Looking back to those years, even though it was a time of fertile and joyous cinematographic activity, I can’t remember a bigger revelation than the one I felt upon watching The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s second film. Let me give you some context: in the mid seventies of last century, films were a constant source of discoveries. In Europe, what we called “new waves” showed their last death rattles, but their agony was as slow as it was beautiful. In America, New Hollywood was dying as well, but still proved to be able of conceiving amazing surprises. And the old masters were leaving us without losing an inch of their creative sensibility: Billy Wilder’s Fedora or Vincente Minnelli’s Nina were as relevant as any contemporary proposals by Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Let’s make something clear here: this is not nostalgia, that old weapon of cinema lovers, but the affirmation of a space and time in which new things continuously replaced precedent ones. I guess it’s the same that happened in the fifties, when Hitchcock and Rossellini coexisted for a while, and I was a witness of the explosion of creativity that the turn of the century brought about, when high calibre movies as Tsai Ming-liang’s The River or Gus van Sant’s Gerry appeared all at once. The only difference resides in the fact that, on the first case, I wasn’t there to bear witness, while on the second I even recorded the minutes. However, nothing compares now, in my cinematographic memory, with the moment in which Cimino coincided with other fundamental directors that, at the same time, opened a door and closed another: Robert Altman and Wim Wenders, Arthur Penn and Jean Eustache…
But let’s go back to Cimino: The Deer Hunter was proof too of one of those tremendous zeniths. In his story about the Vietnam War, in that tale of friendship and loss, war and melancholy, the old phantoms of David W. Griffith, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, Samuel Fuller or Sam Peckinpah reappeared. And on top of that, they all intermingled with recent traces left by the Nouvelle Vague, Free Cinema or New German Cinema. In the story, three friends attend the wedding of one of them, knowing that on the following day they will leave for Vietnam, where their lives will forever change. I see them now playing pool, drinking beer in their favourite bar, after a hunting day, until someone plays a melody by Chopin on the piano. Suddenly, after a stunning ellipsis, the sound of a helicopter takes us to the battlefield, some time after, and everything is different. How was that possible at all? How come an American film accepted such an abrupt transition, such a sudden change in tone? And why is it that some of the scenes were too contemplative for an epic film, while others were far too violent for a lyrical movie? The Deer Hunter was both of them, and that’s where its dual nature, its unceasing vigour, sometimes interrupted by episodes in which the narration becomes depressive, sank into an incomprehensible temporal vagueness. In the collective memory, the most vivid scenes are the Russian roulette ones, with their guns pointing to the characters’ temples. And what about the haze surrounding the deer in the mountains? And about the suspended time of the hunting scenes as compared to the voracious time of the war scenes? That’s exactly where we should stop, in fact, because they are the origin of Cimino’s following movie, Heaven’s Gate.
I’m not going to dwell on the well-known story of the troubled shooting of the film, its commercial failure (the legend says that Cimino’s megalomania caused the collapse of United Artists). All I can see now are its images, and they are the only things that remain, especially in the 219-minute version that is considered today the only one possible. However, upon its Spanish premiere I saw the 2-hour cut version and felt deceived. For a long time I thought that those cuts were to blame, but now I know this wasn’t the case. In fact, the responsibility of it all should have befallen since day one on The Deer Hunter, in its too overwhelming and recent presence, which obviously made me expect something similar, a funerary celebration of classic films, while what Heaven’s Gate was offering was the beginning of a new era that in the end never took place. And the truth is that many others expected something similar, they hoped that the story about the Vietnam War would metamorphose into this other story about the war on Johnson county, Wyoming, when the local dignitaries, around 1890, decided to annihilate the immigrants who tried to settle on their land. Here too, a story of friendship is evoked, now between a federal agent and a gunman working for the landlords, as well as a love story as silent and intense as the one included in The Deer Hunter. But Cimino had moved on too quickly from one movie to the next, and the language of Heaven’s Gate became something practically incomprehensible for most of the audience. Characters appeared and disappeared without any given explanation, no matter their importance within the plot. In fact, that same “plot” was vague and incoherent, not because of the presence of ellipsis in the manner of The Deer Hunter, but due to real narrative gaps, episodes that were never shown or justified, unless in veiled references hidden within dialogues. And the apparently most insignificant moments of the film were extended until they acquired colossal dimensions, as if the time of the film tried to be equal to the act of remembrance which, as is well known, contracts and dilates images, mental or physical, depending on the importance they are given, not depending on their place in the hierarchy of the construction of the story. Yes, Heaven’s Gate was a fantasised, not told, movie, and that was difficult to digest even for a spectator from those years.
Cimino took this for granted: his audience had the obligation to know –or, in its detriment, to learn– that those narrative strategies weren’t intrinsically lethal to the quality of the material shown, that films were changing and that new rules should be established, rules which had nothing to do with the hegemony, now in decadence, of a certain kind of storytelling. My doubts regarding the movie had a lot to do with that; it hadn’t moved me as much as The Deer Hunter basically because the way in which it tries to cause emotion is different, and I wasn’t equipped with the necessary tools to decipher it. A movie like Heaven’s Gate offered a challenge, somewhat brutal, to my capacity of seeing and understanding. Inasmuch as my eyes had already watched Antonioni and Bergman, Kluge and Godard, Cimino’s movie offered something completely different. It looked like a classic film, but the way in which it was communicated followed a different path than the one used by European renovators: it tried to find an American cultural code to be considered “modern”, but which went beyond pure avant-garde and experimentation, exploring a different territory to the one initiated by James Benning or Mark Rappaport. That is to say, it pushed New Hollywood, from The Long Goodbye to Apocalypse Now, to the limit, demolishing classic heritage not by using external sources, for example European cinema, but from within the very guts of the Great American Story. Cimino tried to place himself besides what Francis Scott Fitzgerald or Sherwood Anderson had achieved many years before, but he forgot that films don’t need the same conditions as literature does. And that is what put an end to his career, to seventies Hollywood and to the possibility of a new American cinema. Or wasn’t it?
All these years, every time I’ve watched Heaven’s Gate, I haven’t ceased to ask myself about my possible responsibility in that collapse. Mainly because it contradicts my ideas regarding the role of the critic, according to which our job consists in figuring out immediately how things are going to evolve within an artistic discipline, in this case films. If I failed to see the importance of Heaven’s Gate, how many other similar fatal mistakes might I have made? Could my personal version of the history of cinema be completely false as a consequence of taking as its base a series of wrong viewpoints? Not to mention my versions of the history of literature and painting, which have been shaken by similar cataclysms throughout time. Now that the Spanish edition of Heaven’s Gate is about to appear in DVD and Blu-ray accompanied by an essay I’m writing to celebrate the special occasion, I’ve seen the more than three-hour long version twice and my impressions were reaffirmed each time. I will finish with one of them, which won’t stop pestering me lately and might be the origin of this article. Because it might seem that I have chosen Heaven’s Gate out of the blue, as an example of that category of bold films way ahead of their time that left a few scatter-brained people, like me, absolutely puzzled. But this is not the case, we’re talking about something else here: about establishing a kind of rupture not only in the history of films, but also in the history of thinking about films.
What would have André Bazin become without Rossellini in the fifties? What would some Tsai Ming-liang or Gus van Sant movies have become without the critical revolution produced in the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries’ deemed “new cinephilia”? Somehow, thinking about films does not only mean considering concrete images, but also the way in which we imagine those images when we have to talk about them, and the way in which we see them reappearing in someone else’s work at a given moment. Thinking about films doesn’t only mean deciphering, interpreting or analysing them. It also entails placing that analysis within our imaginary and making it work together with others, with the effect other images have had in it. What would have happened if, when it first appeared, everybody had more or less unanimously agreed on the greatness of Heaven’s Gate? How would it be now considered should it have caused an array of enthusiastic texts, essays and reflections around it? Would it be perceived as one of those necessary landmarks before which the thinking about film can do nothing else but get it together and start working on it? Which would the critical result be if, from then on, we had already established links between it and One From the Heart and Sorcerer, for example, all of them fragmentary, elusive films, more focused on attention to detail than plot and which, even though staying within the limits of their genre, proposed new ways of shooting after the pessimism of the evolution of the decade in Hollywood?
But no, we started talking about the death of the cinema instead; and crying over the disappearance of classic cinema; and regretting the short life of modern films, born in the sixties; and seeing the confirmation of those gloomy hypotheses in Lightning over Water or Arrebato. And we devoted many efforts during the two following decades to trying and resurrecting all those ghosts. And for that reason, Cimino never had his Bazin, and certain contemporary American films were only seen as a glorious succession of exceptions, of eccentric movies that somehow ended up in Hollywood, as it has always been said about Heaven’s Gate. But that’s not the way it went, believe me. Cimino’s film, like Apocalypse Now or Opening Night, offered the possibility of a post-modern American cinema, and a lot richer one than the one that ended up taking its place. And that fatal disagreement became one of the most decisive failures, in all the history of film, between directors and critics. Indeed, Cimino had manufactured an absolutely revolutionary movie, had proposed an extreme rupture with conventional form, with a radicalism –beyond the budding political content of the topic– that Hollywood couldn’t stand. And the industry reacted with such promptness and hostility that seem disproportionate even today. Not by chance, the commercial and critical failure of Heaven’s Gate and the victory of a mediocre former actor like Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential elections went almost hand in hand: the old Hollywood myth imposed itself, from all angles, over any ruptures that could have taken place but never did. And although we can see that so clearly now, back then it was only understood by a few amongst which, I’m afraid, I couldn’t count myself.