Resurrecting the Revisionist
From around 1977 through to 1981 it seemed that various directors of the time wanted to destroy a studio, making films on budgets so large that an enormous success was required to avoid the inevitability of catastrophic failure, from Scorsese’s New York, New York to Altman’s Popeye, from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to Spielberg’s 1941, and from Landis’s The Blues Brothers to Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Most of them lost money, and it was probably the least ambitious, Landis’s, that became the most commercially successful. But where Apocalypse Now’s rehabilitation is more or less complete, Scorsese’s work absorbed into his canon, Altman’s seen as part of an oeuvre known for its quirkiness, and Spielberg’s financial failure offset by numerous successes in the eighties and nineties, Cimino’s remains the film that is the least rehabilitative. It isn’t only that Cimino’s films since have been seen as uninspiring, it is also that for the last fifteen years he hasn’t made any films at all, and after Heaven’s Gate, even the films he did make, The Year of the Dragon, The Sicilian, Desperate Hours, and The Sunchaser were films maybe more in the hands of their actors than the director: Mickey Rourke, Christophe Lambert and Woody Harrelson. Heaven’s Gate, however, was a film by a director, by someone who wanted to shape the work around his own visionary impulses and not conform to the demands made upon him by studio financiers, critical expectation and the actors he employed. If his earlier features Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter were partly vehicles for Eastwood and De Niro respectively, it would be a stretch to say the same of Heaven’s Gate. The most important figures here are undeniably Vilmos Zsigmond (who also shot The Deer Hunter), and the young David Mansfield, responsible for the film’s luscious, much deployed score. When critics have attacked the film for lacking a story, this isn’t only unfair but perhaps even an example of insisting on their own prejudices regarding the star system rather than comprehending the film’s narrative purpose. It isn’t that the film has no interest in story; it is more that its narrative doesn’t come through the usual assumptions about the star. Part of the ‘problem’ with Heaven’s Gate is that for all Kris Kristofferson’s charismatic presence here, he is part of an ensemble narratively despite his iconic force.
To understand something of Heaven’s Gate’s success and failure is to comprehend an aspect of this play with narrative and icon, the force of the story and the presence of an actor. In most westerns no matter if they have more than one clear lead (like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) the iconic function of the particular actor isn’t really called into question. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Wayne is a figure of the old west, fearless and forceful, while James Stewart is the man of the future, a law-abider and a law maker. In Red River, Wayne is stubborn and determined; Montgomery Clift the youthful and empathic pragmatist. The roles are clear and the actors play within the demands of their persona, while the story plays out the narrative conflict between the main characters and others. If Heaven’s Gate is seen as so messy a film it partly rests on this refusal to play up an actor’s iconic singularity; instead creating very ambiguous personae so that our allegiances might subtly shift without ready event shaping our expectations. For example, after a lengthy opening sequence set in 1870 at Harvard, we’re reacquainted with Kristofferson’s James Averell in 1890, where most of the film is set, and he is bathed in chiaroscuro light as he travels by train from St Louis to Wyoming. He is handsomely bearded, and impressively booted, wearing the sort of foot wear that indicates a man of both wealth and authority; any humour that may come from the length of time it takes him to put the boots on or take them off is secondary to their function as a sign of material comfort, even personal well-being. The images in this scene also hint at the iconically heroic, and an action not long afterwards makes it unequivocal. In this frontier town of immigrants, a father of one family is getting beaten half to death (he will later die from his wounds) by a local who isn’t happy with this wave of immigration and Averell comes to the rescue, taking out three locals in the process. It is a moment where the iconic and the narrational come together, and as the story unfolds with the film telling the story of the Johnson County Wars, with the wealthy landowners and the political class putting together a hit list of well over a hundred immigrant names deemed troublemakers and thieves, so we might well wonder when Averell will use his political clout beyond the slap he gives to Sam Waterston’s vindictive list maker, Frank Canton. The story here offers a strong sense of indignation, and Averell would appear to be the filmic figure in whom our indignation can find release. Not long after the list has been put together at an exclusive club, Averell confronts Canton, insults him and receives a slap for his impertinence, which he matches with the aforementioned one that floors the much weaker man. So far so iconically justifiable: Kristofferson is the star and the story reflects his significance. Narrative and icon match.
Yet after this he moves between the heroic and the vacillating, between an interest in the people generally and his interest in one in particular: his lover Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), an immigrant and brothel owner who happens to be on the list. But it isn’t only his singular rather than general concern that weakens his heroic force; we also have Christopher Walken’s Nathan as a figure who seems much less heroically presented initially, but with a dignity perhaps greater than Kristofferson’s own. When we first see Nathan threatening a cattle rustler, we may wonder as he lets the hungry young man go whether he might just shoot him in the back as he takes off. Where Kristofferson’s face is bearded and flecked with grey, indicating a man of education and sensibility, Walken’s visage looks hungry and haunted, as if only a step or two away from the poverty the character he confronts faces. His Nathan does not look like a man we can see containing the necessary qualities of heroism, and yet while this assumption is proved false, equally Cimino does little to play up the idea that Nathan is a character presented one way initially all the better to allow for peripety later. He will be a hero, and a lover, but almost no narrative tension is generated from this shift, just as the film does not make the most of the heroism Kristofferson evokes and displays in those first few moments in Wyoming.
We could of course claim that working on such a complex production with an enormous budget, Cimino couldn’t easily keep control of the material, and Steven Bach’s book Final Cut is a very good account of a film beset with production difficulties and directorial megalomania. Yet while there may be some truth in this, nevertheless there is something fascinating about a film which refuses to match the iconography it sets up with the story it follows through on, as if on the one hand it is interested in Hemingwayesque heroism, but no less so in the Fitzgerald problem of time. In other words if Averell seems initially the Marshal who wants to test his strength and valour against the backdrop of the Johnson County Wars, finding an event equal to his stature, by the end it is as though the film is finally no less interested in the problem of human compromise reflected, human loss recognized. If critics wanted the film hacked down to a manageable length, maybe it was to see a film more obviously about heroism however unsuccessful, where Cimino, by ranging over forty years, with the lengthy prologue set in 1870, the body of the film in 1890, and the epilogue jumping forward twenty years again, wanted instead to absorb the film into a problem of time. This would mean that events are not there to reflect the heroic gesture, but have to contain within them the futility of the heroic action seen from a more malleable temporal perspective.
To make this clearer let us think again of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the idea of the event in the past that is also shaped according to the needs of the present. The event is not at all futile; it is merely misrepresented, and becomes all the more meaningful in its misrepresentation. By allowing Stewart’s law maker Ranse Stoddard to take responsibility for the shooting of Lee Marvin’s Valance, it indicates the new ways replacing the old, when in fact what happened was that Valance was shot by another man from the old west: Wayne’s Tom. Nevertheless, for the purposes of history the legend is more important than the truth. It has allowed society to progress; why counter the legend now?
In Heaven’s Gate it is as though Cimino wanted to reverse this process and to say that since the people with power prove ineffectual (like Averell) or power-crazed (like Canton), so society through fact or legend changes little, and a life adds up to the sort of loss and failure Fitzgerald so astutely captures in anything from The Great Gatsby to The Last Tycoon. Time has a way of incorporating the action within a meditative dimension far greater than the deed itself. Some might see the action sequences in Heaven’s Gate as weak next to those in another revisionist western like The Wild Bunch, and this is a fair criticism both logistically and technically. Where director Sam Peckinpah creates a complex logistics that reminds us where we are and what is happening to the numerous characters in the lengthy early sequence, the battle near the end of Heaven’s Gate often leaves us wondering where people are and what sort of progress is being made. But within the context of the film as a whole, the confusion in the battle sequence reflects the futility of the effort: it is all too little a bit too late. As Averell gathers together the immigrants to fight the landowners, it feels like a form of collective suicide; that they will inevitably go down, but they will at least go down fighting. This is perhaps why the most haunting image in the sequence is of an immigrant wife blowing her brains out. She’s not long before finished her husband off after his legs are mangled when they get stuck under a horse carriage. Her life is over anyway; the bullet she puts in her own head confirms it.
Cimino’s film is a near four hour epic on futility, and it is as though he has adopted the western genre not to show the making of America as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River and The Searchers do (as Robert P. Pippin shows in using these three films to explore American politics in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth), but to illustrate instead its impossibility. America isn’t there to be made but to be eternally returning to a base power structure which the characters can neither escape nor transform. It is in this context that John Hurt’s character has a role. A brilliant orator at university, he becomes the drunken chorus to various atrocities perpetrated in the 1890s. His William Irvine is a lucid drunk, well aware that amelioration is pointless and that all his best quotes won’t add anything to societal change, even if they can, like the spirits he imbibes, make him feel momentarily better. However, Hurt’s passivity isn’t the exception to the rule, but the rule manifest. Averell and Nathan aren’t really any the more successful in transforming society or even transforming themselves. They are both in love with the same woman, Ella, but where they are all capable of changing each others’ lives, nothing comes of this possibility. If Averell and Ella stay together they can start a new life, with the educated and wealthy Averell helping the modestly incomed and educated Ella. Yet if she marries Nathan Ella can transform his; with Nathan learning to read and write as he attempts to improve himself so he can be worthy of her. However, Ella loves Averell more than she loves Nathan, and yet it is Nathan who asks her to marry him, while Averell has merely asked Ella to leave Johnson County with him, which Ella doesn’t want to escape. If the barons control the land and leave the immigrants with little chance of changing their lives, even the characters that look like they may be capable of doing so remain caught in stasis.
Even when we see transformation of character within the story it leads nowhere. We realise, quite near the end, that Ella is capable of handling both a horse and a gun; but these details haven’t been foreshadowed; nor do they pay off. We have no hint beforehand that she would be capable of these actions, and there aren’t really any consequences to her being able to handle the gun and the horse. Equally, when Nathan shifts from doing the devil’s work to becoming an avenging angel it doesn’t make much difference. When he angrily enters Canton’s tent and shoots a henchman dead, it is a one off act of indignation (revenge for Ella’s earlier rape), not part of a broader attack that will undermine Canton’s efforts. It indeed leads to Nathan’s destruction, as Canton’s men surround his little house on the prairie, kill his friends and eventually also Nathan. He goes down in a literal blaze of glory as his house burns to a cinder behind him and his heroic body is shot to pieces. This later leads the immigrants, Averell and Ella to take on the barons in the main battle, and momentarily it does look like they’ve won. Canton’s men retreat, only for the film to jump elliptically to Averell and Ella finally leaving Johnson County, and Canton and his cohorts putting a few bullets into Ella’s body as her beautiful white dress becomes covered in the blood from the gunshot wounds.
For those determined to see failure, there is much here that indicates melodramatic risibility, with a story so negatively unravelled that we may wonder why Cimino told the tale at all. From the perspective of the ameliorative, albeit still complex, westerns Pippin explores, Heaven’s Gate could seem a monumental failure not only financially (it famously bankrupted United Artists) and narratively (Pauline Kael and others pointed up narrative weaknesses in the initial reviews), but morally too; that the film was incapable of generating a moral system, an understanding of demos and how it functions. As Pippin says “Finally, the Westerns I am interested in are not purely or solely universalistic myths. It is true that the narratives are not merely anecdotal; the films aspire to a form of universality – not the universality of scientific law or generalization but a universality consistent with the ineliminability of the first person perspective, the universality of a common experience of a basic human problem, the political problem. They aspire to mythic universality.” Thus while Pippin has written a fine book on the classic western and its democratic function, Heaven’s Gate appears to be the final instalment in a reverse trilogy. This doesn’t search out a positive demos, but a negative ethos that sees the US built not on the beliefs of enlightenment values and fundamentally democratic amendments, but on the rule of the gun and corrupt elites. Like Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller and Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Heaven’s Gate works from the assumption that the US is a country where manifest destiny belongs to the opportunistic rich and not to the hard-working poor. In Altman’s film, big business wants to take over the frontier town, and Warren Beatty’s bumbling bar owner thinks he can play hardball without realizing that he is dealing with people who have no intention of playing fair. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Pat is the outlaw turned conformist, hired to kill the errant Kid who won’t accept that times have changed. “Times perhaps, but not me” he insists. In McCabe and Mrs Miller, Beatty is tall and bearded and shares a passing resemblance to Kristofferson in Heaven’s Gate, while in Peckinpah’s film the Kid is played by Kristofferson, beardless as he is in Heaven’s Gate’s early stages.
But what ties the three films together is their interest in trying to say that the values of the old west are not useful as founding myths, because the legend they printed didn’t only cover up innocuous gunfights where timid lawyers were taken as heroes, but far more troublesomely hid the horrors of big business replacing small-timers. It wasn’t so much that the rule of the gun was replaced by the rule of the law, but that the outlaw was usurped by the invisibly corrupt: McCabe and Mrs Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Heaven’s Gate all suggest that big decisions are made behind closed doors. The gunfight is replaced by the assassination; the little man by burgeoning conglomerations. In all three films people are picked off or ambushed; there is no town centre confrontation. They invert the classic western as Gilberto Perez sees it: “The reason the Western has the classic showdown between hero and villain taking place on the main street of the town is that the matter at stake is not merely personal but a public, social matter.” (The Material Ghost)
Now this doesn’t mean that the revisionism is true: critics were more than happy to condemn Heaven’s Gate for its historical inaccuracies. Pauline Kael in the New Yorker reported that “only two people were known to have been killed as a result of the conflict, but the movie turns the events into a shoot ‘em up holocaust, in which the helpless poor are destroyed.” While many American critics let the suspect inventions of the marvellous The Deer Hunter pass unremarked, they were harsh indeed on the negative fiction-making in Heaven’s Gate. It is one thing it seems to make things up when it comes to countries in South East Asia (Cimino shows the Viet Cong using Russian Roulette, though there was no documentation of such incidences), but another to reinvent history in one’s own country. Yet Cimino could reply the western genre was full of historical fictions; its purpose wasn’t to tell truths but to generate foundation myths. What Heaven’s Gate – and McCabe and Mrs Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – needed to do was offer counter ones. If the classic western exaggerated the positive values and left the US too oblivious to its own shadowy past, then the revisionist western would exaggerate in the opposite direction to make the US confront itself. The foundation myth would now incorporate self-hatred over self-aggrandizement, a reverse ontology closer to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche than to Hegel and Kant, the latter pair philosophers useful in Pippin’s account. If Hegel and Kant are philosophers who contain within them a pragmatic dimension that Pippin utilises, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche seem more useful in understanding a foundation myth not so readily accepting of an approach that works, but one that asks from whence can we make such a claim. If Pippin sees in the classic western a move from the Hegelian heroic to the prosaic as society doesn’t any longer need the crusading gunslinger, but instead the man of reason who will accept what is best for society, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s ‘negativity’ encapsulates much better the critical scrutinizing of this pragmatism. After all, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Heaven’s Gate possess characters who all offer a reasonable position that from a certain perspective works for the betterment of society. The company that wants to take over McCabe’s bar will create more wealth and prosperity and offer better amenities, the ranchers employing Pat to kill Billy want to eradicate outlaw elements from the west, and in Heaven’s Gate Canton and co. think that the immigrants are generating lawlessness from the land. But Altman, Peckinpah and Cimino ask that awkward Nietzschean question of where is the change coming from, from what perspective are they making certain claims? The heroic giving way to the prosaic is all very well if the heroic takes the form of Wayne and the prosaic Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but if the heroic is destroyed by the prosaic, the ubermensch by the untermentsch, then society is debilitated rather than strengthened.
This is where Nietzsche coincides with Fitzgerald in relation to our understanding of Heaven’s Gate. If Nietzsche famously proposes in his notion of eternal return that we must wish for something time immemorial, Fitzgerald’s fascination with time manifests itself in regret, but the point is perhaps similar. If we suggest that, at the end of Heaven’s Gate, where Averell is on his luxury yacht with his equally aged wife, he is harbouring regrets in the middle of the ocean, is this because if he were asked what moment he would live eternally, it would not at all be one with the woman on the boat, but instead one with Ella? It is as if he has chosen to live not the brave life Nietzsche offers, but the compromised life of the untermentsch, the weak man who couldn’t quite decide. As Nietzsche says in ‘What is Noble?’, “The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges ‘what harms me is harmful initself’, he knows himself to be that which in general first accords honour to things.” Averell might have been willing to take Ella away from Johnson County, but it was Nathan that promised her marriage. Averell may say, at one moment when Ella says she doesn’t want to leave behind the things she has accumulated, that they are just things and Averell can buy her loads of things, but we might wonder why he cannot quite offer what Nathan offers. There is a picture occasionally shown with Averell and his presumed wife (a woman he meets in the 1870 sequence), but we do not know until we see her again at the end of the film whether she is still his partner, a woman he has left, or a wife who has died. The question of what stops him from leaving Ella isn’t at all addressed, but we can surmise by the film’s conclusion that he could have got Ella out of Johnson County and maybe saved her life if he had been willing to marry her.
This is regret as eternal recurrence: he can return to his time with Ella endlessly, but only as a moment from which he is now trapped outside of. Like Fitzgerald’s heroes, he is a man not quite at one with the moment, whether it is Gatsby trying to impress Daisy in the present after letting her go in the past, or Monroe Stahr who never felt he quite loved his late wife as fully as he could and tries to find in another woman who resembles her a deeper love still. If Hemingway was often the great writer of heroism tested, Fitzgerald was frequently the master of being wrong-footed by time. Kristofferson as Billy the Kid in Peckinpah’s film could say the times might have changed but not him; but Averell here would have to accept that he let time work upon him. He thus ends the film adrift in the punningly obvious ocean of time, but with Cimino’s images strong enough to go beyond the apparent obviousness the images signify.
Indeed it is in the quality of the images that Cimino gives texture to his concerns. Using Zsigmond, who not only shot The Deer Hunter but also McCabe and Mrs Miller, the cinematographer knows both the iconographically iconoclastic possibilities available in the western, as well as Cimino’s semi-mythic concerns. Like McCabe..., the film is burnished, a golden evocation but of an ungolden era, and the film wants to suggest the beauty and sweep of America, but wants within that unequivocal beauty an equivocal brutality. As Averell arrives off the train in the scene in Wyoming, the painterly images segue into images of pain and suffering, with the immigrant hordes starving, or getting beaten. It is a Dickensian moment of human bustle and want, and Sikes and Fagan wouldn’t be amiss here; ready employees for the cattle barons. Not long after the aforementioned beating, travelling along the Midwest and out of town, Averell comes across the family again: the husband has died from his wounds, and the mother and her urchin children will battle on she says, no matter if Averell offers to buy them out and give them the chance to return to Europe. The US wasn’t built on the foundation myth of hard work alone, but hard lives also, and the American dream had for many to pass through the American nightmare first. Zsigmond frames such images with visual poetry, but he films also with a melancholy all the more present because of the pain he contains within his style. Zsigmond was one of the ‘softest’ of the great cameramen of the seventies. Less harsh than Haskell Wexler, less hard than Gordon Willis, he could create images that possessed oxymoronic qualities, evident in the gentle way he films the terrible death of the dude cowboy in McCabe and Mrs Miller, or shows Wade determined to drown himself in The Long Goodbye while in the foreground the camera plays off the reflecting glass of the Wades’ house. If critics have argued whether the image is always in the present (as Susan Sontag proposed in her essay on Bergman’s Persona) or never in the present (as Deleuze claims in his Cinema books), then sometimes we might look at an individual cinematographer’s work and see how much it implies the present or the past: does the image seem to contain a world of evocation beyond the image, or does the image generate a hardening of the present, a vivid sense of now? Many cameramen influenced by documentary searched out the now quite brilliantly, but Zsigmond’s finest work contained within it a broader temporality. It was perhaps a pity that he didn’t shoot the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby.
David Mansfield adds to Zsigmond’s images a folk score, a more plaintive soundtrack than we expect from the classic western, and it shares similarities with Leonard Cohen’s songs in McCabe and Mrs Miller, and Bob Dylan’s in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Like the music in McCabe… and Pat Garrett…, Mansfield’s score isn’t there merely to serve the images, but to accompany them, with these three great seventies westerns creating a gap between the images and the soundtrack not in a radical disjunction we can find in Godard, Resnais and Duras, but in a modest disjunction, closer to Easy Rider, Mean Streets or The Graduate. This is where the soundtrack doesn’t serve but augments the image, with the film often using music that stands alone beyond the film, but at the same time fits perfectly within it. There are many soundtracks, and most western ones, that when listened to alone will give the listener a strong sense of the film’s dramatic arc, but in films utilising modest disjunction the soundtrack can be listened to with often no sense of the specific drama that is served in the film.
Now just as Altman used Cohen to point up the gap between sound and image, giving the film an aloof aspect, and Dylan took a small role in Pat Garrett as if to give a face to the chorus, Mansfield turns up here on rollerskates, playing the fiddle in a scene that gives proper credence to the barnstorming sequence that we frequently find in the western. This lengthy sequence in the middle of the film, which also includes a scene with Averell and Ella having the dance floor to themselves while Mansfield and his band play, would have been too extended in a shorter western, but works well within the context of the near four hour running time. It is part of the film’s modest disjunction, as the film’s composer quite literally takes centre stage. If Godard would sometimes be inclined, in a radical disjunction, to keep tracking from left to right, with the music we take to be on the soundtrack ending up on the screen as we see an orchestra playing (and that the comic western Blazing Saddles also self-consciously plays up), Mansfield’s presence in the film is no more than a modest proposal. It is a disjunction easily absorbed without any need for self-reflexivity, but surely demanding a lengthy running time.
It is also the moment that contains the film’s title: the barn is called Heaven’s Gate, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t one of the moments that Averell will be reflecting back on as he sits aboard his yacht. The images couldn’t be more contrary: dancing in the middle of the US with a woman of immigrant stock, energetic and energised, as opposed to shuffling around on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a Waspish wife. Yet the latter is also a great image of the elegiac, and like McCabe and Mrs Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Cimino’s mourning of the past is not only one of time’s passing, but also of opportunities lost. It is one thing to look back with nostalgia at a moment one feels contains one’s lost youth, but another if within that lost youth other aspects have been lost also. These three great Westerns aren’t nostalgic – as John Ford’s sometimes can be – but instead dolefully aware of a forking path: an America that could have been very different. Whether it is McCabe lying dead in the snow, Garrett taking out the Kid, or the deaths of Nathan and Ella here, the possibility of a better America is removed. This is Nietzsche’s notion of living dangerously attached to a broader political memory, and its subsequent failure, and the films, whilst set in the distant past, also recall more recent deaths: the series of assassinations in the US in the sixties, especially those of Martin Luther King and Malcom X; Jack and Robert Kennedy. It reflects a national failure of nerve as conservative self-protection. The eternal return functions as a country’s insistence not on making itself anew as Pippin explores in the classic western, but refusing new possibilities by returning to the same power structures. Is it this which led to such negative reviews? “Cimino’s sins might have been forgiven in Hollywood had the film made a positive statement,” The Virgin Film Guide proposed. This is a big leap, perhaps, but neither McCabe and Mrs Miller nor Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were well-received either, and each film insists on containing inside their elegiac sense of a wasted life (McCabe’s Pat’s and Averell’s) a nation laying waste to an honest future also.
Thus perhaps the film’s rehabilitation needs to come through looking at it not as one of half a dozen movies made by megalomaniac auteurs at the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, but as the final work in an inverse trilogy to the one proposed by Pippin for the classic western. Rather than seeing the film through aspects of its production history, and Hollywood sociology, as it helped unravel a studio, better to see it as a work that wanted to be part of the unravelling of the myths of America. This isn’t to suggest that Pippin’s perspective is naive and his angle on American democracy through the western invalid; just that there is a counter history no less pertinent, with Altman, Peckinpah and Cimino all doing great cinematic justice to the historically unjust. It is surely time to resurrect this marvellous western on the revisionist terms upon which it was made.