Michael Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate had its disastrous New York premiere on 11.19.80, at the Cinema 1 on Third Avenue. A climatic moment in history, and I was there — a witness, a survivor, taking the pulse, mulling the significance. Was the legendary Larry Karaszewski there also? Maybe. Then again he was 19, about to turn 20, and as far as I know still living in South Bend, Indiana. So maybe not.

Posted on 8.13.12: “I was there, man. I was in that audience [at the Cinema 1], and in all my years of watching films I have never felt such a sucking sensation in a room…a feeling of almost total inertia from the oxygen having been all but vacuumed out by a filmmaker with a ridiculous and over-indulged sense of his own vision and grandeur, and by a resultant approach to filmmaking that felt to me like some kind of pretentious waking nightmare.

“I could feel it in one of the earliest scenes, when John Hurt is addressing his graduating Harvard classmates in a cocky, impudent, self-amused fashion and Joseph Cotten (as a character called ‘Reverend Doctor’) is shown to be irked and offended by the snide and brazen tone of Hurt’s remarks, and right away I was saying to myself, ‘What is this? I can’t understand half of what Hurt is on about and I don’t give a damn why Cotten is bothered. If this is indicative of what this film will be like for the next three hours then Cimino is fucked and so am I because I have to sit here and watch it.’

“What happened? How could Cimino have made such an oppressive and impenetrable film as this? The basis of the ‘misunderstood masterpiece’ revisionism is basically about the fact that (a) it’s very pretty to look at, very pastoral and majesterial, etc., (b) it offers a severely critical view of the vicious tendencies of gangster capitalism (hence the admiration in certain lefty and left-European circles), and (c) it’s very expansive and meditative and serene in a certain 19th Century fashion. I understand how some could glom onto these three talking points and build that into a revisionist mentality.

“But don’t start up with the ‘oh, what did they know back in 1980?’ crap. They knew. I know. I was there.”