Monday, July 21, 2014
Heaven's Gate (2012 Restoration Edition)
Written and directed by Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate is the story of a Harvard-educated marshal who finds himself in the middle of a conflict between rich and established cattle barons who wage war on a group of poor, European-based immigrants over claims of stealing cattle. A fictional account of the Johnson County War of 1892, the film is scathing look into the world of American Imperialism and the myth of the American dream as a man finds himself battling a friend as they’re both in love with a prostitute who is among the many that cattle barons want killed. Starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, and Joseph Cotten. Heaven’s Gate is a visually-stunning and enthralling film from Michael Cimino.
Based on the real-life events of the Johnson County War in 1892, the film explores a piece of American history where a group of established cattle barons battled against small settling ranchers where these more established men hired killers with the backing of the American government. Yet, the film is a re-interpretation about these events as the cattle barons are portrayed as rich men who want to kill these poor European immigrants for stealing their cattle as they think of them as thieves and anarchists. On the other side is a group of European immigrants who only steal because they’re hungry as they just want to live in America and live the American dream. In the middle of this is the marshal of Johnson County in James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who wants to smooth out the conflict before it gets more troubling yet he is a man full of complications and contradictions. Especially as he’s in a love-triangle with a bordello madam in Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) who is in love with an enforcer in Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) who is a friend of Averill.
The film’s screenplay is quite vast as it starts in 1870 where Averill graduates from Harvard with his friend William Irvine (John Hurt) and ends with an epilogue set in 1903 in Newport, Rhode Island. Yet, much of the story is set in 1890 Wyoming where Averill tries to use his wealth and education to help the people of Johnson County that is full of European immigrants that is this mix of German, Russian, Slavic, Dutch, and other ethnicities who are just trying to live good lives. Averill is inspired by the ideas that is instilled upon him from his Harvard graduation when its speaker the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) urges the graduates to use their knowledge to help those in need. That moment is mocked by Irvine who later finds himself as a man lost in his role as he becomes a rambling, poetic drunk who has no clue on what to do as he would regret those actions. Irvine is part of this faction known as the Stock Growers Association led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) who is a rich cattle baron that has a lot of government connections while being very arrogant about what he does.
It is all part of something that is very complex as well as containing lots of ambiguities as Champion is an enforcer of the Association as he just enforces the law where he does kill an immigrant and later threatening another from stealing as he is just a lawman. He’s also in love with Ella who doesn’t mind being paid either in cash or cattle for prostitution as she is this woman who is in love with both Champion and Averill. Averill wants to take her out of the world of prostitution and protect her from what is coming once he learns about what is going to happen. Yet, she prefers a life that is simpler which is something Champion is offering as he would later question what Canton and the Stock Growers Association is doing. Especially when Ella’s name is in a death list that features many immigrants where Averill tries to figure out what to do as he becomes troubled by his own personal issues and the longing for a life that isn’t complicated. It’s part of that sense of conflict he’s in because of Ella where he would eventually take part in this brutal battle between the Stock Growers Association and the immigrants with very bloody results.
The script does have flaws in some of the characterization as the William Irvine character is an ambiguous figure as he is this rambling, poetic drunk that had the power to make a difference with his wealth and education. Yet, he’s a lost figure who has no clue what he’s doing or why he’s still in the Stock Growers Association as there’s a scene where a character asks why is he even here. Another flaw is its politics where it’s clear that it is one-sided in the way Canton is portrayed as this snobbish and arrogant antagonist while the poor is treated more fairly though there’s aspects of them that are just as flawed where one of them would try to make a bargain only to get his ear shot off. Still, it is a commentary on the idea of American Imperialism where Americans try to infuse their own ideas and such all for something as childish as money.
Michael Cimino’s direction definitely recalls a lot of the visual traits of the western as well as his own fascination with American landscapes as he shoots with such a wide canvas that covers so much of the landscape as it’s largely shot in Montana. There are aspects of the film where Cimino definitely wants to create something that has the attribute of an epic with these massive wide shots that includes this terrifying shot of a large group of horsemen on top of a mountain about to kill someone. Cimino’s approach to the widescreen in its 2:40:1 aspect ratio would showcase some of the lavishness of the film such as the Harvard dance sequence where Averill and Irvine waltz around a tree with a bevy of beautiful women. The Harvard prologue serves as a place where Averill and Irvine are being tasked as men who have the power to make change and help those who are less fortunate. It’s something that would drive Averill to do what is right in Johnson County as he feels the need to do with the power and responsibility he’s given.
The direction is also quite excessive in terms of its attention to detail in the way 1890s Wyoming is portrayed in its buildings and such that would also include this beautiful sequence of people in a roller skating rink to showcase what it was like to have fun in those times. It is in contrast to the sense of terror that would happen as much of the violence is quite graphic and bloody where it would culminate into this very spectacular battle scene that is frenetic at times but also very direct with the cameras being on wagons and such as well as shooting it from multiple perspectives. There’s also some unique ideas in camera angles and crane shots that Cimino uses while he also creates some intimate moments that plays into this love triangle where there’s some humor but also a sense of longing as both Averill and Champion want to have a better future with Ella. Its climax in the battle and its aftermath would lead to not just this understanding over how things are but also the question into what difference Averill made. Especially as he tries to come to terms with his own identity and the responsibilities he has as the film ends with this somber epilogue in 1903 Rhode Island. Overall, Cimino has created a grand yet very visceral film about a dark piece of American history seen through the eyes of a marshal trying to make some kind of difference.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond does absolutely incredible work with the film‘s rich and evocative cinematography with its approach to sepia lighting for some of the film‘s interiors with its shading and such as well as the colorful exterior settings of Montana in the day time as well as some low-key yet beautiful lighting for some of the film‘s interior scenes. Editors Tom Rolf, William Reynolds, Lisa Fruchtman, and Gerald Greenberg do brilliant work with the editing with its unique approach to rhythms in some of the film‘s dramatic moments along with its frenetic cutting in the battle scenes. Production designer Tambi Larsen, along with set decorators James L. Berkey and Josie MacAvin and art directors Spencer Deverell and Maurice Fowler, does phenomenal work with the set design from the look of the small town of Sweetwater with its cabins and roller skating hall as well as the home of the Stock Growers Association.
Costume designers Allen Highfill does excellent work with the costumes from the suits that the men wear to the period dresses that the women along with the more lavish look in the Harvard dance sequence. Sound editor James J. Klinger does fantastic work with the soundtrack from the way gunfire is presented to the sound of cannons as well as some of the intimate moments as it is quite sprawling in its mixing and editing. The film’s music by David Mansfield is just sublime for its mixture of eerie string arrangements with these rich arrangements of acoustic guitars, mandolins, and balalaikas to play into the film’s Eastern European tone as it features some amazing themes plus reinterpretations of classical pieces and traditional themes as Mansfield’s score is one of the film’s major highlights.
The casting by Cis Corman, Tony Gaznick, and Jane Halloran is amazing for the ensemble that is created as it features some appearances from composer David Mansfield plus T-Bone Burnett and Huey Lewis & the News keyboardist Sean Hopper as the live band in the skating rink, Willem Dafoe as a bar waiter, Anna Levine and Caroline Kava as a couple of young prostitutes, Mary C. Wright as the fiery prostitute Nell, Tom Noonan as an Association hitman who tries to rape Ella, Mickey Rourke as Nate’s friend Nick Ray, Waldemar Kalinkowski as the immigrant photographer, Terry O’Quinn as cavalry leader Captain Minardi, and Roseanne Vela as a beautiful girl that Averill eyed on at the Harvard graduation. Other notable small roles include Geoffrey Lewis as a trapper friend of Nate’s, Ronnie Hawkins as a military leader working with Canton, Paul Koslo role as the town’s cowardly mayor, and Richard Masur as the train station manager Cully who is friends with Averill. Brad Dourif is terrific as the town commerce head Mr. Eggleston who would have this great monologue about what it means to be poor and from another country as he would inspire his fellow immigrants to fight back.
In a small yet crucial role at the Harvard graduation scene, Joseph Cotten is superb as the Reverend Doctor who speaks to the graduates to ensure the weight of responsibility they have for the future of America. John Hurt is wonderful as Averill’s old Harvard classmate William Irvine as this rambling drunk who often spouts poetry though his role is one of most flawed elements of the film. Jeff Bridges is excellent as the town proprietor John L. Bridges who runs the bar and skating rink as he is a friend of the immigrants and becomes one of their leaders in the battlefield. Sam Waterston is brilliant as the smarmy and arrogant Stock Growers Association leader Frank Canton who is a man that is driven by greed as he is someone that is full of himself as Waterston brings this smarmy quality to a character that everyone loves to hate.
Isabelle Huppert is fantastic as Ella Watson as this bordello madam who is caught in a love triangle with two men as she wants to maintain a life that she built for herself while dealing with the reality of what she is facing as her name is on a death list. Christopher Walken is marvelous as Nate Champion as an Association enforcer who is quite prejudiced towards immigrants as he would eventually question his bosses once Ella is targeted as he realizes that they’re breaking the law. Finally, there’s Kris Kristofferson in a remarkable performance as James Averill as a marshal with a very posh and educated background who tries to mediate a deadly situation as he deals with his own personal feelings for Ella while dealing with who he is and what he tries to do to make a difference.
The 2-disc Region 1 DVD/Region A Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a 2:40:1 theatrical aspect ratio in a widescreen format with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound in a newly-restored transfer supervised by Michael Cimino in a new 216-minute cut where the only scene removed is the film’s intermission scene plus a few slightly-trimmed shots in some sequences. The first disc of the Blu-Ray is the film in its entirety as it is given a much richer transfer while on the DVD version, the film is split into two parts where the split occurs just after James Averill receives the death list.
The film’s second disc features many extras relating to the film and its notorious production starting with a 31-minute illustrated audio interview with Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli (which appears as an extra in the DVD‘s first disc). Through various still photos of the film and its production, Cimino and Carelli talk about the film where Cimino dominates much of commentary as he revealed that the version on the Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray is his final version. Cimino and Carelli talked about the research they went through about the actual Johnson County War as Carelli talked about Cimino’s approach to writing and how she discovered David Mansfield during the production. Cimino admits to not using monitors or watch dailies in his approach to directing while commenting on a lot of the things about the film as it’s a very compelling piece that showcased Cimino feeling validated that the film is being given a second chance.
The extras include new interviews with three people involved the film as the first is a nine-minute, twenty-three second interview with actor Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson talks about what made him do the film as he was interested in the subject matter and working with Cimino. He felt it was a story that needed to be told as he admitted that Cimino was difficult and excessive but only because he wanted to get things right. Kristofferson admitted to being hurt over the film’s reception yet he doesn’t regret doing the film which he is still proud of while he also talks about the political aspects of the film where he felt that it was probably too controversial for audiences to handle.
The nine-minute interview with music composer David Mansfield has him talking about the music and his background as he had been proficient in a lot of string instruments. He was discovered by Joann Carelli who had seen him play with Bob Dylan in the mid-1970s as he was among several real musicians including T-Bone Burnett that were hired to play a band that actually played live music. Through his work and what he was able to do on the set, Cimino hired Mansfield to do the score as Mansfield talked about his approach to the score as well as infusing a lot of Eastern European influences into the music since his father is from a Eastern European background.
The eight-minute interview with second assistant director Michael Stevenson who talked about making the film as he knew what Cimino wanted in terms of scenery and in its attention to detail. Having worked with David Lean, Anthony Mann, and Richard Brooks, Stevenson knew that Cimino had that sense of wanting to get things right where Stevenson also talks about some technical moments in the film. Especially in how close Cimino was with his actors in making sure they would get their performances right as they trusted him as Stevenson would work with Cimino in his next two films. Other minor extras include a two-and-a-half minute restoration demonstration that showcases what had to be done as the film was drenched in sepia as a lot of work through digital scanning had to be made to restore its original color. The extras include a teaser and a TV spot for the film where the latter displayed the sense of controversy about the film.
The DVD/Blu-Ray set includes a booklet that features two pieces of text relating to the film. The first is an essay entitled Western Promises by the New York-based film writer and programmer Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan about the film. Vallan discusses much of what Cimino wanted to say in the film as well as its disastrous screening in November of 1980. Vallan also talks about the film’s politics and some of the aspects of the production as she feels like it is a film that got attacked over what was going on in its production and its cost rather than it was about. Even as it was well-received in Europe who were looking for the kind of films that old masters like John Ford and Howard Hawks used to make while it was getting trashed by American critics just as the film industry was in a state of transition in the age of the blockbuster as it’s a very engaging essay about the film.
The second piece of text is an interview with Michal Cimino for the November 1980 issue of American Cinematographer entitled The Film That Took On a Life of Its Own by the magazine editor Herb Lightman who was a guest camera operator on the film. Cimino talks about what he wanted to say and do with the film as well as his meticulous approach as he needed people who were able to recreate things from the past as he felt it was something that was lost at the time. Cimino also talked about wanting to shoot in certain locations where he said that if he ever found the right location, he would go ahead and shoot somewhere just to capture something that is just magical. Even as he would capture something that was just accidental yet felt right for the story as it is a compelling piece that showcased his perspective on the making of the film before it would have its notorious premiere.
Heaven’s Gate is a tremendously rich and harrowing film from Michael Cimino. Armed with a great ensemble cast plus major technical achievements in its art direction, Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography, and David Mansfield’s score. It’s a film that showcases a man trying to make a difference in a conflict driven by greed and class differences set to a dark piece of American history. While it is a film that is flawed, it has aspects that are thematically provocative as well as visuals that really defines the concept of epic filmmaking. In the end, Heaven’s Gate is a remarkable film from Michael Cimino.
Michael Cimino Films: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot - The Deer Hunter - Year of the Dragon - The Sicilian - Desperate Hours (1990 film) - The Sunchaser - To Each His Own Cinema-No Translation Needed - The Auteurs #35: Michael Cimino
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