What a Feeling

An Oak Street retrospective pulls us back to the flashy days of Eighties cinema

In the piece (which pretty well describes the way the industry has remained for the 20 years since it was written), Kael reported that corporate executives who didn't know or care much about movies (other than being starstruck) were not only in control of studio production but were becoming celebrities themselves. Their ego-driven desire for formulaic megahits on the order of Jaws and Star Wars was turning almost every movie into a potential blockbuster, mass-marketed on TV and released to thousands of chain-owned theaters simultaneously. Meanwhile, films that built word of mouth by traveling slowly around the country--helped along by print reviews--were going out of style, as were the personal and subversive epics of variably talented "New Hollywood" directors such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and Terrence Malick.

Required by their enormous budgets to seek instant audience recognition and universal appeal, movies that spoke to "the inner child in all of us" (or, rather, to the inner male child, including the overgrown boys at the studios) proliferated. Stars, as in the studio-contract days, were used as short cuts to getting the ticket buyer's attention. But now, represented by high-powered agents, they were also being dangled in front of industry suits to secure pre-sales to television and foreign markets--and stars didn't come cheap. The wildly inflated costs of production and promotion of these mass-released studio juggernauts (remember Raise the Titanic? The Black Hole? Inchon?) naturally dictated a conservatism of style, subject matter, and worldview--which is apparent in a number of the two dozen American movies screening as part of "Cinema 80," Oak Street Cinema's four-week Eighties retrospective. But perhaps more significant was the fact that many of us in the Eighties seemed to want movies that were conservative in style, subject matter, and worldview. And it makes sense: After years of government conspiracy, gas shortages, political assassinations, racial unrest, and Vietnam, reflected in a decade's worth of formally challenging and highly critical American films, how much more bad news could moviegoers take?


Near the end of 1980, a year whose biggest hit had been The Empire Strikes Back, United Artists released Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a three-hour-and-forty-minute, fact-based Western about the legalized slaughter of immigrant farmers by Montana cattle barons in 1892. Not exactly what you'd call a date movie. (It screens twice at Oak Street on Sunday, August 19, in an archival 35mm print.) Cimino, riding high on the five Oscars recently awarded to his epic exorcism of Vietnam, The Deer Hunter, spared no expense to re-create the period setting of his third movie. A century-old locomotive, too large to pass through modern train tunnels, was lugged from Colorado to Montana along a track laid specially for the occasion. To make the frontier mise en scène look suitably smoky, the director used gigantic fans to blow 20,000 tons of chemical dust before the cameras. For the film's 20-minute prologue, set two decades before the rest of the action, a huge tree was uprooted, shipped in several pieces to Oxford University, and reassembled there. Every building, every sign, and every piece of clothing was allegedly modeled on period photographs, whether those items were identifiable onscreen or not. "Even when detail is there but not seen," Cimino told American Film, "I still feel it contributes something."

In the end, the director had exposed 220 hours worth of film at a cost of $44 million. Eventually recouping just $1.3 million from an abridged rerelease cut that ran two and a half hours (Oak Street is screening the long version), Heaven's Gate became the biggest financial catastrophe ever to befall a major studio, enough to spell the end of United Artists and, in many ways, the New Hollywood movement as a whole. Among Cimino's countless misjudgments--or transgressions, as you prefer--was his unwillingness to cast actors with much marquee value. (Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert were hardly strong enough names to be saddled with the load of this weighty horse opera.) Still, it's hard to imagine that even Robert Redford and Paul Newman could have sold the early Eighties audience on Cimino's unfashionably bleak vision of how the West was won."The conception is a complete downer....The spirit is late-sixties, as if Cimino had just become alienated," wrote Kael in the New Yorker, dissing the industry but epitomizing the times. "It's a movie you want to deface; you want to draw mustaches on it..." And nearly everyone did.

The obvious irony was that this radical ode to immigrant "anarchists" destroyed by the pitiless forces of American capitalism would itself fall prey to those forces. After the dust had settled on the whole debacle, Variety reported that Heaven's Gate would be reissued in a third, 90-minute edition called The Johnson County War--in which the good guys prevail! This cut never actually came to pass, although the Rambo-style notion of muscularly reversing the failures of both cinema and history--replaying past traumas so that "we" get to win--certainly represented the general way of things in the 1980s.

Today, watching the full version of Heaven's Gate (which isn't advisable after a large meal, by the way), what emerges most clearly is Cimino's simultaneously bold and naive fidelity to a sort of realism that runs counter to Hollywood convention and, at times, to basic coherence. Even aside from the film's flagrant disregard for defining the basic relationships between the protagonists, the sound--on the battlefield as well as in the echo-filled lecture halls of Harvard University circa 1870--is muffled to the point of being unintelligible. Was Cimino such a stickler for period detail that he recorded the dialogue with late-19th-century equipment? Forty million bucks and the guy couldn't afford Dolby Stereo? Whatever the case, the words are as tough to hear as they might well have been more than a century ago. Which is a pretty audacious kind of realism, yes?

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