Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Dir. Michael Cimino. Starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges

At the end of the movie – and I mean the Director’s Cut, which is a pretty nimble three and a half hours – we’ve been transported to a place that the film never hinted we’d go to. After a relatively quick stop at Harvard for the graduation of the class of 1870, we spend most of the film in early 1890s Wyoming. But here we are off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island after the turn of the century; it’s a striking contrast in which the land, so much the heart of Heaven’s Gate, has been replaced with the previously unconsidered sea. Jim Averill (Kristofferson) is older now, much older, and has shed his beard in favor of a neatly trimmed mustache. He is with a woman who is probably a few years younger than him (the old-age makeup is pretty bad in this scene), and both are dressed beautifully by the standards of the time. He lights her cigarette; he goes on deck and looks out at the water. Averill is not like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, but this ending reminded me of a famous phrase connected to those two: “retreated back into their money.”

Heaven’s Gate has a surprising political intelligence, at least in relation to The Deer Hunter. Where The Deer Hunter has a bad case of myopia, Heaven’s Gate provides insight across a gradient of social class. A character like Averill is a class traitor; one like Irvine (John Hurt), his old college friend, doesn’t have the guts to follow in Averill’s footsteps. (He can do little more than offer flighty, if funny, witticisms during the battle. “This time last year I was in Paris,” he murmurs as he observes the circling townspeople.) Despite being absent on the first day of battle, Averill shows up to help the townspeople and farmers construct moving barricades which can more or less protect them from rifle fire. When Canton (Sam Waterston) returns with the National Guard, who stop the battle at the moment when the proletarians might have made their breakthrough, Averill’s distress is silent and palpable. Even though the leader of the troops says that the rich men and their bounty hunters are being arrested, it’s obvious to Averill that it’s a “rescue,” not an arrest. Those men will bribe the courts or be pardoned for the fact of their eminence, and the dozens of folks in Johnson County who died fighting capitalists intent on killing them first will stay dead. Their families will have to live with it.

Averill, despite losing the fifth quarter in a scene a little too rapid and forced to match the languid feeling throughout the movie, can leave. Early in the movie, Averill intercedes for a family whose head of household is being beaten to a pulp by some hired toughs. The man dies not long afterwards. You should go back where you came from, Averill tells the mother, the new head of household. You can’t farm without a man. She replies that they’ve paid $150 for their plot and they will stay. Ella (Huppert) frequently tells Averill that she doesn’t want to leave Johnson County, despite his protests; her life is there. Averill never fully grasps her point of view; he interprets her desire to stay as her need to hang on to what she literally possesses. They’re just things, he says. I can buy you whatever ‘things’ you want. Whatever it was that drove Averill out to Wyoming, just recently made a state, is not a strong enough impulse to keep him there forever. He can always go back, and it turns out in the end he does. It’s a contemplative ending, a little less grandiose and much more acidic than watching Averill walk into the wilderness, or Averill weeping over Ella’s bullet-ridden body. If you can go back to where you came from – if you have the resources which allow you to hold a reserve – there’s a limit to your own belonging to the new place. The rich can try to meet threats from other rich folks, but the rich will make it out alive. The poor die.

Heaven’s Gate is still, almost forty years after the fact, the quintessential flop. When it was released, the movie was about two and a half hours long, was missing some scenes which helped tie the story and feel of the movie together, and was dogged with bad press about Cimino and his obsessive shoots. Heaven’s Gate happens to get the credit for having ended the “New Hollywood” phase of American filmmaking, which seems unfair to me (with the obvious benefit of hindsight). The probably apocryphal quote from the Duke of Wellington about winning Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton is instructive here. New Hollywood ended when Coppola, Friedkin, and Spielberg produced spectacularly successful box office hits which studios learned how to translate more efficiently into profit. Only the grace of God, I assume, kept Apocalypse Now from being Heaven’s Gate; if Cimino had gotten an MFA in photography or something instead of following up The Deer Hunter, it’s possible that Coppola’s One from the Heart would have done it. The egos built up on pictures like The Godfather and The Exorcist and The Last Picture Show and Jaws and Taxi Driver led to corresponding enormous flops: One from the Heart, Sorcerer, Daisy Miller, 1941, New York, New York. The writing was on the wall for New Hollywood almost as soon as it came to prominence, and this happens to have been the fateful Jenga block. However, I think it might have been forestalled just a tiny bit if the Director’s Cut had premiered in 1980 instead of in the last five years. The movie needs that extra hour to build on itself, to organically come to a place where its repetitive elements mean something.

The movie begins with the graduation ceremony for the Harvard class of 1870. After hearing speeches from the “Reverend Doctor” (Joseph Cotten, of all people) and Irvine, the graduates go out to green and all dance a waltz to The Blue Danube. As it does in 2001, the famous waltz backs a tightening circle, a feeling of greater connectivity. Averill and Irvine, (neither one convincingly) younger than they’ll appear for the vast majority of the movie, snare new dance partners who better suit their amorous preferences. The elites of a resurgent United States, the men who will presumably move its future, are all here, revolving with and around one another in a predictable and prestigious pattern. Later on in the movie, a fiddle player and his band – a guitarist, a bass player, a man with a harmonica and a washboard, an accordionist – will play the music in the background of a raucous afternoon at a roller rink in northern Wyoming. Just as the rich folks did around a tree on a secluded campus, the poor reel around their own object: a stove to heat the rink. The measured dance steps of the wealthy are replaced by the wild and showoffish steps of people dancing on skates. A little boy tries to speed up and cut ahead of some other people but falls down; J.B. (Bridges) dances in a precise step with some prostitutes but also veers off to pick up a fiddle and skate wildly while randomly moving the bow. It’s the same idea in different settings, and it evinces the different sorts of joy that these people are capable of feeling. It all comes to an end, of course, in the two-day battle between rich and poor in Wyoming, fought in a circle. The rich take the inside, the poor encircle them around the outside, and the soldiers save the elites’ bacon by taking up that inner circle themselves.

Even in small moments, this idea of circularity and repetition shows up. In a scene which is mostly pretty tense – Averill and Champion (Christopher Walken) are facing off over Ella, which inspires J.B. to keep his rifle at hand while he’s eating breakfast – you can see a juggler out the window.

The juggler is far from the strangest thing about Heaven’s Gate – my personal winner in that category is how often Isabelle Huppert is totally nude – but he’s an unusual figure to see literally in the middle of this fairly taut moment. He’s there to hint to us, though, that this conflict has happened before. This is not the first time that Champion and Averill have squared off over Ella, nor will it be the last. In a movie of about 150 minutes, this moment turns into a meme. In a movie of 216 minutes, this juggler takes on a surprisingly potent meaning, the miniaturized version of a harrowing battle or a resplendent reception.

The movie also, slowly and surely, addresses the feeling of growing older. “You think everything stop because you’re getting old?” Ella asks Averill who is, maybe a little stereotypically, just waking up from a nap. “Maybe it does,” Averill replies. When he speaks to Irvine for the first time, presumably, in a long time, Averill asks him if he remembers the halcyon past. “Clearer and better every day I get older,” Averill finishes after Irvine assents. Indeed, only those two seem particularly invested in the past. Most characters are planning for the future, either by exterminating all opposition, as Clanton means to, or by making human connections, as Champion wants to marry Ella. For Averill, who can straddle all sides of just about all issues thanks to his social standing and his professional life, the future appears to be much like the vistas of the Far West which Cimino returns to over and over again. It’s obscured. Just as the mountains or the horizon line are often shrouded with the dust of many people walking or the black smoke released by a train (or burning cabin), Averill’s understanding of what’s to come is incomplete and foggy. Only the past and his greater distance from it remains unsullied and clear as a day in June.

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