Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate


Find myself in the film mode these days.  I watched this fascinating documentary on the making of Heaven's Gate and the demise of United Artists.  People have different opinions about the movie, but I thought it was one of the best Westerns ever done, and Cimino's attention to detail was unparalleled, such as this great roller skating scene

The movie as Cimino originally cut it was over 5 hours, but after much pressure he shaved it down to less than 3 hours, losing much of the scope of the film, including the long Harvard graduation introduction, giving it a choppy feeling that was hard to understand, and turning away viewers especially after all the bad press it received.  Kevin Thomas of the LA Times stood virtually alone in praising the film for its cinematic brilliance and audacity.

The story itself was based on the Johnson County War of the late 19th century, with many of the persons involved referred to directly or indirectly.  Cimino must have had Slavic connections, because he also focused on a Slavic community in Pennsylvania in his movie The Deer Hunter.

24 comments:

  1. Thanks for the youtube link, Gintaras.

    I'll try to watch that tonight. I had friends involved with that movie, but never saw it.

    I loved the Malick film Days of Heaven (mentioned below) which came out about the same time as I recall. I thought Richard Gere was actually very good in it.

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  2. Fascinating documentary. My favorite line was after everything fell apart, someone said something like "That's it; no more money to the creative types." To which an actor quipped, "So what does that mean? You're only going to give money now to the uncreative types?"

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  3. The writer, Les Gapay, who went undercover as an extra and blew the story on the movie's alleged excesses, is now (or at least was) homeless and has found god. Strange ways the world works.

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  4. I think it was as one of the producers said, the industry had it in for Cimino when it found out how much money had been invested in this movie to the exclusion of others. Here was a little known director, before The Deer Hunter, now the darling of UA. The industry and the media wanted to see him and UA fall. I think few in the industry even watched Heaven's Gate at the time or since for that matter.

    As for Les Gapay, so it goes.

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  5. BTW, that's David Mansfield on violin.

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  6. I picked up a copy of Sam Shepard's Rolling Thunder Logbook recently. It was fun to see who all was involved in the Rolling Thunder Revue including David Mansfield. He composed most of the music for Heaven's Gate.

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  7. Interesting, too, how they all took rollerskating lessons. That really is an amazing scene! I need to watch the movie at some point.

    We were living in London when that was made here, but an English actor friend was in the movie, and some of our Montana writer friends were at the set from time to time. From the little I've heard off the record, it was truly an amazing "event."

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  8. Gintaras,

    I just watched that extraordinary skating scene and wondered just how long it took to film it. Must have been hundreds of hours in filming to get a five minute sequence. Great directing!

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  9. Trippler, you should watch that mini-documentary about the movie.

    All of those scenes took days and Cimino apparently "painted" the scenes extra by extra. But in that case, it appears to have been worth it!

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  10. It really is worth it. Best to check out the long version on DVD. The short version doesn't really do the movie justice. I keep hoping that Criterion will give this film the deluxe treatment.

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  11. Be nice if they could release the original 5 hour version. I'd watch it. Sounds like it has become a classic over the years if not the masterpiece he had hoped for.

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  12. Went to the local library today and they didn't have it. I'll check with the county library next time as I am very intrigued by this discussion.

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  13. I think the release they currently have on the market runs a little less than 4 hours. I have it on VHS, which as I recall ran a little over 4 hours. He cut over 200 hours of film.

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  14. My daughter is a netflix member so I can always ask her to rent it for me, but hadn't thought about checking with the library. Thanks, Trippler.

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  15. SO HAPPY to see appreciation of another movie I felt pretty much alone in valuing. I can recall the fiddle tune at will and cherish the roller skating community dance sequence, which seems meticulously constructed very much like the wedding sequence in "The Deer Hunter."

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  16. What a great movie! Somehow the ending, though, seems like a metaphor for the movie itself. Sad when you think of it.

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  17. Glad you enjoyed it. Heaven's Gate is like no other movie. I suppose it was too much for mainstream American critics and audiences to grasp at the time, but it was very well received in Europe. Americans seem to prefer more traditional "Western" movies.

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  18. Yes, thanks, Gintaras. I don't think I would have ever seen it if I hadn't watched the documentary you posted. I think his over the top cynicism at the end did the movie in for mainstream America. Even did me in -- it's very depressing. Plus, I'm sure his politics ruffled more than a few feathers.

    Still, you have to give him credit for having made an amazing look at the American West. Scenery was incredible too. I was always trying to guess where they were filming. Certainly wasn't Casper and Cheyenne. I was just there last weekend and can confirm that it's flat out there!

    Plus I want to know what exactly he had read about the Johnson County Wars that inspired the script. I think this predates Legacy of Conquest, but this all sort of falls into that theme.

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  19. Maybe this one:

    http://www.amazon.com/Banditti-Plains-S-Mercer/dp/0806113154

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  20. Here be the filming locations (avrds: the parts you're interested in were mostly Montana, but I loved Oxford substituting for Harvard--hee):
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080855/locations

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  21. It was funny that Harvard refused to allow Cimino to film scenes in its quad. From the documentary, Bach kept Cimino on a pretty tight leash in Oxford.

    The relationship between Kristofferson's and Hurt's character was fascinating and emblematic of the time. I don't think it was an overly cynical ending. Sad, yes, but alas that was the way it turned it out. I suppose American audiences weren't ready for such a bitter pill, having grown up with a different interpretation of how "The West Was Won."

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  22. Thanks NY. I was wondering about the downtown scenes, which appear to be Wallace, Idaho (which is an amazing town carved into a mountain -- almost burned to the ground in 1910). The areas around Glacier are really spectacular.

    I noticed during the credits (and your list here) that some of it was filmed in Newport. I wonder if there were more scenes there that he cut -- other than the one of the ship bobbing in the bay.

    I still think he didn't know how to end it. If he'd given just a little bit more to his audience in the end, it might have been better received. People must have walked out of the theatre absolutely stunned.

    Curious what he's working on now.

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  23. Cimino took such a hit for that movie that it was years before he did anything else, and nothing of the same cinematic or historic scope.

    In regard to the ending, I'm not sure how else he could have ended it, as that was pretty much the way the Johnson County War played out. Cimino combined real and fictional characters.

    It would be interesting to pick up this topic in book form. I see a new book on the Wyoming range war is due out soon,

    http://www.oupress.com/bookdetail.asp?isbn=978-0-8061-4106-0

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