Heaven's Gate: a -career- suicide
June 5, 2006 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Coming off of The Deer Hunter, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Director/Screenwriter Michael Cimino looked like a rising star. His next film, Heaven's Gate would prove so disasterous as to change the industry forever. [more inside]
posted by Ogre Lawless (58 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 

The film went beyond disaster and straight into debacle. For starts, the $7.8 million budget balooned into $40 million as Cimino went on what could be loosely described as a rampage: 1.5 million feet of film, 1.2 million for the complete rebuilding of the set town to correct the spacing, 1200 extras on hand. Things got worse from there.

The animal cruelty was so severe that SAG and the AMPTP would sign a deal with the American Humane Association to provide oversight on films where animals where used "No animals were harmed..."

Cimino's first cut ran 5.5 hours, as screened to the stuido. It was eventually cut to a 3 hour, 39 minute format that was screened only once before being withdrawn and then again recut to a 2 hour, 29 minute version which was received horribly. In the end, it grossed less than $3.5 million.

Not only did this take the predictable toll on Cimino's career, but the fallout rolled on: Studio head Andy Albeck resigned. Transamerica -- at the time taking a hard look at its assets -- decided to dump United Artists which would fold soon thereafter. This film is also cited as the last film during which directors were afforded large amounts of leeway with the studios: a move to tighten the reins had been underway for some time, but this would be the final nail in the coffin.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:20 PM on June 5, 2006


It might be called the last gasp of the wave of great, classic American filmmaking of the 70s. Excellent post, cheers.
posted by Mr. Six at 2:30 PM on June 5, 2006


a move to tighten the reins had been underway for some time, but this would be the final nail in the coffin. That's what happens when you bite the hand that lays the golden egg.
posted by QuietDesperation at 2:30 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


There is much more to Heaven's Gate than meets the eye. Steven Bach's Final Cut tells the whole tale.
posted by unSane at 2:31 PM on June 5, 2006


fuck movies. you people watch far too many of them.
posted by quonsar at 2:39 PM on June 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


In reality, "Heaven's Gate" is a far better film than one would guess from the controversy it stirred up when it was first released in the 80's.

The cable channel Trio (is it still out there? DirecTV axed it a year or so ago) ran it's longest cut as a feature in its series on flops a few years ago and it was really something else. Not for everyone, mind you, but not a piece of trash either. Looking back on it, I think Cimino's main offense was over-weaning ambition. He just pushed the Hollywood film farther than Hollywood was comfortable with.

Visually, I think this is one of the most gorgeous movies ever filmed. The only other movies that compare, in my experience, are Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" and Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon".
posted by hwestiii at 2:40 PM on June 5, 2006


your first link is a little strange...
posted by soiled cowboy at 2:43 PM on June 5, 2006


great post. still not sure i can stomach this one. maybe if they have a double feature of the director's cuts of Dune and Heaven's Gate.
posted by puddles at 2:48 PM on June 5, 2006


Good post, Ogre Lawless
posted by boo_radley at 2:55 PM on June 5, 2006


now queued up in Netflix
posted by mischief at 3:03 PM on June 5, 2006


fuck movies. you people watch far too many of them.

And alas, Hollywood just keeps churning the suckers out.
posted by blucevalo at 3:04 PM on June 5, 2006


Waterworld was called Kevin's Gate

It was also called Fishtar.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:07 PM on June 5, 2006


It was also called Fishtar.

You know, Ishtar really wasn't that bad either. At the very least, you have some wonderful casting against type, and some hilariously bad lounge music, and who doesn't want that?
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:21 PM on June 5, 2006


It actually sounds like a pretty interesting - if self-indulgent - movie. But then, I think Once Upon A Time in the West is an incredible movie...
posted by freebird at 3:22 PM on June 5, 2006


Seeing as Waterworld is one of my favorites -- the contraptions on his boat alone were worth the price of admission as was the vision of another Earth -- Heaven's Gate might be just my speed. Thanks Ogre.
posted by Aghast. at 3:33 PM on June 5, 2006


maybe if they have a double feature of the director's cuts of Dune

The long version of Dune isn't a director's cut, it's just longer. Well, I suppose you could argue that the relevant Alan Smithee actually did the cut, making it sort of a director's cut.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:35 PM on June 5, 2006


I saw this restored on the big screen last year. It's astounding. Not entirely coherent, but excellent nonetheless.
posted by goatdog at 3:38 PM on June 5, 2006


hwestiii writes: In reality, "Heaven's Gate" is a far better film than one would guess from the controversy it stirred up when it was first released in the 80's.

You aren't the only person who's told me this, along with some friends who I consdier to be much better critics of film that I'll ever be. So I've actually tried to watch it--and lord, is it godawful. The dance scenes in particular. There's not even "so bad it's good" quality a la Cleopatra.
posted by bardic at 3:38 PM on June 5, 2006


And then came Howard the Duck!
posted by Rashomon at 3:42 PM on June 5, 2006


(And as long as I'm tossing around the Haterade, ya know what film really hasn't aged well? The Deer Hunter. I saw it again last year and realized what bothered me most--I had no f'ing sympathy for any of the characters, notably Christopher Walken's, maybe a bit for Meryl Streep's. It was the right film at the right time, IMO, for Hollywood to shed tears over. No wonder it won five Oscars.)
posted by bardic at 3:46 PM on June 5, 2006


I'm with you bardic. I just watched it for the first time a week or so ago after intending to see it a million times over the years. Not terrible, but nothing special.

Camino's style is interesting though..
posted by Chuckles at 4:09 PM on June 5, 2006


You know, Ishtar really wasn't that bad either.

I love Ishtar. I went to a sneak preview of the film and it was packed and the audience was howling (as was I). Then the reviews came out, focusing on the budget, and all of a sudden everyone said it was a piece of shit.

It's one of my favorite comedies from the 80s and I've seen it many times (though not in years as it's not on DVD)--got all the songs memorised.

"Hot fudge love... cherry ripple kisses ... lip-smacking, back-slappin', perfectly delicious."

"She changed her name to ... Carol! Saturday morning, the sound of a lawn mower, touches my heart..."

etc.

And yeah, add me to the "Deer Hunter's fucking boring" crowd. I've been to weddings shorter than the wedding scene in that film.
posted by dobbs at 4:19 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Wow, dobbs makes Ishtar sound positively horrible. In the best possible way. Now I must see it.
posted by blucevalo at 4:23 PM on June 5, 2006


bardic writes - So I've actually tried to watch it--and lord, is it godawful. The dance scenes in particular. There's not even "so bad it's good" quality a la Cleopatra.

hwestiii replies - like I said, its not for everyone. Still, I'll stand by my contention that its a far better film that it was given credit for when it was released. The Trio special that ran along with their showing, derived from "Final Cut" made a pretty good case that the vehemence of the negativity was motivated in part by a sense that the film community felt, in retrospect, that it had over-praised "The Deer Hunter" and used the controversy around "Heaven's Gate"'s buget problems as a justification knocking Cimino down from the pedastal on which they'd put him in the first place.

That initial glowing critical regard was in fact one source of the leverage that Cimino used against United Artists in getting the creative freedom to make the film. That it went so wrong was due both to Cimino's ego and ambition, and the studio execs' desparation to see that critical regard transformed into a box office bombshell. All that was missing was the shell.
posted by hwestiii at 4:26 PM on June 5, 2006


And yeah, add me to the "Deer Hunter's fucking boring" crowd.
Ditto that. Never have I spent a longer, more miserable three hours than I did in the 45 minutes I spent trying to watch that god-awful dirge. I just couldn't make myself finish it.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:42 PM on June 5, 2006


And since we're talking about the Deer Hunter here... I just saw it for the first time about a month ago, and I have to agree about the wedding scene. But was the Vietnamese Russian Roulette suicide club based in even the slightest way on reality?
posted by ssmith at 5:03 PM on June 5, 2006


"Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession," a brilliant documentary, covers the story of "Heaven's Gate" in fascinating detail. I highly recommend it to any fellow film nuts.
posted by JPowers at 5:11 PM on June 5, 2006


Back when I was in film school--a long, long time ago--we watched two versions of Heaven's Gate in class. First the long version, then the shorter version the studio released. The long version did look good--but it was a bad movie. Cimino couldn't even handle basic narrative. At no point did he indicate that Kris Kristofferson was the sheriff (they fixed that in the short version by adding an off-camera voice saying, "Welcome home, sheriff," at the train station). It also had a horrible epilogue with atrocious rear projection that played like a bad theater. The audience was in stitches. The short version was nothing to write home about either. So I don't buy into the Cimino-as-victim scenario.

I didn't like The Deer Hunter either. However, I do like Bob and Doug McKenzie's "The Beer Hunter."
posted by Man-Thing at 5:14 PM on June 5, 2006


I liked Heaven' Gate.

Good post.
posted by tkchrist at 5:28 PM on June 5, 2006


After a long disagreement with my father (who I alerted to this thread, despite his non-membership), I agreed to watch the full, unedited version of the film.

I was rather embarrassed to admit that the film was better in it's "original" form than in the cinematic release. I must say that it was watched over two separate occasions, though.

I will agree, though, that it seemed an end of the era where directors where king, with a court, or rather, a cast of thousands.
posted by Samizdata at 5:33 PM on June 5, 2006


I'd just like to reiterate unSane's plug for Steven Bach's book, Final Cut. The book is fascinating even if you've never seen Heaven's Gate (which I hadn't when I first read it.)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:00 PM on June 5, 2006


I thought The Deer Hunter was wildly overrated as soon as I saw it in '78 or '79.
posted by wrapper at 6:15 PM on June 5, 2006


Heaven's Gate is beautiful to watch, though glacially paced. The biggest problem I had was the sound--entire scenes go by in which you can't understand a single word being said by the characters. They mumble in low tones and the background noise drowns out the voices. I don't think this was intentional on Cimino's part, but you gotta wonder what the sound engineer was thinking.

I got about halfway through it before stopping. Might try it again someday. Again, it is a beautiful looking movie...
posted by zardoz at 6:31 PM on June 5, 2006


jpowers beat me to it. yeah, heaven's gate is far better than anything you've ever heard about it, unless you've seen that Z Channel documentary from IFC. that's about the only time i've ever seen the film given fair treatment. cimino's career is a tragedy, and one that largely points the finger at the industry, not the man. (although he had something to do with it, to be sure.)
posted by shmegegge at 6:33 PM on June 5, 2006


I completely disagree. The Deer Hunter is one of the best movies of the 1970s, which was an outstanding decade for flics. The wedding scene beautifully balances the Vietnam sections, showing just who the characters were and from where they came, and making their degradation all the more shocking and, indeed, empathic. The acting is outstanding across the board and it is visually and stylistically very fresh. Very well edited.

Now, if you went looking for a war movie, you were probably disappointed.
posted by Rumple at 6:37 PM on June 5, 2006


I tend to side with the camp that believes the 70's were the apex of American filmaking, abruptly brought to an end by the abortion that was Star Wars. American cinema is only now recovering from the damage done by Lucas and the Zoetrope gang.
posted by slatternus at 6:40 PM on June 5, 2006


Now, if you went looking for a war movie, you were probably disappointed.
I wasn't. I was looking for something that lived-up to the buzz. Didn't find it. Far from it.
Oh well.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:58 PM on June 5, 2006


There's not even "so bad it's good" quality a la Cleopatra.

What a weird example. Cleopatra (the version with Elizabeth Taylor, which is the one you linked to) is amazing. Every pseudo-epic of that period that has been made since, for TV or film, has been a pale imitation.

Ishtar is indeed a pretty good movie. One theory about its failure is that Beatty pissed off the press, and they trashed the movie in retaliation. It's not great, but it's better than a lot of other stuff out there.

The Deer Hunter is a work of art. Yes, the wedding scene at the beginning is slow. Cimino takes a risk with that, and it doesn't work for everyone. But to those who say you couldn't sit through the rest of it, you are really missing out. And the relationships between the characters, the kind of people they are, what it means when they talk about 'America' or 'home' when they're in Vietnam, all comes from those long early scenes. The director (in those early scenes) is not trying to excite you, he's trying to make you absorb the feeling of what it's like to be those people in that place and time. For people who don't usually watch that kind of movie, it may seem like he's trying to keep you excited, and failing, but you have to just relax and understand that it's not that kind of presentation.
posted by bingo at 7:28 PM on June 5, 2006


The director (in those early scenes) is not trying to excite you, he's trying to make you absorb the feeling of what it's like to be those people in that place and time.

That aspect of Deer Hunter is very good (also very long winded, but whatever). It is the inexplicable Vietnam scenes that I didn't like - I hear people saying "inexplicable is the point", but what a lame cop out..
posted by Chuckles at 7:42 PM on June 5, 2006


I don't remember any inexplicable Vietnam scenes.
posted by bingo at 7:42 PM on June 5, 2006


Lucas and the Zoetrope gang

Wow. Can't believe you're lumping those together. The Conversation and Godfather I & II are three of the best films of a stellar decade.
posted by dobbs at 7:43 PM on June 5, 2006


THX-1138 was pretty damn good too.
posted by bingo at 7:49 PM on June 5, 2006


For people who don't usually watch that kind of movie, it may seem like he's trying to keep you excited, and failing, but you have to just relax and understand that it's not that kind of presentation.

Well, I do usually watch those types of films. (For instance, I've probably seen Five Easy Pieces (not the fastest moving picture ever made) 50 times--same goes for the "slow" Thin Red Line, and many others.) I just think DH is flat and uninteresting. I simply do not care about these people. Though the wedding scene is long (and boring), I believe it is the most interesting portion of the film, which is saying something.

Cimino reminds me of a few other directors (Tim Burton, John Woo, and Brian De Palma are among them) in that no matter what premise they take (and usually the premises are interesting), I do not care a whit about what they do with them. I try and try (I've seen almost everything they've made) but... Flat. To me, anyway.
posted by dobbs at 7:51 PM on June 5, 2006


Yeah, but you don't like Egoyan either, so all bets are off. ;)
posted by bingo at 7:54 PM on June 5, 2006


True, but that's a different kind of hatred.
posted by dobbs at 7:55 PM on June 5, 2006


Wasn't Heaven's Gate later appreciated once the Director's cut became widely available via cable TV? From what I've read, this is pretty much what started the whole "Director's Cut" trend. (whether this is a good or bad thing is left as an exercise.)

Also, The Deer Hunter was an damn good film. I'm not old enough to have seen it when it first came out - hell, I think I was *born* the year it came out - so I'm pretty much unaffected by whatever was going around socially at the time. I saw it for the first time a few years ago, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. It's an intense movie! I think the beginning part is necessary and useful. What, I suppose you hate the wedding scene in The Godfather, too? I wonder how many of you just hate The Deer Hunter because it's "cool" to hate The Deer Hunter.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:28 PM on June 5, 2006


Along with the tangents off over to Stephen Bach's book, William Goldman and the sorry story of United Artists, that's got to be the best 30 minutes I've wasted in a week.
posted by intermod at 8:28 PM on June 5, 2006


Bingo.

And OUaTiTW is a bloated, messy, indulgent piece of retch.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:07 PM on June 5, 2006


the vehemence of the negativity was motivated in part by a sense that the film community felt, in retrospect, that it had over-praised "The Deer Hunter"

The critics and my ex-wife behaved similarly toward Waterworld and myself, respectively.
posted by Aghast. at 9:28 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


It was really sad when all those Heaven's Gate folk offed themselves. So sad.
posted by filchyboy at 9:51 PM on June 5, 2006


You got me Afroblanco. By hating on The Deer Hunter, I just won an ironic trucker hat and a lifetime subscription to Pitchforkmedia.

Um, I've seen a lot of movies and I think the movie sucks. What's worse, although typical, is that it won a number of Oscars not on its own merits, but because Hollywood decided it was the "right time" to start dishing out Vietnam flicks. Indeed, there aren't many that weren't overrated, IMO, when it became politically correct to discuss what a disaster the Vietnam war had been. As someone commented, if my problem was to read it as a war picture when it's not, then Cimino is even more guilty of incompetence--perhaps it's the fact that, I dunno, half the movie is set in a frickin' war zone (that looks more like Pennsylvania than Vietnam) that gave me expectations that I was watching a war picture, or at least a partial one.

The first time I saw it I thought it was kind of vaguely powerful. Having seen a lot of films since then, both much better and much worse, I have to say it's pretty much treacle. The characters are flat. I feel bad for soldiers who were traumatized by their experience there, but frankly feel very little for whomever it is Walken's character is trying to represent.
posted by bardic at 10:46 PM on June 5, 2006


What filchyboy said. When I first saw the post, my immediate thought was of the cult Heaven's Gate. I'm an idiot.
posted by Juggermatt at 12:58 AM on June 6, 2006


I just won an ironic trucker hat and a lifetime subscription to Pitchforkmedia.

Hilarious! Thanks for making my morning.
posted by Mr. Six at 3:35 AM on June 6, 2006


I saw the Z channel documentary last year and on the strength of its focus on the longer cut of Heaven's Gate, I decided to give the film a try. I saw the longer cut.

Boy, what a listless, sepia mess. It's an epic for people who liked the crack pacing of The Deer Hunter's wedding scene. It did occasionally look grand, though.

(On balance, I liked the Deer Hunter, though.)
posted by ipe at 8:02 AM on June 6, 2006


Never been able to sit through "The Deer Hunter." However, I think "Waterworld" is a not as bad as everyone says it is, and it didn't deserve the negativity it received. Sure, it's a bit over-the-top (name any Dennis Hopper movie that's not!) and maybe a bit hokey, but it's something I could watch all the time and not get bored.
posted by cass at 2:08 PM on June 6, 2006


What's left out of this discussion is how you saw the film -- in a movie theater? On VHS? or DVD?

I've not seen HG, and have had mixed reactions the 2-3 times I've seen DH, but will say this -- like Tarkovsky's films, or Lean's, or Kubrick's, these slow long take or "epic" films are best seen on a movie screen, not a television. And preferably with a full audience.

Otherwise, all critical judgments are off. IMHO.
posted by rleamon at 7:14 PM on June 6, 2006


I love Ishtar. I went to a sneak preview of the film and it was packed and the audience was howling (as was I). Then the reviews came out, focusing on the budget, and all of a sudden everyone said it was a piece of shit.... And yeah, add me to the "Deer Hunter's fucking boring" crowd. I've been to weddings shorter than the wedding scene in that film.

I'm right with dobbs on this one. I saw Ishtar while stuck in a motel room when a car broke down on a cross-country trip, and thought Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty had great chemistry together. The songwriting scenes were hilarious (even if some of the rest of the movie was a mess). The two people I was with loved it too, until I told them the movie cost $55 million. Then they hated it.

I saw The Deer Hunter a few winters ago when I realized I had seen over 80% of the movies of the American Film Institute's 100 Movies, 100 Years list, and decided to watch the rest. (It's #79 on the list.) I couldn't believe how bad it was; I could barely get through to the (ridiculous) ending. The wedding scene was especially tedious (unlike the one in The Godfather). And I know, it's only a movie, it's not reality, but I also thought it ludicrous that the title character, supposedly in western PA, goes out deer hunting for the weekend amid snow-capped mountains that are obviously somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, 2500 miles away.

Maybe the movie was more effective when it came out, only a few years after the Americans had abandoned Saigon, but if so it certainly hasn't held up well over time.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:06 AM on June 7, 2006


I thought it was really important to stop back in here and mention that Alvy Ampersand is totally wrong and perhaps a Servant of some Unholy Twisted Power which Dwelleth in Depths Unplumbed by Mortal Man for suggesting that Once Upon A Time in the West is not wonderful.

But it is a good excuse to get myself a copy of it and go re-verify my faith, it's been a while. But from what I remember: Alvy, Twisted Powers, etc. Carry on.
posted by freebird at 10:09 AM on June 8, 2006


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