“Heaven’s Gate” and Film Maudit Culture

Posted by Peter Labuza on 10.8.2012


Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate

"Time is going to be kind to all the movies I like that you dislike." So tweeted AV Club writer Scott Tobias last month, mostly as a joke, but also as a stance of a critical manifesto. Nothing can make a film critic feel more vindicated than seeing something they championed for years finally resurrected and heralded. Film critics champion their favorite works day after day, year after year, and often those films become lost in the shuffle, or worse, beaten to death by studios or other critics. And thus emerges the film maudit (the "cursed film"), the one that time unfairly maligned.

The film maudit often has its champions, but they are few in number and spread out across the world. If there is one film that, more than any other, qualifies as a film maudit, it is certainly Heaven’s Gate. Michael Cimino's 1980 revisionist western is most often cited as the film that killed the Hollywood New Wave. But now, thanks to a digital restoration that screened for only the second time at the 50th New York Film Festival, and a Criterion Blu-ray of Cimino’s new cut, the film will finally have its day as an unheralded masterpiece. But what becomes of its maudit status?


Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby

Film maudit culture has a history as long as that of the films themselves. Andrew Sarris often called Max Ophüls’s Lola Montes his favorite film of all time during the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps because the film was such a flop. Peter Bogdanovich took Bringing Up Baby from a flop to Howard Hawks' most celebrated film with a screening in 1962 (and now his film They All Laughed seems to be finally getting its due). Ishtar is still seen as one of the great Hollywood flops, but thanks to writers like Richard Brody, cinephiles are finally discovering Elaine May’s films as another cornerstone of the Hollywood New Wave (which, thanks to Olive Film’s release of A New Leaf, are now all out on DVD).

But the culture of film maudit has fundamentally changed with the emergence of a new cinephilia in the last decade. No longer are these films that were only seen by a handful of people decades ago, or stayed up late to watch on the Z Channel. Now the film maudit becomes the talk of Twitter, the film you must see because they (who "they" are is never specified) were unable to see the masterpiece hidden inside. Today such films are widely available, whether on director-approved Blu-rays or decidedly un-approved torrents made from digitized VHS tapes. The champions are no longer relegated to the outskirts—they are perhaps the center in many ways, all connected thanks to social media and able to form a community around their cinephiliac pleasures.


Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret

The question, then, is are we reaching a saturation of films maudits? One must only consider the case of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. Opening to mixed-to-unfavorable reviews in September of last year, only a few curious cinephiles (including me, on a whim recommendation) flocked during its two-week run in New York to discover a certainly flawed but opulent and rich work of artistic passion. Soon enough, there arose the #teammargaret campaign on Twitter, a petition to get the film out to more critics, and by the next year, a DVD release of an extended cut closer to Lonergan’s original vision. This new cut of Heaven’s Gate took 33 years. Margaret went from obscurity to notoriety in less than one.

Does Margaret even qualify as a film maudit? What does these days? In every annals of the Internet, films go from chided works of misguided visions to brilliant, misunderstood masterpieces. Tobias' colleague Nathan Rabin published an entire book entitled My Year of Flops, reassessing everything from Cruising to The Cable Guy to Elizabethtown (Rabin rates the films on three levels: Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success). Over at Mubi, the late director Tony Scott went from ADD-fueled Hollywood director in the vein of Michael Bay to the most essential artist of the 21st century, as a so-called Vulgar Auteurist. One might wonder if there are even bad movies anymore—everyone has their pet films that they champion day after day because no one else has seen them (for me: Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely, Istvan Szabo’s Father).


Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson in Heaven's Gate

Knowing all this, I was skeptical going into Heaven’s Gate, which I had long avoided because no area of film history excites me like the Hollywood New Wave, and knowing this film brought it all to a screeching halt made me feel like I was about to watch a snuff film. But then the film began, and all I could do was feel rapturous for its three-and-a-half-hour running time, constantly whispering to myself, "wow," at its sheer audacity.

Heaven’s Gate tells the true history of the Johnson County War in 1890 Wyoming, as the government, in cahoots with the Stock Growers Association, legalized the murder of countless immigrants on the basis of stealing cattle. Kris Kristofferson, channeling John Wayne’s stoicism, stars as the Harvard-educated sheriff of the County, Jim Averill. Averill is no fan of the law, nor is his Harvard friend, the alcoholic Billy Irvine, one of the state senators. But there is little he can do to protect the amalgamation of German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European citizens from the oncoming disaster. Heaven’s Gate, like Cimino’s celebrated The Deer Hunter, is also a love triangle at heart between Jim, his girlfriend Ella (the sumptuous Isabelle Huppert in her first American role), and the bounty hunter Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Ella runs the local whorehouse, though she only participates with Jim and Nate (the latter of whom must pay for her company).


Christopher Walken in Heaven's Gate

It’s easy to see why Vincent Canby famously panned Heaven’s Gate in 1980, leading to its maligned cut that made the film most likely incomprehensible. Like The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate is less interesting in narrative than it is in atmosphere—a central conflict in the film doesn’t emerge for at least 90 minutes, instead allowing us to take in the gorgeous landscapes, epic vistas, and immersive communities (few films can rival the sheer number of extras used and, with apologies to Peter Jackson, not a single one is CGI, which makes all the difference).

Canby and other writers attacked the film as a beautiful-to-look-at but essentially empty film, and some still do today. Heaven’s Gate is not a collection of museum paintings—it’s a living breathing collection of the past, recollecting what was once true to explore what is still true. Beyond the beautiful images and even the love story is a frightening portrait of class and the failure of the American dream; a character played by Jeff Brdiges exclaims, "It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country!" Heaven’s Gate might be the bleakest of the New Hollywood Westerns, precisely because its sets us up with its wondrous imagery a promise of dreams, and yet terribly undercuts the possibility that real freedom and opportunity might exist. And this plays both on the grand scale as well as on the intimate, between Averill and Ella, with the question of whether the two of them have a future in the West. The Deer Hunter might be specifically about soldiers in Vietnam, but Heaven’s Gate is Cimino's real Vietnam film—just stare into Kristofferson’s eyes during the final sequence and tell me you don’t see the haunted nightmares of an entire generation being reflected.


Kris Kristofferson and Michael Cimino on stage at the Walter Reade Theater. Photo: Julie Cunnah

During the Q&A that followed, a teary-eyed Cimino sat greatfully taking in the rapturous applause that his film deserved 33 years ago. Watching his reaction, I realized I’m okay with how our film maudit culture has changed. Over the last year, I’ve finally seen films like Greed, Khrustolyov, My Car!, and now Heaven’s Gate—each has struck a chord deep within my cinephilia. The Internet has finally been able to cultivate a place where Heaven’s Gate is no longer the film that killed the Hollywood New Wave, but the moment when Hollywood killed itself by not realizing they had a masterpiece on their hands. History is written by the winners, as the old adage goes. But thanks to the new cinephilia, films maudits are now the winners.

Peter Labuza is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow him on Twitter at @labuzamovies.

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