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A Look Back at Heaven’s Gate


by Stephen Becker 9 Jan 2009

Guest blogger Bart Weiss sends this report. Bart is the Artistic Director of the Dallas Video Festival. Last week I had a bad cold and was in bed for more time than I would like. My DVR (which is not as good at TiVo, no matter what DirecTV says) recorded one of those things you […]

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Guest blogger Bart Weiss sends this report. Bart is the Artistic Director of the Dallas Video Festival.

Last week I had a bad cold and was in bed for more time than I would like. My DVR (which is not as good at TiVo, no matter what DirecTV says) recorded one of those things you think you should see and usually never do. This film was a four-hour commitment (kind of like going to see Che when if finally gets here) and I wasn’t going anywhere, so I hit play and watched Heaven’s Gate. For those too young in 1980, Michael Cimino fresh off the big hit The Deer Hunter, the first major dramatic film dealing with Vietnam, decided to make a major film about immigrants in Johnson County, Wyoming.

The film started behind schedule — legend has it that it was behind six days by the fifth day of shooting. it was budgeted at $11.6 million and came in over $30 milion. There was also talk about major animal abuse during the shooting that could not be done today, cock fighting and worse. It was part of what lead to the Humane Society overseeing animal care in films today.

But more than anything, the film stood for excess. It was a filmmaker out of control, a studio out of control — all this I knew. The question was, was it a good film?

A few years ago we showed a program at the Video Fest about Channel Z, a notorious cable station in L.A. that ran great movies. In that film, they talked about how Heaven’s Gate got a bad rap.

So what do I think?

it is a fascinating but very flawed work (I know a cop out).

The film is slow. very slow, there are scenes that drag on and on, for no seeming reason. There is production value that is not necessary. It seems like there are 100 extras in every scene, and in the end they don’t add up to much more then if there were 15.

But the film looks amazing. If you ever watch this, watch it in hi-def or Blu ray (if it still exists next year). The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is clearly his best work ever. And that is saying a lot. At moments, I forgot about the story and was just watching the visuals, or maybe the story just got boring.

The other point about the film is its relevance. Whenever you look at a period film, you have to ask, “Why is someone telling a story about this now?” Whatever was going on in terms of immigration in the late 70s/early 80s, I just don’t remember, but it clearly is an issue now. The evil character gets permission from the governor and president to assassinate 125 immigrants and goes on a killing spree. This would make interesting viewing now if anybody could stay awake.

There have been many other films in history that seemed extravagant at the time. Metropolis almost broke the UFA studio in Germany, but they were better films. Yet, like a car wreck, there is something about this worth seeing. But I would not want to see it again, which for me is a major way of grading a film.

Having said all that, I have to thank Turner Classic Movies for showing it (the director’s cut). For people who love film, TCM is the best thing on TV. Uncut , and letter-boxed, the way it should be. Their selection is hit-or-miss, but there are so many good films worth seeing. It’s film school lite for free — a companion to renting all the Criterion Collection DVDs.

So there you are. Now you never have to watch Heaven’s Gate — I did it for you.

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  • Read the book “Final Cut” for a movie exec’s look at this film.