Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Michael Cimino | 3hr 39min

The widespread adoration that Michael Cimino garnered from audiences and critics alike upon the release of The Deer Hunter in 1978 came about as suddenly as his fall from grace two years later. To this day, Heaven’s Gate stands for one of Hollywood’s most expensive financial failures, effectively sinking United Artists’ reputation as an independent studio and culturally bookmarking the end of the American New Wave. Mainstream cinema in the 1980s would soon look very different to the auteur-driven trends of the 1970s that Cimino rode a very brief high on, and which secured him the funding to direct such enormous epics in the first place.

Yet it is tough to pin these immense cultural shifts on a single film, and especially one that has been so under-appreciated. Cimino’s raw artistic ambition isn’t so different to that of more celebrated directors like Francis Ford Coppola, whose production on Apocalypse Now was plagued with similar issues of over-spending, schedule delays, and obsessive perfectionism. The evidence of that massive cinematic vision in Heaven’s Gate is right there on the screen, and should not be brushed off as merely a monument to one director’s ego. To go even further and claim that it is among the ugliest films in history as Roger Ebert did in his review cannot even be justified as mere hyperbole – this revisionist Western is quite frankly a work of immense visual beauty, possessing some of the finest camerawork and mise-en-scène of the 1980s.

Crane shots soaring above Harvard College as the class of 1870 graduates, sending two promising young men out into the world.
There is simply no argument to be made this film is ugly, as Roger Ebert puts forward. The widescreen aspect ratio is a beautiful canvas for Cimino’s grand visual style in jaw-dropping landscapes and atmospheric interiors.

None of this should be a surprise though given the credentials of Cimino’s cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had previously collaborated with him on The Deer Hunter and achieved a similarly rustic aesthetic in Robert Altman’s Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Shane comes to mind as well in the use of Wyoming’s alpine mountains as daunting backdrops, towering over lush valleys and rural civilisations. So too are there traces of Sergio Leone in the majestic establishing shots of bustling industrial towns, the staging of massive ensembles across a widescreen canvas, and the grand movements of the camera atop cranes, and yet Cimino also instils this photographic marvel with his own gritty authenticity.

The Western influences here are diverse – Cimino even gets cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond onboard to recapture the rustic aesthetic he used in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Then we get a bit of George Stevens’ style in his shooting of Shane, using the Wyoming mountains as a backdrop to lush, green valleys.
Most of all though, we don’t get Heaven’s Gate without Sergio Leone’s influence. Establishing shots like these sweep us into the air on cranes, while the mise-en-scène is filled with extras and period detail.

Most notably, natural light fills his scenery with warm, almost sepia tones, beaming in through windows and illuminating the atmosphere’s dusty haze. Especially as we move into the final act where wagons and horses kick clouds of dirt up into the air during large-scale battles, Cimino delivers some of the Western genre’s most astonishing landscapes, and then contrasts that grainy spectacle with the soft, purple skies of Wyoming’s sunrises.

An incredible use of natural light in interiors as well as exteriors, shining the sun in through Venetian blinds to highlight the permanent haze in the air.
Cimino fills the air with dust, and then lets it settle to linger on these soft, purple sunrises.

This tension between gentle innocence and harsh conflict wholly transcends Cimino’s visual style and manifests as Heaven’s Gate’s central narrative concern, where a tenuous peace is slowly breaking down between the cattle barons of Johnson County and the European immigrants stealing their livestock. For those impoverished foreigners lying shoulder to shoulder in cramped bunkhouses, this is often the only way they can feed their families, though even those who work in rundown homesteads and brothels find themselves resorting to crime. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association reacts with disproportional violence against the theft of their property, sending mercenaries after the lawbreakers, and putting together a list of 125 settlers marked for death.

The landowners of Johnson County meet in this train yard at night, smoke filling the air. It is set up in very stark contrast to the bright, warm roller rink where the immigrants gather later.

Christopher Walken’s menacing entry as vigilante gunslinger Champion is not unlike Henry Fonda’s own villainous arrival in Once Upon a Time in the West, slaughtering a family of offending immigrants with cold-blooded professionalism. The hole that his bullet leaves in the hanging laundry opens a frame which his moustachioed face peers through, before he strides off into the distance to serve whatever orders he is given next. Within the moral greyness of this social landscape though, pure villainy is not so easily defined. Champion has committed some truly wicked deeds, and yet when forced to confront the incongruence between his duty and his love for Isabelle Huppert’s French prostitute Ella, he is driven to perform acts of great heroism against the powerful landowners.

Christopher Walken gets an excellent introduction as Champion. We first see him through the hole his bullet makes while shooting a family, and you would be forgiven for assuming he is the villain of the piece.

In compelling juxtaposition, John Hurt’s jovial cattle rancher Billy Irvine offers an inverse arc of cowardly passivity. The prologue set at Harvard College sees him give a rousing speech to a crowd of fellow graduates, and when we catch up with him twenty years later in Johnson County he is one of the few Association members to oppose the secretly planned massacre of immigrants. By every metric he appears to be a likeable, intellectual leader, and yet his actual impact is minimal. Billy is a man with little value beyond his charm, wearily resigning to sit among the landowners, quietly disapprove of their deeds, and drunkenly muse like a Shakespearean fool who observes but never acts.

“Armour made a man a knight, a crown a king. What are we?”

Instead, it is Billy’s college friend Jim Averill who takes the position of firm moral conviction in Heaven’s Gate, coming into Johnson County as its new marshal siding firmly with the immigrant settlers. In this role, Kris Kristofferson possesses the stoicism of a classical Western hero and the understated sensitivity of a modern man, reflecting a changing America that is reassessing its traditional values and diversifying its population.

As Jim Averill, Kris Kristofferson possesses the stoicism of a classical Western hero and the understated sensitivity of a modern man, reflecting a changing America that is reassessing its traditional values and diversifying its population.

Jim’s and Champion’s politics are as bitterly split as their mutual love for Ella is unifying, so it is through the latter that both men find personal stakes in the Association’s planned massacre. After all, she is one of the immigrants who has been trading sexual favours for stolen cattle, thus putting her name among the 124 others marked for murder. It is at the local skating rink where that list first goes public, as Jim stands in front of hundreds of settlers and reads it out with a tone of indignant shame at how low his nation has sunk. This is not the Old West which built its foundations on promises of the American Dream. It is a state-sanctioned Holocaust, enacted purely out of self-interest by authorities looking to preserve existing power structures.

The Heaven’s Gate roller rink is a masterstroke of minimalist production design, becoming a melting pot of cultures as the immigrants gather to dance and hold meetings.

The name of this rink where the foreign settlers gather is clearly important to Cimino, given that it is also the title given to his film. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ carries divine implications, suggesting a spiritual sanctuary for the meek who Christ assures will inherit the Earth. Just as it hosts their public meetings, so too does it offer them a space to drink, dance, and socialise, while Cimino’s dynamic camera twirls and waltzes with them across its wooden floors. With the frequent low angles catching the skeletal structure of the timber rafters and the sunlight’s warm tones filtering through the ceiling, this rugged set piece is both humble and magnificent in its visual impact. When it finally empties to leave Jim and Ella alone with the folk band, it is even easier to admire Cimino’s feat of production design, which covers walls with faded posters of a long-gone era. This is the last post of compassionate warmth in America, populated by those from Russian, French, German, and Slavic backgrounds finding uninhibited joy in a vibrant melting pot of cultures.

Faded posters of a long-gone era are pasted all over the walls of the Heaven’s Gate roller rink, and give us this gorgeous frame when Jim and Ella are finally left alone.

This camaraderie between immigrants is absolutely integral to the fortitude, resourcefulness, and resilience they show on the battlefield when they decide to take their fate into their own hands. Parallels are even drawn to the Romans as they cobble together makeshift weapons and execute ingenious strategies to surround, outnumber, and dominate their overconfident enemies.

These action sequences are skilfully edited, but even here Cimino never loses sight of his setting’s immense natural beauty, with his camera gazing in awe at the pine forests, peaceful lakes, and snowy mountains being obscured by white dust and smoke. Crane shots continue to shift our focus across the battlefields with thrilling invigoration, building this colossal epic to what looks like a grand victory for the immigrants – only for the US army to show up and arrest the mercenaries in the final minute, thus saving them from certain death. In effect, this is the wealthy landowners’ last-ditch effort to ensure that their defeat does not truly threaten their status in Johnson County’s existing hierarchy.

The final battle of Heaven’s Gate builds towards a win for the immigrants, and Cimino executes some masterful action scenes in this invigorating lead-up – only to cruelly snatch it away from them at the last minute. All part of his broader statement about America’s rigged institutions.

Even more crushing is the petty act of vengeance the leader of the Association enacts against Jim after the dust has settled. Resolving to leave town with Ella once and for all, he is ambushed by a small posse, who shoot one last bullet into his lover. The grief that forces him to his knees is one which continues to echo into the coda set ten years later, encasing him in a lonely recognition of everything that has been lost. Though he is clearly well-off as he relaxes aboard a private yacht with his college girlfriend, there is little warmth to be found.

This ending to Heaven’s Gate leaves more unresolved questions than it does fulfilling answers. If the America that Jim nostalgically swore to defend was already fading in the late nineteenth century, then it is completely gone by the time the twentieth century rolls around, with many of those lives which once shone so brightly now cut tragically short. In the end, this prosperous Western civilisation is defeated by its own shallow success, maintaining itself through corruption and implementing safeguards against those seeking to overturn its social order. It is only fitting that such a profound, melancholy lament of changing eras would similarly be reflected in a film so heavily associated with the end of the artistically fertile New Hollywood movement. Cimino’s ambitious creativity simply could not have flourished anywhere else.

Heaven’s Gate is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Alain Resnais | 2hr 5min

There is a single mosaic that appears at both the start and end of Mon Oncle d’Amerique, complex and bewildering in its composition, though not without precise intent. The first time we see it, a spotlight moves across the grid of still photos depicting people, rocks, bicycles, animals, art – a whole assortment of random pieces of humanity with no apparent common thread. Several voices are layered over the top from which we can only pick out isolated grabs, keeping us at a distance from any specific interpretation of Alain Resnais’ maximalist expression. The second time, we recognise these images as belonging to the film we just watched, taxonomically arranged and dissected into fragments. Wedged between these twin bookends is the rest of Resnais’ monumental anthropological study of human nature, taking the form of several narrative strands and motifs laced through the methodical musings of real-life neurobiologist and philosopher, Henri Laborit.

A mosaic of shots from the film, capturing the breadth of human experience. Much like the film itself, it is also an overwhelming piece of art that reveals more details the longer you sit with it and inspect it.

When measuring Mon Oncle d’Amerique up against so many other films of its calibre, it is apparent that there is not much in the way of visual style that might have offered it an extra edge of cerebral wit and playfulness. Equally clear though is just how ambitious it is in virtually every other aspect, not just in its broad themes, but quite essentially in its formal structure as well, far exceeding so many other masterpieces it sits alongside. There is no easy way to break it down into something comprehensible. Even within the context of the film, it takes its entire run time for it all to congeal into something artistically profound, with each disparate plotline and idea being weaved together like threads in Resnais’ magnificent tapestry.

Once the cacophony of voices starts to peel apart, it is a little easier to grasp the unravelling character introductions of Jean, Janine, and René. Each one is delivered like abridged biographies that not only cover their origins, but their entire stories as well, which will soon play out in greater detail. Resnais flicks through slides and footage covering their upbringings at a hasty pace, drawing parallels between each despite their strikingly different backgrounds. The births of Jean to a bourgeoisie family, Janine to politically active proletariats, and René to old-fashioned farmers are set behind oval frames of the characters themselves narrating their own lives, breaking the fourth wall like participants in Laborit’s sociological study.

These fourth wall breaks through oval frames of the characters feel like a remnant of the French New Wave – but it is entirely unique to Resnais.

Though we regularly return to the scientist himself presenting lectures to the camera that complement the behaviours of our three protagonists, he never refers to them directly. It is rather through Resnais’ editing that we begin to draw these connections. As we learn of their childhoods, so too do we learn about the triune brain theory, which argues that humans possess a unique set of neurological factors allowing us to create imaginative constructs from past experiences. “A living creature is a memory which acts,” he poetically reasons, right before we see Jean, Janine, and René each rebel from their respective families and decisively set themselves on their own independent paths.

Further binding them together is a common fascination and identification with three different classical French actors – Jean Gabin, Jean Marais, and Danielle Darrieux. The frequent cutaways to them in their black-and-white movies serve as punctuation marks on dramatic beats, like a comma in one scene that sees someone call out for René, followed by a shot of Gabin turning around, and then René performing the exact same motion. Elsewhere, Jean’s poignant departure from his wife and children is felt even more piercingly when the scene ends with his idol, Darrieux, embracing a loved one. Much like Laborit’s documentary-style presentations, these fleeting breaks from the narrative offer another angle through which we can understand Resnais’ characters as part of something larger than themselves, whether that be evolutionary science or French film history.

Formal cutaways to classical French actors in match cuts, underscoring Resnais’ characters with comparisons to cinema history.

And then there is the subject of the film’s title, the mysterious American uncle who never makes an appearance. Jean, Janine, and René all speak of that familial figure as some legend who has left an imprint on their lives before disappearing, whether spiralling into homelessness or going off on an adventure to find treasure. For Janine, he is merely a hypothetical beacon of happiness that never existed, and yet which she believed she was entitled to from a young age. That these niche references sit alongside other broader cultural motifs might clue us into something about their significance as cultural tales, informing our values and beliefs which in turn shape the way we interpret the world.

Because when we are presented with something as complex as the human experience, represented by Resnais’ bookended mosaics, narrowed perspectives and ordered systems are essential in informing our ability to understand it. It is through those structures that we see how each piece of Mon Oncle d’Amerique comes together, most significantly in the affair between Jean and Janine, and the disastrous business meeting between Janine and René.

Jean’s island is one of the few attractive set pieces in the film, shrouded in a light mist and reflected in the surrounding water. It is telling that Resnais returns here several times – he knows it strengthens his film stylistically.

At this point, Laborit’s lessons take a fascinating, surreal turn, using lab rat experiments to describe these characters’ behaviours, predominantly through the procedure of classical conditioning in which creatures learn to pair warnings with pain. Still, even he often acknowledges the greater complexity of human psychology and sociology, and we are reminded of that in Resnais’ revisiting of previous scenes in cutaways that now comically substitute people for human-sized rats. Where an animal of lower intelligence might instinctively learn to avoid pain, we watch humans make the same mistakes by returning to ex-lovers, and conversely where we once watched two people hide their unhappiness, we now see two rats in business suits fight it out on top of an office desk.

Absurdity in these cutaways, reimagining humans as rats to study the behaviours of both.

Flashback montages such as these are cleverly inserted all through Mon Oncle d’Amerique, each one sketching out these characters’ common, predictable behaviours. When Laborit speaks of conformity as being a necessity to function in society, we flick through short scenes from their childhoods where they imitate adults as a means of learning. Similarly, when he expounds upon our primal desire for violence, we cut back to scenes we have already witnessed within the film where slaps, punches, and kicks have disrupted social civility.

By the time Mon Oncle d’Amerique approaches its end, we too might feel as trapped as those rats in their cage, or these people in civilisation. The advanced consciousness of humanity does not free his characters from instinct, but merely obscures and complicates its expression in the real world. Like rats trying to escape the electrified floor from one side of a cage to the other side, their attempts to break free of their families’ constraints simply sends them to another part of the same enclosure. Should any of these living creatures escape from their physical or sociological restraints, there is still an even greater, entirely inescapable force enslaving them – their own biology, quietly exerting control through their subconscious.

It is this painful truth which doesn’t simply underlie Resnais’ core thesis, but which makes up its very fabric, and that can only be exposed from as close an examination of the human mind and society as that which he applies here. The intricate tree mural painted on the side of a brick building in the final shot is the perfect conclusion to this, with each sequential jump cut bringing us closer to the painted bricks where its ugly details come into view. There is certainly some awe-inspiring beauty lost in a study of humanity as intensive as Mon Oncle d’Amerique, and yet in the formal cohesion of such unconventional motifs, collaged narrative threads, and punctuative editing, Resnais devises a truly compelling piece of dense, intellectual poetry, dedicated to our most unifying quirks and habits.

The idea of something taking on a completely different appearance and impression from when you look at it from a distance versus when you study it closely – this applies to the bookended mosaic, this mural, Resnais’ characters, and the film as a whole. A fitting coda.

Mon Oncle d’Amerique is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

Stardust Memories (1980)

Woody Allen | 1hr 29min

He was ten movies deep into his career built on neurotic comedy, riding a wave of popularity defined by his resounding successes Annie Hall and Manhattan, and then Woody Allen made this – a scathingly existential and autobiographical deconstruction of fame and artistic purpose, which came and went in the eyes of the public with little fanfare. Stardust Memories was not what people were expecting from him at the time, though years later he would claim it as his best work, and steadily its reputation has begun to approach its deserved status as one of his most accomplished films.

In its early scenes one might draw comparisons to Sullivan’s Travels in the framing of a comedic director looking to work on something a little more serious and sombre than his traditional fare, though Allen himself has noted he had not seen the Preston Sturges film at the time of making this. A far more apt parallel is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, not just in its self-referential subject matter, but in its suffocatingly surreal string of images working to trap an overwhelmed director in a culture that has its own mind made up about his life’s trajectory.

Allen skilfully blending the boundaries between life and art in such surreal imagery as this.

And much like the traffic jam scene that opens 8 ½, the first scene of Stardust Memories sticks its own lonely director, Sandy Bates, in a crowded, inescapable vehicle, introducing the underlying metaphor that runs through the rest of the film. As he sits on a train waiting to depart the station, he catches the eye of a woman on a neighbouring carriage, who flirtatiously kisses the window in his direction. The passive, zombie-like stares of his fellow passengers burn into him as he hammers at the doors and windows, trying to reach that woman, all the while the train whisks him away from the target of his yearning desire.

An entirely silent surreal opening paralleling Fellini’s 8 1/2, the first of many comparisons between the two movies.

It is clear who these nameless, expressionless men and women are meant to stand in for once we properly delve into the film’s narrative. All around Sandy, fans and journalists clamour over him with bizarre requests, questions, and statements, most of which are impossible to respond to. One man hands him a script his son wrote intended to be a “spoof on jockeys.” Another claims that he “can prove that if there’s life anywhere in the universe they will have a Marxist economy,” with remarkable confidence. “I was a Caesarian,” yet another states quite plainly. “That’s great,” replies Sandy. What else is there to say, really?

Allen continues to return to his first person POV shots all through these scenes, filling them with overzealous crowds peering enthusiastically right down the lens. Even beyond the masses of people, the overwhelming architecture of the Stardust Hotel continues to dominate compositions and obstruct characters, in one scene blocking Sandy out entirely as a man shakes hand protruding from behind a wall.

An entire conversation unfolding with Sandy blocked from view completely by the protruding wall.

Allen’s collaboration with cinematographer Gordon Willis has always been an important one, but here in Stardust Memories it is absolutely key to the diminution of Sandy’s stature beneath this constant onslaught of chaos, as well as the slightly more expressionistic divorce from reality than his typical black-and-white film. The subtle darkness of the narrative manifests intermittently throughout the film in the empty silhouettes of its characters, as well as at one point in a montage of critics delivering scathing reviews set against pitch black backgrounds. Sadly, the answers that Sandy craves are not to be found here.

More expressionistic than your average Woody Allen film, with silhouettes and shadows running throughout. This is from Gordon Willis, the cinematographer who shot The Godfather movies, and it absolutely shows.
Early on a barrage of scathing criticisms delivered in a darkly lit montage.

It is rather in the surreal blend of life and art, whereby one represents a larger, heightened version of the other, that he strives to find a common purpose in both. At least in the various women who come and go in Sandy’s life (perhaps mirroring the women of La Dolce Vita) he finds some companionship and understanding. In a flashback to his meeting of a previous lover, Dorrie, he spots her standing isolated beneath a large, overbearing mural, both overshadowed by and reflected in the art around her. Instantly, he recognises a shared pain between them.

The introduction of Dorrie in a fantastic composition, shrunken beneath the imposing piece of art painted behind her.

In more comedic moments, formal boundaries of narrative logic are pushed to great effect, as in one scene that may or may not come from one of Sandy’s movies where he encounters a group of aliens, and poses them grand philosophical mysteries which they cannot answer. It is ultimately when he arrives at his most pressing question about himself that his own position in a meaningless universe begins to take form.

“If nothing lasts why am I bothering to make films or do anything, for that matter?”

“We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones.”

You can’t understate the influence of Antonioni on Stardust Memories, as Allen uses architecture to frame, divide, and obstruct his characters, creating a setting of isolation and disillusionment. Certainly one of his finest achievements in mise-en-scéne in his long, illustrious career.

Perhaps this is what provides the motivation for the final few minutes of the film then, in which personal and professional fulfilment meld together in a reflection of the opening scene, though this time with Sandy willingly riding the train in whatever direction it takes him. Suddenly we cut to a movie theatre audience applauding, having just watched everything we did, and in a starkly contrasted response to their earlier disparaging reactions there at least seems to be more thoughtful discussions.

There may be a slightly capitulation to populist sentiment in Sandy’s creation, though it is somewhat ironic that Stardust Memories is clearly not a film dedicated to audiences looking for easy entertainment. For those artists such as Sandy who place at least part of their self-worth in how much they are loved, the act of creation implies a question of who it is for – a question which Allen beautifully draws out with surreal, contemplative devotion to the act itself.

A perfect shot to end the film – still isolated, yet content.

Stardust Memories is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes.