Stray Thoughts: Heaven’s Gate

There has already been a lot of ink spilled over Michael Cimino’s epic film Heaven’s Gate.  If you’re unfamiliar with the film, there’s a quick write-up over on NPR, an analysis by Nathan Rabin at the AV Club, an entire book on the failed production, and a documentary in pieces on YouTube.  Those links are just a sampling of what’s been written about this hot mess of a film.  So I’m not even going to pretend like I have anything insightful to say.  A few thoughts, nonetheless though:

Fun with acting!

The performances in this movie would tickle any character actor aficionado’s endorphins.  Brad Dourif with a Slavic accent!  Terry O’Quinn with hair!  Sam Waterson acting the foppish, mustache-twirling bad guy!  Not to mention the homoerotic tension between most of the male characters.  The thought strikes me that with the Criterion version out now, there’s a part of the Internwebzs that could house John Bridges/James Averill Brokeback Mountain-style fanfic.

Mr. Clean Sound Machine

When it comes to the restored sound in this film, I have one word: Owie!  The sound is scrubbed so clean the result is pretty harsh.  I appreciate that the crew might not have worked from the best source material, but oh em gee, everything from a creaking wagon to a gun shot to a footstep sounds like a bright new trumpet.  I was constantly turning the sound down & the speakers on my TV are pretty crappy.

Oh my stars, this movie is so pretty

The panoramic shots of the land are gorgeous.  As Mr. Nathan Rabin himself says, any still from the first two hours of the movie could be enlarged & hung on your wall.  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising when one learns that Cimino has an MFA in studio art.  Mountains, dust, smoke and long grass are just as important as the actor in many scenes.

The violence is not that bad

Again to refer to Mr. Nathan Rabin’s write-up, after reading his article I was expecting Pekinpah levels of violence & rape topped with soul-crushing apathy as perfected by the likes of Cormac McCarthy.  While the film is still pretty unsettling and a number of animals died as a result of purposeful cruelty, it’s not as bad as something in The Wild Bunch.  Fair warning though, Heaven’s Gate is a sad, gory movie.

Crowd Scenes

I was surprised to discover that Cimino is something of a DeMille type.  While the director has a clear problem shooting the nuances of a personal relationship, Cimino brings emotion, detail and depth to large crowd scenes without the different elements becoming an unidentifiable mess.  Too bad he can’t translate those techniques to the micro level.  Which brings me to my next point.

I love this

If there were a beating heart to this movie, it is the roller skate hoedown.  After seeing David Mansfield perform his fiddle solo while gliding around in circles, I was completely enthralled.  I have never seen anything like it before & I’m definitely on the lookout for any other film scene to come close.  The scene is joyful, chaotic and strange–all the hallmarks of Cimino’s strengths in this movie.  I’ve tracked down the tab & started learning the songs.  Interestingly enough, the group dance and the solo waltz that follows are the twin examples of what the movie does well & how it then squanders that promise.

The solo dance does not add much of anything to what the group dance has set up before.  The solo dance is well-composed and beautiful but there’s not much substance to it.  The scene occurs after our two main characters have been in the movie for some time without much to suggest what history is between them.  So the waltz becomes a tender moment between two people who the audience doesn’t have a lot of insight to.  Their brief talk after the dance is pretty par for the course when it comes to their conversations.  For me, this solo dance, like Ella’s refusal to James’ plea immediately after, is the beginning of the end.

Finally, can we just crown Jeff Bridges the madcap Clown Prince of the modern American Western?  I give you Exhibit A.

(From NPR) Jeff Bridges as the boozing, cock-fighting Slavic-speaking leader of the camp. He even has a throne.