AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2012 –
A LIONS TALE
by Harlan Kennedy
It all started here, at least for European audiences. Is it really 33 years since Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE touched down at the Venice Film Festival, in its first landfall outside the USA? European spectators, replicating Americans, divided in two, back then, like the Red Sea. On one side: admirers cresting heavenward in a surge of enthusiasm. On the other: tut-tutters in a tidal wave, trying to drown anyone with a good word for this studio-bankrupting, profligate, irresponsible – their vocabulary – mega-western from a megalomaniac.
Well. Time conquers philistinism and division.
A lion can change its freckles.
MGM, which took over United Artists after UA, the studio which financed the picture, was supposedly destroyed by it, gave the approving growl to this new digital restoration supervised by Cimino. The director himself came to Venice to receive a Silver Lion for career achievement. In that textured drawl of a voice, choky-husky, that sounds as if it has been left out on the Range overnight, he paid tribute to all the people who have helped him during the HEAVEN’S GATE saga, with a special mention for the movie’s producer Joann Carelli: “The movie would not exist without this woman….she stayed with it even when I was going through post-traumatic stress….” Joann was in the audience.
Cimino mused aloud about being in a lagoon city although he hates boats (laughter) and on his initial response to the restoration project. “My first reaction was I don’t want to revisit HEAVEN’S GATE. I’ve had enough rejection for 33 years. Being infamous is not fun.”
Right on. Martyrdom never is. We remember another fellow who had a difficult life for 33 years before qualifying for the word “crucified”.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Cimino finally said – after expending several hundred – and the lights dimmed.
Soon most of us were at a loss for words. HEAVEN’S GATE is special. Rapture and triumph were the dominant feelings among us once-outnumbered folk who have yammered the film’s praises since it first appeared. HEAVEN’S GATE just gets better. Three hours and thirty-six minutes is the right length for a screen story, once slashed to two hours twenty-five, that has the heft and texture of a Zola novel combined with a John Ford western.
Did the Old West ever look this old before – incandescently old? For MGM/UA the settings and costumes may have been a scary extravagance, among many, as Stroheim’s GREED was once a scary extravagance for Thalberg’s MGM. But their authenticity and lived-in texturing are part of the film’s effect. That smoking, towering, horsecart-clattering replica of Casper, Wyoming. Those hundreds of immigrants who seemed burned into their clothes and their sooty, weathered features. The amazing mazes of that oil-lit doss-house, bunked and hammocked with bodies, where Kris Kristofferson lays his weary limbs after a hard day’s US-Marshalling. All these images, from titanic tableau to tiny detail, are rendered newly powerful by the digital restoration, a miracle of enhancement in the service of fidelity.
It is part of the picture’s power that Cimino’s born-anew America has already, we feel, been around the block. HEAVEN’S GATE may be the only western whose two main characters (Kristofferson, Christopher Walken), one time each at least, fall asleep before our eyes. They are human beings. Give them a pause in the day’s strife and they will nod towards dreamland. “You think everything stops as you are getting old?” asks Isabelle Huppert as the young prairie brothel madam Kristofferson loves. “Maybe it does,” burrs he. The effort of will with which Marshal and immigrants fight the cattle owners, declaring their private war on the pioneers, really seems that: an effort all the more tremendous for its victory over despair, over the exhausting attrition of injustice and inequality, over the temptations of surrender. (In its darker colourings this old America is a lot like the new America, or perhaps the eternal America. “It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country,” says town publican Jeff Bridges, who runs Heaven’s Gate, the giant dance barn/saloon/meeting hall. “It always was,” responds Kris Kristofferson.)
Perhaps HEAVEN’S GATE frustrated early spectators because it isn’t a western at all. It’s a fresco of a period. It’s a novel, a symphony, a multi-media experience: a moment of history presented as Gesamkunstwerk (total art work). Moods collide as they do in life. Incongruities are the stuff of existence. That roller-skating scene in the Sweetwater meeting hall follows upon the dialogue exchange just noted. “Maybe-everything-stops-as-you-get-old…..”; then, bingo bango, Cimino springs this epiphany of communal euphoria, as daring, as surreal, as non-narrative as a piece of music. A moment out of time and storytelling which nonetheless tells us everything about this time and this story. These people don’t just have individual lives, meticulously particularised. No film with so large a cast of characters took such trouble to individualise so many. They are defined, too, by the community they live in, its hopes, joys, fears, collective rhythms.
The movie’s deepest-lying subject – encoded in its title – is the open gate between past and present, present and future, perhaps life and death. Time is a master of ceremonies coordinating the variety bill of history; showing how the old jostles with the new (Roman battle strategies in the showdown conflict between immigrants and cattle owners) or the future is forever touched by the past (the Newport epilogue reuniting Kristofferson with his girl of the Harvard prologue).
At the same time, in more sombre moments, Cimino’s theme is lack of mobility. He presents a conspiracy in one county of one state to kill off the free movement – social, material, aspirational – that is America’s proudest boast and ideal. The Sweetwater immigrants fight for, yes, the American dream. Anyone can get anywhere is what they were told and what they were sold. So Kristofferson’s character, never mind his weary bones, and even Walken’s character, never mind his weary bones (and prior history as a cattle owners’ hit man), will come together, no matter how arduous the endeavour, to help the dream conquer the nightmare…
For Cimino the dream came true in Venice. His own dream. HEAVEN’S GATE swung open once more, glorified by its restoration, defying and decrying those who thought they had shut it for good. The way to Heaven is open again.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved