It was inevitable that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate would ring the death knell, in 1980, for what has since been called the American new wave—that gustiest of zeitgeists was too indulgent of individualism, too grown-up, and too contemptuous of base consumer capitalism to survive. Cimino was the moment’s Von Stroheim, too successful for the wrong reasons at first and then so outrageously profligate that his public lynching was a ritual the Industry had to perform in order to reassert mindless Lucasian profit as its god. Heaven’s Gate is not to blame. Certainly it’s an uncommercial monster, a narratively distended western (made when only Clint Eastwood could earn with the genre) upon which Cimino was allowed to spend far too much cash. But the quixotically run United Artists, the demise of which is usually laid at Cimino’s doorstep, was already near dissolution. (Outside of Rocky‘s freak success in 1976, the studio hadn’t had a reasonable hit since the early ’60s.) Seen again in its original, nearly four-hour form, the film plays like an opium vision of American bloodshed, re-creating and ballooning the Johnson County Wars—cattle barons and their private armies vs. starving immigrants—into a self-mythologizing prophecy of corporate mercilessness. The lie of frontier idealism is debunked, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s mistily gorgeous cinematography is virtually an act of mourning in and of itself. It’s no accident that Film Forum is resurrecting this tottering, melancholy giant for this election season, when being American once again means being liable for massacre.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 28, 2004