Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Thoughts on Heaven's Gate

I wonder if anyone can have an untarnished, innocent view on Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's infamous flop from 1980. Getting new, virgin minds to see it and pronounce on its qualities one way or the other would surely be as hard as it must have been to put together an unbiased jury for the O.J. Simpson trial. It might be worth the effort, though, of travelling to the far corners of Outer Mongolia or the primary schools of Milton Keynes, to find a sample group of people who had never heard anything about the film's travails, about its hellish, expensive and overlong shooting period, its demolition by critics, its flopping at the box office to the extent that it sank United Artists, its gradual lauding by certain critics as an unrecognised masterpiece, its remastering. Perhaps we should get this imaginary cross-section of people - they would have to be well-versed in cinema in order to appreciate the film's merits as well as recognise its flaws, all the while having never heard of Heaven's Gate - to sit down and judge it purely on its qualities as they now stand. Perhaps then we could lay the subject to rest.

For my part, I finally saw the film yesterday evening in its newly restored state, on the big screen, as it is must be seen. I can't say I'm entirely a Heaven's Gate innocent, but the film nevertheless disarmed me from the start and washed away my prejudices and expectations, so that from an early point in the film I was watching it with something like a fresh mind, appreciating what the screen had to throw at me. The film does this by being imprinted from the get-go with a heartening immediacy in its framing of the action, as we see William Averill (Kris Kristofferson) running through the streets to join a marching procession: the camera on a crane picks him out at a distance and then trains itself in on him as he pegs it through the streets of Harvard - perfectly reconstructed in period detail - and follows him, along, so that we are watching him run from behind, as he finally turns round a wall papered over with leaflets for the event he is running to attend. The filmmaking is a little showy, but masterful too as it segues into a second shot of pure, exhilarating running along a street, with the sound of a marching band beginning to mesh into the track, and then a third shot where Averill joins the band and they march into the splendor of a hall filled with cheering graduates and back-lit with window upon window filling the hall with a silvery sheen. The crowd scene is overloaded: there is so much magnificence to gawp at, so much over-directing of flailing extras, so many intricately recreated costumes and so much d├ęcor, that the spectator is taken aback and a little flummoxed. This beginning encapsulates all the flaws of the film in a couple of minutes: namely, in its abandonment of the personal scale for the huge, in the way it rushes through the human in order to arrive at a bustling sense of grandeur, it sometimes loses track of its narrative. But the beginning also displays many of the film's stunning qualities: its devil-may-care attitude, its exquisite technical mastery and period recreation, its huge ambitions and its sheer cinematic beauty.

The gorgeousness of the film is a surprise. It was famously reviled on its release for its drab yellow and brown palette and its hazy film quality, but restored as it now is, the clarity and colour of some of its shots are almost too vibrant, making you nearly laugh out loud. Some scenes still retain the dusty, stained and grainy quality - particularly in close-ups of the actors - but the landscape photography is at times so stunning as to make you gasp. Cimino has said that he would wait for days for the sun to be in the right place, for the shadows to fall just so, before sending his cast out for a hurried shot in the perfect picture - and who can blame him, from an artistic point of view? So many scenes in the film are perfectly judged images, translating all the wonder of the American west and all its possibilities. Cimino is clearly knowledgeable about film: all you could hope for from a recreation of classic American cinema is here, from his shots of a steam train offloading its passengers to the classically late arrival of the cavalry in battle scenes. His sense of his characters in a landscape, of the way they are framed and influence by place, is second to none.

There is so much more to enjoy: the rich observation of small-town life (Cimino had the entire village of Casper, Wyoming recreated), the deftness of the screenplay at times (more on this later), the humanity and generosity of the story, which gives voice to the dispossessed and rehabilitates have-nots and immigrants as the true citizens of America. All of this gives the film its life, gives it a way of pulsating with dynamism. The technical brilliance draws all of this out, at times making perhaps too big a deal of itself, such as in battle scenes that go on too long and where every perspective is represented and all props and settings are used and then torn up, when in fact it would have been more judicious to give the battle a proper line conducting throughout it, following one or two people and going straight into the fight rather than attempting to capture every part of it: this leads to chaos, which ultimately loses the viewer.

The main problem of the film as I alluded to above is the way it messes up on two counts, and they are pretty big: its representation of small human concerns is poor, and Cimino's storytelling is way off beam. Time skips without any warning, people are presented with no introduction, whole events are repeated identically with half-hour intervals to the great surprise of everyone, and the dynamics between characters are absolutely not fleshed out in the ways that you need them to be in order to invest in the film emotionally. The actors are often left to work it out for themselves: Kris Kristofferson is horrifically under-directed and never registers as the hero of the film. He is the least active protagonist I can think of: the story carries on for about two hours without him doing anything, which as a law enforcer is hardly ideal. Isabelle Huppert does her best as Averill's lover but is also underdirected, left to trade on her beauty in early scenes (where she really is captured splendidly, with her complexion lit to great effect) and often not corrected on inexact line readings that muffle the dialogue. Christopher Walken comes out of it best as Nate Champion, the rogue enforcer with ambiguous morals who forms the third part of the love triangle, but because of the way the film stumbles over simple tenets of narrative, we never gather the bonds that link these protagonists, with the result that the action often seems to be happening in a psychological vacuum. It's a real shame because there are many beautiful things, so many adroitly scripted scenes where we get a glimpse of what the actors could have done if guided better, if reined in.

There's a wonderful scene, for instance, where Christopher Walken takes Isabelle Huppert to his shack. He announces that he has wallpapered it for her; in leading her there he means to show her how she could live there as his wife. It's a silent proposal. Indoors, we see that he has newspapered the walls: his shack is ramshackle but sweet; he is clearly well-intentioned. Huppert looks around, and begins to cry - you sense her sadness, that she might be signing herself over to him and not Kristofferson; Walken smiles, mistaking her tears for happiness perhaps, or perhaps reading her correctly and wanting to appease her; she smiles back through her tears to try and control herself. In this silent scene, shot perfectly from counter-perspectives to reveal character but also with the backdrop of the cabin always in evidence, its inner workings a reminder of her homely duties, we see that Cimino can write a brilliant, quiet scene that is revelatory and touching. The gnawing nuisance of the film is that this skill deserts him, time and time again, at key moments.

Bizarrely, despite these flaws, the film never stops being enthralling: it is consistently engaging throughout, a testament to the variety of its styles, to its scope and ambitions, to its technical accomplishment and its seizing of minutiae. I found it mostly to be, in words seen in the film as describing a showroom in town, 'a moral and exhilarating experience'.