It is unfortunate and unfair that the legacy of director Michael Cimino is rooted directly to his greatest catastrophe, perhaps cinema’s singular debacle, so putatively abysmal that it turned into shorthand for other movie disasters, like “Hey, that ‘John Carter’ was a real ‘Heaven’s Gate’, huh?” Cimino’s 1980 film “Heaven’s Gate” entered lore before it was even finished, because it took so long to finish, a massive recounting of the Johnson County War of 1892, an ultra-ambitious project in which the frenzied Cimino wrested artistic and budgetary freedom from his studio, United Artists, and proceeded to wield it with such extravagance that he drove the project past budget, past schedule and UA to bankruptcy. He didn’t care. He never cared about a line producer’s rubbish. He only had eyes for the art, for better, for worse, a lot of the latter but still, so much of the first.
“Heaven’s Gate”, frankly, never had a chance. “Before anyone had seen it,” wrote Matt Singer for Indiewire in 2012, “‘Heaven’s Gate’ had already become synonymous with bloated Hollywood excess. In cinephile circles, it still is.” And while it is important not to downplay Cimino running so amok with his artistic freedom that he limited said freedom for every filmmaker that followed him, it is just as important to judge the film on its own merits. And even if it might not be a misunderstood masterpiece, or some such, it retains, despite an often numbingly ponderous narrative, undeniably awesome pictorial power. Though it centers on a love triangle, these principal characters come across as if they merely passing in and out of a richer frontier tableau, one that often takes place in the background but that also rises to the forefront, eliciting many of the accusations of indulgence, none more than the infamous roller-skating sequence. It’s a sight to see; hubris off screen but such splendor on screen that eventually the hubris you can’t help but think about imperceptibly just……evaporates. A lot of scenes mirror this sensation.
“Heaven’s Gate”, of course, was only allowed to exist because of Cimino’s spectacular success with his previous film “The Deer Hunter”, which earned him an Oscar for Best Director as well as Best Picture. It was also beset by excessive costs, re-shoots and an unremitting pursuit of perfection, though in that case Cimino achieved the full effect he so passionately sought. “The Deer Hunter”, however, has also undergone re-evaluation as time has passed, tying back to its painfully stereotypical portrayal of the North Vietnamese, of an inherent xenophobia. And these points are not wrong. If Coppola claimed that “Apocalypse Now” was Vietnam than “The Deer Hunter” was America’s Vietnam. This had nothing to do with them; it had everything to do with us. Chimino tore down America’s myth, bit by bit, concluding with the gob-smacking “God Bless America” sing-along drenched in bitter irony. And if the descent into Russian Roulette was historically inaccurate, well, David Thomson, who has written more forcefully and accurately than anyone about “The Deer Hunter”, termed it “an epic and tragic vision about America’s determination to overawe rather than understand the alien world – indeed, the historical errors rather proved that point.” “(D)id any film,” he wondered, “ask the American public to consider how far war and its readiness had to do with our great cult of shooting, of arms and of ‘one shot’? War appeals to something profound in us. That is the ultimate horror. Perhaps we like it.” Yikes.
That marks “The Deer Hunter” as still relevant today, as much as ever perhaps, and means that Cimino’s legacy stretches far beyond his “Heaven’s Gate” calamity. At the same time, however, “Heaven’s Gate” spurred Cimino’s descent, and though he made a few more films, the rest of his scant Hollywood career was pained reaching. He deliberately faded from view in America, his physical appearance changed, which yielded myriad rumors, none of which are my business. He was an intensely private man and respectfully remained so, right up until the end, this past Saturday, July 2nd, when he passed away at the age of 77.
He re-surfaced five years ago in Steve Garbarino’s Vanity Fair profile, one about the new Cimino, where he’d gone, what he’d been doing, what he wanted to do, but even so, the article spent plenty of time lingering on “Heaven’s Gate”, sadly re-proving how it was the most important point in the Michael Cimino Story, and how it continued to affect his career. Garbarino interviewed Mickey Rourke, who collaborated on a couple occasions with Cimino, and Rourke remarked that his old moviemaking ally “needs to make a film for less than $10 million and show them he can do that.” But I wonder, could he? Would he want to? I think Cimino yearned at all times for the most immense canvas imaginable and with the most sizable set of paints and brushes to create on that canvas. America is, it goes without saying, vast, in its landscapes and its beliefs, and Cimino was going to honor that in his aesthetic, go big, and if they wouldn’t let him go big, he would vanish into the night.
Michael Cimino ushered in the industry’s change from the auteur wielding dominance to the studio wielding it instead, and once the studio could rein him in, Cimino was never really in his outsized element. Cimino, in other words, brought about his own filmmaking downfall, and hey, what could be more American than that?