Monday, September 10, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Celestial Entranceways

Technically speaking, there is very little in common between the content of “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) and “Gates of Heaven” (1980). The first is a big-budget western epic with a now-famous cast and the latter is a low-budget documentary about the relocation of a pet cemetery. The fact that the two movies bear similar names and were released exactly a month apart (Nov. 19 and Oct. 19 respectively) must be regarded as pure coincidence, but it is upon this coincidence that I am basing today’s Iceberg Arena comparison.

If I put in my mental aerobics tapes and do some serious stretching, I suppose I can come up with some other commonalities. The films were both landmarks in important auteur careers and changed perceptions about the role of directors and the viability of their respective genres. Both movies performed unexpectedly at the box office, but came into their own on the small screen.

Gates of Heaven:

“Gates of Heaven” (1980) marked the feature debut of director Errol Morris, now widely regarded as one of the greatest working documentary makers after such brilliant works as “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) and “The Fog of War” (2003). As an amusing side-story, prior to completing this movie Errol Morris had made the acquaintance of Werner Herzog. The German director stated that if Morris ever finished a film, he’d eat his shoe. Les Blank’s documentary short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” shows Herzog true to his word (an authorized torrent is available here under "les blank").

The inspiration for this film was a headline Morris came across: “450 Dead Pets Going To Napa Valley.” Morris traveled to the city and began shooting footage about the current presence and the possible relocation of a California pet cemetery. Morris’s choice of topic and approach were groundbreaking at the time. He took a rather apolitical, unspectacular suburban story and delves into it through a process of interviewing that often strays, digresses and travels tangentially to the main “scoop.”

What fascinates Morris is clearly not the topic itself so much as the people involved. Their inoffensive quirks, personal reactions and often comical idiosyncrasies become the focus of a humanist odyssey into the relationships between mankind and their domestic animals. Extensive interviews introduce us to the owner of the pet cemetery, a competitor who “reprocesses” animal corpses, a developer who wants the property, vets, taxidermists and the many pet owners who share their loneliness and happiness; their obsessions, dreams and eccentricities.

At 85 minutes, the film runs fairly lean, with Morris able to pick and choose from a vast repository of interview footage. His approach isn’t always much to look at, but his honed editing, keen observation of human interest and natural humor and the somewhat stream-of-conscious all-over pursuit of whatever seemed interesting to follow up on, established Morris as documentary auteur. His film, without particularly compromising that bare minimum of integrity the subject warranted, threw out the detached elitism of classical documentaries and ushered in an era of adventuring free-wheeling directors who found exotic subcultures without needing to travel to Africa or South America. Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” (1989) owed a clear debt, adapting the approach into the idea of the director as muck-raking star.

Heaven’s Gate:

Michael Cimino became a household name after the success of his Vietnam war/homecoming tale of friendship, love, suffering and disillusionment: “The Deer Hunter” (1978). The 1970’s had continued building on the indie success of films like “Easy Rider” (1969) and the concept of the auteur director with complete artistic control was reaching a peak. Cimino had long harbored a desire to shoot an ambition western based around the Johnson County War in Wyoming and United Artists agreed to fund the project for the newly “hot” director to the tune of $11.6 million. 40 million dollars and 220 hours of celluloid later, Cimino completed his epic (numbers according to wikipedia).

The nearly four hour original cut featured Kris Kristofferson as James Averill, a Harvard graduate who becomes the sheriff of a Wyoming county cracking along an economic divide. Dirt-poor immigrants fill the street and are forced to steal cattle for food from the rich land barons (led by a young Sam Waterston) who all but control the region. The Stock Growers Association (as they call themselves) hires out-of-town killers including Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken, also young) to kill some 125 immigrants that they deem to be criminals or anarchists. Hours pass before the movie gets to the real action, and Averill and Nathan pass the time by fighting for the love of a kindly whorehouse owner, Ella Watson (Isabella Huppert).

Vilmos Zsigmond helps carry the film with some fantastic cinematography. The rich, golden sunset hues give the film a rustic tone and the audience is literally swept through the enormous authentically-recreated city by the craning camera work and ever-swirling gusts of dust, dirt, steam and smoke. The art department nails the look and feel of the 1890’s burgeoning frontier town with a sense of population mass and attention to detail missing from run-of-the-mill western productions.

Despite the cohesive visual design and historical fidelity, much of the plot and character core fails to attract interest. The lead three (Kristofferson, Walken and Huppert) are quite passable, if not particularly charismatic or memorable, but the minor cast is packed with flat, uninteresting roles. Though they hardly lack for screen-time, Cimino’s script seems to treat the cast like minor chess pieces, to be moved about like props and disposed of in empty gambits at emotional reaction. Often they speak only their foreign language (with no subtitled translation) and they spend most of the film being loud and ignorant. It is hard to believe that we are expected to sympathize with the immigrants when we see them spending their time gambling on cock fights and engaging in illegal activity (granted they don’t deserve to be murdered but they shouldn’t be stealing either). In the worst of the three final battles, they are shown to be utterly incompetent and even suicidal, circling around the exposed enemy without actually firing back.

There are two other battles at the end of the film that are significantly better. They serve as a belated reward for anyone still watching and awake. The siege of a meager log cabin by an army of gunslingers is particularly strong, with the editing set to a strict metronome. The jarring visual, aural and temporal disparities highlight the abruptness and madness of the chaotic violence. The technique is used again in the final showdown, diving in and out of the combat to convey the grit and trauma of the local “war.” These scenes function like a western-era “Apocalypse Now” complete with the alienation, disillusionment, political overtones and unglamorous portrayals of the participants.

Ultimately, the monochromatic yellow-brown of the film and the grandiose composure of the picture wears out its welcome and then some. Cimino’s lingers about his ho-hums scenes in a way that all too clearly reveals his self-indulgent pride for every frame. Twenty minutes hunks go by with nothing really happening and enough extraneous material is left in to create an entire film of its own (perhaps, “Heaven’s Gate: The Masochist’s Cut”). The producers sensed this and cut 70 minutes for the theatrical release. It’s really hard to blame them. Accusations that the film was a bloated disaster can only be refuted by taking refuge behind the camera techniques and soundtrack.

After dismal box office returns (breaking the current record for loss), United Artists was on the rocks and ended up being sold to MGM. Although many other factors were involved, blame is piled on the film for ending the age of auteur directors with unlimited creative control. Michael Cimino was unofficially blacklisted along with the entire genre of westerns, which were all but abandoned for the next decade (until Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” in 1990). In the mid 80’s Channel Z aired Cimino’s 226 minute version (coining the term and concept of the “Director’s Cut”) to critical acclaim (a complete turnaround).

I tend to consider everyone to be partially in the right. Cimino really did have a breathtaking vision and driving ambition. The producers correctly assessed the project as too expensive, long and unwieldy. The critics in 1980 were right to attack the opulent waste and excruciating tempo. The critics in 1985 were right to claim that it wasn’t as bad as the initial reaction implied. The truth at the heart of it all is that “Heaven’s Gate” is just an inflated, mediocre film whose essential dynamics and message are delivered better by any number of films (say, “The Great Silence” (1968)). The sad truth is that even if it isn’t a complete disaster, who has time to drop almost four hours on a mediocre movie?


Although our competitors look a little like David and Goliath, the outcome is hardly in question. Errol Morris’s little pet project (heh) “The Gates of Heaven” is easily the superior film, with its witty and winning immersion in the minutia of suburban eccentricities. Meanwhile, Michael Cimino’s pet project is a thrashing yeti with matted fur and a weight problem. Maybe when it dies it can be buried in Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm glad that you came out of the epic western at least a little unhappy, too, because I completely was not feeling it (except young Christopher Walken) - and that made me feel like some cretin.