So what happened? Why is it that today we can look back on the words of Coppola and whistle a giggle through the old teeth-bones at the irony of such a statement being repeated in this Bruckheimer world? Fairly or unfairly, if you ask most anyone of Hollywood's Inner Circle the answer you'll get will surround Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, at once the "Gone with the Wind of Westerns" and "The Biggest Bomb of all time!" It's been well proven that one bad apple can spoil the barrel if that bad apple happens to be the director, but what happens if the film director is a true auteur, but the bad apple in this case is an all-but-absent producer without the strength or interest to reign in the director? Well, if a Director holds a truly "Dictatorial Post", the logical answer is that his vision will translate perfectly on to the screen and win about nine academy awards.
But in reality, what happens is a twelve million dollar budget expands to thirty-six million and up to fifty-two takes of each minute scene allowing for more footage of film dedicated to a single film than ever before shot. And in reality, what happens is the one artist-driven studio in what I affectionately refer to as "Whoreywood" gets purchased by "Old-Fashioned" studio MGM, and the control is taken away from "the Creative People". It's safe to say that the $52 Million in question soon turned into 52 card pick-up!
Willem Da foe narrates Michael Epstein's documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of 'Heaven's Gate', which also happens to detail the unmaking of United Artists. Epstein brings in as many of the players in Cimino's Quixotic Folly as he possibly can to offer up the most objective portrait of the vision, the execution and the ultimate Crash of Heaven's Gate into the gates of "dat othuh place"! From actors Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif and Kris Kristofferson to the actual VPs of Production at UA, like Steven Bach to even cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and some of the editors and costumers, no stone is left unturned... no stone except the one Michael Cimino himself is hiding under somewhere.
Though Cimino declined to be interviewed he's far from being lionized or demonized by the interviewees or by Michael Epstein himself. Instead fault on many a side are discussed in great detail to the point that there's enough blame for the slamming closed of Heaven's Gate to go around. Cimino himself takes full responsibility for the demise of his dream project, and it's universally agreed that his overblown, overlong, overzealous and over-ambitiously over-the-top Western was not the result of a chaotic set run by an inept maestro. Instead, it's widely understood that this was a great film director, far too obsessed with perfection to make a film that even approached perfect. This not only may have ruined the director of The Deer Hunter but also skillfully slayed the last dictatorial post in a democratic world.
But as sorrowful as this tale is, the tale is told with a skill that transcends the relative Bomb that changed the way films are marketed. Epstein balances the use of film footage with the use of stock footage and older interviews with his own narration (written for Dafoe). The new interviews are filmed with the subject off-center, both giving the impression of diverse viewpoints and an unfixedness worthy of the subject matter. However, where clips from Heaven's Gate and interview footage (both new and old) don't cover the spread, Epstein plays Dafoe's narration over a series of still photographs, at times made to look brown and white like pictures from the old west, and at times animating them in whole or in part to get the imagery across. By no means is this a cheap trick for the sake of self-edification, instead, the trick of freezing the foreground of a snapshot and letting the various backgrounds in a series of pictures play like a slide-show behind the frozen image brings the viewer into the picture as if it was moving at the behest of Dafoe.
To show such directorial skill in a documentary about the biggest mistake of a director's career could be taken a lot of ways, but I take it to mean that Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of 'Heaven's Gate' is a great documentary worth Four and One Half Stars out of Five. Today a movie is judged by its first weekend's gross, and a "sleeper hit" is all but a fiction in today's cinema. Because of this the art is dying slowly, while the "sensation" of movie going is alive and well and living in Whoreywood. Is it fair to leave all of the blame at the doorstep (or Heaven's Gate-step) of Michael Cimino? Probably not, because the death of the integral movie has had a lot of suspects! However, watching Final Cut and taking it as a too-late cautionary tale of the Ghost of Hollywood Past shows us that sometimes one great misstep can bring down not only the guy on top, but every rung of the ladder beneath him. Well, readers, I'll see you in the next reel, but I'll need a shower afterward.
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