“Heaven’s Gate”: Sympathy for the Devil
Published on December 5th, 2012 | by Clayton Dillard6
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.