To All Heaven’s Gate Revisionists

Posted this morning in the “Don’t Buy The Bullshit” thread, and re-posted here to attract more attention: “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 Cotten (as a character called “Reverend Doctor”) is shown to be irked and offended by the snide and brazen 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 Cotten is bothered. If this is indicative of what this film will 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.”

32 thoughts on “To All Heaven’s Gate Revisionists

  1. Tristan Eldritch2 on said:

    For that matter, The Deer Hunter is a pretentious, weirdly hysterical and feverish mess of a film. I think Sarris had Cimino’s number from the get-go: “massively vague, tediously elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical……It is perhaps significant that the actors remain more interesting than the characters they play.”

  2. I was there too. Not at a critic’s screening, of course, but at one of the shows during the film’s 7-day run (if memory serves, I think it was the Wednesday matinee). Contrary to the show you attended, the audience was pretty much caught up in the film the whole way through. Sure, there was some grumbling (what showing in NYC of any film is *ever* free of it) and a few hoots as the intermission came up, but the majority of the crowd (IIRC, there were about 500 people there – 2/3′s capacity of the Cinema 1) didn’t hate the film. Scattered applause at the end.

    What was *most* interesting was seeing the NY Daily News critic Rex Reed come into the show in a hurry. Overhearing his conversation as he sat down, he had flown in quickly from wherever he had been to catch the show as he wanted to see it, “because I hear it’s terrible,” before it closed. What was astounding was reading his column the next day and seeing him flat-out lie about that same show. He claimed that the audience began booing the film during the opening Harvard scenes, started walking out shortly thereafter, and was shouting “focus!” and throwing popcorn boxes (!) at the screen and booth the rest of the showing and, of course, booing at the end. That horrific lie told me all I needed to know about how the critics’ knives had been pre-sharpened by somebody or something and that the fix was in to kill the film and the director.

    I don’t consider it a masterpiece, but it was in no way deserving of the treatment it got from the press. Depending on the supplements, I might pick up the Blu-ray. For those wanting a taste, the film is streaming on Netflix but it doesn’t look like a new HD transfer, however. With all of the heavy filtering and diffusion, it’s going to need a very careful transfer and compression to avoid looking murky.

  3. I was only 12 when Heaven’s Gate was first released, and didn’t see it until it played at the Film Forum in October 2004. By then, I had read Final Cut a couple times, and I was ready to be one of the cool kids who would see this film for the masterpiece it really was.

    Boy, was I ever wrong!

    Sure, it’s beautifully shot, masterfully art directed and meticulously costumed. Those things were obvious even from the tiny FF screen. However, that’s all Heaven’s Gate had going for it. I need a lot more than that to get behind a movie.

  4. And yet, we’re all right about the fact that BREAKING BAD is the nest drama around today (in film, TV, book, anything at the moment). Good to know we’re all right. Especially since you’re equating the taste of some NYers from ages ago with FACT. Tough break, boyo. .

  5. Boy, this really brings me back. I was there as a film student/Village Voice intern and thought this was the coolest score of a screening.

    I noticed something was amiss early on when I could barely understand what anyone was saying. Then it just kept going, and going…nice photography, though.

    During the intermission, champagne was served in the lobby, and the crowd was eerily quiet. Cimino was drinking coffee off to the side, looking out the window. Suddenly Rex Reed said very loudly, “Champagne? They should be serving us amphetamines!”

    After intermission, it was hard for me to find the motivation to return to the theater, and some of the audience did take the opportunity to bolt. But I saw it through to the very end. I haven’t seen it in any form since.

  6. This seems like an opportune time to once again suggest that we retire the term “masterpiece” when talking about films, at least ones that are less than, say 40 years old. Masterpieces need time and perspective. The Pieta is a masterpiece. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a masterpiece. The fact that the term is even being thrown around with respect to Heaven’s Gate shows that it’s being badly over- and mis-used. Heaven’s Gate may be a better film than its critics originally thought, but what it most assuredly is not, is a masterpiece.

  7. “[Reed] claimed that the audience… was shouting “focus!” and throwing popcorn boxes (!) at the screen and booth the rest of the showing and, of course, booing at the end.”

    Pete: in all fairness to Reed, he was cribbing from 1950s Looney Tunes shorts. At least he was stealing from the classics. (He should have gone all in and said they were lobbing tomatoes.)

  8. On a more serious note: why didn’t appearing in HEAVEN’S GATE affect the careers of anyone in the cast? OK, maybe it did Kristofferson for a bit… (did it?) But all of the anger seemed to land entirely on Cimino. I can’t think of other bombs where the cast didn’t take a hit.

    I was young at the time — am I not remembering the fallout, other than UA & Cimino?

  9. I can’t count the number of films in the past 30 years that the “experts” have gotten wrong in one direction or the other. Just about every effing critic in America dismissed TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA as “a MIAMI VICE ripoff” and we know that was idiotic myopia of the lowest order.

    I wont mention all the crap I’ve seen overpaised to the skies. It happens every flipping week.

    So the more Jeff screams about “the verdict” on this film the more I want to see it again. I don’t remember ever being crazy about the film, but this effing “consensus” of “experts’ bs is a tired clown show of Ringling proportions.

  10. I like Year of the Dragon, I think it is the camera work and the scenes in the street. Overall it is probably not very good, yet I like it, depressing and violent as it is.

  11. Oh, another “God damn you all! Don’t you know how right I am? How dare you hold….OPINIONS!!!”

    Whoever said the other day, that this has become the “What crazy shit will he say next” destination was totally right.

  12. Your three reasons to like the film are well put.

    Joseph Cotten’s name is misspelled.

    Why were some reviewers out to get Cimino? THE DEER HUNTER. It won best picture and director. But many people immediately came to their senses and realized it is an incoherent mess and a rightwing view of the Vietnam War that distorts the facts of the situation to make banal patriotic points. I think the picketing at the Oscars helped people realize that. The film was overpraised, given awards it didn’t deserve, and not what it appeared to be, and the reviewers felt hoodwinked, so they were out to get his next effort. I felt that strongly at the time.

  13. “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.”

    Funnily enough, I had almost precisely the same experience at a preview screening of Blade Runner in Dallas. Seriously.

  14. Joe: You brilliantly made the point I was TRYING to make.

    Amongst the multitude of personal examples of “who effing cares what “THEY” think:”

    I was just telling the story about when I published the first major piece on AUSTIN POWERS, before the film came out, a reporter said to me, “Why did you write that? Everyone at New LIne tells me it’s a disaster. It’s unreleasable.”

    And I saw THE SHOOTIST at the Goldwyn Theater and no one liked it except me and The Outlaw Monte Hellman.

    And at a Sony Pictures screening room viewing of Terry Jones’ PERSONAL SERVICES only me and my friends laughed and laughed hard to the silence around us.

    And LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER never got a US theatrical release.

    And no one seems to know Resnais even made STAVISKY.

    And Lew Wasserman thought AMERICAN GRAFFITI was an unreleasable disaster.

    And The Ladd Co. cut ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA into mandolin picks.

    To quote THE WILD BUNCH, “Who the hell is THEY???”

  15. Some people paid attention to STAVISKY. I was driving through Beverly Hills one Sunday afternoon in the seventies and saw a line of people waiting in the rain to see the bargain matinee of STAVISKY. Katharine Hepburn was among those waiting in the line. I stopped to watch as the theater manager came running out with an umbrella for her and tried to get her to come inside the lobby and wait. She refused to jump ahead of the other patrons. Good for her!

  16. “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.”

    I’d be curious to know if anyone in that audience saw the film again, far from the madding crowd, and revised his or her opinion. The context, pro and con, provided by Bach’s book and Wood’s essay is helpful.

    I first saw it on pan-and-scan VHS, where it was bundled as two tapes. It had to have something to get me to watch the second tape. And to buy it on LD. And see it in a theater. And watch it on MGMHD. That’s more than I can say for many films deemed better.

  17. Everyone wants to be with the in-crowd, and if the in-crowd says something, you’re going to agree with it, whether consciously or sub-consciously.

  18. It’s pathetic how often you have to turn pure opinion into an aesthetic dare. I assume you understand, deep down, that you’re a fraud.

  19. Hmm. Wells has either never heard “Losing My Edge,” or has heard it and just doesn’t get it. Either one equally likely.

    Another thing Wells doesn’t get is the extent to which the “I was there” schtick dates him. He’s so invested in proving this essentially measly point against a tide of critical revisionism that he’s willing to sacrifice a bit of his touchiness w/r/t age-based vanity. Pretty funny.

  20. Dear Joe Leydon: There’s a difference between you missing the boat on AUSTIN POWERS, thinking it” wasn’t much” and a “silly” film that would flop and Mike Myers saying, “I never know why anyone goes to see anything I make. We just made it for ourselves.”

    A world of effing difference, my friend.

    Also, “minor hit” sounds like you’re trying to soften the blow of your own mistake. It outgrossed THE FULL MONTY in 97 and many other successful and highly touted pictures that year.

    We all make mistakes.

    For instance, I thought HAPPY TEXAS was going to be a BIG hit! I’ll never forget that opening night when Avi Lerner explained to me in stark, smart terms why it WOULDN’T BE.

  21. what i took from that int clip was when Myers mentioned Kurosawa talking about the stationary tableau …. “If I moved the camera three inches to the right you would see the toyota factory”

  22. Gaydos: I would still stand by the “minor hit” description. If I am remembering correctly, the first Austin Powers didn’t really become a phenom until it was released on DVD — a new medium at the time. After that? Again, relying on memory: The sequel made more money in ts opening weekend than the original did during its entire theatrical run.

  23. Damn, Joe, you’re even more stubborn than I am and that’s saying something.

    You got AUSTIN POWERS wrong. Lots of people did. On a $16 million budget, it was #4 biggest grossing indie of 1997.

    Yes, the sequel was bigger. Yes, that was driven by huge success of DVD. Doesn’t make it “minor.” That’s just you covering your tush.

    And again, No, Mike Myers saying “I don’t know why anyone likes what I do” is not equivalent of Joe Leydon dismissing the film’s playability and saying, “this is a silly picture that won’t resonate at all with any audiences under my age.”

    That’s called getting it wrong.

    Been there myself. No shame in it. Just admit your weaknesses, right the wrongs and…oh wait, that’s that OTHER organization…

    Any questions?

  24. Gaydos: It sold fewer tickets than The Saint, Jungle 2 Jungle and Spawn. According to Box Office Mojo, it did not even crack the Top 30 in 1997. I’m not saying it wasn’t profitable. I’m not saying that it didn’t generate a massive appetite (again, largely because of homevideo) for sequel. But I would still stand by the description “minor hit.”

  25. Can you imagine what it would be like if the other arts were routinely subjected to the kind of ill-informed commentary which appears to be routine where cinema is concerned?

    “I don’t think you guys understand. You might think you’re deeper, smarter, wiser or more perceptive than the audiences who saw Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING at the Theatre des Champs-Elysses in May of 1913. But I have to tell you (and maybe you need to sit down first) you’re not. Or not necesarily (sic), 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 ballets 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 composer with a ridiculous and over-indulged sense of his own vision and grandeur, and by a resultant approach to music that felt to me like some kind of pretentious waking nightmare. There was derisive laughter even during the overture, and before long people were throwing things at the orchestra. What happened? How could Stravinsky have created such an incomprehensible ballet as this? One critic described it as “a laborious and puerile barbarity”…so don’t start up with the ‘oh, what did they know back in 1913?’ crap. They knew. I know. I was there.”

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