Histoire(s) du cinéma, Ep01 par Humberto Rausch
24/05/2024 11:03 em Art-Culture-Sport/Arte-Cultura-Esporte



Heaven’s Gate: How “The Worst Movie of All Time”


Came to Be One of the Greatest Heaven’s Gate is a 1980 film directed by Michael Cimino that entered the annals of Hollywood history as the biggest box-office bomb of all-time. At the time and for many years to come, it was considered to be the worst movie ever made. Notorious for its runtime clocking in at 4 hours, its production that augmented by 500% its original budget and groundbreaking visual aesthetics, the film lead eventually to the end of United Artists, a major Hollywood studio at the time as well as the end of an era. Heaven’s Gate tells the story of James Averrill, a rich Harvard graduate who heads out west to Wyoming in the 1890s and is caught in the middle of a conflict between rich cattlemen who are hiring mercenaries to kill the wave of poor Europeans that immigrated in that century. He is competing his one true love, Ella, a french prostitute, with one of the mercenaries hired by the cattlemen. James must convince Ella to leave before the war wreaks. Retracing an obscure event of American history, Heaven’s Gate sustains an emotional crescendo as its stakes get higher until its bloodied last thirty minutes. How is it possible, then, that such a promising film by such a director was condemned to be the downfall of an entire empire, Hollywood?

To begin with, Heaven’s Gate stars singer Kris Kristofferson, French icon Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken. To no surprise it was released at the zenith of the personal and uninterfered by studios filmmaking of the 70s, and subsequently, as empires show us, zeniths are frequently followed by their fall. For his Vietnam War classic The Deer Hunter starring Robert De Niro, Cimino received 9 oscar nominations, winning 5 of them. After its success, he drew attention to United Artists, the first independent studio, created by Charlie Chaplin, D.W Griffith and others to make their own films freely in 1919. According to Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, the studio was praised by 70s auteurs such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese for their lack of interference with the director’s creative freedom once both parts had agreed on a budget, which had up until then made the era a fertile land for cinema as an art. But that would soon change with Heaven’s Gate.

Enormous is an euphemism to how grand the production of Heaven’s gate eventually became. Michael Cimino ordered the construction of an entire 19th century town, interiors included, had a period steam locomotive shipped across many states for the cost of 150 thousand dollars. 2500 extras, and waited hours for a specific lighting that permeates the film. As well as shooting 1.3 million feet of film, which is equivalent to 220 hours of footage. Cimino spent sleepless nights as he locked himself in the editing room to complete a final print of 5 and a half hours, an extremely uncommercial and spectacular feat for a major production studio. The runtime would then shorten to an astounding 3 hours and 49 minutes.

The film suffered backlash before its release, with animal abuse allegations, as absurd as it is, it’s supposedly possible to see a horse being exploded by dynamite in the final battle and other four horses were killed in production. It also had bad press for its unending ambition on the cost of considerable expenses and cost overruns, being days behind schedule for its numerous retakes, some simple scenes even taking days of shooting. For example, the film’s 20 minute prologue alone, an elaborate and detailed Harvard waltz, took 5 days of shooting and was more expensive than the entire film “The Elephant Man'', released that same year. Many other examples of excesses and sacrifices in the name of ambition could be named.

Following its release, the film’s reputation quickly worsened. The film was attacked by The New York Times, an article calling it “an unqualified disaster”. The Verge and The Guardian also called it “the worst movie ever made”. Furthermore, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times called it the most scandalous cinematic waste he had ever seen, as well as one of the ugliest. The magazine Time named it one of the worst ideas of the 20th century. All of these publications put in question the same things: a sprawling epic sacrificed by the weight of its own sprawl, which in itself would give a sudden death to New Hollywood. As well as its strange and pioneering, dusty and hazy visual style. But Heaven’s Gate is a curious feat, for things would take a turn. In the same year, the film would be mocked at the Academy Awards as well as being held in high-regard by european critics leading it to be nominated for Palme d’Or in the Cannes Film Festival.

Over time, the film proved to be ahead of its time after being misguidedly attacked and misunderstood by critics, a highly-common phenomenon in the art world. Take for example Edvard Munch and Van Gogh’s works who were not only misunderstood but targeted for their visionary originality during their lifetimes. What is new and revolutionary often initially evokes negative criticism. The film was re-released in 2016 at the Venice Film Festival with rounds of applause and “soak up acclaim”. Robin Wood, one of the few critics to have defended the film upon its release as well as its re-release called it: “one of the few authentically innovative Hollywood films ... It seems to me, in its original version, among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema." To which Venice film festival director added “one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history". French journalist Samuél Douhaire from the Libération called it “one of the seven wonders of the cinematic world”.

As for me, Heaven's gate is in its blaze of grandiosity comparable to the sight of a golden hour before sunset, a story of life fading away in sublime beauty. It is an all-encompassing masterpiece in its three-part structure narrating the life of a man. The enthusiasm of youth, the disillusionment of adulthood, and the grief of old age. An ode to a country, to a feeling, and to an unprecedented form of filmmaking that would lead to its own doom, and the careers of the people involved. It is not only the most ambitious film ever made, it is one of the greatest, finest films of all time.