage actresses, drinking yourself silly so that you can fall asleep and forget that as a physical specimen you rank somewhere between a flabby Daryl Maury and an adult Capuchin monkey, then making a spectacle of yourself online, and throwing what has to be one of the longest running, least entertaining pity parties ever. Yet, this is what you brag about all the time. So to each his own, I guess. Maybe your problem is that you moved away from your parents too soon. Maybe you would do yourself a favor and have your mommy and daddy take care of you a while, since you can’t seem to do it on your own. Besides, I’m sure your mommy would love to show you the affection (wink wink) you so desperately need.

  • Cadavra

    Penalty flag is down! Fifteen yards, unnecessary roughness.