A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

Heaven's Gate, for all its history as a calamitous flop, is not so much a bad movie as an inchoate one. You can see it go awry from the very beginning, when it tries to pass off the ornate architecture of Oxford University, where the scenes were filmed, for the spare red brick and granite of Harvard Yard. The film opens with a frenzied commencement for the Harvard class of 1870, which devolves into a swirling dance to the "Blue Danube" waltz. It's potentially an exhilarating opening, but it goes on and on and on, and serves almost no purpose in the rest of the film, except to introduce us to James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and his friend William C. Irvine (John Hurt), members of the graduating class. Then the film jumps 20 years, to Wyoming, where Averill is marshal of Johnson County. We never learn why Averill, who is a wealthy man, winds up in this hard and thankless job, living in near-squalor and hooked up with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the madam of a brothel. As for Irvine, with whom Averill reunites during a stopover in Casper on his way back to Johnson County, he has somehow become involved with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of cattlemen led by the sinister Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) who are trying to keep immigrants from settling on the land they want to graze. It's clear that director-screenwriter Michael Cimino at some point wanted Irvine, who is presented as an effete intellectual, to serve as a kind of chorus, commenting on the action, and as a foil to the more robust Averill, but Irvine keeps getting lost in the turns of the narrative and the excesses of Cimino's ideas. (The shooting took so long that Hurt was able to film David Lynch's The Elephant Man during his down time from Heaven's Gate.) In Casper we also meet Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), who works as a kind of hit man for the cattlemen. But Champion is also a friend of Averill's and a rival of his for the attentions of Ella. There is the core of a more conventional Western in the relationships among these characters, but Cimino isn't interested in being conventional. What he is interested in are the elaborate set pieces like the waltz scene, a later scene with dozens of couples on roller skates, enormous throngs of extras milling through the streets of Casper, crowds of immigrants making their way to Johnson County, and battle scenes in which the citizens of the Johnson County settlement retaliate against the troops led by Canton that are determined to exterminate them. There are pauses in the hullabaloo for quieter scenes designed to work out the triangle formed by Averill, Champion, and Ella, but their characters are so lightly sketched in that we don't have much sense of the motives behind their sometimes enigmatic actions. And yet, it's a somehow maddeningly watchable film, thanks in large part to the often breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, a committed performance by Huppert, the Oscar-nominated sets of Tambi Larsen and James L. Berkey, and yes, the sheer extravagance of what Cimino throws onto the screen. Without a plausible screenplay it could never have been a good film, but occasionally you can see how it might have been a great one.