Filmmaking is not an art form that breeds responsibility. This, admittedly, is not too profound a statement, but it certainly highlights a trait valued in the public’s judgement of films made by industry-proclaimed “auteurs”—excess. This came to mind when I looked at part of the Brattle Theatre’s slate for the weekend—two matinee screenings of Michael Cimino’s famous disaster Heaven’s Gate.
I love the Brattle, and I sincerely hope its future sees hordes of melancholic Cambridge intellectuals keeping it alive financially. I also hope, exclusively for its sake, that it can lure plenty of hungry filmgoers foolish enough to attend the torturous, overwrought Heaven’s Gate. It’s one of those films that as a cinephile you hear about all the time—it went wildly over-budget, practically toppled United Artists, and has become the example par excellence of what happens when an obsessive director runs wildly out of control.
It’s also a horrible piece of cinema. I’d rather watch re-runs of Girlfriends on UPN than be subjected to its pretension for a second time. I’m still trying to find a way to get back the three-plus hours I once devoted to it.
Of course, Heaven’s Gate is historically important, and emblematic of the kind of excess that characterizes some of the “best” directors of all time—an excess that is ultimately valued and played up as proof of brilliance. It’s also occasionally credited with destroying the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, though many believe it was Star Wars, Don Simpson, and a lot of cocaine. The former point is more important here, especially as many film critics and historians have recently attempted to reevalute Heaven’s Gate as a great piece of art, a classification they suggest has been made impossible by the press and its intractable concern with the film’s disastrous production and financial failure.
Maybe they need to watch the film again. It really is terrible. But it’s not surprising that the attempt is being made, as if Cimino’s artistic virility is somehow etched into the process that has been so ‘unjustly’ villified. These historians seem to be asking themselves – how could Heaven’s Gate possibly be bad? It’s big, it’s epic, it has a great cast, and it’s from an established director whose compulsive perfectionism must have been for something.
Like Hollywood itself, this kind of reasoning is all very male. How many female directors are known for running projects into the ground due to arrogant self-confidence? Oh wait, American female directors hardly exist, for reasons having a lot to do with the above maledom. We’ll always have Sofia Coppola, but though a promising filmmaker, she has obviously been helped in no small amount by being the daughter of the reigning king of brilliantly self-destructive, over-the-top masculinity.
This attempted resuscitation of Heaven’s Gate is endemic of a larger issue – the valuing of excess, be it from the eyes of the public, the industry, or the critics. Sure, no one was praising Cimino’s film for spinning out of control when it was in production, so maybe it’s a bad example.
But some are trying to do that now, and film history is rich with examples where obsessive directors have been lauded for their bizarre on-set behavior and self-importance. Think of Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog, Sam Peckinpah, Erich Stroheim, and other filmmakers who at one point or another made films that became more about their personal psychoses than the films’ topics, which were things like greed, marital breakdown, the fallibility of nature, or cinema history. Given this list, perhaps the obsessive behavior is appropriate. Or perhaps they are (or were) a bunch of narcissistic hacks, behaving like Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe that populate his Manhattan in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Not that great films can’t come out of this tradition. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Stroheim’s Greed, and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo are good examples. But it’s still problematic to me that, especially in America, our auteurs have increasingly come to be judged by the extent of their excess. We seem to be constantly grasping at straws to rescue excessive mistakes of the past as well, like with Heaven’s Gate.
Coppola’s One from the Heart, a notoriously out-of-control production, is experiencing a minor revival, even though it’s a poorly acted, badly scripted snorefest with a few beautiful images – just like everyone thought upon its release. Cameron’s perfectionism is heralded as genius; Scorsese’s drug addiction becomes inspiration as some try to rescue the nightmarishly bad New York, New York; Peckinpah’s ridiculous outbursts are justified as “personal demons”—the list goes on.
Perhaps one day we’ll find genius in other places. Like, for example, in unique filmmaking. But until then, expect a lot of prouncements about money, obsession, and the glory of filmic testosterone.
—Staff writer Clint J. Froehlich can be reached at email@example.com.
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