Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 1)


  is an actor of delicate constitution who requires his beauty sleep, we were unable to watch all 219 minutes of Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic disaster in one go — we left off at the intermission and will pick it up again soon (the promise of a DVD screener of There Will Be Blood is the carrot, watching Heaven’s Gate is the stick in this relationship).

I rushed right out to see Heaven’s Gate when it opened in 1980 in a shortened version. I had seen The Deer Hunter several times in the theater and enjoyed it quite a bit and I was anxious to see what Cimino would do with a western. I had heard all the stories about his extravagant profligacy on the set (the budget was, reportedly, over $40 million) and, being who I was, I was pulling for the director. I had heard about the disastrous screening of the long version, I had read all the terrible, terrible reviews, I knew no one was going to go see this movie, yet I was there, first screening, opening day, hoping against hope that, somehow, everyone was wrong and some kind of unique, misunderstood masterpiece awaited me.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I still couldn’t quite bring myself to hate the movie. Being a mere wisp of a 19-year-old, I did not possess the relative understanding of story structure I do now, so I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the movie didn’t work. But I could not deny that much of it was beautifully rendered, and there was something weird and mysterious about its insistence on having nothing happen for long, long stretches of movie. And that was the short version.

Now that I’m a big-deal Hollywood hotshot, it’s easy to identify the movie’s problems, although it might not have seemed that way in 1979. Basically, there is a HUGE amount of atmosphere and very little plot.

At the two-hour mark, I found I could count the total number of plot-points covered on the fingers of one hand. This is, alas, not an exaggeration.

PLOT POINT 1: Kris Kristofferson graduates from Harvard in 1870. The statement of this fact takes up an astounding 23 minutes of screen time.

PLOT POINT 2: Twenty years later, Kris is a sheriff (I think — it’s unclear and the sound mix on the DVD is perhaps the worst I’ve ever heard — ambient background thunders in the speakers while actors in the foreground murmur beyond audibility) in Wyoming, where Big Doings are going down: corporate ranchers are preparing to go to war with poor immigrant farmers. The establishment of this plot point takes us another twenty minutes.

PLOT POINT 3: Kris is in love with a French prostitute. Getting this idea across takes, I’m not kidding, 30 minutes of screen time.

PLOT POINT 4: The poor immigrants may be poor, but they sure know how to have fun. This accounts for another 30 minutes, as we watch cheerful immigrants pose for pictures, juggle, roller skate, dance, have sex, play music, sing, stage cockfights, fight and swear and grin. As Urbaniak noted, it’s like the party scene in steerage in Titanic, but expanded a half-hour.

PLOT POINT 5: Chris Walken, a hatchet-man for the corporate ranchers, is also in love with the French prostitute, and intends to sue for her hand. This accounts for the final 20 minutes of screen time before intermission.

And that’s it. Honestly.

Now compare this to, say, the plot of Raising Arizona: The protagonist robs convenience stores, goes to prison at least three times, meets and falls in love with the police officer in charge of booking him, rehabilitates himself, asks her to marry him, moves in with her, settles down, tries and fails to start a family all before the title sequence begins. If Michael Cimino had directed Raising Arizona he would have spent a half hour just examining the daily activities of the convenience-store clerk.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel for the studio executives in 1980 — faced with this extraordinarily slow, almost-plotless story, it’s impossible not to think “well, they could easily trim this down and have a taut little western.” And yet, if you cut out all the impressive atmosphere (and a good deal of the atmosphere is truly impressive) you would not have a “taut little western,” you would have a slack, underplotted little western. Now, there was, once upon a time, room for movies that place atmosphere over plot, but not to the ridiculous extremes taken by Heaven’s Gate. I mean, Jean-Luc Godard is Steven Spielberg compared to Michael Cimino in this regard.

And yet, for some strange reason, the movie is not “boring,” exactly. It sustains interest, partly through its dense atmosphere, partly through its peculiarity — it’s novel, and even pleasurable in a certain way, to see a big-budget movie utterly unconcerned with forward momentum. Urbaniak says that it’s interesting without being dramatic, a sentiment I echo, and add only that the scenario is dramatic it’s just very poorly structured dramatically. You’ve got a bunch of evil ranchers who are hiring an army of gunmen to wipe out a community of immigrants, that’s an excellent start for a drama. But that plot point is not announced until minute 43, and nothing is done about that struggle for another hour of screen time. Kris Kristofferson hears about the rancher’s nefarious plan and heads off to the immigrant community to, um, to do, um, well, we don’t know what exactly he plans to do, but we know he doesn’t like the ranchers so we assume he is on the side of the immigrants. So he goes pouncing off to the immigrant community and immediately spends thirty minutes horsing around with his girlfriend.

The cast is large and capable and includes many actors who went on to become big stars, so that’s always fun. Most of the acting is decent enough (there is one scene where Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt square off in a billiard room, having a “barely audible growl-off”)
and some is quite excellent. Urbaniak adores Chris Walken in this movie, an appreciation I can’t quite share — his presence seems too modern, too off-center and not of-the-time. But I bow to his superior judgment in this regard. Sam Waterston, on the other hand, is just dreadful as the main Evil Ranch Guy. He struts, preens, glares and flares his nostrils as his forces gather around him, all to remind us that this guy is Evil. It seems to me that once the screenplay identifies you as the Evil Guy, the best thing you can do is As Little As Possible.

The sound mix is, as I’ve noted, abysmal, and the transfer is substandard — probably because they had to cram a four-hour movie onto a single DVD. The production design is sumptuous and absurdly detailed, without ever clearly showing where the $40 million went. The score is an embarrassment, it sounds exactly like the first idea pitched at the initial post-production meeting.

Oh, and the haircuts — why can’t they ever get the haircuts right? All the supporting players look appropriately 19th century, but every time a lead actor strolls on, it’s 1979 again.

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5 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 1)”
  1. 55seddel says:

    You hit the nail on the head.

    Don’t expect much from the second half, I have the DVD and it goes on and on and on.

    I am a budding screenwriter/producer/director myself and I am adoring your educated input on this LJ.

    Would you care to screen A Face In The Crowd by Elia Kazan, I wanna know what you think about it.

  2. moroccomole says:

    Speaking of the sound mix and that billiard-room scene — am I recalling incorrectly, or isn’t there a part where John Hurt rolls a cue ball across the table, but the sound makes it sound like a bowling ball or, perhaps, the boulder at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark?