sábado, 21 de abril de 2012

The Perverted Dream

by Michael Henry

With what arrogance, what audacity, does Michael Cimino continue to work, not so much against the times, as against the social current. At the hour when the guilty consciences of “bleeding heart” intellectuals was sprawled across movie screens, The Deer Hunter gave America several reasons to exorcise the nightmare of Vietnam, and to rediscover a faith in itself. Now, when they are clearing their consciences by embracing Reaganite certainty, here comes Heaven’s Gate, clashing with it head-on, forcing them to face a truth that has been systematically suppressed for a century. If Cimino must be reprimanded, as an idiotic press believes he should, one certainly could not accuse him of opportunism…

Yesterday, he was the first to dare keep enough of a distance from the tragedy of the war so as to offer us a spiritual odyssey which both transcended and sublimated that tragedy at the same time. He was also the first to ignore the political and ideological elements of the conflict, so as to better espouse his chosen point-of-view, that of small-town America. The war? His “blue-collars” would never dream of contesting it; it was perceived in terms of individual survival, like a rite of passage, an initiative step into the larger history of the community and, beyond it, of the entire nation. Today, by examining the sources of America violence, he is tackling a carefully concealed heritage. Far from dressing an open wound, he is reopening a forgotten one, laying bare a trauma even deeper than that of the Indian genocide: the “original fratricide”, the massacre of the poor by the rich.

This time, political power is directly accused: the stock-growers claim they have the support of Congress and the President; the stars-and-stripes, brandished by the blue-coats, ultimately arrives to cover-up the crimes of the aggressors, and thwart the immigrants’ victory over the land… “It's gettin' dangerous to be poor in this country,” sighs Jeff Bridges. To which Kris Kristofferson replies: “It always was!” One could articulate it better only by saying that the pioneers perverted their dream through the very means by which they obtained it. It’s as if America could only build itself and prosper at the expense of the very ideals on which it was founded. How does one become American? To this question, which obsesses him, Cimino responds: sometimes in disregard of rights, sometimes in disregard of morality. Is it necessary to add that he places himself, as in The Deer Hunter, on the side of the lifeblood of the masses, on the side of the humiliated and the wronged, the voiceless and those forgotten by history?

The individual experience, as we now know, only interests this filmmaker as far as it emerges from a national scale. The Deer Hunter put the ethical nature of its hero, Michael Vronsky, to the test. Attached to his “tribe”, but yearning for the solitude of nature, he is an individualist cultivating his separateness, but also a natural leader who galvanizes his companions, struggling to contain the violence dwelling within them, up to the point of renouncing the thrilling emotions of hunting; this “control freak” embodied the opposite representations of America. Like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, King Vidor’s masterpiece which Cimino has long planned to remake, he preserves his integrity at the price of a permanent asceticism.

Conversely, as victims of their own ambivalence, stuck between two antagonistic worlds, the characters in Heaven’s Gate have no grasp on the ensuing events. Failing to control their destiny, they are overwhelmed by their own insurmountable contradictions: Nate, the illiterate mercenary, betrays his community by carrying out the Association’s dirty work; Averill, the son of a powerful family, betrays his class by siding with the poor. This commitment, which neither of the two can maintain to the very end, doesn’t come without contempt. Both contempt for themselves and contempt for their allies. They both come to the point where they take up arms against those they serve: after Ella’s rape, Nate shoots one of Canton’s lieutenants, while Averill welcomes a delegation of “collaborators” with the blows of a whip. The poet Irvine, the weakest of the three, doesn’t even have the courage of deserting his side: the powerless and tragic witness to the abuses of his class, he seems to extend a looking-glass to Averill, who in his turn, like mimicry, will ultimately attempt to forget these events with alcohol and reclusiveness. Arriving far too late, their respective awakenings-of-conscience will not change the course of events: Nate will be murdered by his employers, Averill deposed by the local government, and Irvine will be delivered from his torment in the course of bloodshed, of which he was nothing more than the spectator.

For the essentially physical communion offered by masculine camaraderie, The Deer Hunter substitutes, little-by-little, a spiritual communion with the values of a small society which still remains close to its ethnic origins. Michael, in particular, confronts one after the other, the ambiguous savagery of war and the primordial forces of nature, discovering at the end of his quest a painful regeneration. The acknowledgement of evil marks the loss of innocence, but as with the thwarted dreams of a wasted life, it was a lesson that needed learning, a heritage that had to be recognized. Beyond the sorrow, the mourning community imperceptibly rediscovers its deep roots. There is no irony in the “God Bless America” which the survivors sing – it is but an act of faith in the tangible reality which unites them. In Heaven’s Gate, that life-force retreats prematurely, unavoidably, starting at the end of the prologue. Hardly had the graduation celebration reached its peak that the fervor begins to wane. “Let our friendship be forever,” sings a chorus of Harvard’s golden youth, but already blows have been exchanged, bursts of violence which anticipate the frenzy of the confrontations to come. And above all, an unexpected, deeply-moving change of framing occurs, isolating Irvine, the jester, the soothsayer, who shouts, while laughing and crying: “It’s all over!” Long before Averill, who will need twenty more years to understand what his friends perceives at that moment, he senses that never more will his generation participate in such a journey, have such unity in the same calling – “the education of a nation.”

Their paths will diverge: some, like Averill, will carry out the migration of their contingency from the East towards the West, without finding the Promised Land there; others, precisely Irvine, will flee towards Paris, towards Europe, creating a New World which is nothing more than a caricature of the Old. From that point on, the future will only be built on lies and denials. “It’s all over!” prophesizes Irvine, and at that point, the story is immediately placed in the context of lost time and romantic disillusionment. The drifting of souls, the loss of vigor, the degradation of values, this is the register which Cimino adopts. In this romantic lament, friendship itself – and we know how precious this filmmaker holds it – will remain unformulated or inexpressible. Averill and Irvine will meet again, but on opposing sides. Nate and Averill will not be able to love each other, except through the women who they fight over: nothing more than a potential friendship which can only express itself when one party is unaware (“You’ve got style, Jim!” Nate tells Averill when he is black-out drunk) or gone (Averill gazes lengthily at Nate’s remains). Undoubtedly, the sheriff will outlive his companions, but only as a phantom, a living corpse, a wreck of a man abandoned, by the end of the century, to the posh shores of Newport. Still capable of remembering, perhaps, but not of testifying for the “great cause” which he believed he could serve in the West.

In The Deer Hunter, the view of the world expanded itself at each turn of the story, until it embraced, like a Pantheist Assumption, the harmony of the universe, such as it is revealed in Michael’s eyes when he gazes at the immaculate glaciers of the mountain. In Heaven’s Gate, to the contrary, John Hurt’s cry marks a clean break from the dynamic enthusiasm which the film’s overture promised. The Prairie dreamed of by Averill is already irreparably sullied. In three vignettes which are much like engravings, we are presented with the victims of Myth, the outcasts from Heaven: the black silhouettes of the destitute cling to the roof of a supply train, Hungarian immigrants wading through the mud, the blood and viscera of a Soutine painting, a convoy of the hungry-and-downtrodden escaping from the ghettos of Central Europe, and who look like an offense against the radiant beauty of nature… As a measure of the extent to which they shatter the illusion and waste their energy, the landscapes of the film never cease to shrink, as if the world itself was collapsing, until it’s ultimately reduced to the dimensions of a yacht-cabin, Averill’s final cell.

It is true that among these landscapes everything moves with a rigorous choreography. The motif of the circle commands the mise-en-scène of groups. The privileged figure of ritual, it appears in each episode of the film: at Harvard, where The Blue Danube carries three circles of dancer waltzing in opposite directions (each circle itself animated by the whirl of each couple) before two new circles, both exclusively masculine, form around the May Tree and its trophies; – at Sweetwater, where the motif reappears during the rare moments of euphoria: the mad ride on the Ella’s buggy, the cockfight in a smoke-filled backroom, the roller-skate dance in “Heaven’s Gate”; – during the final battle, lastly, which finds the killers encircled by wagons of immigrants, who are in their turn encircled by the Calvary… The complementary figure of the circle which closes off its movement, the arc of the circle is associated with immobility: it dominates arrangements of groups which are frozen in wait: parishioners posing for a photo, mercenaries waiting in ambush around Nate’s home, villagers holding a meeting to organize the resistance…

Many have noted – starting with Cimino – the references to paintings which appears throughout the composition and lighting of shots. But have they also emphasized the masterful novelistic structure, already visible in The Deer Hunter? Despite the vicissitudes of montage, this talent emerges at each and every turn of a narrative whose visual elements never ceases its escalating search for new metaphors. Between the dominant caste and the immigrant subordinates, a network is established, one of connections, antitheses, of internal rhythms, each more clever than the last: the parade at Cambridge is answered by the cortege of the destitute through the desert; the sumptuous order of the waltz by the joyous indiscipline of the violinist and the skaters; the choral singing of students, the Slav and Yiddish chants carried by the wind to the opposing camp; the conference of stock-growers in a plush club, the gathering of a people’s war tribunal; the faces of young girls in flowers illuminated by candles, those of Ella and prostitutes lit by the gas lamps of the brothel; the role-call of members of the Association which is composed only of very Anglo-Saxon names, the reading of the “death list” containing the family names of “foreigners” originating from all the countries in Europe… “To have and have not?” Two Americas, each as different as shadow and light, who in their fratricidal ballet, never cease from meeting and tearing each other apart. At heaven’s gate, nothing remains but the broken pieces of a shattered dream.

Positif nº 246, setembro 1981

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