On 8.30 the Venice Film Festival will honor director-screenwriter-producer Michael Cimino with a Persol Award, and then screen a digitally restored edition of Heaven’s Gate (’80). In a statement, festival director Alberto Barbera called the ceremony “a belated but long overdue acknowledgment of the greatness of a visionary filmmaker” who was “gradually reduced to silence after the box-office flop of a masterpiece to which the film producers contributed with senseless cuts.”
Nope, that’s not accurate. Heaven’s Gate has always been and absolutely always will be a stunningly bad film, very handsomely composed, yes, but flaccid and showoffy but absolutely seething with directorial wanking and certainly without any narrative or thematic substance, at least as I define these. And yet Cimino kept his hand in after Heaven’s Gate and made four subsequent films — Year of the Dragon (’85), The Sicilian (’87), The Desperate Hours (’90) and Sunchaser (’96).
For those who haven’t read Steven Bach‘s “Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate” (which was later retitled as “Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate“) or seen Michael Epstein‘s 2004 doc based on the book, please take the time. The entire Epstein documentary, lasting 78 minutes, is on YouTube in eight parts.
I hated Heaven’s Gate when I first saw it nearly 32 years ago, and I couldn’t stay with it when I tried it a second time at home about nine years ago. Should I try it a third time when Criterion puts out their Bluray version?
I attended the second critics screening at the Cinema I on November 17th or 18th of 1980, and stood at the bottom of the down escalator as those who’d seen the afternoon show were leaving. I asked everyone I knew what they thought on a scale of 1 to 10. I’ll never forget the deflated, zombie-like expression on the face of journalist Dan Yakir as he muttered “zero.”
Don’t buy the Criterion Bluray (if and when it appears), and don’t buy the bullshit. This whole “Heaven’s Gate is a misunderstood masterpiece” crap was started by F.X. Feeney way back when. I dearly love Feeney, one of the most impassioned and mountain-hearted film essayists around (and also a first-rate screenwriter) but I respectfully dispute this revisionist drool.