Thursday, June 17, 2010

Art as Obsession - Michael Cimino's "Heavens Gate"

When I was a kid the movie "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" was shown regularly on the UHF stations. I remember being too young to fully understand it, but the friendship between the two leads and the tragic ending resonated with me. As I got older and became aware of the bi-polar career of Michael Cimino, I took a closer look at this "bromance" dressed up as a heist picture. 

While it may not be the best of his films, it's my favorite. The pure sense of fun the movie carries like a badge of honor is enough to recommend it. The tonal shifts are fast and furious - from buddy comedy, to violent action laced with grim irony, and ultimately tragic loss. Cimino's debut is anything from typical. There's no redemption, no heroes, and no happy endings. 

I suppose the same could be said of Michael Cimino's career. From the past's Hollywood golden boy to today's metrosexual prowling Larchmont, this obsessive perfectionist has had the glory and the sharp end of the stick - sometimes simultaneously. It remains to be seen if he has another masterpiece in him, but true to my better nature -- I'm always rooting for the underdog.

Heaven's Gate (1981)

Published: November 19, 1980
''HEAVEN'S GATE,'' Michael Cimino's gigantic new western and his first film since the Oscar-winning ''The Deer Hunter,'' is apparently based on a historical incident that occured in Johnson County, Wyo. in 1890: with the tacit approval of the state government, the county's wealthy cattle barons banded together in a systematic attempt to murder more than 100 German, Bulgarian, Russian and Ukrainian settlers who were encroaching on their lands. If one can say nothing else on behalf of ''Heaven's Gate'' (and I certainly can't), it's probably the first western to celebrate the role played by central and eastern Europeans in the settlement of the American West.

''Heaven's Gate,'' which opens today at the Cinema One, fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of ''The Deer Hunter,'' and the Devil has just come around to collect.

The grandeur of vision of the Vietnam film has turned pretentious. The feeling for character has vanished and Mr. Cimino's approach to his subject is so predictable that watching the film is like a forced, four-hour walking tour of one's own living room.

Mr. Cimino has written his own screenplay, whose awfulness has been considerably inflated by the director's wholly unwarranted respect for it. Though the story really has to do with the contradictory feelings of Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), the Federal marshal in Johnson County, toward the land war, toward a coltish, completely unbelievable frontier madam (Isabelle Huppert) and a fellow (Christopher Walken) who was once his best friend, the film's first 20 minutes are devoted entirely to Averill's graduation from Harvard 20 years before. You thought the wedding feast that opened ''The Deer Hunter'' went on too long? Wait till you see ''Heaven's Gate.'' The situation isn't helped by the fact that the university looks not like Harvard but like Oxford, where it was actually photographed.

The narrative line is virtually non-existent, which is not to say there isn't a good deal of activity - fights, shoot-outs, cross words, and lots and lots of sequences in which hundreds of extras are belligerent or dumbfoundingly merry. Though the extras speak in Russian, German, Bulgarian and Ukrainian, all of which is dutifully translated by English subtitles (along with some other dialogue we don't even hear), they act in the mindless fashion of extras in a badly directed, robust Romberg operetta.

The point of ''Heaven's Gate'' is that the rich will murder for the earth they don't inherit, but since this is not enough to carry three hours and 45 minutes of screentime, ''Heaven's Gate'' keeps wandering off to look at scenery, to imitate bad art (my favorite shot in the film is Miss Huppert reenacting ''September Morn'') or to give us footnotes (not of the first freshness) to history, as when we are shown an early baseball game. There's so much mandolin music in the movie you might suspect that there's a musical gondolier anchored just off-screen, which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth.

Nothing in the movie works properly. For all of the time and money that went into it, it's jerry-built, a ship that slides straight to the bottom at its christening.

Vilmos Zsigmond's gritty, golden photography looked better in ''McCabe and Mrs. Miller.'' The aforementioned performers, plus Sam Waterston as the principal villain - each one a talented professional, have no material to work with. In addition they're frequently upstaged by the editing, which sometimes leaves them at the end of a scene with egg on their faces, staring dumbly into a middle distance, at absolutely nothing.

''Heaven's Gate'' is something quite rare in movies these days - an unqualified disaster.

Murder in the West

HEAVEN'S GATE, directed and written by Michael Cimino; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; film editors, Tom Rolf, William Reynolds, Lisa Fruchtman and Gerald Greenberg; music by David Mansfield; produced by Joann Carelli; released by United Artists. At Cinema I, 60th Street at Third Avenue. Running time: 225 minutes. This film is rated R.

Averill . . . . . Kris Kristofferson
Champion . . . . . Christopher Walken
Irvine . . . . . John Hurt
Canton . . . . . Sam Waterston
Mr. Eggleston . . . . . Brad Dourif
Ella . . . . . Isabelle Huppert
Reverend Doctor . . . . . Joseph Cotten
John H. Bridges . . . . . Jeff Bridges

Last Typhoon Cimino Is Back
By Nancy Griffin
February 10, 2002 | 7:00 p.m

"What people are so desperately looking for now is somebody who stands for something," said Michael Cimino.

And what do most people in Hollywood think Michael Cimino stands for? He is, of course, the director of The Deer Hunter , the first great Vietnam War movie. He is also the Last Auteur, the Man Who Brought Down United Artists, the director of Heaven's Gate , one of the biggest disasters in the history of the movies. Most of all, they see the enfant terrible , now in middle age.

What does Mr. Cimino say he stands for? Uncompromising artistry, love of country, and integrity. The new patriotism has galvanized Hollywood: War movies are back, and Mr. Cimino likes to make them. He feels vindicated that this autumn, citizens everywhere were singing "God Bless America," the anthem his characters sang at the end of The Deer Hunter . He has just published his first novel, Big Jane , about a young woman who grows up on Long Island in the 50's, sees America from the back of a motorcycle and fights in the Korean War.

Now Mr. Cimino is trying to raise money to make a bloody three-hour adaptation of Man's Fate , André Malraux's dense, heady novel about the squelched 1927 Communist uprising in Shanghai. "There was never a better time to try to do Man's Fate ," he said, "because Man's Fate is what it's all about right now. It's about the nature of love, of friendship, the nature of honor and dignity. How fragile and important all of those things are in a time of crisis."

Mr. Cimino has never taken the easy path. Martha De Laurentiis, who with her husband Dino helped produce Mr. Cimino's films Year of the Dragon and Desperate Hours , read his script for Man's Fate and passed on it. "If you edit it down, it could be a very tight, beautiful, sensational movie," she said, "but violent, and ultimately a subject matter that I don't think America is that interested in."


Last year's re-release of Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now was bittersweet: Such a brave, dark and personal film would never get financed today. Instead, what passes for a serious war film is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down , with its sublime footage of beautiful young men in action and helicopters cruising at magic hour, and bizarrely inappropriate rock tunes to make the unremitting carnage more palatable. Michael Cimino is not-could never be-a Jerry Bruckheimer kind of director. His style is painterly and deliberate, and he's not interested in whipping up the special effects that MTV-bred audiences expect.

He is also, at 62, the latest French reclamation project. And why not? They love Jerry Lewis; they love Mickey Rourke. So how surprising is it, really, that the French also love Michael Cimino?

"I'm just tickled; I really haven't come down yet. The stars must be falling into place," Mr. Cimino said last August, sitting in his favorite breakfast hangout, Duke's on Sunset Boulevard, a few days after he was informed that the French Minister of Culture would bestow on him the country's " Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres " award for his filmmaking and writing. He would be honored in Paris in September, at the same time that Big Jane , translated into French, was being published by the prestigious house of Gallimard.

"If you look on the wall, there is a pyramid," Mr. Cimino said, pointing a french fry at a series of framed portraits behind the bar. "There's Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. If you follow a diagonal line, you come to Michael Cimino-right above the white cups, in the black frame. And then if you go across the base of the pyramid, you come to Jimi Hendrix. It's a pyramid of American myth."

Hmmm … which of these people is not like the others? Mr. Cimino's contribution to the culture is in serious need of some updating-and his hope is that Big Jane will start the process. "Not only did Malraux have Gallimard as his publisher, he also won this award, as did Flaubert and Gide and James Joyce and Faulkner and Styron and Jackson Pollock. These people are my heroes!"

All of those artists had disasters, but none had Heaven's Gate , so proceed carefully if you're going to ask about it. "Would you ask Picasso to explain Guernica ?" Mr. Cimino demanded, with a straight face. "Would you ask Nabokov to explain Lolita ? Would you ask Tolstoy about War and Peace ? No, you wouldn't dare. It's like an old love affair, tired and worn out. People have tried to talk to me about it, and I've said it's all up on the screen. It's tired and tiring."

Just like one of his visually daring, deeply flawed cinematic epics, my time with Michael Cimino would end badly-with a one-sided shouting match outside a Los Angeles restaurant. Along the way, though, I got a good, long look at the man who has intrigued, puzzled and appalled Hollywood ever since Heaven's Gate , the bloody epic western which flopped so spectacularly that it toppled United Artists and shifted power in the film business away from the auteurs and back to the studios. Originally budgeted at $7.5 million, the film cost $36 million-a tremendous sum in 1980-and grossed only $1.5 million at the box office.

Yet Mr. Cimino is unapologetic, and then some, about the movie whose name has become a synonym for financial disaster. "I had to really discipline myself not to let-you know, it's like women who are rape victims: Some of them become professional victims for the rest of their lives," he said. "It took me a long time before I was able to say, 'I'm proud of that movie.' And I am proud of it. I could not have made it any better than I made it. No excuses, and no regrets."

Yet the trauma of Heaven's Gate and its aftermath may not have left Mr. Cimino entirely unchanged. Or so Gore Vidal wondered a while back when he called his former collaborator, for whom he did an uncredited polish on the script for The Sicilian.

"Michael," Mr. Vidal said, "I just read in the newspaper that you had a sex change."

At 62, Mr. Cimino looks like a cross between a cowboy hipster and your great-aunt Bessie. He teeters around in jeans and high-heeled boots with lifts fitted inside. His hair is grayish red and eggbeater-bouffant even when pulled back into a ponytail; his round face is ruddy and baby-smooth-too smooth to be natural at his age. His hands and arms are delicate and hairless. He smells girlishly good. It can't be denied: Mr. Cimino is a macho dude with an aura to his manner and style that is disconcertingly feminine.

"I read in some trades that he had decided to become a woman," said Kris Kristofferson, a loyal pal to Mr. Cimino even though starring in Heaven's Gate hurt his career. "So we had dinner, just to see if I could recognize him. He seemed in good spirits." Was he wearing a dress? "No-which was comforting."

"I roared with laughter," said film critic F.X. Feeney, when one inquiring mind called to ask him if the story was true. "I know him well enough to know it's never going to happen. You are talking about an internationally renowned perfectionist. If he can't come out looking like Catherine Deneuve, forget it."

"Last time I saw him, it looked like he had a hair implant," said John Milius, with whom Mr. Cimino co-wrote Magnum Force for Clint Eastwood. "His hair went straight out in front of him. I can't imagine concerning yourself with your appearance to that degree, especially for a man."

Mr. Cimino himself seemed unruffled and even slightly amused by the rumors. He said that when Mr. Vidal called him, "I said, 'Oh, really? My doctors are going to be very surprised when I go to take a physical for the next movie. It's going to be a big shock.'" For the record, Mr. Cimino said that he has not had-and has no plans to have-a sex change; nor is he a cross-dresser. "They've said everything about me that they could: racist, Marxist, rightist, homophobic, sex change-I don't know what else they could come up with."

Mr. Cimino began shooting Heaven's Gate in April 1979, just one month after he took home his Oscars, for best picture and best director, for The Deer Hunter . His producer was his girlfriend Joann Carelli, with whom he's had a more than 30-year on-again-off-again relationship, and whom he refers to today as "my partner." She hired and then fell in love with the film's composer, David Mansfield, eventually marrying him.

Ms. Carelli and Mr. Cimino battled during the filming of Heaven's Gate , though she was powerless to curb his excesses. "Michael had these people so spooked that no one dared to tell him to go shit in a hat," said David Field, executives heading United Artist's at the time . "They were all headed off a cliff as fast as they could go." But the pace of his filmmaking was killingly slow: Mr. Cimino walked around the set adjusting the hats of his cowboy extras, filmed 53 takes of Mr. Kristofferson cracking his bullwhip.

"Michael really wanted to make a perfect film," said Vilmos Zsigmond, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who shot The Deer Hunter and was back to supply the sumptuous imagery in Heaven's Gate . "He could have made this film for much less. He overdid it; he overcomplicated it. But they should not have killed him for it."

Today Mr. Cimino calmly explains that the budget quadrupled because the costs of the movie's authentic costumes and props were underestimated. "We had to go to England to have top hats made," he said. "We had to make everything. And even at that, the cost was only $32 million [$36 million, according to Steven Bach, the other studio executive heading United Artist's and later the author of Final Cut , a blow-by-blow account of the Heaven's Gate debacle]. By today's standards, that's nothing. And it's all on the screen … but nobody knows that, so they print that Cimino put it in his nose in cocaine."

As the film's November 1980 release date approached, Mr. Cimino worked feverishly and barred United Artists executives from entering the editing room. "I remember going to the New York premiere," said Jeff Bridges, one of the film's stars. "I'm not sure he had seen the movie complete; he was scrambling to put it together." In the version the New York media elite watched, the sound mix was so poor that much of the dialogue was unintelligible, making it impossible to understand the plot. The audience sat stupefied for three and a half hours. "Afterward, we heard that terrible stuttering applause," said Mr. Bridges, "and it was that sinking feeling. We tried to tell ourselves, 'Well, maybe they liked it so much that they are stunned into silence.'"

"An unqualified disaster," Vincent Canby pronounced the film in The New York Times the next morning. United Artists aborted the release of the picture. "What they did was like taking a Stealth bomber and putting the pilot up there and not filling it with gas," said Mr. Cimino. "Of course it's going to crash and burn." Steven Bach was fired and fled Hollywood. "This man has given me endless grief for his work of fiction," said Mr. Cimino, referring to Final Cut , "and it should be classified as fiction. He's made money off my blood, my work, for 20 years."

It's not only his enemies that Mr. Cimino is angry with. "I'm not revisiting the past, like Francis Coppola," he said, "recutting Apocalypse Now 29 times. Why do you think Francis is recutting Apocalypse ? He's dried up. I'm going forward; he's going backward."

As for Oliver Stone, with whom he co-wrote The Year of the Dragon , "Oliver thinks he's the greatest thing since chopped liver. He's a great guy, a great writer; we have a great working relationship and I love him. But he's a better writer than director," Mr. Cimino said. "He's incredibly, insanely jealous about the fact that I published a novel. He's always wanted to be the next Hemingway; he didn't want to be a director."

Mr. Cimino is still vexed that editor Peter Zinner won an Academy Award for the film. "He was a moron," Mr. Cimino said. "I cut Deer Hunter myself." Mr. Cimino contested screenwriter Deric Washburn's sole credit on the script for the Writers Guild of America Awards: "In their Nazi wisdom, [they] didn't give me the credit because I would be producer, director and writer," he said.

As for Vilmos Zsigmond, whose lush cinematography in both The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate earned accolades, Mr. Cimino said: "Vilmos and all those guys have built themselves up to be bigger than directors. It's bullshit. Does anyone remember who shot Kubrick's movies? Do you remember who shot David Lean's movies? No one remembers who shot Dr. Strangelove or Barry Lyndon ."

Not until 1985 did Hollywood entrust him with another gig. That year, producer Dino De Laurentiis offered to take Mr. Cimino "out of the freezer" and handed him The Year of the Dragon , a violent thriller about the Triad gangs in Chinatown starring Mickey Rourke and John Lone. "With Michael, it's a 24-hour day," said Oliver Stone. "He doesn't really sleep … he's truly an obsessive personality. He's the most Napoleonic director I ever worked with." Mr. Cimino brought the film in on time and on budget.

But his brooding, grandiloquent sensibility had grown ever more out of step with audiences. "Originally I had a notion that all my work put together would be a kind of tapestry of American life," Mr. Cimino said. It's not that he hasn't tried: Over the years he's attempted to get many big projects off the ground, including The Fountainhead and Crime and Punishment . But the studios haven't bitten. In today's marketplace, he's a dinosaur.

In New York City, Mr. Cimino and Ms. Carelli own adjacent apartments in the U.N. Plaza; hers used to belong to Truman Capote, with whom they were friends. They also share a compound valued at $40 million on the ocean in East Hampton. They are both friendly with Courtney Ross, but mainly avoid the trendy Hollywood crowd. Mr. Cimino rants that the nouveau Hamptoners, including the Ron Perelmans and the Steven Spielbergs, are ruining East Hampton.

"He likes to play it both ways," said Mr. Milius. Mr. Cimino grew up in Old Westbury, Long Island-"Fitzgerald's Gold Coast, the fresh green breast of the New World." His father was a successful music publisher. He attended local schools, where he was regarded as a prodigy, and rebelled against his parents by consorting with lowlifes, getting into fights and coming home drunk.

He went off to Yale. "When my father found out I went into the movie business, he didn't talk to me for a year," Mr. Cimino said. His mother once told him after The Deer Hunter that she knew he was famous because his name was in the New York Times crossword puzzle. "Don't go there," he said. "We have very bad relations." How about one of his siblings? "Nothing, nothing, nothing," he says. In 1962, Mr. Cimino joined the Army Reserve. "I wanted to be a Navy flyer-you know why I couldn't cut it? I didn't have a perfect bite. Your teeth have to have a perfect bite because of all the G-forces-you can lop your tongue off. It was a big disappointment." He trained at Fort Dix, N.J., and had a month of medical training in Texas; later, when publicizing The Deer Hunter , he told a New York Times reporter that he had been "attached" to a Green Beret unit. Mr. Cimino was never called up, but says he helped make classified films on weapons systems.

He received his master's degree in fine arts from Yale in '63 and moved to Manhattan. "I met some people who were doing fashion stuff-commercials and stills. And there were all these incredibly beautiful girls," Mr. Cimino said. "And then, zoom-the next thing I know, overnight, I was directing commercials." He shot ads for L'Eggs hosiery, Kool cigarettes, Eastman Kodak. He bought a brownstone on 53rd Street. "Do you remember Blow Up ? That was me. I lived that. I had the same car, a Rolls-Royce convertible. And one beautiful model after another-and sometimes three at a time-and I was just having a ball." (No one that I spoke to from this period can recall Mr. Cimino with so much as one model, but never mind.) He hooked up with Ms. Carelli, then a commercial director's rep. They began to hatch big plans for the future.

In '71, Mr. Cimino and Ms. Carelli decided to give Hollywood a try. Mr. Cimino wrote an alternately comic and melodramatic heist movie called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ; Clint Eastwood wanted to buy it. At first Mr. Eastwood balked at letting Mr. Cimino direct, but he was persuaded by the young man's confidence. On the set, Mr. Cimino kept things moving swiftly and Mr. Eastwood never interfered. "I knew that the only way I could keep control of the movie was to be ahead of schedule," said Mr. Cimino.

He co-wrote Silent Running and Magnum Force and developed a Janis Joplin biography. Four years after Thunderbolt , he still hadn't directed another film. Then EMI approached him with a story they had bought the rights to, which centered on a U.S. soldier who stays in Saigon after the Vietnam War and plays Russian roulette. Mr. Cimino took the premise and wrapped his own story around it, about a group of Russian immigrant steelworkers in Pennsylvania, some of whom go to Vietnam and some of whom stay behind. He sold his pitch to a group of executives, brought in Mr. Washburn to co-write the script, and assembled a cast of young actors that included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale and Meryl Streep.

Mr. Cimino dedicated himself to The Deer Hunter with every ounce of his passion and intensity. For verisimilitude, he chose Thailand for the Vietnam setting, although it would be the first major Hollywood film to shoot there. Conditions were arduous, and the budget nearly doubled from $8 million to $15 million. Obsessive and impatient, Mr. Cimino was aware that he was coming in late with his Vietnam opus; Mr. Coppola had begun working on Apocalypse Now before him.

After bitter battles with Mr. Cimino over the cut, Universal agreed to release a three-hour-and-three-minute version of The Deer Hunter . Given the grim subject matter and the fact that fewer daily showings were possible, the film performed well when it opened in December 1978. The critics effusively greeted the unorthodox pacing, visual virtuosity and moving performances, and proclaimed Michael Cimino a major talent.

Many in left-leaning Hollywood felt that Mr. Cimino was making a right-wing statement about Vietnam, demonizing the Viet Cong by showing them forcing Americans to play Russian roulette, which Mr. Cimino used as metaphor. At a press conference after The Deer Hunter beat out her own Vietnam-aftermath picture, Coming Home , at the Oscars, Jane Fonda called Mr. Cimino's film a "Pentagon version of the war," although she admitted she hadn't seen it. "I'm not a political person," Mr. Cimino said. "It wasn't intended to be political. What impressed me and what motivated me was the heroism of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary challenges. That's been the glory of America."

Last October, in Los Angeles, Mr. Cimino called one day and asked to meet at the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard. He came clomping into the restaurant, sat down and ceremoniously unwrapped a package. Inside was a lovely, old-fashioned oil portrait he had done of Ms. Carelli as a young woman, painted in a style reminiscent of Mary Cassatt. He had already picked out the frame and planned to surprise her with it on Christmas morning. "This is the way she looked when I met her," he said, gazing lovingly at her image.

It was to be our last pleasant moment.
He began to expound on Bush's wise handling of the terrorists, which escalated into a diatribe on the general debasement of our society. Mr. Cimino was also upset to have just learned that the revival of interest in him in France was prompting a translation of Final Cut to be published there. "I'm going to publish this next goddamn novel, and I'm going to publish one after that, and I'm going to get Man's Fate made and I don't care who says what. This is a new world, and if people are stuck in the past, it's their problem, it's not my problem. I'm living for now and for tomorrow and the future. All that matters now is, are you up to the new world or not? Are you in it, or are you still stuck in the old one? I'm not stuck in the old one."

In 1978, Mr. Cimino goaded the custodians of the culture when he ended The Deer Hunter with a famously unhip scene of the guys singing "God Bless America" together. "They've been running Deer Hunter like crazy on Bravo," he said. "And here is the whole goddamn Congress singing 'God Bless America' on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. I said, 'Holy shit, this is the ending of the movie.'

"Do you get now, 20 years later, why that was in the movie? Do you get the Russian roulette? Do you understand fucking Heaven's Gate now? I mean, even in Year of the Dragon , with Mickey Rourke ranting and raving about the Chinks and 'This is America' and 'I'm a Polack' and-there's still an expression of love of country in all of these movies."

It was midnight, the restaurant was closing, and Mr. Cimino wasn't about to stop talking as we stood on the curb by his car. Earlier in the evening, I'd made mention of his "dark side," a remark that offended him. He began talking about Afghanistan. "If I was 18, I'd go re-up right now," he said. "I'd love to kill a bunch of these motherfuckers …. That's my dark side, O.K.?"

On a chilly evening last fall, the grand salon of the Gallimard publishing house on the rive gauche filled with Paris' elite. Anouk Aimée arrived in big round sunglasses with her tiny pal, Jeanne Moreau; Isabelle Huppert entered in sneakers and a raincoat; André Malraux's daughter Florence accepted a glass of champagne. All came to honor the small man in the expensive suit and cowboy boots who stood beaming in the center of the room. French media personality Philippe Labro introduce the recipient of the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres prize, pinning the beribboned gold medal to the lapel of his jacket.

"To be 10,000 miles from home and to be in the presence of so many friends and colleagues and supporters," said Mr. Cimino, his voice low and tentative, "I feel tonight I'm in the hand of God." He paused and then proceeded to enumerate the reasons why this prize meant so much to him: "The road has been long and hard, and France has been there all the time. During the long night of lonely hardship, France was always here, in triumph and disaster." He choked out his last words, struggling to keep his composure: "Blessed France-may she always love me as much as I love her." He stood straight, his eyes shining with tears, looking as grateful as an abused child who has finally gotten a hug.

Featured Filmmaker: Michael Cimino
August 26, 2002
by Scott B.

BIOGRAPHY: Michael Cimino is one of those directors Ive been obsessed with for a long time, not only out of genuine admiration for many of his films but also because he had the most profound and sudden career shift of any filmmaker in recent memory. In the space of exactly three directorial works, he went from promising newcomer (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) to can-do-no-wrong genius (The Deer Hunter) to Hollywood pariah (Heaven’s Gate). Even such Icarus-like 1970s directors as Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin took more than one movie to fall from wunderkind to wash-out; but then none of those guys managed to bankrupt a studio with one film like Cimino did with United Artists on Heaven’s Gate. But the man whose name is synonymous with profligate, egocentric, and overbudget filmmaking has also delivered some of the most striking images ever seen on a motion picture screen through a body of work that's – even at its worst – never less than interesting.

According to his official bio, Cimino was born on November 16, 1943 (although rumor has it that he was actually born five years earlier in 1938) in New York. A promising student with an interest in visual arts and architecture, he attended Yale (where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree) before moving into the lucrative world of commercials and advertising (making him a forerunner of the current generation of directors, like Michael Bay and David Fincher, who cut their directorial teeth in commercials). But Hollywood – and the prospect of telling stories longer than thirty seconds – beckoned Cimino to take a crack at screenwriting.

His first produced script was as co-writer (along with the future writer of The Deer Hunter Deric Washburn and TV writer/producer Steven Bochco) of the directorial debut of legendary visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull, 1971’s science fiction drama Silent Running. In an interview with Mark Patrick Carducci, Cimino takes credit for providing the film’s environmental concerns (the plot revolves around the last of Earth’s forests being preserved in massive space station greenhouses) and dramatic thrust, while dismissing the final product for relying more on the technology, the special effects, and the gadgets.

Cimino’s next credit as a screenwriter would prove to be the beginning of a short but fruitful association with Clint Eastwood. Brought on to the second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force, Cimino massively rewrote John Milius’ original draft of the script (the two writers share credit on the finished film). Eastwood was so impressed with the writer’s work that he agreed to star in Cimino’s first writing/directing venture, 1974’s heist drama Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. As intimate and tight as Cimino’s later pictures were huge and epic, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot performed well at the box-office and secured the director the clout to develop several projects for the studios, among them an adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s mercenaries-in-Africa novel The Dogs of War (the film was eventually made in 1981, but not using Cimino’s screenplay) and an updated version of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (given the twists of Cimino’s later career, much has been made of the director’s interest in adapting this book, which concerns an architect so devoted to his own vision that he is willing to destroy his creations rather than let them be compromised). None of these projects came to fruition; Cimino’s next film would be an unusual, personal, and (at the time) seemingly uncommercial tale about three friends from a small town who go to war in Vietnam. That film was The Deer Hunter – a multi-Oscar winner that also proved to be hugely controversial and commercially successful.
After the success of the film, Cimino had free reign to do anything he wanted. The “anything” Cimino chose to undertake would prove to be both his defining moment as a filmmaker and his undoing: 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, ostensibly a moderately-budgeted Western with social and political overtones, became a picture whose budget ballooned to the (then) record sum of $40 million; it also helped destroy Cimino’s reputation with both critics and audiences, and brought about his fall from the heights of Hollywood’s A-list.

It would take five years of false starts (including an almost-but-didn’t-happen gig directing, of all things, Footloose) to get Cimino back into the director’s chair – this time with an intense crime picture called Year of the Dragon, starring Mickey Rourke and John Lone. Lambasted by critics and ignored by audiences, the film went on to gain a cult audience on video and cable, as well as notably anticipating the subsequent decade’s interest in Hong Kong-inspired action pictures.

Two years after the dismal reception of Year of the Dragon, Cimino got another shot behind the camera – this time adapting Godfather author Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel The Sicilian (the novel itself is a sort of quasi-sequel to The Godfather, as it deals in part with the end of Michael Corleone’s exile in Sicily – not surprisingly, Cimino and screenwriter Steve Shagan chose to cut this aspect of the story). The results were decidedly mixed, and the film was seen as little more than an interesting failure; matters weren’t helped by the fact that Cimino’s cut was trimmed by more than twenty minutes for U.S. theatrical release (the director’s cut later became available on video and DVD). Once again, critics and audiences were unimpressed and unmoved.
Cimino was quiet for three years until 1990, when he took the hired-gun studio job of directing a remake of the crime classic Desperate Hours, once again reteaming with Mickey Rourke. The film tanked, although it did prove that Cimino could still make something small and tight and relatively cheap after years of big, expensive epics.

It's sad to report that Michael Cimino has only directed one picture since Desperate Hours, and that was a truly awful flick called The Sunchaser, starring Woody Harrelson, which went straight-to-video in the U.S. and only got perfunctory distribution in the rest of the world.

It would be tempting to suggest that Cimino’s career is officially over after more than two decades of being jobless, that pattern broken only by a handful of box-office debacles. However, two pieces of recent news suggest that the director may still have a film or two in him.

First came a report from the 2001 Venice Film Festival, where Cimino appeared with a screenplay treatment (written in prose at novel length) entitled Big Jane – the director conducted a staged reading from the piece (a tale of life on the road in the 1950s). Cimino proudly proclaimed that “The next time, I'll return to Venice with a film made from this story”. As well, Cimino’s name has been attached to a long-in-development film version of Andre’ Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate – John Malkovich and Johnny Depp are rumored to be interested in starring.

MUST-SEE FILM: Heaven’s Gate, 1980: It probably seems self-consciously perverse to choose this, the most excoriated of Cimino’s films, as his best. But Heaven’s Gate, flaws and all, is a very good film that is often elevated by moments of greatness. As the movie’s legendary, industry-redefining failure recedes further and further into history, it becomes easier to reconsider the picture as something much more profound and special than “the film that bankrupted United Artists.”
I'm always stunned that, for as much press as this film has gotten over the years, so few people have actually seen it – I guess its reputation is bad enough to put off all but the most curious. Which is kind of sad, because whatever one might ultimately think of Cimino in general and Heaven’s Gate in particular, the movie belongs on the list of films like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Friedkin’s Sorceror, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Malick’s The Thin Red Line; all of them pictures where an obsessed director said to hell with budget, audience expectations, and even (arguably) common sense, choosing to just put exactly what he wanted on screen. Single-minded dedication or self-destructive narcissism? The question is open to debate, but I personally have a soft spot for obsessive labors of love.

Heaven’s Gate tells one of the oldest stories in the Western genre: Poor, besieged homesteaders defending their land against wealthy, corrupt cattle barons. Cimino took some real-life events – the “Johnson County Range Wars” of 1880s Wyoming – and utilized them for the basis of his tale; here, the homesteaders are mostly Eastern European immigrants who don't even speak English; the bad guys are the politically-connected Stockgrower’s Association, who have gotten legal clearance to wipe out the immigrants with an army of assassins; the only man who willing to stand in aid of the immigrants is a decent federal marshal (Kris Kristofferson). There’s a love triangle between the marshal, a gorgeous prostitute (Isabelle Huppert), and a hired gunman (Christopher Walken); there's a big battle at the end; lots of horses and gunplay and explosions – sounds like a good old fashioned Western, right?

Well, no, and that’s probably where Cimino went wrong, at least in terms of what audiences wanted this film to be. Viewers were apparently willing to forgive a lot excess and off-beat storytelling in 1978's The Deer Hunter (more on that below) because it concerned the (then) controversial topic of the Vietnam War. But with Heaven’s Gate I think all anyone really wanted was a new version of Shane; instead, Cimino delivered Karl Marx’s Das Kapital circa the Old West, and chose to cheerfully turn every Western cliché’ and convention right on its head. For example: This has to be the only Western ever made where, when the U.S. Army Cavalry comes riding the rescue, they’re rescuing the bad guys. To be charitable, one might say that Heaven’s Gate is to traditional Westerns what Chinatown is to classic detective stories – a complete deconstruction and revision with admirably strong political overtones.

Still, I can't be a complete snob and say Heaven’s Gate failed just because people didn’t “get it” (although, at least upon its release, I do believe most critics and audiences didn’t get it). The film is, in storytelling terms, an absolute mess. Cimino’s screenplay is so focused on detail and nuance rather than plot that it’s a chore to figure out what the hell is going on half the time. Where almost anyone else would have set up the basic conflict in, say, half-an-hour, Cimino takes well over two hours to get the pieces in place (the film’s complete running time is 3 hours and 40 minutes). As well, many scenes only seem to exist because Cimino wanted to shoot them (the director is particularly enamored of sequences where large groups of people dance) rather than to further the narrative.

Still, the film manages to work – especially on multiple viewings, where scenes and intents get clearer. Cimino gets a lot of mileage out of his actors, especially Kristofferson, Walken, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, and John Hurt. Vilmos Zsigmond’s breathtaking cinematography is a wonder to behold (even those who hate this movie usually admit that it’s beautifully shot), while David Mansfield’s superb, moving score generates a lot of emotional impact that the storytelling often lacks.

I honestly hope that someday Heaven’s Gate will get its due (it has already been reappraised throughout Europe, where it’s proclaimed a masterpiece by many critics). It's hardly a perfect movie, but then obsessive, visionary works often stray far from anything resembling perfection. CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:The Deer Hunter, 1978: Where Heaven’s Gate is a flawed movie that actually improves on multiple viewings, Cimino’s most acclaimed picture only weakens upon consideration. I have a theory about why The Deer Hunter won Best Picture for 1978, and why – to this day – it’s regarded as a modern classic: Most people only saw it once. On first viewing, the story and visuals are so overwhelming, the intensity of the performances so moving, and the overall experience so (seemingly) profound that the film’s copious flaws are all-but-invisible. But on second, or third, or more viewings, the picture starts to unravel: It's still a powerful piece, but – to quote from William Goldman in a wonderful essay on why the film isn’t nearly as effective as Walt Disney’s Bambi ( I'm not kidding – check out pages 152-154 of Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade for details) – “all of this was exciting, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I used to be enthralled by Batman having it out with the Penguin – and precisely on that level.” Bingo.

The Deer Hunter is basically a very big, very powerful, and very stupid motion picture. There are so many ridiculous and just plain dishonest things about the movie that I find it difficult to make it through a viewing without mocking it – it’s like an arthouse Rambo flick. Sure, the Russian roulette scenes are staggering, even though history tells us that for all the horrors POWs experienced during the war, this one never existed. The lead performances – Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film), John Savage, and Meryl Streep – are all terrific (even when their characters don't make a lot of sense). As well, Cimino brings a sense of life and vitality to his portrayal of a small Pennsylvania steel town sending its sons off to war – even though the film’s opening section has been justifiably criticized for length and self-indulgence, it’s probably the most heartfelt and moving part of the picture.

Robert De Niro in Deer Hunter
Now, since this movie is a much-venerated classic, I feel I must offer up a little extra justification for why I'm being so hard on it, especially after I’ve just been so nice to Heaven’s Gate. My primary argument against The Deer Hunter comes in the form of another Vietnam film: Oliver Stone’s biography of Marine-turned-anti-war protester Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July. Both films have amazingly similar structures: Basically (A) Before the War, (B) During the War, and (C) After the War. However, where Stone’s picture is truly about Vietnam and its effect on the American psyche, depicting the journey from flag-waving patriotism to burned-out nihilism to hard-won wisdom, Cimino’s movie has zero understanding of the social and political history of the times. To go by this film’s version of the Vietnam war, every soldier was sent off to fight with a party and returned to cheering friends and families (the movie seems to take place in an alternate universe where there was no anti-war movement); the Vietnamese themselves are presented as absolute monsters – there's no context or discussion of what the war means to them and their culture; and the three soldiers themselves, De Niro and Walken and Savage, are presented as total idiots (even De Niro’s character, who's apparently supposed to be some kind of visionary superman, is really just an aphorism-spouting fool who says things like “This is this, this isn’t something else, this is THIS!” Profound, huh?). No wonder this movie managed to anger both vets (who resented the simplistic dramatization of the Vietnam era) and anti-war activists (Jane Fonda called it a “racist, Pentagon version of the war”) alike – it’s just about as wrong-headed a vision of Vietnam as could be imagined prior to Stallone-as-Rambo going back to ‘Nam to rescue POWs in Rambo: First Blood, Part II. If only Cimino had set his film during World War I or World War II or any war other than America’s (then) most-recent and most painful conflict, The Deer Hunter would probably be a lot easier to respect (and, frankly, make more sense as a piece of storytelling).

Still, as a visceral, powerful piece of filmmaking, it’s easy to see why it put Cimino on the map (and why audiences were so forgiving of its flaws as a Vietnam story – after all, it beat Apocalypse Now to release by a year). It's so gorgeous and assured that it’s hard to believe that it was only his second picture – it feels like the work of a much more seasoned director. But while there is much to admire in the film, and it’s definitely an important piece of recent cinematic history, The Deer Hunter may just be the worst “great” movie ever made.

Year of the Dragon, 1985: After getting all high-and-mighty in my condemnation/grudging respect for The Deer Hunter, I'm going to switch gears and mount a defense of this whacked-out, absurd, ultra-violent piece of pulp. My justification is simple: Whereas The Deer Hunter is lurid pulp that pretends to be profound, Year of the Dragon is lurid pulp that makes no bones about it.
A deliriously over-the-top Mickey Rourke plays NYPD Captain Stanley White, who is on a crusade to bring down a suave Chinese-American gangster (the wonderful John Lone – why didn’t this guy become a big star?). The screenplay, written by Cimino and Oliver Stone (at the tail-end of his writer-for-hire period), suggests that the protagonist’s near-psychotic devotion to duty has something to do with his status as an unreconstructed Vietnam vet (which, interestingly enough, trumps The Deer Hunter in this department – boneheaded as this movie is, it at least admits that not every soldier came home to celebrations). Rourke’s performance – complete with an unfortunate hairdo that seems to change color from scene-to-scene (critic Pauline Kael dubbed it “mood hair”) – is part of the reason I love Year of the Dragon so much: Screaming at the top of his lungs, delivering angry and illogical diatribes about how his current case parallels his tour in Vietnam, running around shooting everything that moves, cheating on his long-suffering wife to have a borderline sadomasochistic love affair with a gorgeous TV journalist (former model Ariane, a truly terrible actress) – Rourke-as-White is the kind of bad performance that almost comes out the other side of awful into a perverse form of greatness. Ditto for the whole movie: It's so bloated, awful, violent, quasi-racist, definitely sexist, and profoundly illogical that one only has two choices – turn away in disgust or go along for the ride (I personally opt for the latter). Either way, you won't be bored.

MISFIRE: Desperate Hours, 1990: Actually, if I were being completely honest, I’d choose 1996’s The Sunchaser for this slot, but the movie is so bad and uninteresting there's almost nothing to say about it other than: Don’t bother to see it. Cimino’s remake of the classic Humphrey Bogart crime thriller (based on the novel and stage play by Joseph Hayes) is a whole different ball game.
Cimino did basically keep the venerable plot intact: A brilliant criminal (Mickey Rourke) and his two dimwitted sidekicks (Elias Koteas and David Morse) on the run take a normal family (headed by Anthony Hopkins and Mimi Rogers) hostage in the family’s home. Meanwhile, the cops – with a female FBI agent (Lindsay Crouse) in charge – try to defuse the situation. I have this image that somebody somewhere pitched this thing as “Die Hard in a house” and that’s how it got made. It's certainly not because Cimino appears to have any connection to the material: The action and suspense scenes are ho-hum; he gets really bad performances out of mostly good actors; and even the couple of really good scenes (one of them involving a stand-off in Monument Valley, where John Ford shot some of his greatest Westerns) are sort of painful, in that they show that Cimino can still be good when he wants to be or (more likely) is allowed to be.

QUOTES ”It was really a great trauma, as everyone knows. Since then, I’ve been unable to make any movie that I’ve wanted to make. I’ve been making the best of what is available.” – Michael Cimino, on the aftermath of Heaven’s Gate.

crazy redneck from Deliverance freaks out in Cimino's "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot"

No comments:

Post a Comment