sexta-feira, 27 de abril de 2012

quinta-feira, 26 de abril de 2012

« On peut être dérouté par le cinéma d'Ozu. Car en apparence, son langage est simple. Mais il contient en fait une grande spiritualité dont les signes ne sont pas forcément reconnaissables par les Occidentaux. Le langage formel d'Ozu comporte, ainsi, six éléments importants qu'il convient de décrypter. 

- La place de la caméra : La caméra est le plus souvent posée sur le sol car c'est la façon la plus habituelle au Japon de s'asseoir. Naturellement, l'objectif est dirigé vers le haut en visant le ciel (Ozu filme les plafonds bien avant Orson Welles). La caméra devient alors le lien entre la terre et le ciel captant à la fois une énergie tellurique et une énergie spirituelle. 

- Le cadre : L'élément principal est absolument centré à l'intérieur du cadre. L'image est souvent symétrique. Par exemple : un vide, un plein, un vide. C'est assez rare ailleurs dans le cinéma. Avec l'architecture, il aime aussi créer un cadre dans le cadre. Il utilise la perspective chinoise où toutes les lignes de l'image convergent vers le spectateur. S'y ajoute un élément repoussoir au premier plan de l'image : un tronc, un vase, une table basse… Il crée ainsi l'idée d'un espace en-dehors du cadre pour inciter le spectateur à se situer dans cet espace hors-champ, et en même temps il l'oblige à se concentrer sur ce qui se passe à l'intérieur de l'écran. 

- Le champ-contrechamp : C'est la figure de style par excellence utilisée par Ozu dans les rencontres où quelque chose qui paraissait très solide, comme le lien familial, se dissout. Ses champs-contrechamps sont le plus souvent obliques et non pas frontaux (type le plus classique en Occident, générateurs d'une grande tension). Quand ça se tend au niveau du discours, l'autre personnage entre dans le champ en amorce. 

- Le jeu des acteurs : C'est un jeu stylisé. Il crée un masque cinématographique. Le sourire est un sourire de convenance pour exprimer le moment juste avant la colère. Ce sourire est d'une extrême violence. 

- L'extérieur : Chez Ozu, les scènes d'extérieur sont rares, mais importantes. Il capte les forces d'énergie et de spiritualité universelle. Elles s'opposent à l'énergie humaine qui, elle, existe à l'intérieur de la maison. En filmant le mouvement de l'eau, les feuilles des arbres, Ozu rappelle que malgré son apparence changeante, la nature est durable car cyclique. 

- Les plans sans personnages : La nature morte est une expression picturale occidentale. Chez Ozu, les plans sans personnages permettent de situer l'action, mais ils sont aussi l'image de quelque chose de solide en contrepoint à la fragilité de la vie. » 

Eugène Green, Cinemateca Francesa, 2004

segunda-feira, 23 de abril de 2012

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

sexta-feira, 20 de abril de 2012

quinta-feira, 19 de abril de 2012

Interview with Michael Cimino

by Bill Krohn

Michael Cimino was the major absence of our first “Made In U.S.A.” issue, published last April. He was, however, part of our list of American filmmakers to meet first (He was a “seeded player”, in the same way as many of the others). We weren’t able to meet then because he was absent from Los Angeles, somewhere in Montana, undergoing location-scouting (something which he especially likes, as his words here show, and which is an integral part of his cinematic vision: to rediscover the American cinematic landscape). His producer, Joann Carelli, had promised us his consent and the interview was scheduled after our publishing, with Bill Krohn, Cahiers’ correspondent in California. To elaborate on things, the interest with which we held Michael Cimino, going in to this meeting, was vague, without doubt not fully established in our minds. It was founded more out of a curiosity that lies in finding a filmmaker destroyed through a monumental failure, and victim of a cabal on part of American critics such as one has rarely seen in all the history of cinema, than in a passionate, genuine aesthetic or cinephilic interest. Of course, all-the same, Heaven’s Gate found here a response more than favorable. The viewing of the longer version confirms and amplifies this sentiment. If it remains then that Cahiers wasn’t familiarized with the films of Cimino, then it’s explained in part by the trouble provoked by The Deer Hunter during its release. We thought, naively and perversely, that the failure suffered by the filmmaker offered the occasion for a long and frank discussion with the press during which Cimino would risk speaking truthfully. The text of the interview carried out by Bill Krohn more than reached our expectations. More than that: here is one of the most passionate interviews ever published in Cahiers. Not only did we discover a true filmmaker, but we penetrated, at the closest and most deep spot, the interior of his vision of things, of his conception of cinematic work, and of his morals.

And if the pleasure you obtain from reading his remarks is as intense, it is without doubt that they raise definitively the problem which became ours when this interview wasn’t even yet a plan. In this period of mutation for the American cinema, Michael Cimino embodies a certain permanence of classical cinema, and of the morality which accompanies it, removed from all cinephilic regression and of all nostalgia.
- S.T. [Serge Toubiana]

Cahiers: How did you become a director?

Michael Cimino: I never learned film.

Cahiers: Do you watch films?

M. Cimino: I watch films in fits and starts: lots of films during a short period of time, then none for a long time; I don’t have the urge to watch films constantly. The only experiences which, in my opinion, I’ve truly picked up something, as concerns my cinematic work, is the rhythms of comedy. I studied theater during a certain number of years in New York, and I think that all my writing comes from that. If you demanded which influences I have been subjected to, I’ll say, among others, Ford, Minnelli and Degas, Kandinsky, Turner: moreso painters than filmmakers. I don’t know where my desire to make films comes from; I don’t have any idea about it. It seems to me that to make films is to pose questions rather than to be capable of giving the answers. It’s why interviews are so difficult: one doesn’t really have the answers, you pose questions, and it works only to thicken the mystery. I have never been capable of responding in a satisfactory way to the question of the origin of films: I don’t know where my films come from – the same; I don’t know why such-and-such American landscape can, at a certain point, become an obsession. Can one really know what, in Monument Valley, obsessed Ford? Of course, visually, it’s impressive, but why? For what reason does he return there? Why make so many films in the same place? I think he himself wouldn’t have an answer to that question. When you talk of obsession, of mystery, to questions, this appears horribly pretentious: yet it’s the sheer truth. So, you use a façade, you say: “I simply try to be like Ford, to tell an interesting story, about interesting people.” You require a defense of some kind.

Cahiers: You use the word “obsession”. Have you had in your life other elements that have taken the shape of an obsession?

M. Cimino: There is always that need to feel that you’re doing your possible best. On a certain level, this is what the creator feels, whether he is a maker of furniture or a maker of arms: it is the feeling of all who work with their hands. Even the details of a rifle, which are nothing but mechanical, if they are made carefully, with attention, become beautiful, satisfying. It is very gratifying to see something well-made, whatever it may be: it touches a nerve of feeling in everyone; it touches something in human nature. It makes one feel good, it gives a feeling of peace, in some way. It’s a thing which we all desire, which we all need; and everyone, in their own manner, uses this need, when one arranges their house, when one personalizes their car, their office, we all try, in some manner or other, even if we end up making mistakes.

Cahiers: How did you spend the Sixties?

M. Cimino: Vietnam was such a dominant fact over the milieu, up to the end of the sixties, that it would be difficult to find anyone that wasn’t affected by that war. When I recall it, I essentially feel a grand optimism and a grand anxiety, inextricably tied up in each other. It oscillated daily, and with a certain malaise between those two feelings. People seemed to set out in every direction, at once geographically and spiritually. I remember criss-crossing the country alone, in a car: I recall the sky, the night; I was stranded, one night, in some part of North Dakota, on a road flat as the eye could see; I got out, it was the dead of winter, it was terribly cold, everything was silent, and I walked. The sky looked unreal, incredibly unreal, and, I don’t know, I remember falling in love with that road, in someway falling in love with the “journey”, and I never stopped.

Cahiers: I ask the question because of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Jeff Bridges is amazing in that film. Lightfoot is probably the most complete character you’ve ever created, and he is the expression of that period.

M. Cimino: We all love to explore, discover things, new places. There lies in the act of exploring, hitting the road, the discovery of something about the true order of things. We all have bit of this sentiment in us; some use it, others don’t. I believe it is characteristic of Americans, and without doubt of the Western. I really love that character, but I love all my characters, like old friends. When I happen to re-watch my films, it’s as if I’m watching a film by friends; it never comes to mind that I’m watching the actors playing a role, I have the impression of watching a film from a vacation relating to an event which I participated in without seeing myself, although I sense my presence. It’s like the drawing of a moment in which one shared. I smile when I think of Jeff. In fact, he dominated the film a bit more than expected.

Cahiers: I was surprised that Clint Eastwood, who was not only the star of the film but also the producer, showed himself to be so generous toward another actor.

M. Cimino: Clint was well aware of what had happened, but he loved it so much that he could only watch it evolve, like on watches a natural element evolve, without wanting to interrupt it. In fact, if I remember well, the crew sent me a spokesperson to ask me to reconsider my idea of having him die at the end of the film; we were pretty much halfway through shooting… they told me: “We love him so much right now, could we save his life, please?”. Clint revealed himself to be very generous.

Cahiers: For starters, very few actors of that importance allow themselves to be led by a first-time director.

M. Cimino: “I don’t sell a screenplay unless I direct it myself”: it was my condition, and I was ready for it. But I think Clint was happy during the shooting, he seemed to take great pleasure at seeing the film and follow its stages. Before starting, I said to Jeff: “You have a job to fill. You must make Clint laugh in this film”; that’s exactly what he did!

Cahiers: It’s a film which shows that which many films of the era tried to show: the relationship between generations – which, at that moment, had become problematic.

M. Cimino: Of course, the characters of Eastwood and George Kennedy talk about their experience in Korea, and their attitude is in large part that of that generation; Jeff was a headache, for them. They don’t situate themselves in the current majority of American society, far from it; but Jeff was the bearer of change. Now that I reconsider it, it seems that Eastwood had a very brief moment of loving life, when he let himself go: for an instant, he gives himself to the illusion that he can be free, that he can regain that which he had before. That which we remember the most is the moments of freedom, of loving life. It is, in part, the subject of the film; it contains moments of that kind.

Cahiers: It has other aspects which are more “mainstream”; after all, it is a “genre” film. But it gives the impression of being a major film, not because of its budget, but because the range of its references. Foremost, simply because of the range of territory it covers, you truly have the impression of having seen the land, having experienced the places we pass through. In a sense, it is another film about people who search for America, or the idea of America.

M. Cimino: That pleases me; I wanted one to get a sense of America, I wanted one to experience the land, to see it, to feel it.

Cahiers: Where did you film?

M. Cimino: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was entirely shot in Montana, but in very different places; we traveled a lot, especially around the Great Falls; in the banks of the Dearborn and the Missouri; in the fields of wheat, east of Great Falls. The schoolhouse, with its single room, is an exact replica of a school found on the other side of the mountains, to the west. It was so pretty, where we built it, that we had trouble keeping the tourists away during shooting. It was at Wolfcreek, just outside of Helena. We filmed in a small town north of Great Falls, Fort Benton, which is the furthest west that one can go on the Missouri, where industrial equipment and goods arrive from St. Louis by steamboat. The old photographs of Fort Benton show hundreds of steamboats along the banks; one would think that Fort Benton would have became a metropolis. It is in this small town that Clint, sitting under a tree with Jeff, recounts his past. Fort Benton has a very rich history in the development of the West. It is there that they unloaded all the merchandise, to then pile them on the wagons which followed the path of the Oregon Trail, or scattered about in other directions. It was one of the regions where they exploited the goldmines, at Monarch Pass, to the east of Great Falls, the length of the Missouri, etc. It is a limitless open country. It is in large part the region of Charlie Russel: south of Great Falls, there is a bar where many of his paintings are found, from a certain era; and if you continue south of Great Falls, you’ll recognize many figures he represented in his paintings; the territory seems very familiar. I found the land east of the Great Divide very fascinating, because it is there that the Great Plains encounter the mountains. It is very steep; no hills you could climb on-foot, particularly above Interstate 2, north of Browning, which is a reserve for Blackfoot Indians. If one looks to the east, one can see practically to the Dakotas, and the mountains rise from all around. The east is dry and flat, and to the west, lies the Pacific. I found that it was a place of much contrast; the climate is completely different in the eastside and the west. What more could you ask for: some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, the rivers, the pines, the lakes, the plains; all that one could desire.

Cahiers: What brought you to this place besides what you had in mind before shooting?

M. Cimino: It surpassed my hopes in a number of ways. It revealed itself to be much more mysterious than I hoped it to be. I found it to be unreal: and each time that one glanced at the peaks in Glacier National Park, in every season, but especially in winter, when they are white, early in the morning, it is impossible not to feel a… an extraordinary contentment. In the presence of those mountains, all mountains in this case, - when one approaches them, one feels their spirit rise up, one begins to feel good; I don’t know from where this comes from, but it can’t be an accident that the Indian tribes of the Old World, who lived in the presence of tall mountains, made them, in some manner or other, gods. One must love a place to be able to show grand landscapes on the screen. Nobody showed and made one feel Monument Valley like Ford, although many tried. But him, he loved it, and if he was there and one could pose the question, “Why?”, I am certain that he couldn’t articulate a response, except to say that he deeply loved that place. When one loves a place, it shows in the images one makes.

Cahiers: There are other things, which are maybe tied up in that, like all the flags.

M. Cimino: There are a lot of flags in all the films…

Cahiers: This is also an era where we saw the American flag on people, on car-bumpers, in places where it wasn’t intended, with slogans like “America, love it or leave it.”

M. Cimino: I could never do that; it’s too noble a symbol. I think that even at the end of Heaven’s Gate... it’s curious, despite the circumstances, despite the ending, one feels at the same time a certain nobility in that flag. It’s crazy, but its how it is; it transcends, in some way, that moment; I suppose it’s because it is an extraordinary symbol of hope; even at that moment, in Heaven’s Gate, it still seems to me like a symbol full of nobility, despite what happened, despite the genocide, as if even that couldn’t degrade it; it is still beautiful, the imagery is clear, brilliant, there’s no mistaking it. One can’t confuse that flag for any other. And to me, seeing that flag flapping in the wind, in that place, it’s a little magical.

Cahiers: Where did you film The Deer Hunter?

M. Cimino: There exists a real Clairton, in Pennsylvania, but we didn’t use it except for the name. The town, in the film, is one complied from seven or eight places, taken from several states. The church is in Cleveland, as well as the supermarket; the interior of Lenders’ house is in Steubenville, the exterior of Angela’s house is found in Follansbee, in Virginia; the bar, interior and exterior, is found in Mingo Junction (Ohio) the same as the exit to the steelworks, the parking lot. The interior of the steelworks is in Cleveland. It is therefore truly a composite place.

Cahiers: How did you go about creating a place when it doesn’t quite exist? Do you send people, do you look at photos?

M. Cimino: This place exists in your head, so you are in search of that you would like to find. I do most of the work myself, because I take pleasure from it. For The Deer Hunter, I was going to do one job prior to the others, but in the end, you say to yourself that you must do it all yourself. One learns a lot: one meets people that one would never have met otherwise, one gets to know the country better, also; that enriches the film, in some ways. The story of the two cups happened to a girl who worked for me looking for exteriors: she had helped at a wedding where two cups came, in the same circumstances; I immediately reused this anecdote, she was terrific. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t traveled endlessly. The majority of things, you find them completely by accident. I didn’t know that there was this marvelous church over there, I glimpsed it from afar, by accident, from the highway, and the hills are so beautiful! In fact, I found this church and that while starting Thunderbolt and Lightfoot on a really cloudy day, all of the sudden, the sky cleared up, and there it was! I believe that this research is an integral part of the film: the time spent watching people, talking to them, hitting the road, sleeping in those towns, walking down those streets. You notice things, some consciously, others involuntarily, that otherwise… It really approaches the work of an actor, you absorb a number of details; you notice a lot of things which, in a certain way, find their way back into the film.

Cahiers: Did you construct the important sets, for the American half?

M. Cimino: Yes, all the interior of the bar is a set.

Cahiers: Is it a reconstruction?

M. Cimino: No, it was from half-a-dozen details, pretty much, drawn from photographs essentially. The exterior existed, but the interior, nothing but plaster! So we entirely constructed the interior set, but it doesn’t show. We designed it down to the floorboards, nothing is real, it was constructed that way; the curve of the ceiling, the walls, the floor due to time were reconstructed. The trailer was entirely built according to photographs which I took, and the motel also, along with its sign. The door and the exterior of the steelworks were built.

Cahiers: So that’s what you do when you can’t find the place that you’re looking for.

M. Cimino: Sometimes you find the right place, but not the structure that you need. There, for example, everything was perfectly arranged, the railroad, the bar, etc., it couldn’t better, except that it didn’t have an entrance. So, we simply copied the entrance of another steelworks, which was found in another town, and we brought it there. The rest was perfect, the underground passage, etc., it was only missing the entrance, so we built it. We built a cabin in the mountains. We had it prefabricated in Pittsburgh, and delivered up to Washington. We assembled it, painted it, then removed it and put it in a truck, then transported it to the mountains.

Cahiers: Do you work a lot in the studio?

M. Cimino: No, I never film in a studio. We work around real existing places, and we modify them. You try to work, as much as you can, from what you find. For example, in Heaven’s Gate, we needed the train to run through the town, and there are very few cities, in the West, where you can find that combination. In that occasion, I had location scouts looking, and then I went, in my turn, to see if it would work. Surprisingly, very few towns like that actually exist! We had to get our train from Denver, Colorado, because such trains don’t exist. We worked as much as we could with what we found, and then we idealized them.

Cahiers: Why do you consider it so important to work on location?

M. Cimino: There is a current which flows when you film on location that you can’t get easily in a studio: you get off at night to go home, you don’t work on the weekends, it’s almost deskwork. Some like that; me, I like to feel far from home, that satisfies me; you get qualities from it, textures, which are doubly difficult to get in studio. And then, in studio, you don’t have real people, you have professional extras, which is completely different. In each of my films, we used a lot of locals and a small number of actors. The state of mind of people who live over there has never been truly shown in films. They brought an exceptional characteristic to the film. In the wedding scene, for example, in The Deer Hunter, these are the actual parishioners; it was very difficult to find that current, that life, from people who had the habits of an extra; you could obtain a perfectly satisfying result, but not the same result. Those people were really Russian-Americans, who actually spoke the language, actually danced those dances, who had spent all their lives in that community, had certain facial expressions. You couldn’t create that in professional extras.

Cahiers: Were you already familiar with that milieu and those people?

M. Cimino: No. I knew people like that, and I grew up with people from that milieu. I was a groomsman in a wedding similar to that one; I was very young, and in fact, my grandmother frequented a Polish church, one the Pope went to when he came to New York. It’s the Polish community that I know, not the Italian. I was therefore accustomed to these sounds, and I think that the music of Russian weddings is the most extraordinary that one can find. Of course, we could have reconstructed that church in Hollywood, New York or London, but it would be difficult to find the same people. This contact is an inestimable contribution for the actors.

Cahiers: Why did you want to make a film about Vietnam?

M. Cimino: One is always drawn to confronting the war when one has lived through that generation. People like Capra, Ford and Hawks dealt with WWII; the following generation, the Korean War; and us, we are grappling with the problem of Vietnam, it’s our point of reference. It’s an inevitable and natural consequence of our belonging to that generation.

Cahiers: It sounds like you’re talking about a form of therapy.

M. Cimino: One shouldn’t talk about films like its therapy. I don’t like that word. The principle subject of Ford, it seems to me, was the civil war and its consequences; that pervades his work. I think that the United States changed more profoundly during the Civil War, and after, than during WWII: there was certainly many more technological inventions during the World War, major material changes, but for that which concerns our mentality, the Civil War had a deeper impact. The Civil War and that of Vietnam resemble each other; both of them were concerned with the problems of race, which was never really central to WWII. Japan was certainly involved, but it wasn’t a war which distinctly opposed a different culture: it was principally the West against itself. In Vietnam, we found ourselves embroiled in the civil war of others. It is very interesting; the majority of profound changes that took place in our society came from our civil war, and a hundred years later, we were thrown into a foreign civil war. It was we who changed more than the Vietnamese. That conflict was a thousand years old, we didn’t change it, but our presence changed us a lot.

Cahiers: Which bridges the two events: it’s that our participation in Vietnam started a sort of civil war here, but this isn’t what you wanted to deal with. You focused on the people who went to fight in Vietnam, and on the effect of the war on them. In The Deer Hunter, you don’t mention the national division which the Vietnam War provoked.

M. Cimino: No, it was a fully deliberate choice. It is interesting to note that Heaven’s Gate starts just after the period of the Civil War: in fact, in the longer version – but this vanished from the shorter version – Joseph Cotton, at the end of his speech, uses these words: “When our hearts and minds…”; its taken from a speech which was made after the Civil War. They are very similar periods to one another, where we strived for reconciliation. In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Lightfoot, after all, is killed by Kennedy, a soldier, and in his mind, he has this feeling of having participated in a war. I believe his last words are: “I feel like we’re heroes,” as if they came back from hell, which is the case. But, during the war, people of the type depicted in The Deer Hunter, were ignored by the media; in general, we belittled them, we treated them stupidly, like reactionaries, like fascists, it was unjust. I found, and I find in general, in that environment, a lot more intelligence and sensitivity regarding what happens in the world; and I find that in general, the people of Los Angeles and New York who wrote about the war navigate between these two cities, plus Paris and Saigon, and it is very rare that they reach these people, they don’t know them; they have narrow opinions about them, and don’t look further. After the war, and up till the end, these people showed themselves to be more capable than them in changing opinions that they professed beforehand; they had a bigger intellectual adaptability. A lot of people from New York are still fixed on the war; none of that which happened in these seven or eight years has changed their opinions. And of course, for a lot of people who write about the war, this became the center of their life. They don’t want to go beyond it; they’re hung up on that period, they’ve become reactionaries. That which isn’t at all like the case of that environment is what interests me: I found a lot more flexibility and honesty in those who went to the front. I found that they had more courage for adapting themselves to changes in their life, in their family, in the country, than the people who didn’t go but write about the war. That isn’t to say that there weren’t great journalists, people of great courage, for taking very difficult positions from the start of the war. A number of diplomats, Foreign Affairs officials, took the position very early, saying that it was a situation without an exit, and furthermore, wrong. Doing that, a lot of people ruined their careers. A lot of courageous people spoke up early on, and were buried, ignored. But in general, American journalists were wrong for pushing around the public, and they did not reach people on the subject of the war; I think they still feel guilty. They wait lasted until Walter Cronkite changed his mind: they waited for somebody to make the move for them, and when that was done by a visible figure like Walter Cronkite, they followed. This explains in part the anger of critics against The Deer Hunter, which in some ways encroached on their territory; I think that journalists felt that they were fooled by the administration, by McNamara, by Johnson, that they were had; they were, for too long, without any critical sense; I believe that still torments them and it was what mattered to them when they changed their positions. Nobody attached any importance to it.

Cahiers: What research into the war did you conduct for the film?

M. Cimino: Joann Carelli conducted a lot of research from private television channels, in New York. She and her assistant saw perhaps thousands of meters of film shot during the war. There was a great amount of material, because the films arrived daily, at the end of the war. She gathered a certain amount of documents which we kept in our library of newsreels – some had already been shown, but the majority were never broadcast on television. It was very important work, which took several months. I forgot how much we finally assembled, but it represented several hours of film.

Cahiers: Where did you film?

M. Cimino: We filmed in Thailand, on the River Kwai, near the Burmese border; we wanted to film near the Cambodian border, but we couldn’t find a suitable river over there; they were all too shallow that year; so we went west, next to Burma. We lived and filmed over there during monsoon season. The rest was shot in Bangkok, and around Bangkok. Thailand was the best solution, because we also had to show Saigon - and in Bangkok, we used the streets, like Pathong, to represent an area of R&R; the architecture of Saigon is very close to that of Bangkok, the people really resemble each other.

Cahiers: Now that I know a little of how you work, I would say that it was a bold artistic move to depict, in the central scene of the film, events which never really took place: the Russian roulette… You had taken great care over the historical details of the war, and smack in the middle, you introduced purely imaginary events.

M. Cimino: This has already been so controversial that I’m tired of talking about it. A lot of people say that this really happened, and many say the opposite. Some journalists allege to have witnessed similar scenes; some people recounted seeing such games, but among women; some have sworn and still swear that it never happened. I find that all beside the point. What is important is that it’s very difficult to find the means to express, in a film, that dominant aspect of war: it’s what the majority of people could tell you; it’s the waiting. Each time there’s a firefight, it disappears; it’s extremely fast; but there is a terribly long period of waiting before; waiting for an event, waiting to be overtaken, waiting for a random shot. How do you show that type of tension, how do you make the spectator feel it? It’s a simple problem: how can I communicate to a public, in telling my story, what exactly this tension is? By making people wait five hours in a foxhole, with background sound of explosions? On the level of mise en scène, this isn’t very good… You have to find a means of communicating it, in a clear and vivid manner. Yet, contrary to what happened during WWII, the people of our generation were under the influence of Vietnam seven days a week, through this damned news. We were saturated with images of the war. Nothing like the people who, during WWII, saw the newsreels at the cinema each Saturday, so that each film made the war become an experience fresh and vivid. The contrary happened to us: our imagination was saturated, it had too much information. So we started to minimize it, ignore it. The problem was the following: how to communicate the tension, the experience of combat?

Cahiers: My favorite moment is when De Niro recreates the game of Russian roulette…

M. Cimino: What he tells Stanley is that he's killed; what he tries to do is teach Nick, in some way, to make sure it isn’t repeated. He tries to free Nick and the others from their romantic ideas, their illusions. There is a very short shot in that scene of a deer that he doesn’t shoot – you’ll notice that, when they argue, in the car, there is a nearly subliminal shot, only eight or nine frames, of a young deer; De Niro sees it take off like an arrow, none of the others see it; but he doesn’t fire on it; he could have done it, the shot was easy. If others had seen it, they would have all probably fired. But I think he’s not fully prepared for the events that happen. During the hunt, he talks about “one shot”; he attaches a lot of importance to it. In Vietnam, he doesn’t use a gun; he uses a flame-thrower and destroys a North Vietnamese soldier, in a way that would have been terrifying, unthinkable for him beforehand. He’s still the same person, but he has become conscience of a thing, in that war, which he wasn’t prepared for. We see a North Vietnamese soldier throw a grenade into a trench filled with women and children. It’s something shocking for a character like De Niro, and for us. Then you see De Niro kill him with the flame-thrower, not clean, not one shot… he shields their escape by emptying his cartridge… So he also changed a lot.

Cahiers: I understand that some criticized Meryl Streep’s character in this film.

M. Cimino: They criticized the fact she wasn’t very independent. It is interesting to notice at which point the articles about The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate reveal, for the majority of critics, a deep – how do you say – “petit bourgeois.” They wouldn’t recognize a real worker if he popped out of their toasters. That a girl like her, in a small town like that, where everyone knows everyone, where everyone knows what you do, where everyone talks about it, would leave her father’s to go live, in a trailer, with those two guys, and stay after only one of them returns! That shows that she is a character with a very strong will; one must be very strong to act thusly, in a community like that, where religion plays a very important role. A large part of those same critics couldn’t accept the roller-skating scene in Heaven’s Gate. It’s unimaginable; there were people who thought that this scene was made because skating became fashionable! They refused to accept the fact that this activity existed in that period, and that often cattle-drivers went out on the rink, got drunk, and began skating; there weren’t any women around so these guys were sometimes very tired, but they continued. It was a very popular activity. They couldn’t understand: “If these people were so poor and so oppressed, why were they allowed to dance?” But it’s what the poor could do better than anything else: they didn’t have the money needed for other entertainment. It’s still true today, the whole world over. In the favelas of Rio, in La Boca in Buenos Aires, what do the poor do on weekends? They dance, for god’s sake; it’s from them that dances come from, not the upper classes. I was astounded, appalled, to see that that kind of ignorant criticism could exist. You show them farmers in the new world: they demand to see them crawling, not having fun. You show them an oppressed class: they demand to see people oppressed every second of the film. It’s disconcerting.

Cahiers: Why do you think The Deer Hunter was a world-wide hit?

M. Cimino: I was surprised by the rest of the world’s reaction. Everywhere, the emotion of the audience was the same as here. I never dared dream of that success, mainly because the film dealt with Vietnam. Maybe it’s because it shows ordinary people, who, like other ordinary people, have a lot of courage in them, that particular kind of courage which galvanizes us; people without a doubt identified themselves with them, they identify themselves with those that resemble themselves; the fact that it’s about a different culture, the fact that it’s about Vietnam, wasn’t ultimately important; it was simply a war, about ordinary people faced with disaster, and reacting with a lot of courage. What happens to this small group, this small family – because this small group of friends forms a family – is shared by everyone. The tragedy of growing up, growing old, the tragedy of marriage, of war; every culture experiences that. This is what people identified with, and this has nothing to do with Vietnam.

Cahiers: What attracted you to the story of the Johnson County War for Heaven’s Gate?

M. Cimino: The history of the West, in general, is inspiring, it overflows with events; it’s a source of constant fascination. The episode of this small war, when I came across it, fascinated me, I really don’t know why. Maybe it was above-all else the death list, drafted in due form, sanctioned by the central and federal government. It’s what always interested me; knowing how one makes decisions which bring about the death of people. McNamara, Kissinger and the others; this group sits at a table and makes political decisions concerning Vietnam – more bombs or more troops? Their decision always entails the death of thousands of people. The decisions of war were made with the best reasons in the world, no doubt; lawful reasons like protecting the peace, protecting economic and political systems. I believe they are always made with those intentions, and calmly too! A group of men, sitting around a table, in a hotel suite, in the middle of eating breakfast or lunch, eating some choice food off of fine china, in a pleasant setting, calmly discussing how many people to kill…

Cahiers: I read what Asa Mercer wrote about the war; it’s a book (“Powder River Invasion”) which the French like to call very “committed”. It’s a book of reminiscences, written to clear up the attitudes of certain people and find out who was on the right or wrong side. You often come across words like “the shame”… It’s a book which one is surprised to find in the history of the West.

M. Cimino: No, you find a lot of writing of that type. It’s not so exceptional in itself; but when you come across it, you’re amazed.

Cahiers: Some didn’t make note of it, but it seems to me that you were faithful, on a number of points, to the description of events given in the book. In fact, a number of details which the critics reproached you for came from the book.

M. Cimino: People used Heaven’s Gate to vent so many things, particularly the critics. Firstly, they rejected the material reality of the film. Yet our perception of the West is molded more by films than by the actual history of the West. The same people who we think of as very cultivated have the idea that the West was something like what films have shown us. What they have seen, or what they remember, is what they are accustomed to; bad, rushed movies, where there were never any extras in the background, the street were always empty, because it was simply cheaper to do so. I’ve listened to people tell me: “Why telegraph poles; did they even have electricity in that period?”; “Why are the streets so full of people; what are these people doing?” Have you ever seen a photograph from the era? Paradoxically, it’s one of the periods of American history which has the most photographic documentation. It coincides with the sudden blossoming of photography. The photographers captured everything in photos, and we had a very complete documentation of the era from looking only at photos. What they always show is an enthusiasm in these towns in development and construction; the stiffness of buildings, of people, of clothes; but the activity, the energy, the crowds which flocked to the major streets, the businesses; we have never shown that. We are used to seeing the sets from films, not real places. We are used to Old Tucson, which has been used maybe 150 times for 150 different films; it’s been thirty years of seeing the same town, without knowing it. My artistic director on Heaven’s Gate, who was also that of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, built, I believe, the original Old Tucson, and he worked on it again about thirty times, changing and remodeling it over the course of years. What they created, in fact, is a cinematic reality instead of a historic reality. People didn’t want to confront this idea, so they began by rejecting the material reality shown: the crowds, the businesses, the telegraph poles, the skates, people’s clothes, and the formalism in the nineteenth century manner of speaking. In the film, there isn’t a single building, a single interior design, that wasn’t inspired, in one way or another, by photographs from that era. Each element of the wardrobe, both the principals’ and the extras’ costumes, was designed in part by photographs, and yet all of that was completely rejected. Even the music was rejected; some think that the music of the West was born in the head of some god, as is; I wanted music which was as it was then; it was the beginning of what we know as modern Western music, but they still didn’t have it fully established; it was still close to its origins: for example, the skating music has Cajun feel to it; the rest of the music consists of Russian, Ukrainian, German and Polish folklore; “The Blue Danube” was a popular song in that era. But they threw all that aside.

Cahiers: Did you try to do as in The Deer Hunter, to show a reality which has been masked by its representations?

M. Cimino: Exactly. But The Deer Hunter was easier to accept, because it was contemporary, and it’s a reality which is still part of our visual baggage. Even to this day, we still recognize that small-town life very well. In Heaven’s Gate, it’s a question of going a hundred years backwards, and people can’t compare that period with what they have seen in other films; not with what they know, but what they’ve seen. Yet it was different from what they had seen up until then. This wasn’t the confirmation of something accepted, it was new. I’m talking about critics. When you read books on this period, on the war, even the clothes, the wardrobe, the hats of the mercenaries – there is a photograph of this group of mercenaries, with their names underneath, like a class photo; they are all wearing hats and they exactly resemble those in the film. The costumes, the ties are the same. The group in front is sitting, those behind them are kneeling, and the furthest group is standing. Even the death of Nate Champion: “Why did they shoot so many times?” – They found the real Nate Champion with 26 bullets in his body, and it’s precisely what we redid with Christopher Walken, and even that wasn’t accepted. The rejection was total, even had the film stuck exactly to the historical facts.

Cahiers: What alarmed me in the film, and which I later found in Mercers’ book, is that Champion died like a hero, guns by his side, just as you depicted, while writing his last testament.

M. Cimino: I used exactly what he put on paper.

Cahiers: You said somewhere that you weren’t so accurate concerning the war: that can maybe lend to the confusion.

M. Cimino: Yes and no. In other words, there were many elements which were very accurate. Likewise, for Vietnam, we worked in details for the hospital, the row of refugees on the road, the way which De Niro dressed, and the embassy sequence. We tried to be very accurate in what we did, in general; on the other hand, we took the liberty to use reality as we pleased, to not be left chained to the events down to the letter. But I don’t believe that we distorted reality enormously, whether in The Deer Hunter or Heaven’s Gate. I think that in spirit and tone they reflect a certain reality, a certain truth.

Cahiers: That also brings us back to what you said about places: how you find those that are suitable and how you idealize them. Could you maybe talk about the creation of towns: we have already spoken about Clairton; how did you choose a location for Sweetwater?

M. Cimino: I know the region; I often went there, and I always had, in the corner of my mind, the intention of using it one day. The problem was I wanted a town which appeared to be in the mountains, and not with mountains in the background; a place which looked stuck in the middle of mountains. We were stationed in Kalispell, to the west of the Divide, two good hours from this town. There was no discernible town; we needed extras for the roller-skating, which had to be based near a populated place. I traveled a lot in Montana, Washington State, Colorado, Idaho; we had driven 20,000 miles in Colorado alone, crossing the mountains, trying to find landscapes, prospects which had yet to be used. I wanted to show places which weren’t visually exhausted, which we haven’t seen. We are accustomed to landscapes from the southwest, towns like Old Tucson which we’ve already seen, against our will, in 200 films. We have seen and re-seen those places; I wanted to give people the impression that they were in the West for the first time; I thought that it would be exciting for them. These places had never been photographed, never been used; they radiate very strong vibrations. That took a lot of work, because a lot of those places are found in the National Park, and you have to respect the ecology: thus the exteriors of Sweetwater, the entire town is built on a raised three-feet platform, so as to protect the grass that is underneath; few people know that; in fact, it was better, because when the wagons crossed the town, they made a brilliant sound, which they don’t naturally produce; I put mikes in the dust, under the roads, and when they make their mass entrance at the end, one hears a marvelous sound. That’s the exterior scenes: we built the interior sets at Kalispell and in that region; which means we had shot the interior scenes months before those in exterior. We had decided that the lighting would be very directional, with the exception of the skating, which is in a tent; we had to get dark interiors, filled with smoke. So we had to determine, three months in advance, precisely where the sun would be. I don’t think it has any mistakes, I believe it’s completely accurate. In the bar scene, for example, where the light comes from the south, through the front door, when you see the exterior, the sun is at the right place; people didn’t pay it any attention, but it’s accurate. It was a method of searching for new exteriors, a new look, something different. The work was difficult, because the places were separated by 200 miles, but I don’t think you notice it, like you don’t notice that Clairton is composed of seven or eight towns. The same in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, you don’t know that it takes place in the same state, you feel as if you travel the entire Northwest. It’s the reality of the film which is important, I believe; the illusion was successful, in general. These places were found searching, in car or on foot, not in helicopter, on mountain trails, on dirt roads. You see fucking all from a helicopter. You get a feeling from arriving at a place, from discovering it; you perceive it differently, if you find it by accident; when someone tells you to go see such and such place, it never works, you must find it yourself. In general, when you follow your intuition, you find the place then you know that it’ll work; you find what you need, if you really need it, you find it; it’s a question of faith; that’s it, its waiting. We always had trouble returning the cars that we rented; the renters always thought that the odometers displayed incorrect numbers; we took a car for a week, and it showed 10,000 miles; they believed that the meter was broken.

Cahiers: Were you inspired by photos while building that town?

M. Cimino: In part, yes. The church appeared in a photo, all the tents of the town also, with their leather dressing; the bar, all of it, interior and exterior; the interior of the skating-rink also is a very typical building, a framework with a tent over it. The name 'Heaven’s Gate" is purely imaginary, however.

Cahiers: Is it pulled from Shakespeare?

M. Cimino: Yes.

Cahiers: The interior appears completely unreal, above all because it’s so big.

M. Cimino: Those are the exact dimensions of the wedding hall in The Deer Hunter, 40 by 100, and the same amount of people, 200, with the band at one end.

Cahiers: The representation of immigrants like a community, at the skating-rink or the bar, is parallel to the opening scene, at Harvard: they are communities with their rituals, their order and their own social divisions.

M. Cimino: Yes. They have already started becoming all that which Averill (Kris Kristofferson) has rejected. Its one reason for Averill’s disillusionment: he sees that transformation, that evolution; he sees it in those divisions which already mark the community; the merchants are separated from the others; already, they want to adapt themselves to something as horrible as the death-list. It’s the natural order of things, they group together and distinguish themselves from others in their own way; they don’t dance to Strauss, they dance to their own music. A carriage doesn’t circle around 800 magnificent dances gliding through the lawn of a college; it navigates a small, overwhelmed main street of a village bordering a lake, in the middle of mountains. Averill doesn’t take into account the importance of material thing for those people, for Ella (Isabelle Huppert) particularly. He doesn’t take into account the importance of the gift which he gives her himself, what it means, what it really represents. After all, he rejects the material aspect of his world; he’s certainly an idealist, and I think his gift is more a whim than anything else, and she takes it as something more meaningful. The aristocrats who are idealists are always disappointed when the people which they hope to help express an interest in material things; they expect in some way to find the reflection of their own idealism, and they encounter it very rarely.

Cahiers: I suppose that’s the outcome of the optimism which we see at the beginning of the film. You without doubt know the famous essay by Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, which talks about the closing of the Frontier, one year after the Johnson County War. Did you want to show the end of something in the film?

M. Cimino: In a literal sense, it was the end of one century and the start of another: so, yes, it was the end of one thing and the beginning of another. The America of 1900 was certainly very different from the America of 1870: Newport, in particular, could not have existed before: it required a particular combination of forces to produce that display of extravagant opulence. Do you know Newport, in Rhode Island? It doesn’t look like anywhere else; rows and rows of extravagant mansions. It was the place in America which contained the most wealth, and they flaunted it with the grandest ostentation; and it happened over the span of fifteen years! So it was the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Cahiers: I think that your decision to add an epilogue and a prologue situated the event in history. Furthermore, Averill talks constantly about aging. Perhaps because Heaven’s Gate deals, above all, with passed times.

M. Cimino: Yes, it’s a film about passed time, and about a man who reflects on passed time, on his journey, on his past. Often, it seems to us barely possible to have lived through so much, and to still be alive, to have survived. How was I able to pass through such turmoil, so many events, meet so many people, so many things, which rush by in a frame of time which appears, to me, so short? How did I get there, how did I accomplish what I did, how and why did I survive? What is real in all that and what did I embellish? What part of my relationship with others was real, or were they more or less imaginary? Did my life really take place as I remember it; if it was different, what was it? It’s the type of question you ask yourself when you think on your past. It’s as if all the film consisted of flash-backs from his meditation at the end, on the boat. He’s someone who felt pressed to do what he believed was right; at the beginning of his life, he felt obligated to do what Reverend Gordon (Joseph Cotten) proposed: to act responsibly, work hard, have a useful life, conduct oneself according to the church, give his heart and mind to his country. In the end, he’s not sure of what he’s done; he poses a lot of questions about what he’s lived through; he is drawn anew towards what he is familiar with, he returns towards his class of origin; like Fitzgerald said, he retreats back into his money – I believe those are his words. It appears to him, at that moment, on the boat, that it was impossible that all that could have happened: the more he thinks about it, the more the mystery grows in his eyes. All those people are literally gone, in fact; it’s not like they were still alive; they have all gone; and that amplifies the impression of the unreality of that moment; it is impossible to go back, to see them, to speak to them, to ask them questions… I think that boats have always been a refuge; the people who sail, who fly planes, always say that they are freed from problems up there or on the sea: it’s a relief; the problems appear much less real.

Cahiers: You feel, in this passage, that this which they call reality is put into question. It’s what also happens in the roller-skating scene, which you play out in the mountains. You spend the entire scene with the dancers, then Averill sends Bridges to go bring the carriage, and you have a close-up of Ella. Her facial expression has something of worry or melancholy. Then you come back to the interior and all the dancers are gone, without you having seen them leave.

M. Cimino: It seems important: at a certain moment, the people disappear to her, she returns to her head with thoughts of what is going to occur between them, what their relationship is going to become. She is intelligent enough, visibly, to understand that they are from two completely separate worlds. Like I already said, she interprets his gift in a completely different manner than he does. Now that you gave her more, she expects more; her expectations increase with the gift. It’s in human nature; the more you give yourself, the more you desire, the more you need. But she isn’t sure of him; he isn’t someone who really expresses his feelings.

Cahiers: The relationship between Averill, Ella and Champion is often ambiguous or difficult to decipher…

M. Cimino: That was part of my intentions, to keep that ambiguity, to let the spectator draw their own conclusions: about whom she'll end with, what she’ll do; it isn’t precise. It’s like real relationships, not like fiction, where nothing is left to the imagination. In life, in all love triangles, whether between three men, two women and one woman, two women and one man, you’re never sure of the equation, because it always changes; you never can tell.

Cahiers: To take another example, you never see the friendship between Averill and Champion: you can infer it, on the part of a phrase: “Mr. Averill is lucky to have a friend like you”, but you never see that friendship in the picture. Their rivalry for Ella, and the political situation, has already spoiled that friendship; in a sense, it is left aside from the picture. Why did you leave something like that aside? You also said that you didn’t want the spectator to know everything about a character when they see them for the first time, but only when the film ends. Can you elaborate on that?

M. Cimino: I don’t know what I can add to the question… I wanted to say something important: there are often moments where I think… just in the pleasure of making the film; you feel a joy using the means of expression; the pleasure it gives you, the pleasure it can give to others; particularly in the musical sequences. You should not leave aside the pure pleasure of the form in-itself; it’s like driving a good car: there is also a joy in pure speed. You don’t have to lose sight of it when you talk about the work of somebody, or of films in general. It is rare that the cinema, as a means of expression, is used to make one feel joy. Film is also its form, and it explains in part the pleasure that one gets watching the films of Kubrick; the control which he exercises on formal elements is completely remarkable.

Cahiers: I asked in fact a question about form, and it has to do, without doubt, with what you said about speed.

M. Cimino: I don’t know what else you can say on the subject, but that film seems to end very quickly, because it isn’t encumbered by that which encumbers the majority of films. With certainty, the characters explain themselves, they explain one-another, they explain the meaning of the story; they say what they feel, what the others feel, what you should feel. To return to your question about Champion, it didn’t seem, to me, to have been an important element of the story: if I thought it was, I would have shown it.

In The Deer Hunter, you miss, by all evidence, the Vietnamese point-of-view; it isn’t the subject of the film, why talk about it? It’s a deliberate choice. This isn’t to say that it’s the right choice, but that you consider such-and-such aspect secondary in comparison to such-and-such other. Maybe I expect too much understanding, too many deductions from people; it’s possible.

Cahiers: You also put so many elements into the film that you can’t see them all from watching it once, or even twice. I’m talking about the details in the appearance of things and peoples, the faces, the costumes; it’s all like a foreign language, because you have never seen it before. Yet they’re very significant details; for example, you notice that one character is better dressed than another, even if it’s only an extra.

M. Cimino: I loathe the word extra; it’s horrible, because you use people as you define them. Extras – foreign to the scene. For example, the big street-scene in Kalispell, when Averill arrives by train; you see that enormous crowd, very clearly: everyone does not have the same rank; all different social level and classes are represented in that street. The people – the extras – are arranged with great detail. Each extra was carefully chosen, dressed and even redressed if it wasn’t right; we cut the hair off some of them. We classified them, by such sorts of groups one could find in a station – there are figures of immigrants, of merchants; we divided the people into squads, into sections; there is a procession of masons in the streets. All the society of a town is visible in the street. It isn’t a concept; the idea is that you must be able to look at any part of that immense screen and isolate from it any small piece according to your choice – you should maybe try, the next time you see it, taking a small telescope and scanning the screen with it, examining and isolating small parts. I think that, whatever part of the screen you choose, you won’t be disappointed: you will find equally swarming activity everywhere. Why do that? The majority of people will go see the film once, although, in cases where a film is successful, many people go see it two or three times; it’s true, even for Heaven’s Gate: many people returned two or three times to see it; they also rewatched The Deer Hunter many times. It’s because, especially for a period film, you don’t want to violate people; you don’t want them to say, suddenly: “Oh my god, there’s a bus!” for example. In many major films, films which were successes – I’m not saying which – you see the extras, in numerous scenes, without know what they say, but it’s clear. They’re counting sheep; when they should be singing, it’s obvious they don’t know the words; or else they are completely irrelevant to the shot. That weakens the film, even if the public isn’t directly conscious of it, they notice it; it forms a deposit in them, and people, I believe, respond to films from that strata deposited in them. You threaten the film; you also threaten the credibility of characters, by lack of judgment. If you pay great attention to the place you film, you must do the same for the people you film. The effectiveness of The Deer Hunter comes from you accepting the reality of that community of people, and their environment. You can look at any part of the screen during the wedding reception; you’ll see everyone participating, everyone taking part in that event. It was done very carefully, not out of self-indulgence, but to make the story more credible.

Cahiers: There is nothing but credibility – everything is obviously very important: even if people don’t see all the details in that street-scene, on first viewing…

M. Cimino: There is even a hanging; they hang a man in the middle of all that activity!

Cahiers: …what’s important is that the details are there to be read, if someone wants to see them. The film doesn’t create the portrait of a socially homogeneous world, but of a very differentiated world.

M. Cimino: Take the example of a hundred-piece orchestra: if one bow is slightly twisted, it is easy to tell which person doesn’t realize it, by all means. But the conductor will hear it. But why should he nit-pick? The public, 99% of the time, won’t hear a thing. Why is Balanchine endlessly done, not only by the soloists, but all the ballet? The public only watches the center of the stage. People don’t ask themselves questions about choreography, the direction, and the composers. If a director does it, he passes for a narcissist. The big battle scenes of Kurosawa are, in general, worked to the smallest detail. We shouldn’t have to talk about it; it’s simply part of our work. See what happens in the American auto-industry: the sales of Japanese cars are always rising, while American sales continue to decline: because the people have that which they perceive as a better product, better made. The lack of taste in good work can have disastrous results for a country, for all of society; it doesn’t simply concern fabricated products, but our entire system of values. It is important to value good work and the pride from working.

Cahiers: It seems to me that the majority of criticism directed at the film concern the way it was made and the deliberate choices you made. For example, the soundtrack, in certain scenes, isn’t conventional: it is particularly striking in the scene next to the train, with Cully and Averill, where you listen with difficulty to what they say, you miss dialogue. It is all the more striking as it’s a scene with very important exposition.

M. Cimino: My position was very simple: if you are next to a locomotive, among all those people, all that noise, you must strain your ears to listen, and you miss parts of what’s said to you. We’ve all seen scenes in movies in airports, in subways or on trains, where you don’t hear a single sound, nothing but the dialogue: it’s only a picture of two people in the act of speaking! All other forms of life are suspended; we abandon that which was in progress all around. I wanted people to listen more attentively, listen perhaps in the manner which the characters must listen: they’ll bend down, they’ll work a little bit so as to catch everything, perhaps they’ll read their lips; I expect a lot from people. The public has become lazy; maybe that was going too far, but there is also a great density in the soundtrack, numerous details. The sound was also recorded as carefully as the visuals. If there’s a market on one side of the screen, you hear the appropriate sounds, just as, if on the other side, other activities happen. The soundtrack is very rich. People aren’t perhaps used to that, they expect the dialogue to be emphasized: I believe this comes above all from television. That leads us to this representation of intense activity: when a scene includes a whole place, it includes many people, therefore many sounds, all sorts of peripheral sounds. When Averill walks down the street, for example, to go to the store, you can remove the sounds, it’s very easy, you erase it, and you pass directly to the soundtrack of the store. I wanted you to feel what it was like to walk down a street in that period: to follow those noisy wagons, to cross all that activity, what you felt, what you heard. People made so much dust; my god, was it dusty! That makes the streets dirty… when hundreds of wagons go around, they raise dust. And very often, we took the time to record the background sound. In the store, for example, we recorded numerous conversations, with the intention of inserting them into the soundtrack later. This isn’t general background noise; you hear people, in a corner, argue over the price of a knife, discuss the merits of a particular rifle… each of those people are engaged in a very specific activity and you hear them.

Cahiers: That is the second time that you’ve said: “Maybe I expect too much from the public.” But you have received letters on the subject: what do they say?

M. Cimino: All the letters I received told me that people understand the film perfectly. They essentially spoke of the critical reaction. I didn’t receive a single letter saying: “I don’t understand”; the letters say the contrary, and they come from people of all ages and all walks of life; thoughts, well-written, some longer than twenty pages. Some people in New York took an airplane to come see the four-hour version; people moved in groups to go see it. It was very gratifying, in fact, to see that they didn’t believe what they read. Curiously, many cited Moby Dick, taking into account the initial reception that it had received. They all used the words “flowing” and “like a river.” Many said that they had seen the film two or three times and that they appreciated it more and more with each viewing. All wrote to me: “We hope that you aren’t discouraged.” Many knew that I worked on a modern version of The Fountainhead. They sent me quotes from The Fountainhead, from other novels about individualism. Nearly all said something on the subject.

Cahiers: Do you think people were offended by your political positions?

M. Cimino: I don’t see it as a political film. I don’t see The Deer Hunter as a political film. I really don’t like politics. They aren’t stories concerning politics, but stories about people, caught up in events, whatever its reasons may be. They reveal the event. Americans are very poor, on all levels, in that which concerns political statements. We don’t know how to make them, and when we do, we make them badly. We aren’t adapted to that.

Cahiers: They say you’re always trying something new, and your style evolved very quickly from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to Heaven’s Gate. How do you see your current situation? For example, would you be interested in going back and making another “genre” film, where one finds what one expects, like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot still was; or will you make another film like The Deer Hunter?

M. Cimino: It will always be people who will interest me, I believe. It’s people who give you the urge to make movies, characters. You have an attraction to a character, if he’s interesting enough, that what’s important. I don’t see myself making a film because it’s from a certain genre, except a musical comedy; I would love to make a musical comedy, it provides a special pleasure which tempts me; I think it would take me to a state of pure joy which I dream about. I have already begun a story about Indians; in short, it’s a story of a boy who wasn’t entitled to his vision and because of it, he doesn’t have a name. To receive a name, he attains his vision, and when he has a name, he must earn it; it’s a story of the American plains, it takes place in the Dakotas and Montana. I have two other subjects on the West, on which I’ve been working for some time: they are all journeys in that genre. I hope to eventually make a film on the gangster Frank Costello.

Cahiers: Are you tempted to protect your rear-end, like Hitchcock said?

M. Cimino: We are all confronted with the reality of the film industry. You must have a sense of money to make films in our age. A failure doesn’t make your life easier. Hitchcock could make films to protect his behind, Ford also…

Cahiers: “Make one for them,” he would say.

M. Cimino: Even when Hitchcock made films for them, to protect his rear-end, they had something special. Making films isn’t easy; you always have spats, harassment: it’s an unpredictable profession. What’s important is that you and others continue to make films; up to the end, Hitchcock and Ford stayed true themselves, they worked late, like Huston right now, and it is amazing to see the energy that they retained after all the obstacles that they’ve overcome. When you think of what Cukor suffered, when he was fired from filming Gone With the Wind; he worked three years to prepare that film, he was consumed by it, he filmed several weeks, and then he’s replaced on a film which became the most well-known and most important of its era, it must have been a terrible blow! That shouldn’t have been as easy to experience as it looks in retrospect: not only did he made it through that period, but he continued to make marvelous films. His parking spot is next to mine, at MGM, and as I said once in an interview, I believe it was at Cannes: Selznick is dead, Thalberg is dead, Louis B. Mayer as well, and the guy who’s my neighbor at MGM is named George Cukor, he was still making films at MGM! It was true; he was making Rich and Famous. It’s very hard work. When I arrived here for the first time, I think it was because I had to meet Clint, I was invited to a party, I think it was Clint who asked me to go. I didn’t know what it was; I though it was going to be some sort of screening, he had said there was going to be an awards ceremony. I wandered around all corners, looking to recognize people; it was a tribute to David Lean, and there were only filmmakers; Hitchcock was there, I believe, Capra also, Huston; all those who were alive were there. We saw twenty minutes of film-clips from Lean, and, as I understood, Lean isn’t sensitive. I forgot who handed him the award; everyone stood up and I believe they gave him a ten-minute ovation, all standing: only filmmakers, no press, no television. It was an extraordinary moment, Lean cried. Seeing Hitchcock, Capra, Huston, Billy Wilder, Minnelli… he couldn’t find the words. Who were they applauding? Someone who had gone out there, as they had themselves: what a marvelous tribute! It was so sweet, so enthusiastic, so personal; it must have been a shock for him to see that bunch of old marksmen standing to applaud one of their own. They all know what it is to be booed.

(Interview conducted by Bill Krohn in Los Angeles, the 27th and 28th of April, 1982. Translated from the English by Francine Arakélian)

Entretien avec Michael Cimino, Cahiers du cinéma nº 337, junho 1982

quarta-feira, 18 de abril de 2012

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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