terça-feira, 17 de abril de 2012


You had the feeling you were working with Michelangelo,
and he was letting you paint a stroke here. — Kris Kristofferson on
Heaven’s Gate

Readers are probably familiar at least in outline with the history of Heaven’s Gate so far: the disastrous simultaneous premiere in three North American cities of the original three hour forty-minute version; its immediate withdrawal from each city except New York (where it was allowed to play for a week), despite bookings for an indefinite run with advanced ticket sales; the release, several months later, of a second version edited by Cimino to a length (approximately two-and-a-half hours) specified by his producers, which played to tiny audiences and was withdrawn after a fortnight; the promise (or threat) of a ninety-minute version not edited by Cimino retitled The Johnson County War concentrating on action and, according to a report in Variety, providing a reversed sense of the original ending — the good guys win.

A few features of this astonishing debacle may be less familiar. Incredible as it seems no one at United Artists looked at the film prior to its abortive premiere. Further, Cimino insisted that the so-called original version did not fully correspond to his intentions, that he was under pressure to bring it out for the predetermined date and did not consider it ready. (If this is true, and since the running time of the second version was dictated to him, we shall never see an authentic Cimino version of the film.) Finally, American critics greeted the original version with extraordinary vituperation and ridicule, often modified but never retracted for the second version. Reviews in Britain and France contrasted notably with this reaction. It is obvious that the American response can be only partly accounted for in terms of the film’s alleged deficiencies. Almost no reviewer made any attempt to examine it: instead each vied to outdo the other with sarcasm and contempt. (The only favorable account of the original version that I am aware of — a highly creditable one which has influenced this chapter — appeared in a campus newspaper of York University, Ontario, where I teach, though its author, Zachariah Cameron, was then unknown to me.)

Three factors seemingly provoked this negative response. The first concerned the much-publicized cost of the film (estimates vary from $36 to $40 million) and the hype surrounding Cimino’s extravagances, juxtaposed with its failure to satisfy the demand which any TV movie hack caters to as second nature: the clear exposition of a narrative. Second, resentment combined with anxiety — resentment of the freedom granted to the relatively untested upstart Cimino on the strength of the enormous, popular, and Oscar-sanctified success of The Deer Hunter, which was only his second movie, and liberal anxiety about the earlier film’s allegedly right-wing position. The third factor centered in dominant characteristics of the American critical establishment, wherein “the common pursuit of true judgment” is totally subordinated to the journalistic necessity of being at the forefront of the latest trend, and of being the loudest to praise or condemn whatever is fashionable according to pseudo-sophisticated bourgeois elitist taste at the time. (Such characteristics, I hasten to add, are certainly not exclusive to North America, though they flourish there in a particularly shameless and malignant form.) Clearly, Cimino’s major crime is the crime within and against capitalism: not to waste money, but to waste so much. Perhaps it is useful to ask what, in this context, “waste” actually means: the expenditure would not, one feels, have been a crime if the film had been manifestly profit-making. It was not a waste to make the Friday the 13th movies or to make Raiders of the Lost Ark. In other words, this is an issue, not of morality or art, but of capitalist economics.

When the original version was shown, the hostile reaction took two forms: the objection that the narrative was so muddled that it verged on the incomprehensible, and a vague, troubled murmur about Marxist content (liberal anxiety being by no means aroused exclusively by the right wing). I shall return to the second point later, merely remarking for now that it is not as silly as it sounds (granted the general American paranoia about anything that could be remotely construed as Marxist) and that, rather curiously, the same murmurs have not been audible — at least, not in terms of hostile criticism — in the case of Reds: clearly, the principles of fashion and capitalist economics are again relevant, Reds being instantly perceived on both counts as a relative success.

The difficulty of the narrative does indeed constitute the film’s major problem, a far more complex one than I initially recognized. I have seen the film now eight times, and the first five viewings were of the two-and-a-half-hour release version. I thought then that, although obviously very impressive, the film was open to serious objections on grounds of narrative clumsiness — that, to put it crudely, Cimino couldn’t tell a story. I have come increasingly to question (without entirely abandoning) this response, though I am not sure whether this is due to my belated exposure to the original version (which is without question appreciably superior) or simply to my passing through that period of adjustment that true innovation always demands. Certainly, what looks like clumsiness in the shortened version looks far more like audacity in the original: one has the impression that Cimino’s attention was focused on a great vision, a “grand design” (Kristofferson’s phrase), rather than on mundane problems of telling a story. I am now not sure whether the film would gain or suffer were the major character relationships more clearly established during its first half. As it stands in both versions, we suddenly discover around the midpoint that Averill (Kristofferson) and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) are close friends, the film having neglected up to that point to hint that they were even acquainted; Champion works for cattle baron Canton (Sam Waterston), but we never see them together until the confrontation after Ella’s rape and are given no information as to what they think of each other; it is never clear exactly how or why Canton relates to Billy Irvine (John Hurt). Those who, like myself, became familiar with the shorter version first tended to assume that the ellipses must be due to cuts; but the longer version proves even more elliptical. There Ella (Isabelle Huppert), the central female character, doesn’t appear until over a third of the way through, and her relationship with Nate (introduced quite early in the shorter version) isn’t established until well beyond the midpoint.

Another way of saying that Cimino can’t tell a story might be to say that Heaven’s Gate violates some of the basic principles of classical narrative; our complaint may be simply that the story is not being told in the way to which tradition and repetition have long accustomed us. As classical narrative (perceived as ideological reinforcement) has been so much under attack during the past decade, the can-he-tell-a-story criterion would appear to have been substantially undermined, but the news has evidently not filtered down to the Kaels and Canbys. Part of the problem is, no doubt, that the film doesn’t tell us that its narrative is going to be difficult (in the way in which, for example, a Godard movie announces this in its first few shots). Intelligent American movies are especially vulnerable here (compare the critical and commercial failure of Blade Runner): the critics expect foreign films to be demanding, to make you work, whereas Hollywood films are supposed to take you by the hand and guide you safely, step by cause-and-effect step, to the final resolution, an expectation greatly encouraged by the easy indulgence most contemporary Hollywood movies offer. Whether one attributes the elliptical nature of Cimino’s narrative to oversight (in the strict sense — seeing so far, one may miss what is under one’s nose) or to deliberate strategy, Heaven’s Gate seems to me one of the few authentically innovative Hollywood films (in the context of classical narrative in general, and of a cinema in particular that has always tended to build on its traditions rather than challenge them). In this respect it must be decisively distinguished from that particular brand of trendy chic, usually derived from Fellini, that passes for originality with most American critics, and of which All That Jazz and The Stunt Man are especially obnoxious instances. By using the term “authentically” I suggest that the innovativeness of Cimino’s film arises from inner necessity rather than from a desire not to lag behind the latest fashion. It is absurd to suggest that the film lacks structure. Its structure is simply of an order radically different from anything to which the Hollywood cinema has conditioned us; neither does it derive from any obvious European models[1].

Though Cimino is clearly more an intuitive than a theoretical artist, the eccentricity of his narratives can be theorized: it is not explicable solely in terms of naïveté. Especially since the rise of the novel, traditional narratives in our culture have been primarily about people and relationships; if the narrative is also about history, it is still carried forward by the evolution of individuals. In Exodus, for example, we are introduced to, and invited provisionally to identify with, Eva Marie Saint, and our understanding of the case for the founding of Israel is filtered through her consciousness and developed through her relationships (especially with Jill Haworth and Paul Newman) and her evolution toward commitment (she is not of course our only identification figure, but she is the central one). Crucial to this is our sense that we know all about her all the time, meet people when she meets them, change our views as she changes. More recently, and much more crudely, Under Fire asks us to interest ourselves primarily in the triangular relationship of Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Gene Hackman, and through that in the struggles in Nicaragua. To delineate the precise difference between this and the method of Heaven’s Gate is a somewhat delicate matter. After all, every scene in the film is in some sense about a character or a relationship, there is not a scene from which all the half dozen main characters are absent, and no scenes are purely concerned with mass movement or the movement of history in the manner of Eisenstein. The difference lies rather in the maintaining of a far more problematic relationship between the spectator and the individualized characters. Instead of being given the characters, as we are given Eva Marie Saint in the opening scenes of Exodus, we have to wait to find out about them, and their personal relationships are not granted a privileged importance. The obvious way to construct Heaven’s Gate would have been to build the whole narrative on the Averill/Ella/Nate triangle; as it is, we don’t know the triangle exists until the film is more than half over. Thus the relationship between foreground (the emotional problems of individuals) and background (the movement of history) is radically altered: the characters and their relationships continue to be important and engaging but cease to be primary, and no longer carry the narrative: instead they become components in the “grand design.”

This rejection of character development as the prime means of unfolding the narrative is confirmed by a striking phenomenon of the editing of the two versions: the shorter version was arrived at not just by cutting but by transposition. Whole scenes (I consider one below) could be removed without affecting the course of the narrative; but, more significantly, passages could be lifted from one part of the film and placed in a completely different narrative context without destroying the sense (though the four-day time period of the main action, Saturday to Tuesday, is much clearer in the original version). I cite two examples: First, in the original version, Ella is introduced about a third through the film when Averill delivers her birthday present, the elegant and expensive carriage; her relationship with Nate is established long after this, when he visits the brothel, reprimands her for accepting stolen cattle as payment, finds Averill there in a drunken stupor, and takes him home before returning to spend what is left of the night with Ella. In the shorter version, this scene is split into two, the first half occurring about a half hour into the film, before Averill delivers the carriage. Next, the second version, the scene that introduces Nate (the shooting of Michael Kovacs) is followed almost immediately by his confrontation with the immigrant boy he catches stealing a steer, which elides with his assault on his fellow mercenary for his attitude to immigrants. In the original, these three scenes occur, widely separated, in three different parts of the film, the third following a scene of laborious communal plowing that does not appear at all in the second version.

Clearly, Cimino regards these segments as movable building-blocks: they have a necessary place in the overall design, but it is no longer the fixed place dictated by the strict cause and effect of classical narrative, the relationships between the parts being conceived as far more fluid and open. Though the film is in no obvious way self-reflexive, we are given the sense of being allowed to participate imaginatively in its construction, to use our own judgment in making connections back and forth. It is like watching a painter create an immense fresco: he may not start at top left and end at bottom right, but by the end we see how everything falls into place, how this relates to that; we may even feel that the fresco is not quite complete, that there are patches of wall left uncovered, or that, if the wall were larger, the fresco could be indefinitely extended. And, although the film is in no obvious way Brechtian, each of the components — each building block, the architectural metaphor being especially apposite to Cimino — constitutes a separate, lucid, and forceful “history lesson”: about privilege, about poverty, about compromise, about being unprepared, about power, about community, about collective action, about the betrayal of the poor by a rising bourgeoisie, about the destruction of a possible alternative America by the one that is so much with us.

Consider, as a random example, the wonderful little scene (cut from the second version) in which Averill, returning to Coldwater in Ella’s carriage, encounters on the road a widow and her children struggling to pull a heavy cart containing the murdered body of her husband, executed by Canton’s mercenaries. The scene has no narrative necessity; it is not a link in any chain of cause and effect. Its only narrative function (a redundant one) is to reiterate Averill’s quandary as marshal in a community where power and law are coming increasingly apart, his professional position committing him to the latter while his class position aligns him with the former. Consummately realized in terms of pure cinema, the scene is really about the discrepancy between the help Averill promises from his position as Marshall and his failure to offer help on an immediate, concrete level — that is, to delay his visit to Ella and help push. Everything important in the scene is conveyed, not by or even through dialogue, but in visual counterpoint to it. We can specify three precisely achieved effects: the crosscut exchange of looks between Averill and the two children; the Averill point-of-view shot of the road winding into the far distance; the final intercutting of Ella’s carriage and the cart as Averill and the woman resume their journeys. That Averill is a sympathetic character (indeed, the film’s nominal hero), that Ella will be delighted with her gift, and that we shall be encouraged to share in that delight in a scene of great charm, vivacity and tenderness are factors that add to rather than detract from the complex force of this concise, self-contained, practical lesson about poverty and privilege and the practical difficulties of commitment.

One can further define the particularity of the film’s narrative method by reference to the codes of classical narrative enumerated by Roland Barthes in S/Z. Traditionally, at least in Western cinema, the dominant codes of narrative have been the linear ones: the proairetic (code of actions) and hermeneutic (code of enigmas), whose function it is to carry the story forward and maintain the reader/viewer’s curiosity. Indeed, the tendency of much determinedly progressive, and in some respects effectively reactionary, theorizing has been to reduce classical Hollywood film to the operation of these two codes. Noel Burch’s account, in his brilliant and infuriating book on Japanese cinema To the Distant Observer, is typical: “Each of these infrastructural signifiers had one and only one corresponding meaning. Each was concatenated in a one-to-one relationship with its immediate neighbors in the chain and, through these, with the totality of the chain as it stretched into the ‘past’ and ‘future’ of the narrative” (p. 97). Most current assaults on classical narrative, conceived as entrapping the reader/viewer in a closed ideological position, are in effect assaults on the dominance of the linear codes. Cimino audaciously downgrades them: the privileged codes in Heaven’s Gate are the semantic (the code of implied meanings out of which the work’s thematic structure is developed) and the symbolic (usually functioning in terms of oppositions, in which Heaven’s Gate is particularly rich) — hence again the basis of an overall structure that transcends the mere what-happens-next of linear narrative.

The point can be exemplified very precisely by reference to a line of dialogue not in the original version but dubbed in for the release version, a decision that testifies eloquently to the tyranny of the linear codes. At the film’s opening, before the graduation ceremony and celebrations, Averill says to Irvine “Still coming to Wyoming with me, Billy?” It is the only line in the entire Harvard sequence that explicitly points ahead to any subsequent events; it establishes immediately a coming action (journey to Wyoming) to keep the audience interested, which can be supposed to produce its own ensuing chain of actions; and it introduces a group of enigmas (Why Wyoming? Will Billy go, too? What will they do there? What will happen?) which the film, with its abrupt twenty-year time leap, will signally fail to resolve in any way the audience might anticipate. The main function of the proairetic and hermeneutic codes is to facilitate the work of reading: an action is announced, and we know it will be developed and carried to a conclusion, that it will lead to further actions; at the same time, the play of enigmas will keep us guessing what will happen, focusing our attention on events, outcomes, solutions. We attend to what is actually before us not for itself but for what it will lead to: we are continually pointed ahead, given enough hints to formulate a general sense of probable developments but never enough to give us certainty or preclude surprises.

Cimino, on the contrary, invites us first to immerse ourselves in and contemplate the action that is happening in the present (such as, during the Harvard sequences, the dance, the ritual battle) and then later (perhaps much later) to reassess it and our reactions to it in the light of subsequent actions. While the big set pieces might be taken to invite a simple surrender to the immediate creation of mood, the film as a whole will make no sense to us if our engagement is not continuously active and analytical. The line about Wyoming (though too casual and thrown away to be seriously disruptive) has the effect of distracting us from the matter in hand and insidiously reassuring us that we needn’t think about it too much: the question “What am I being shown?” tends to be superseded by “What’s going to happen next?” The American critics, in ridiculing Cimino’s presumed ineptness at storytelling, were partly rejecting a valid and innovative rethinking of the codes and strategies of classical narrative.

A similar point can be made in relation to the frequent complaint (expressed far more vociferously by those who saw the original version, and generally linked to assertions about self-indulgence offered in terms of personal affront) that this or that sequence goes on too long. Too long, we must ask, in relation to what? The only answer can be, to the making of narrative points — that is, to the efficient operation of the proairetic/hermeneutic codes. The roller-skating scene is the ideal example, because (if one thinks of narrative in purely linear terms) it is virtually superfluous in toto: the action represents no necessary link in an ongoing chain, the scene neither develops/resolves any previously introduced enigmas nor establishes new ones. One might compare it and the “Blue Danube” sequence in this respect with the (justly) celebrated ball scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons, Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, and Madame De..., none of which, needless to say, can be reduced to the operation of the linear codes, but all of which can be very precisely explicated and justified by reference to them. I wish to establish here not superiority (on either side) but difference: the linear codes have become so completely naturalized through our experience of classical literature and film that we are likely to have great difficulty in perceiving them as codes at all, but their dominance is not sacrosanct. As soon as one accepts this, the whole question of duration (how long is too long?) is automatically reopened, and criteria we take for granted can be recognized as a matter of long conditioning.

Of course, this does not in itself constitute a defense of Cimino’s work, but I think it forms a basis on which a defense can be raised. If the linear narrative of the film is problematic, it nonetheless displays a marvelous feeling for essential structure — the feeling for structure that transforms linear narrative into symbolic drama. One may agree with Andrew Britton that within the big set pieces analysis is sacrificed to the creation of mood. Cimino’s mise-en-scène is not analytical in the manner of Ford, for example, as is obvious if one compares The Deer Hunter’s wedding reception with the church floor dance in My Darling Clementine or the noncommissioned officers’ ball in Fort Apache. The entire method of filming and editing is fundamentally different, Cimino prodigally shooting vast amounts of material from which the sequence is extracted, as against Ford’s famous economy (“editing in the camera”). At times, indeed, Cimino seems to use the élan of a scene to distract the spectator from asking awkward questions. The roller-skating birthday celebration in Heaven’s Gate, for example, generates such infectious energy that one has little chance to ask why Ella is suddenly accepted without qualification by a community that only a few minutes earlier appeared to be more than somewhat divided about her: here analysis seems not merely sacrificed but willfully obliterated. However, Cimino’s big impressionist blocks never exist solely for themselves — for all the obvious delight in orchestrating movement and developing rhythms — and, in a somewhat different sense, analysis may be said to transpire between the set pieces: what becomes crucial is their structural relation to each other. In other words, the analysis is not offered us as passive spectators; we are encouraged to construct it, as active participants.

Before considering the film’s overall architecture, however, I want as preparation to examine the Harvard prologue in some detail. In both versions it has been particularly singled out for its alleged redundancy (and may be expected to disappear altogether from The Johnson County War, if indeed that mutation ever materializes). It seems to me crucial to the meaning and structure of the film. There are nine points to be made:

1. The much-criticized use of Oxford for Harvard works very much to the film’s advantage as soon as one begins thinking of it in terms of symbolic drama/national myth rather than of realistic historical reconstruction: it adds a nondiegetic level to the creation of Harvard as essentially an Old World, European culture, characterized by obsolete rituals, value structures, modes of comportment, and societal relations.

2. In a film generally regarded as structurally unsound, the very first shots (Averill’s frantic run through the deserted college grounds to catch up with the graduation parade), underlined in the shorter version by the addition of a line of dialogue (“Late again, James?”), establish at the very outset both the defining mark of the film’s central character (Averill will be “late again” in committing himself at every crucial point in the film on the political and personal levels) and one of its central thematic concerns.

3. The graduation parade marching tune (the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” also familiar as “John Brown’s Body”), with its associations with the abolition of slavery, provides an important (and, in retrospect, bitterly ironic) link between the Harvard prelude and the shift to Wyoming: when Averill, after the twenty-year time lapse, gets off the train at Casper and watches its load of poverty-stricken immigrants descending from the roof, we hear a melancholy, tentative version of the same music on a solitary guitar. The link underlines the cultural clash, centered in Averill’s consciousness, between the complacent, privileged Harvard culture and the economic-political realities of the nation at large. (After the Harvard scenes, the film abandons all grandiloquent music: David Mansfield’s marvelously evocative score never employs more than a handful of instruments, and never attempts the grandiose musical gestures usually expected of the Hollywood epic.)

4. Cimino’s use of Oxford architecture, with its narrow archways, high walls, and enclosed quadrangles, not only establishes the sense of an Old World tradition, but also emphasizes that tradition’s insularity: it can flourish only in total detachment from an outside world. Harvard, based on class and privilege, becomes a dream from which the plunge into Wyoming is the rude awakening.

5. The valedictory address of the Reverend Doctor, far from being some kind of irrelevant period piece or local color adornment, establishes concerns crucial to the film’s thematic development, though not in any simplistically didactic way: Cimino’s method rigorously eschews any direct Author’s Message, everything in the film being enacted rather than stated. The casting of Joseph Cotten is significant, the actor being primarily associated (the Welles films, Duel in the Sun, Beyond the Forest) with likable but ineffectual characters. On the one hand, the speech is placed retrospectively by the cultural realities Averill discovers in Wyoming, realities which render obsolete the earnest and pious injunctions to bring culture to the uncultivated. This missionary notion of high culture and of the educational responsibilities of those who have it to bring it to those who don’t will give place, in the course of the film, to the awareness of a social-political situation that could be redeemed only by the communal and revolutionary action of the common people working in solidarity. On the other hand, Cimino uses the speech to reflect upon the students — bored, indifferent, clowning, impatient for the festivities, they testify to the justice of the Reverend Doctor’s sense that this is not an age in which “thought and meditation” flourish. Related to Averill’s habitual hesitation and delay, and central to the film’s tragic vision of America, is the notion of unpreparedness, the failure of the right people to think and act in union against an exploitative and oppressive regime that knows exactly what it is doing — a concern of pressing contemporary relevance in the context of Reaganite America.

6. Much critical abuse of the “What’s he doing in the movie?” type has been heaped upon John Hurt (both the actor and the character he plays): he seems so incongruous, so “out of things.” This is precisely the point, though Cimino, characteristically, doesn’t feel the need to spell it out. Obviously, Billy Irvine is meant to be a relatively recent immigrant (though a rich and privileged one in contrast to the starving Wyoming masses), an Englishman whose upbringing has left him hopelessly unprepared and ill-equipped for the situations in which he finds himself. The point seems so elementary that one is amazed the critics missed it, presumably because they were not told: it is the practice of classical Hollywood always to establish or confirm plot points in explicit dialogue. We are never told that Irvine is English. Nor are we told that Ella Watson is French: Cimino expects us to be able to read the evidence of their accents. Irvine’s own fear of his inability to cope produces the Harvard scene’s most poignant moment, a characteristic Cimino modulation: the expression on his face when, the mock-battle over, his nose bloodied, and Averill’s protective arm around his shoulders, he suddenly registers that this is the last night of Harvard security. Again, we are not told that he is thinking this, but context, mood and mise-en-scène make it impossible to read it otherwise. The sense of double-edged critique established in the Reverend Doctor’s speech is developed in Billy’s response as class orator, which is totally cut from the second version — another building block, expendable in terms of telling the story, with its place in the grand design. Billy’s wasted brilliance (a theme taken up when he sadly quotes his own past, abandoned poetry to Averill in the billiard room of the Association’s club) is suggested in the speech’s simultaneous vivacity, cynicism and irresponsibility: he undermines the earnest pieties of the Reverend Doctor but offers nothing in their place. Billy’s place in the film’s overall scheme should be clear enough: relating to both Averill and Canton, he embodies a third upper-class response to the social-political situation, his aesthete’s conscience making it impossible either to accept or effectively revolt against Canton’s Fascist brutalities, so that he can only escape into nihilism and alcohol. The magnificent shot that closes part 1 of the original version eloquently expresses the sense of tragic waste: whisky flask to his lips, Irvine vanishes into the dust raised by Canton’s horses.

7. The “Blue Danube.” It is essential to the method of Heaven’s Gate that the attitude to the class/wealth/privilege of Harvard culture is never spelled out for us, but only becomes evident retrospectively from the film’s overall structure. Nothing in the presentation of the Harvard celebrations compels us to view them negatively or ironically: rather we are encouraged up to a point to become directly involved in them, to share in the innocent pleasures of the participants, so that the rude awakening of Wyoming shall be ours also. Hence the stylistic strategies of the “Blue Danube” sequence. Cimino’s camera work and editing have a dual function: to involve us in the dance uncritically while preserving the possibility of distance and detachment. For the most part, camera movement and editing participate in and enhance the formal patterns of the dance: the sequence is edited to the music, and the choice of camera distance is consistently linked to the holdings back and rushings on of the waltz’s pulse. Yet the sequence is introduced by a lengthy crane shot over the dance in long shot and high angle that invites us to survey from a distance and a height, and at the climax Cimino cuts back to a similar high-angle, long-shot position.

8. Significantly, the culture of class and wealth is also presented in terms of gender inequality. The women serve a double function: posed decoratively in the gallery of the senate chamber and subsequently within the frame of a high window they are beautiful objects to be gazed at, and they are there to look on, passively but admiringly, at the exploits of the men from whose glories they are excluded (the graduation ceremony, the mock-battle). They do not choose, they are chosen: it is Averill who negotiates the change-of-partners that secures him the woman he wants.

9. Most important of all, the Harvard prologue establishes the major unifying motifs — the dance, the battle, the circle, and the tree — on whose permutations the structure of the entire film is built. The two parts of the Harvard celebration comprise the dance and the battle. These are recapitulated, with significant variations, in the film’s other two major set pieces: the roller-skating party and the final cattle baron/immigrant battle. The sequences are linked by the obvious similarities of action as well as by the motif of the circle: the dancers at Harvard circle a tree, the roller skaters a central pillar (which is also the stove that heats the hall); in the Harvard ritual battle Averill leads the attack on a group entrenched around a tree, and at the film’s climax this pattern is repeated exactly. The parallels have the function of foregrounding the systematic opposition from which the essential meaning — the thematic/symbolic progress — of the film arises.

The Dances. The Harvard dance is to cultured European music (the “Blue Danube”) performed by a full offscreen orchestra, and takes place amid stone-walled surroundings defined as the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and privileged. The participants are dressed in elegant formal wear that constitutes a class uniform, and their movements are also formal, dictated by the set patterns of the dance. Heterosexual relations are defined in terms of male competition and ownership; the dance celebrates the success (graduation) of a group defined as male, rich, and socially privileged. Characteristically, the class basis of all this is not analyzed or commented upon in the mise-en-scène; indeed, the tone of the whole sequence is nostalgic and celebratory, with the viewer invited to surrender to the visual beauty and the intoxication of music and graceful movement. Between the Harvard dance and the roller skating, however, comes the shock of the plunge into Wyoming, with its pervasive violence, poverty, bitterness, overt exploitation, and domination, its endless treks of houseless immigrants. The rude awakening (for the audience as much as for the characters) parallels the shock of The Deer Hunter’s plunge into Vietnam, while being quite different in meaning. (The political enormities of the earlier film are totally avoided in Heaven’s Gate, which may indeed be read as Cimino’s apology for them.)

The music for the roller-skating scene is indigenous rural American, performed by a small group of on-screen musicians on equal terms with the dancers; the sense that they are performing not so much for as with the dancers is confirmed when the young fiddle player joins the skaters. The dance takes place within “Heaven’s Gate” itself (through which only the rich cannot enter) — the all-purpose community assembly hall also used for political meetings, site of the later attempt to found an embryonic democratic/cooperative society to oppose the landbarons. The participants wear a wide variety of informal functional clothing, classless in its connotations; their movements, allowing for the limitations imposed by roller skates and a crowded floor, are freely inventive and spontaneous, conforming to no predetermined patterns and expressing individual creativity within a community of equals. If the dance has a central figure and a specific function beyond pleasure, it is Ella and the celebration of her birthday: as the brothel keeper and prostitute who clearly enjoys her work (the film makes clear that she doesn’t sell herself indiscriminately), she has slept with many of the men present. In the course of the film, Ella not only maintains her right to choose her customers (hence, by contrast, the horror of the rape scene), but asserts her capacity for loving two men on equal terms: it is they (Walken and Kristofferson) who impose choice on her.

The Battles. The Harvard battle is a student ritual: one group clusters in a tight circle around a tree to defend the prize, a bouquet of flowers; Averill leads the charge to smash through the circle. The class status of attackers and defenders is equal; the worst harm that befalls anyone is a bloody nose, and the attackers win the battle. No women participate: arranged and framed as in a painting, they watch admiringly from a high window.

The final battle is desperate warfare: a struggle for survival and on the symbolic level for an American identity centered on equality and cooperation. Averill has abandoned his class to aid the oppressed, and donates the resources of his education to supervise the attack of the immigrants against their persecutors and would-be exterminators. His contribution of Roman tactics becomes an ironic realization of the Reverend Doctor’s exhortation to the graduates to bring culture to the people. Engaging physically on equal terms as earlier they engaged politically, the women fight beside the men. Where the Harvard sequence culminates in Averill’s triumph, here victory is abruptly frustrated in a stroke that eloquently uses the conventions of the western in order to invert their meaning as well as the whole set of historical/ideological assumptions that supports it: the U.S. cavalry rides in to the rescue, but on the wrong side.

❊ ❊ ❊

Cimino’s naïveté is not restricted to his handling of classical narrative; it extends to every level of the film and is quite inseparable from its positive qualities (actually, amid the cynicism, opportunism and weary reactionism of so much 80s Hollywood cinema, a little naïveté comes as a welcome relief ). The alleged Marxist content does not progress very far beyond what is implicit in the saying of Christ to which Cimino’s title refers. It might better be described as an adolescent idealism — an idealism that has the courage of its own convictions and that combines idiosyncratically with other very different qualities, such as a pervasive elegiac melancholy, a sense of irreparable loss and failure, to make the film’s fusion of innocence and experience so haunting. On a personal level, this sense of loss is dramatized in the triangular relationship between Averill, Nate Champion and Ella, who loves both men and is quite prepared to go on doing so. (It is part of the film’s great interest that it tentatively raises through Ella the possibility of new and less restrictive forms of sexual relationship, though it doesn’t follow this through.) Cimino’s mastery of emotional effect (which is never arbitrary or opportunistic, but an aspect of essential structure) is shown again in the scene of Nate’s death at the hands of the cattle barons and their mercenaries. The poignancy of the scene arises from its bringing together two emblems that have accumulated rich emotional resonance through association: Nate’s log cabin, which he has recently beautified with wallpaper (in fact, newspaper pages) in the hope of bringing Ella into it as his bride, and the improvised fire wagon the mercenaries use to burn it down, in fact the carriage Averill gave Ella for her birthday. The emblems evoke the moments of Ella’s greatest happiness in the two men’s love for her.

But the film is about loss in national as well as personal terms, its distinction lying in the way it counterpoints and connects the two. It is an elegy for a possible alternative America destroyed before it could properly exist by forces generated within, yet beyond the control of, democratic capitalism. If Heaven’s Gate contains an embryonic Marxist content, it is in its playing down of the heroic individual and its emphasis on the communal action of the common people (here the immigrant farmers) shown groping toward the formation of a socialist democracy — the solidarity of citizens of many nationalities (tending, like Nate and Ella, to stress their belief in America by adopting “American” names) and both sexes (the women playing as active a role as the men). The central characters are all, to varying degrees, denied full heroic status in the American tradition. Billy Irvine, who has the shrewdest, most privileged awareness of what is going on, is also the most ineffectual, hopelessly compromised by his position among the powerful; Nate remains, until too late, a servant of the system, disowning his own immigrant status in the service of the established rich, his eventual rebellion more personal than political in motivation; Ella is destroyed because, as brothel owner, she tries to exploit the system without challenging it; and Averill, the film’s apparent hero figure, at every point acts too late, a motif established at the very beginning of the film. Similarly, Canton is denied the status of archvillain (the unexpected casting of Sam Waterston, an excellent but not exactly charismatic actor, works beautifully): personally insignificant, his power derives solely from his wealth and class position.

The film also develops the inquiry into the validity of the individual hero that was complexly initiated in The Deer Hunter. I wondered how Cimino would follow up the earlier film’s insight into the archaism of the individual hero: whether, indeed, in the context of American commercial cinema it could be followed up, as opposed to endlessly reiterated. The move in Heaven’s Gate toward a concept of the people-as-hero is at once perfectly logical and totally unexpected. It is necessary, however, to stress “move toward”: the film, on this level too, is not without its uncertainties and confusion. Averill delays his engagement on the side of the farmers (as he delayed proposing to Ella — again, the personal story closely parallels the political) until the battle appears to be lost; he is nonetheless still able to rally the disintegrating forces and lead them on in the final, almost triumphant charge. If this, too, proves useless, it is less because the individual hero has been effectively discredited than because the powers of monopoly capitalism are too strong.

The relationship of Heaven’s Gate to The Deer Hunter, and of both to the Ford-Hawks tradition, is far from simple. The earlier film celebrates a community already on the verge of disintegration from internal tensions as much as from external pressures, the later a community in the process of forming and defining itself. While both communities function to some degree as myths of America, that of The Deer Hunter is shown to exist in isolation from the rest of the nation (one of the conditions both of its continuance and of its precariousness), while the question of national identity is at stake in Heaven’s Gate. An obvious reference point here, in relation especially to the roller-skating party, is, again, the church-floor dance in My Darling Clementine. As Douglas Pye suggested in “John Ford and the Critics,” the myth of America embodied in Ford’s film, while wishing to appear inclusive, in fact depends on the tacit suppression of a number of elements in the film’s overall symbolic structure (not just the Clantons, but Doc Holliday and, most significantly, Chihuahua); the dance, while expressing energy, also contains it, repressing by exclusion what can’t be safely contained. The energy expressed in the roller-skating scene is not contained within formal dance patterns, and the only people excluded are the repressive rich. Further, the dance is associated with sexual freedom through its being centered on Ella, who magically fuses the opposites (Clementine, Chihuahua) that in Ford were irreconcilable. Moreover, no sense of hierarchy exists: when (as in Clementine) the marshal joins the dance, no one has to “sashay back” to make way for him, the dance is not interrupted, and he becomes one of the crowd. Instead, one has a celebration of individual skills within a community of social equals as exemplified in the simultaneous skating and fiddle playing of Ella’s young male servant (an enigmatic figure of great physical beauty, whose precise status and function in the brothel are left tactfully undefined). Certainly, the absence of analysis makes possible the scene’s nature as wish fulfillment — a quality that seems acknowledged by the shift, in the original but not the release version, from a full color range to sepia monochrome; but the myth of community celebrated here remains very suggestive and engaging in relation to the dichotomies of the western genre.

The final comparison Heaven’s Gate invites is with Birth of a Nation. I must say immediately that despite the status of Griffith’s film as classic (or museum piece — it is of course much more than that, but its monumentalization within film culture certainly creates barriers to any immediacy of response), I see no reason to suppose it is the greater of the two works. I think Heaven’s Gate rivals it, not only in sweep and ambition, but in realization. And if Heaven’s Gate has ideological problems, what are we to say of Birth of a Nation? (Or is a museum piece somehow transmuted beyond ideological responsibility?) Like Griffith’s film, Heaven’s Gate belongs in obvious respects to the epic genre: it is a vast, ambitious, extravagant work concerned with immense issues of national identity and national destiny. It is, however, a very unusual kind of epic. Virtually all epics, from the Iliad and the Aeneid to El Cid and Exodus (and including Birth of a Nation), have been celebrations of achievement, and in particular national or imperialist achievement (though they may also be centrally concerned with the cost of the achievements they celebrate). Heaven’s Gate is an epic about failure and catastrophe, both personal and national. It might almost have been called Death of a Nation, and one can readily grasp that it is the last film that people who flock to Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. would wish to see, as it offers no reassurance or comfort whatever. Birth of a Nation celebrates an America established upon the denial of Otherness (the Klan/blacks opposition clearly paralleling that of cavalry/Indians in the classical western), and centered on family/monogamy/purity, involving the simultaneous idealization and subordination of (white) women. Heaven’s Gate shows the destruction of a possible alternative America (one located in the historic past, but bearing in its values striking resemblances to the radical movements of the 60s and 70s): a democracy in which Otherness is accepted and valued, in which women become the equals of men, in which sexual arrangements have at least the potential to become nonpossessive and noncoercive, and in which the family is subordinated to the collective community.

Valid objections to Heaven’s Gate can be raised beyond its alleged deficiencies as readily accessible narrative. Particularly, Ella (not merely the Perfect Whore but the Perfect Woman, sweet, spontaneous, endlessly giving, and, in the swimming scene, an earth mother/nature goddess) is clearly a figure of adolescent male fantasy, and the idealization of the whorehouse is not free of sentimentality. Yet the very innocence of the vision, and the candor with which Cimino offers it, are inseparable from the film’s energies. Cimino succeeded strikingly in communicating the idealism to Isabelle Huppert, whose performance is so responsive that the fantasy comes closer to validation than my description would give one any right to expect; in Heaven’s Gate she is able to express a side of her personality — vital, exuberant, active — that was consistently repressed in her work for Goretta, Téchiné, Godard, etc. All this makes more appalling the rape of Ella and the slaughter of her whores at the hands of Waterston’s mercenaries, in the name of a morality clearly determined by money interests (Ella accepts stolen cattle as payment). The tragic statement the film offers, while concerned with choices and failures in the distant (and largely mythical) American past, takes on particular resonance in the context of the Reagan administration, with its shameless bolstering of the rich camouflaged and given spurious validity by its “moral” crusade: the present political context makes Cimino’s conception of the film, some years ago, curiously prophetic. For me, the sheer beauty of Heaven’s Gate — expressed through, but by no means confined to, its rich, elegiac images — makes all objections secondary. It seems to me, in its original version, among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema.

[1] Pasolini’s Medea, a film little known in North America, offers some striking parallels in the handling of narrative.

Robin Wood, Two Films by Michael Cimino, in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan... and Beyond, pp. 266-283

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