Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Heaven's Gate Re-Re-Opened

James Averill has just completed the long journey to rejoin his lover Ella Watson bearing the gift of a horse drawn carriage. The Wyoming vistas are gorgeous, the music sweeping. He stashes the carriage away in the barn outside her bordello and goes inside. Their reunion is tender, their lovemaking sweet.

He unveils his surprise gift and she can hardly wait to take it for a spin and show it off. And then it gets me every time. The scene as the pair careen about in the carriage is so exuberant and the following scene as they enjoy magic hour on a lake shore is so touching that I begin to cry. I wipe my eyes and keep watching almost holding my breath and always saying out loud, “This is my favorite movie ever.”

You might be thinking I’m describing some acclaimed romantic epic from David Lean like Doctor Zhivago, but, no, I’m writing about a movie with the reputation for being one of the worst disasters in Hollywood history, a movie that almost singlehandedly sank United Artists, a movie filled with the alleged perfectionist indulgences of the director of The Deer Hunter run amok.

Yes, I’m writing about Heaven’s Gate.

I’ve had a long love affair with this movie. My first time was on the huge screen of Seattle’s Egyptian Theater during their international film festival. It is such a magnificently visual movie that I’d urge anyone to see it under those conditions if they get the chance. It’s the most memorable movie I’ve ever been overwhelmed by and I’ve been overwhelmed by the best.

The affair has continued over the years on home video, greatly enhanced by another great love – the writings of film critic Robin Wood. Most critics played leapfrog trying to outdo each other with creatively sarcastic and scathing reviews. Wood watched the movie many times and then wrote one of the most marvelous works of film criticism ever published. His piece “Heaven’s Gate Re-opened” and its equally illuminating companion piece on The Deer Hunter really shook me up. I’ve emailed Roger Ebert several times asking if he read Wood’s essay – and if he ever reconsidered his scathing remarks. He’s never replied.

The movie’s director, Michael Cimino, began his career as an architect. And with the aid of Wood’s insights, I quickly began to see this as the key to understanding the brilliance of Heaven’s Gate’s structure. The movie for many years, hell, even nowadays, has been condemned as being sloppy and unstructured. I watch it – once every few months – and ask, “What are these people smoking?”

The movie opens at Harvard during the graduation of two of its major characters, 20 years before the main action. There is a huge dance set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” with hundreds circling a tree. (This scene is almost tearfully beautiful as well.) Later, a dance set to fiddle music sends roller-skating dancers circling around a wood burning stove. Later still, settlers circle on horseback in a swirl of dust as they attack bounty hunters pinned against a tree.

All three of these scenes, its three great set pieces, play like ecstasies of the moment as if time came to a standstill. All are scenes that gradually build toward cinematic bliss, like the docking scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And all three work hand-in-hand to express in a way that’s beyond words the movie’s themes of sadness and loss and disillusionment.

Wood thought – and I agree – that Heaven’s Gate failed because people at the dawn of the Reagan era simply didn’t want to see a movie that eloquently portrayed the death of a nation.


Unknown said...

I saw Heaven's Gate in its original release. The film has remained in my mind in the decades since, and it grows in my estimation with each viewing.

The musical score is as underappreciated as the film. David Mansfield's work is world-class.

Like The Searchers, Cimino's epic will eventually be accorded the acclaim and respect it deserves.

Todd Ford said...

Thanks for the comment James. I didn't get a chance to see it in its original release, but I did see it on the big screen at the Seattle Film Festival. Truly mouth watering. I so badly want a great Blu-ray release of Heaven's Gate.

Elfrieda said...

I saw Heaven's Gate for the first time recently, though I had read the reviews and Final Cut back in the 80s. I was trolling around to see if any critics had revised their initial opinions, which led me to your thoughtful essay. I found the film beautiful and haunting and am thinking about it still. I was fascinated by the story and the way he structured it--thank you for mentioning the use of circle imagery. I only wish I could have seen it on the big screen for the amazing photography.