When Criterion’s Heaven’s Gate Bluray came out last November I just couldn’t muster the energy to ask the Criterion publicists for a freebie. I had watched it once at the Manhattan all-media press screening in November 1980, and the memory was still fresh 32 years later. I couldn’t make myself watch it again. I just didn’t have the will.
“I was there, man,” I wrote last August. “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.”
Anyway, Heaven’s Gate showed at last September’s Venice Film Festival and then the New York Film Festival and then the Bluray came out. I figured by now it would be over and done with but no. N.Y. Times critic Manohla Dargis has written a new “let’s take another look at Heaven’s Gate” piece because it’s showing at Manhattan’s Film Forum from 3.22 to 3.28. I would love this film to go away and die in a hole in the woods, but it won’t.
Dargis: “Watching Heaven’s Gate for the first time in February I understood how it could mean so many seemingly contradictory things to so many people and why so many dissimilar conclusions could all feel true. The film’s scope, natural backdrops, massive sets, complex choreography and cinematography are seductive, at times stunning, and if you like watching swirling people and cameras, you may love it. If you insist on strong narratives, white hats and black, uniform performances, audible dialogue and a happy ending, well, you will have history and consensus on your side. (The film’s turbulent history — amazingly, given the stakes, it was yanked from distribution soon after it opened — also helped explain why I had never seen it.)”