Thursday, July 23, 2009

Heaven's Gate: A Look Beyond the Reputation

Recently I reviewed Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession on these pages. In that documentary F.X. Feeney, the film critic for the defunct Z Channel Magazine and close friend of Jerry Harvey, programmer of the Z Channel, remarks that in the future critics will be bewildered at the fuss and negativity that surrounded the release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. The Z Channel had given Heaven's Gate a second premiere, so to speak, showing the director's cut on its airwaves in 1982. Apparently, the second time around it even got good reviews. Because of all of this I was curious to see Heaven's Gate, a film up until now I had never seen. What's more, I wanted to like Heaven's Gate. I did. Hell, I wanted to love it. I wanted to thumb my nose in the face of all those who unfairly lambasted it all those years ago. But I couldn't. It's simply not the great movie I was hoping to see.

However - and let me stress that this is an enormous "however" - it is nowhere even remotely close to as bad as critics said it was, particularly Roger Ebert who perhaps gave it its most famous bad review. In fact, it is so far from being that bad that I can agree with Feeney on one point: While I don't see a re-evaluation of Heaven's Gate in the future that establishes it as a great film I do believe it will cause bewilderment among those seeing with the expectations of it being a cinematic disaster. As such, reviewing it is a complicated endeavor.

Heaven's Gate tells the story of the Johnson County Wars in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1892 between wealthy land-owners and smaller immigrant land-owners accused by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association that represented the wealthy land-owners of thievery and cattle rustling. The lead characters in the film bear the names of the actual figures involved in the wars but gives them quite different outcomes. Jim Averell, played by Kris Kristofferson, is a sheriff in the film while in reality he was a shop owner. Ella Watson, played by Isabelle Huppert, is a Madam of a brothel in the film, a cattle owner and homesteader in reality. In reality both were lynched in before the wars even started. Other characters such as Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) more closely mirror their real life counterparts. In 1892 the Association brought in a small army of hired killers to wipe out the immigrant settlers and the war between them and the sheriff's posse set to fight against them finally ended when the U.S. Army intervened. The build up to this war makes up the first two hours of the film with the last hour and a half devoted to the war itself. It's a slow buildup with a somewhat chaotic payoff.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Heaven's Gate is not the great movie some claim. Many of the criticisms I have read of it are indeed valid. That which is most valid is probably that there is far too much padding for what in the end is a slightly told story. I have heard that the edited shorter version is particularly bad but quite honestly I can only assume it is better for conveying the story in tighter terms although I would concede that doing so would rob the film of much of its visual beauty and to do so to simply make the story clearer seems foolish. Nonetheless, there is nary a scene in the film that doesn't run at least two or three minutes past its expiration date. Some simple editing of scene length, not the excising of entire scenes, just the editing down of the scenes themselves, would easily cut an hour off of the film and tighten up the narrative tremendously. I believe what happened however was that whole scenes were excised and I can see how this would prove to be a fatal error.  And again, the visual beauty of the scenes themselves calls into question the whole idea of editing something down simply for story purposes.

All other criticisms beyond that are uninformed. I say that not because there aren't other things wrong with the film, but because the reviews I have read do not cover anything else. After critiquing the padding they simply plunge headlong into snark. Roger Ebert, a longtime favorite critic, is the most read of all the critics I could find and, as such, I would like to elaborate on this by going through his review of the movie. I do this because the film's reputation weighs so heavily upon it that I feel the best way I can review it is to separate the fiction from the reality when it comes to its critical reaction.

Here is how Ebert begins:

I know, I know: He's trying to demystify the West, and all those other things hotshot directors try to do when they don't really want to make a Western. But this movie is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.

Okay, first off, I see this as an historical picture, one that, as stated earlier, is telling the story of the Johnson County Wars. I don't see this as a Western per se, just because it is set in Wyoming in the 1890's. His "hotshot director" remark is unnecessarily contemptuous. Then there is the criticism about the dust and smoke. I had heard this from other critics. Are there dust filled scenes? Yes. They occur when hundreds of men, women, horses and wagons are moving about the land. One would expect such things to create dust. However, Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer, keeps drawing in the focus on those characters unobscured by dust and using the dust to create an other worldly feel throughout. I found Zsigmond's work to be excellent and understand why he felt heartbroken at the criticisms, as he states in the Z Channel documentary. I found the movie to be quite beautiful to look at despite Ebert's remark and even if the dusty scenes did bother me, and they didn't, they comprise a small percentage of the film's running time so why make it sound as if the entire film suffers from this problem?

Ebert continues:

But Cimino's in deeper trouble still. Heaven's Gate has, of course, become a notorious picture, a boondoggle that cost something like $36 million and was yanked out of its New York opening run after the critics ran gagging from the theater.

Really? Ran gagging? And so what if they did? Is Ebert using the reactions of other critics to bolster an argument he has yet to even make? Then Ebert goes back to the cinematography:

... it is so incompetently photographed and edited that there are times when we are not even sure which character we are looking at. Christopher Walken is in several of the initial Western scenes before he finally gets a close-up and we see who he is.

That is simply untrue. Either Ebert is outright lying, something I doubt, or he has missed some early shots. I never at any point was unsure of who I was looking at. From the first moment I saw Walken I recognized him. Here in fact is his very first scene:

Does anyone have difficulty seeing him? He's center frame, medium shot. It's as clear as day. True, the cloth is flapping in the scene but a couple of times, like the one shown here, Walken's face is seen.

Ebert again:

John Hurt wanders through various scenes to no avail. Kris Kristofferson is the star of the movie, and is never allowed to generate enough character for us to miss him, should he disappear.The opening scenes are set at Harvard (well, they were actually shot in England, but never mind).

John Hurt's character is a commentator on the action, a chorus so to speak. And he is a pointed type: The overly intellectual and thoroughly ineffectual elitist. His actions and comments to "no avail" are the point. The real war must be fought and won by men of action, not men of sarcasm. The fact that Ebert so clearly misses this is somewhat embarrassing. As for the Kristofferson line I'm not sure what he is driving at. He is given as much character as is needed and I liked his character very much. Yes, I would have missed him had he disappeared. Finally, as to the parenthetical aside about the Harvard scenes being shot in England I can only ask, "What the hell?" So what? Why did he even write that? Would he write of his favorite film Casablanca, "The opening scenes on the streets of Casablanca (well, they were actually shot on a soundstage, but never mind)"? No, I didn't think so.

Ebert again:

In a movie where nothing is handled well, the immigrants are handled very badly. Cimino sees them as a mob. They march onscreen, babble excitedly in foreign tongues, and rush off wildly in all directions. By the movie's end, we can identify only one of them for sure. She is the Widow Kovach, whose husband was shot dead near the beginning of the film. That makes her the emblem of the immigrants' suffering. Every time she steps forward out of the mob,somebody respectfully murmurs "Widow Kovach!" in the subtitles.

Sorry, but again, this is untrue. It simply doesn't happen that way. The immigrants, there being hundreds of them, are indeed shown in group gatherings. However, several are also presented as individual characters, at least six that I recall. Any more and the film would have had a dozen or so lead and supporting characters which for any movie, becomes confusing. So, the immigrants are shown in group "town hall" type gatherings, yes, but each time individual characters emerge from the group to personalize them. As for the Widow Kovach I watched for what Ebert was saying having read his review before seeing the film. Yes, I watched for it. It wasn't there. Of all the immigrants the ones the viewer clearly remembers are those portrayed by Brad Dourif and Jeff Bridges, not the Widow Kovach. Why Ebert latched onto her I don't know. I wish I did. His review is downright baffling at times.

While the foreigners are hanging onto Widow Kovach's every insight...

They aren't. Again, why the straw-man?

...the cattlemen are holding meetings in private clubs and offering to pay their mercenaries $5 a day plus expenses and $50 for every other foreigner shot or hung. I am sure of those terms because they are repeated endlessly throughout a movie that cares to make almost nothing else clear.

I counted. The terms are mentioned three times. Yes, three times. Twice by Frank Canton, once to the Association and once to the hired killers (makes perfect sense both times) and once by Averell when warning a saloon owner (Jeff Bridges) about how far the Association will go. And then Ebert says almost nothing else is made clear. At no point did I have any problem whatsoever following this movie. None.

The ridiculous scenes are endless. Samples: Walken, surrounded by gunmen and trapped in a burning cabin, scribbles a farewell note in which he observes that he is trapped in the burning cabin, and then he signs his full name so that there will be no doubt who the note was from.

Walken's character, Nate Champion writes the note and places it in his pocket and then runs out of the cabin knowing he will be killed. The note, however, he knows will be found by Ella as long as he can get clear of the burning cabin. This is embarrassingly obvious. And here's a bit of history, about the real Nate Champion, directly quoted from Wikipedia: "Champion was besieged inside the log cabin... During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin... The last journal entry read: 'Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.'" So not only is it obvious what he is doing in the film, but the film is in fact recreating the actual events themselves which would mean Ebert is saying reality is ridiculous. I think it is more than safe to say at this point that his interpretation of this scene is ridiculous.

Kristofferson, discovering Huppert being gang-raped by several men, leaps in with six-guns in both hands and shoots all the men, including those aboard Huppert, without injuring her.
It's three men. All three are in a position of almost eye-level height with Kristofferson after he jumps in through the window. They get up, Huppert stays down. He shoots two and the third gets away. Nothing - NOTHING - ridiculous about that scene whatsoever. Nothing.

In a big battle scene, men make armored wagons out of logs and push them forward into the line of fire, even though anyone could ride around behind and shoot them.

He must actually be kidding now. Perhaps the review is a parody of a bad review. The armored wagons are being pushed towards the encircled hired killers. Should a hired killer attempt to leave their fortified position and attempt to ride around them he would be shot before leaving the line. Was Ebert even watching the movie? He ends his review thusly:

There is more. There is much more. It all adds up to a great deal less. This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon.

A story about the Johnson County Wars, told a little too slowly, with a little too much padding, excellent cinematography and fine performances all around, is the "most scandalous cinematic waste" Ebert has ever seen. Uh... okay. For a major critic, he hasn't seen much. And then the final swipe against Paint Your Wagon, a film I don't very much like but would hardly consider holding it up as the high water mark for cinematic waste. Why is that even in there? I believe after the initial pan by Vincent Canby that critics walked into it expecting the worst and looked for it. I believe even Roger Ebert is capable of falling into this trap and I believe he did. It was inevitable he would find fault with this film even if he had to make it up because he was looking too hard for it not to. I don't necessarily believe his lies about the action in the film were intentional but most likely the result of a bit of self-delusion built on the expectation that he was going to be seeing the worst film ever made. When he didn't he had to convince himself that terms of hire were repeated endlessly, that Champion writing the note and leaving the cabin was somehow absurd, that the immigrants were a faceless mob with only Widow Kovach as their spokesperson. He had to. The real evidence he needed, desperately wanted, wasn't there.

In the end, I can't whole-heartedly recommend Heaven's Gate but feel the need to defend it against the mean-spirited venom directed at it by critics then and now. As I said, I don't think it's the great movie some want it to be but it is far from awful. It's an ambitious film with many good points and beautifully shot. It's good, sometimes very good but rarely excellent. It is a worthwhile venture that is, in the end, weighed down by its own ambition. A little tighter, a little faster and it would have succeeded grandly. But just because it didn't fully succeed is no reason to mercilessly destroy it. As Alfred Hitchcock used to say to Farley Granger (according to Granger in an interview run on TCM) when Granger would apologize for flubbing a scene, "It's only a movie." Watch it, or don't. Like it or don't. But cut it some slack. It's only a movie. And a lot of people working on it did the best they could. I can't fault them for that.