“Heaven’s Gate”: Sympathy for the Devil

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Published on December 5th, 2012 | by Clayton Dillard


Michael Cimino’s 1980 film “Heaven’s Gate,” now available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

If “Heaven’s Gate” is an “unqualified disaster,” as “The New York Times” critic Vincent Canby called the film in his 1980 review, then The Criterion Collection’s meticulously restored presentation of Michael Cimino’s 217-minute director’s cut serves as a quiet, meditative re-opening of the case file, almost thirty-two years later. Comprehensively omitting any trace of the cultural demons that plagued the film’s initial release and reception and focusing on Cimino’s original vision, Criterion calls upon cinephiles to judge “Heaven’s Gate” for themselves.

That judgment will likely be one of elation at having Cimino’s intentions made so vibrant by the Blu-ray transfer. A recalcitrant historical epic in multiple senses, “Heaven’s Gate” displays a painterly, musical focus that supercedes any “Gone with the Wind” (1939) retreat into larger-than-life characters. Cimino’s play within the mise-en-scène suggests a rich history of artistic influences. For instance, a deep focus shot of James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) riding into town against a purplish sky could be something straight from the Danube school, almost expressionist in style. A shot like this plays in direct contrast to interior sequences, brightly lit with what appears to be natural lighting. A key example comes as Averill and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) waltz, filmed in a series of steadicam shots alternating between the couple and the band, Averill and Watson smiling and relishing the pleasure of the moment.

“Heaven’s Gate” recreates the Johnson County War of 1892. But formally, it is about the impossibility of historical reenactment; the painstaking attention to detail that bleeds through nearly every frame is gorgeous—rapturous even. Yet the bright green grass and unexplored mountains, no matter how sublime, cannot overwhelm the blood spilt below, tainted by territorial aspirations of greed. Cimino consistently negotiates these contradictions by allowing the film to remain relatively abstracted, refusing to shoehorn the characters into their environment.

Some viewers might mistake “Heaven’s Gate” for a revisionist western in the vein of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973). But the film does not operate exclusively under genre precepts. A scene with Averill sitting along the riverbank while Ella bathes recalls Jean Renoir’s “The River” (1951) in its painstaking articulation of bodies, figuring the human form into the frame as carefully as the vistas themselves. And like Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” (1963), “Heaven’s Gate” operates in equal parts Romanticism and melancholy, anchored by visual aspirations more than its textual explications. For Cimino, long shots of chugging trains bellowing smoke to obfuscate the bright, snowy mountaintops, with hundreds of people stacked on top, speak more to his ideas than any character or line of dialogue ever could. Likewise, a brilliant sequence with immigrants walking en masse articulates the same spatial relation within the frame as the train; with these shots, Cimino asks that humanity be placed before industry. Considering this film’s intertextual possibilities, interdisciplinary tracks, and sprawling vision of corrupted American materialism, it’s difficult to understand how such a visionary masterpiece, with undeniably far-sighted aspirations, could have been so roundly denigrated upon its initial release.

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About the Author

is a doctoral student in screen studies at Oklahoma State University. He also writes a weekly box-office column and book reviews for Slant Magazine.

6 Responses to “Heaven’s Gate”: Sympathy for the Devil

  1. Ray Pence says:

    You understand the picture well because you deal with it on its terms and those of its director–unlike Canby and others, who wanted it to be something else or were interested only in reviewing and repudiating the circumstances of its making.

    HG is a unique, innovative, challenging US narrative film that explores possibilities of its genres rarely investigated before or since. I’ve enjoyed and respected the movie ever since first seeing the cut version in 1981 (at a theater in my home town of Casper, Wyoming, no less). HG is more important than ever and your analysis added to my already positive thoughts. Thank you.

  2. ae832049fj@hotmail.com says:

    didn’t it ever cross your mind that the movie may have been badly reviewed and weakly promoted because of the film’s portrayal of the Stock Growers Association?

  3. ae832049fj@hotmail.com says:

    Or is everyone just too scared to admit “in print”, on this site, that any “sprawling vision of corrupted American materialism” will automatically receive widespread negative reviews. The film industry used Heaven’s Gate to make an example out of film-makers or producers who though that they could portray anti-capitalist messages, to make sure that any “vision of corrupted American materialism” would remain hidden from public view for ever.

  4. ae832049fj@hotmail.com says:

    and cinespect doesn’t have the balls to admit it!

  5. ae832049fj@hotmail.com says:

    From the New York Times 9/23/2012
    Kris Kristofferson goes on record and says that Heaven’s Gate was not a success because of its “grim view of American capitalism” and because Reagan’s AG, W.S. Smith, wanted to teach Hollywood a lesson that it would not happen again:

    “Reached at his home in Hawaii, Mr. Kristofferson said he believes the themes of the film, with its grim view of American capitalism, were what made it so unpalatable. “It was a political assassination,” he said. He recalled getting word that Reagan’s first attorney general, William French Smith, had told studio heads that “there should be no more pictures made with a negative view of American history.”

    Mr. Kristofferson, sounding more rueful than bitter, said that the reception to “Heaven’s Gate” knocked him off the Hollywood A-list for good. “I never really recovered from that,” he said, but he acknowledged that it was worse for Mr. Cimino. “It completely destroyed him.”

  6. ae832049fj@hotmail.com says:

    What do you think its the larger crime, ruining Mr. Cimino’s career, or publishing an online review 32 years later wherein it is stated that “it’s difficult to understand how such a visionary masterpiece, with undeniably far-sighted aspirations, could have been so roundly denigrated upon its initial release.” Sure, it would be difficult to understand if I was a complete idiot. But if I was able to use my head a bit, do some research, maybe check out what the film’s star actor is saying on the topic, then I would understand very easily why it could have been so “roundly denigrated”. What is the larger crime, ruining Mr. Cimino’s career or keeping our mouths shut about it so that the careers of countless other directors, actors and artists can be ruined as well? What is the larger crime, allowing movies this good to go unseen and unrecognized, or trying to pretend that the reason that they weren’t seen in the first place was “difficult to understand”. Nothing will change unless websites like cinespect grow the balls to practice freedom of speech and begin stating the obvious to your readers, before you have none left.

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