On Heaven’s Gate

By Sam Thompson

Heaven’s Gate, dir. Michael Cimino, 1980. Runtime: 4 hours, 6 minutes.

You’re home, staring at the screen: secure, glazed and insulated from the blood and dust of 1870s Wyoming. Now, to make sense of it all. To make sense of Heaven’s Gate. But a heaviness descends upon you. Four hours in the dark, and the heaviness comes now! The feeling is locatable: in the disappointment of your room, drowning in LED-emissions and other banalities of late capitalism, combined with the ache in your neck and behind your eyes. Try to forget the heaviness. You’re a human being. The internet will help. You type ‘Heaven’s Gate Michael Cimino 1980’ into Google. It all flies at you: a concatenation of vitriol, gossip and myth-making. Heaven’s Gate, it seems, is a serial-killer, responsible for the simultaneous demise of United Artists; the studio system; Michael Cimino’s career; the artistic freedom of 1970s Hollywood; and a whole genre, the Western. You give the screen a final scan – the ‘greatest’ and ‘worst’ movie ever made. Bullshit.

Bracketing the bullshit surrounding a movie is tough. But you make a concerted effort. Forget how much it cost (and lost), you tell yourself. Forget the stories and reviews and legends. Simply consider the images and sounds. Remember those strings! You replay them from Youtube. Is Cimino simply manipulating us? The audience is told to be wistful, or that the characters are wistful, or that 1870s Wyoming was full of wistfulness, or that we’re wistful for it. And remember Nate Champion, sweeping bread crumbs from his table, in his home; nervous but excited, glancing at Ella Watson for any sign of approval. Is he manipulating us too? Manipulation requires knowing how someone will react. Cimino certainly didn’t gauge this. You’re not sure Nate’s tricking us either. That moustache can’t lie. It is perched insecurely on a forlorn face. Nate grew it as soon as he could; not a naturally hairy man, but that spindly frame needs authority from somewhere.

The laptop’s closed. You’re alone. Now: to begin, logically, at the beginning. You saw Heaven’s Gate on the telly first (on holiday perhaps?). It was heavily abridged but still excreted uncontainable magic. Then two big-screen outings in the last six months: first in Newcastle, and again in London. Both attended by the same heaviness, the same sober exhaustion. But the feeling fades and is quickly beyond your grasp. When you come to write, the only word that surfaces is ‘heavy’. The length accounts for some of it, sure. But ninety minutes can feel longer. Anyone who’s watched a goalless autumn draw at the Valley or sat through a bad Shirley Temple movie can attest to this. Likewise, four hours can feel like one exhalation of breath. What else is ‘heavy’? Bodies are heavier in Heaven’s Gate. It’s a movie full of heavy, needy men. In fact, Cimino’s Western replaces the usual final frontier ideal of self-sufficiency with a bodily materialism full of needs, desires and dependencies. The emotional core is a love-triangle: Jim Averill, Harvard-educated lawyer, responsible for protecting the impoverished Wyoming settlers from the bellicose representatives of the Land Owner’s Association; Nate Champion, the illiterate Eastern European who bounty-hunts his compatriots; and Ella, an immigrant, patron of the local brothel, and unfortunate recipient of Jim and Nate’s undying love. When Nate visits Ella, he can barely stay awake. She undresses silently whilst his dick fights a losing battle with his eyelids. And when Jim reunites with Ella, he has to be fed before he can bed. Food first, then sleep; sex is a luxury. When you’re tired, you’re really tired, so tired that the promise of sex becomes stale. Drunkenness is a sickness. Murder is crueller. Love sweeter. Everything that the body can feel is heavier.

This is cute, but wrong. You remember Stanley Cavell’s suggestion: find the movie’s ‘aboutness’. Simplicity is lost; there are many big difficulties with Heaven’s Gate. Chief among them is that it refuses to be deconstructed, pleading to be taken as a messy whole. It contains discrete scenes of perfection, deliberately obscured by its overbearing architecture. The Harvard-graduation prologue (look there for justification of Cimino’s hubris) establishes the high-ideals and violence at the heart of America’s inception. The bowels of the film expose this connection between idealism and violence in America’s subsequent history. Of course, you (and the world) know about slavery. You’re aware too of the Native American pogroms. In part the subject matter of Heaven’s Gate unsettles you because you don’t know about it. And for that, you feel guilty. So, is the heaviness the weight of moral responsibility? Perhaps. Or, more likely, something simpler: a conscience battered, not by its own failings, but by so much futile suffering. So many desires are frustrated, so many lives lost.

This is progress. “I’ll have you yet, Mr Cimino”, you whisper to the room at large. You take off your coat and throw it on the bed. Before turning back, you glimpse that square of red felt, safety-pinned onto the pocket. The frayed scarlet stirs something deep in your belly. A bearded comrade fastened it to you on a rainy protest. You were tired but he was full of zealous energy: “Solidarity with Athens! Solidarity with Bogotá! We share the pain of all those suffering from police brutality!” It’s a long time since you’ve been on the receiving end of any kind of brutality. And your last encounter with a policeman was soliciting directions to the Barbican – he was courteous, almost fatherly. Once, in drunken self-righteousness, you made piggish grunts at a wandering plod – you felt immediately ashamed. It’s curious, and inconsistent. But the red felt remains. Why haven’t you discarded it? Because it’s a reminder of the contradictions inherent in our social structures, sure. But, more powerfully, it’s a reminder of the contradictions inherent in your struggle against these structures. It symbolises an ideology aiming to emancipate the proletariat, worn by a member of the smug, attention-seeking bourgeoisie. Perhaps it’s merely fashion. At one point in Heaven’s Gate, Nate Champion dons Jim’s hat. He looks at himself in Ella’s mirror and mutters, ‘You’ve got style Jim, I’ll give you that’. And he does. Jim’s suit is worn but tasteful. His beard is glorious, aiming at revolutionary but landing on scholarly.

Jim Averill is at war with himself. He can’t understand his place in history because his class is at loggerheads with his intentions. A ranger snipes at him: ‘I hate you because you come from a good family. You only choose to be poor.’ The cause of the dispossessed Eastern European immigrants is not his cause. He’s adopted it, or it’s been thrust upon him. Their culture of hen-fighting, vodka and skating is not his culture. Jim sits out whilst his friends experience a rare moment of uncomplicated fun in the eponymous skating ring – a microcosm of some unreachable utopia. And, above all, their pain, their suffering, their interminable struggle; the ultimate cause of their revolutionary motivation – the fact that they have nothing to lose – cannot be shouldered by Jim Averill. Cimino illustrates this. When Jim rides past a woman pulling a cart like a farm-horse, we expect him to help. Instead, he slows down and looks troubled, and trots on. Jim attempts to understand the struggle of the oppressed immigrants through his relationship with Ella. It’s a personal love that leads to solidarity and empathy. But a class connection that’s based on a private bond will always be a weak one. When Ella dies, Jim’s loyalty to the immigrant community dies too. You consider the coda, which generated disdain and bafflement on its release. Now you have a framework to understand it. It’s thirty years later. Not only a new chapter in Jim’s life but a new century – ‘the American century’. A wrinkled Jim sits below-deck in the Baroque grandeur of a Newport yacht, reunited with his Harvard sweetheart. His face is mournful as he holds a faded photo of Ella. He ascends to the deck and looks out West. Those wistful strings play again, louder than ever. The message is clear: Jim might have risked his life for Ella and the Wyoming community but he was never completely invested; he always had his yacht to come back to.

You start pacing and smoking, then return to the desk. The film’s been fermenting for a while now. The discreet moments of perfection refuse to evaporate. But that architecture presses on you too. The weight has shuffled and realigned, and the force of the picture has crystallised. The memories and associations have taken on the power of a lecture. The weight of the argument derives, not from its validity, but from cumulative emotional responses. It is a lecture delivered by a poet. The conclusion is slippery: at once an endorsement and a challenge to the Marxist doctrine. It toes the historical materialist line whilst revealing the poverty of any theory that aims at such totality. The challenge is a profound one, not to be trivialized. History does not occlude the individual because individuals change and individuals fall in love. But this challenge, and your predictable sympathy towards it, shouldn’t cloud Heaven’s radical core: its hostility towards private property, its focus on class as the motor for action. Like Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, Cimino collides Marxist doctrine with the messy particulars of worldly reality. Of course, both remain revolutionary texts. Exploring the conflict between history and the individual enjoins Heaven’s Gate with some superior Soviet cinema, particularly the work of Boris Barnet. In Barnet’s The Outskirts (1933), a man working in a shoe factory is reluctant to join the union activities because his ailing son depends on his wages. A young communist enlists in a nationalist war because of a sense of prideful duty. These characters are battling between their individuality and their class commitments, just like Jim Averill and Nate Champion.

Heaven’s true attitude towards capitalism may appear to be resignation. The forces of those institutions that prop up the economic structure, most notably the law, are so powerful as to be unassailable. But Cimino is, first and foremost, recording history. In this respect, resistance from the Eastern European immigrants was futile. But that is not to say that resistance is always fruitless. You know this, but still the film fills you with fury at the impossibility of acting against Capital. So, you’re agitated. You consider the red felt again, and remember that your place in history is as vexed as Jim Averill’s.

The heaviness knocks again. This time you welcome it.


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