Maybe We Lost

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Heaven's Gate | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In the pilot episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) lies in his bed. A shot looking down at him from above emphasizes the battle with depression that leads Tony to enter psychotherapy to treat his panic attacks. His lifelessness, his despair, his reluctance to reckon with the difficulty of everyday life—they are all further illustrated through his voice over, in which he confesses, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Over 86 episodes, The Sopranos becomes a treatise on this idea as creator David Chase explores the crisis in the American soul. Television shows in the binge-worthy new media landscape have some inherent advantages, especially from the perspective of the medium’s true beneficiaries: writers and actors. Writers like Chase have time to slowly develop their characters, to deepen their thematic preoccupations, to become richer storytellers over the multiple years that their shows run. Actors like Gandolfini, who gives one of the finest performances by a lead actor in any visual medium, similarly have the room to let the character change or remain static, grow or fester.

Cinematic storytellers working in the traditional theatrical space, with the confines of the medium’s generally accepted restrictions on running time, have few of these luxuries. A facile comparison might suggest that television shows are like novels, unfolding in chapters, while films are like short stories, their effect ethereal and temporary. Today, there is no time in cinema for a story to meander. Exploration of character complexity, especially in the context of mainstream cinematic output financed by corporate interests, is rarer all the time. Even when filmmakers stretch the limits of acceptable running time—an artificial restriction governed by a combination of theatrical exhibition maximization and the finicky bladders of restless audience members—they are working within a highly truncated temporal space.

When a film is long, it’s something you tell people—today, when you recommend a film to somebody, you typically offer a warning about anything that deviates from a traditional norm.

“You should go see Frances Ha! It’s in black and white, just so you know.”

“I really liked Shoplifters. It is in Japanese, so it’s got subtitles. But you should watch it.”

“Did you hear this new Avengers movie is going to be three hours? Jesus.”

By contrast, something short is a selling point. It’s as if after paying $12 for a ticket, $25 for popcorn and Coke, waiting through 25 minutes of advertisements for stuff I don’t want to buy and movie trailers everyone has already seen, sitting behind people checking their phones, in front of people who can’t shut up, and between people who are falling asleep, the least that this film can do for me is let me go home early.

And yet, there is the beauty, the ugliness, the violence, the transcendence, the grandiosity, the intimacy of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. When it was released in 1980 it was a catastrophic boondoggle, owing to its 3 ½-hour running time, its director’s legendary financial irresponsibility, and the industry trade magazines and an army of critics seeking to bury the film before it was even released, seemingly as punishment for its audacity, profligacy, and pretense. It has entered the place of myth, where it lives in infamy as the film that single-handedly ended the New Hollywood party. If not for that damn Cimino, the suits would have gone on letting those directors make whatever they want, their small art films, their downbeat endings, their endless fascination with paranoia and violence and cynicism and Nixon and the dream and the nightmare and death and sex and The French New Wave and Kurosawa and Hitchcock and old Hollywood musicals and screwball comedy and film noir and on and on and on and on.

Heaven’s Gate is perceived as a 212-minute epitaph for a way of filmmaking that died and was buried and relegated to reverence, but never again allowed on screen. It is a tombstone, engraved “New Hollywood, 1967-1980, Cimino Did It.” Ultimately, it is a monument to failure.

Heaven’s Gate is a film known more by reputation than for the film itself. When I first watched it on a crummy VHS tape—spread over two cassettes, of course—it was because I had read about its ignominious place in film history. It was spoken about like the cinematic equivalent of a cataclysmic battle of a war in which all the dead left in its wake were tragic victims of a situation made sadder by the fact that it could have been avoided. After it was over, I remember thinking it was long, but not feeling one way or the other about it. I guess I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Over time, films themselves don’t change, but we do. When I got older, I rewatched Heaven’s Gate with fuller knowledge of its dubious historical place, and was immediately struck by how much the film and its mortally wounded director had gotten the rawest of raw deals. It was perceived as a failure. The film’s narrative and its characters are obsessed with the idea of failure. But the film itself is anything but a failure.

The film’s disastrous release and critical savaging arguably destroyed Cimino. He continued to make films (including some good ones), but never without the parenthetical reference to It. Heaven’s Gate was his grand, mortal sin. Above all, he had dared to waste: Money. His cast and crew’s valuable time. The patience of audiences. Legend has it that after one day of principal photography in Montana, Cimino was already two weeks behind schedule. He insisted on perfection in the tiniest details of costumes and makeup and set design, things that would only briefly be glimpsed on screen, and sometimes not at all. He shot take after take after take, grinding small moments into the dust through endless, apparently pointless repetition. He was chasing something that he felt he wasn’t getting—the movie in his head wasn’t showing up in the film. His struggle was the fundamental human experience, as each of us tries to make what we believe into what we are.

For all of its length and grandeur, you might think that Heaven’s Gate is overstuffed with story, significant events forcing their way out of the movie’s seams. It isn’t really. Though the film’s prologue (set at Harvard) and epilogue (set on a yacht off Rhode Island) take place 30 three years apart (1870 and 1903), the film’s 1890-set main action lasts just a few days in narrative time.

And the story is simple enough: A Wyoming lawman named Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) gets wind of a plot by the powerful Stock Growers Association, a big-business consortium of cattle barons, to descend on Johnson County with an army of mercenaries to wipe out 125 of its poor, immigrant citizens accused of stealing the SGA’s cattle for food or sale. There’s also a love triangle between an immigrant madam named Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), Averill, and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who works as a gun-thug for the SGA. Much of the film lingers in the anticipation of a climactic battle between the SGA mercenaries and the townsfolk, which eventually explodes in the film’s last act into a brutal, bloody melee that claims the lives of most of the goons and the Johnson County residents.

Though the film’s conflict is based on the actual Johnson County War, in which a real confrontation and siege of the county by cattle barons did take place, Cimino deviates mightily from the historical record. Heaven’s Gate is a big, bloated western in the traditional sense, drawing upon material that George Stevens previously used for his foundational 1954 western, Shane. But as much as films like Shane or the ones made by John Ford worked to create a mythic American West, with its foundational role in establishing and then defending the values represented by the American flag, Cimino is up to something else entirely. Instead of a time—the West—where foundational myths were constructed out of the aspirations of imperfect but well-meaning settlers, Heaven’s Gate suggests that we sold out long ago. In exaggerating the brutality of the violence of the Johnson County War for dramatic impact, Cimino is getting at a deeper truth about America: that it was always brutal, unfair, and reserved for the powerful. Upon learning of the SGA’s plot to kill members of the community, local business owner John Bridges (Jeff Bridges) says, “It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country.” Averill, a rich man slumming it in the West as a federal marshal, says, “It always was.” This is how the West was lost.

So many Westerns advance the idea that history had a winner, and the winner was us. We made it. We survived the long journey west. We withstood the violence of a violent place and built something called home. Ford’s films make this point over and over again. He stops his narrative action to show the cast take part in a community dance; he lingers on the construction of a church; he makes the passengers of a coach into a microcosm of America. At the end of a number of Ford’s Westerns, he asks us to believe in American myth, even if we know it’s a lie. He sees enough good in our past to forgive the bad and point the way forward.

An epic on the scale of Heaven’s Gate seems, on its face, in line with Ford’s project. There is something about epic filmmaking that feels inherently conservative, as if no one with any money would put it up to finance something bent on destroying myths rather than building them. But, that is exactly what Cimino is trying to do. He is telling us to stop lying to ourselves. That the myth of America propagated by Ford was never true, and if we’re going to move forward, we’re going to have to abandon it. We have to face an alternative vision of the past: a country where the rich can use any means necessary to protect their capital; where immigrants are treated like outsiders at best and a disease worthy of eradication at worst; where the law is powerless to stop the powerful; where the institutions we are supposed to believe in are betrayed by the individuals who run them; where aggression perpetrated by the state is just and defense of the self by the citizen is unjust; where the poor are ignored until they must be punished for demanding attention.

Our country then. Our country now.

Not only did Heaven’s Gate fail, it chronicles America’s failures—we failed. Lately, it seems more and more like Cimino’s vision of an alternative history, one of dreams destroyed, faith rejected, ideals betrayed, speaks to the everyday reality of life in the early years of Tony Soprano’s century.

Much of my favorite art explores, in the words of another New Jersey luminary, Bruce Springsteen, “the gap between the American promise and the American reality.” In his music, Springsteen writes about the failure of American individuals and institutions to live up to the promises that America represents. In many of his songs, the tension between the promise and the reality is foundational and irreconcilable; the songs’ narrators don’t know whether they should believe in the dreams that haven’t come true, or whether they should dismiss them as lies. Bruce himself seems to vacillate, as his one-man show Springsteen on Broadway demonstrates, through the songs that capture their writer’s ambivalence. He wants to believe, but doesn’t know if he can.

I don’t know if I can anymore. Like Tony Soprano, I get the sense that I’m bearing witness to the end of a bigger idea—that the American experiment, whatever our mythic vision of it might be, is in decline. I want to believe that we can be better, but I just don’t know if we will be. Everything feels like it just doesn’t work. I immerse myself in the news of the day, following it because I feel compelled to be a part of the conversation, as nightmarish as it is on any given morning. When we think we’ve moved beyond our past, it drags us back. When we think we’ve defeated some enemy or some idea, it comes again. When we think we’ve solved a problem, something goes wrong.

The climate seems certain to forever alter how we live on this planet, and nobody is doing enough to stop it. Mass shootings in schools and churches and shopping malls proliferate and the solution is obvious, but we don’t do anything about it. The political system seems irrevocably broken, and no one has any idea how to fix it. Education is essential to the modern world, but college costs are spiraling into the stratosphere so quickly that soon, no one will be able to afford it. Dialogue has become billions of monologues, dead-eyed people in smartphone app echo chambers, all talking right past each other, spitting ideas and suggestions and nonsense and criticism and racism and misogyny and threats and likes and faves and retweets into the digital wind, only to have it blow right back into their faces, which was the whole point anyway.

I don’t feel like I can’t do it. I go to work, where I get to teach about films like Heaven’s Gate. I have a wonderful wife and two great dogs. I have a cohort of friends with whom I have meaningful relationships. I have a new house. I have creative outlets that give me personal fulfillment. I have baseball. I have music. I have my books.

I feel like We can’t do it.

Heaven’s Gate, an epic failure, foretold, in looking at the past and distorting it in its own way, the failure we live with every day more than any other work of art I know. It suffuses the entirety of the film’s considerable running time. Its characters are defined by the disappointments they’ve endured and become. Billy Irvine (John Hurt) is a bright, witty young man who gives the commencement speech at Harvard in the film’s extended prologue, mocking the stodgy authority of its graybeards and making the graduating class roar with laughter. By the time the film catches up with him in Wyoming in 1890, he is a wealthy but rootless drunk with no purpose, whose meek moral objections to the SGA’s assassination plot are easily ignored by his fellow cattlemen. In him, so many dreams have died and so much potential has been wasted. We don’t see how it happened to Billy. We take for granted that it has, that the inevitable outcome of time’s march forward is the erosion of youthful enthusiasm. How he became one of the hollow men doesn’t matter. He just is one.

Averill, too, is an avatar of a misspent life. His backstory is vague—how he spent the 20-year interval between the Harvard prologue and the Wyoming action is left largely unsaid, but visual clues point to a life abandoned. He is married, but has been away from his wife for what seems like it must be years. He is a member of the upper class, but dresses plainly and works for next to nothing as a marshal.

Nate’s loyalties are divided between the Wyoming country people he considers his neighbors and the bounty the SGA pays him to assassinate them. He has deeply compromised himself, taking money for blood. He aspires to dreams of his own, including marrying Ella and moving her in to his simple cabin, which he has decorated with advertisements and old newspapers; he smiles and brags to her about his improvement to the cabin’s single room: “Wallpaper.” Later, when the SGA thugs lay siege to Nate’s cabin after he betrays them, he sits in the burning house, shot and bleeding, watching the wallpaper turn to ash. Unable to stand the sight of his dreams literally going up in smoke, he charges out of the cabin and is met by a hail of bullets.

The climactic battle, in which the townspeople ride out to surround the mercenaries in a swirling cloud of dust and bullets, extracts a heavy price. Cimino fills the shootout sequence with an unbelievable amount of individual moments, weaving a tapestry of finely controlled chaos. Sonically, the scene is deafening, as horses’ hooves pound the dirt, wagon wheels trundle over rocks and roots, and rifles and pistols exchange percussive bangs. But it is the collection of moments of individual failure that make the violence stand out. These amateur fighters are ill equipped to stand against the well-trained mercenaries. During their stampeding caravan’s charge on the SGA army, one character’s wagon hits a bump on a wooden bridge and it capsizes into the water below. His wife is crushed by the impact, and he struggles to pull her lifeless body from the wreckage while his friends and neighbors roll past him; it’s not that they don’t care that he’s lost her, they just don’t notice. Later in the chaos of the firefight, an improvised wooden cart being used as a shield rolls over a man’s legs, breaking them. One of his own neighbors then fires a shot at random, which kills him in an unfortunate illustration of friendly fire. In these small moments, Cimino finds the individual tragedy of failure, unfortunately lost in the chaotic explosion of battle.

Though the battle ends with the intervention of the U.S. cavalry, which stops the violence before everyone is killed, it all seems pointless in the moment. The field is littered with bodies, bloody and twisted in their final agony. Wagons are splintered. Shell casings are sprinkled in the dirt. Cimino’s final shot of the carnage creates a maddeningly absurd juxtaposition between the beauty of the crystal clear blue of Montana, what they call Big Sky Country, and the brutal killing field below.

Averill, Ella, and Bridges survive the final battle. As they return to Ella’s home to gather her things before leaving Johnson County for good, they are ambushed by the last of the SGA cattle barons. A short burst of gunfire breaks out, and Bridges and Ella are shot multiple times. Averill is left begging her not to die while holding her in his arms. She dies anyway. Defeat is certain.

Maybe Heaven’s Gate failed because it offered no solace. No one particularly cares to hear about the inevitability of loss. By the end of Heaven’s Gate, just about every character in the film was dead. By the end of the 1970s, the counterculture movement that promised hope and change, and the artistic fervor that had breathed new life into Hollywood filmmaking, was dead. In some sense, it must have seemed like America itself was dead.

And maybe it is. Maybe we gave it our best shot. Maybe we lost anyway.

If we’re living through the end of something, we won’t know until it’s too late. If the best has already preceded us, we have nothing but imaginary memories of those bygone days to wonder about in quiet moments. But maybe, Heaven’s Gate suggests, the end and the beginning are always intertwined. That success and failure are inextricably linked through their simultaneity. The American experience, viewed through one lens, looks like a kaleidoscopic collection of isolated historical episodes without explicit, progressive narration. Some are shameful. Some are inspiring.   

My favorite moment in Heaven’s Gate takes place in Bridges’ roller skating rink, located in the heart of Sweetwater. Blink and you’ll miss it, but that’s where the film’s title comes from—“Heaven’s Gate” is painted on the canvas tent cover that drapes over the rink’s wooden frame. Inside the rink, which serves as a de facto town hall where the citizens gather to be together, a band plays a collection of instruments, including a skating violin player (David Mansfield, who is credited with writing and performing the film’s score). The entire community of immigrants, families, men, women, children, business owners, local politicians, gamblers, liverymen, farmers, cattle growers, lawmen, all clap in rhythm with the band’s frontier fiddling. A number of the townsfolk are on roller skates, including Bridges, who links arms with a handful of other people and initiates a folk dance, done on wheels, where the skaters alternate between rolling and stomping their wheels, filling the tented rink with the rhythmic percussive backbeat for the band on stage. They laugh. They fall. They help each other up.

Like Tony Soprano sitting in the booth at the ice cream parlor, listening to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in the final scene of The Sopranos, this scene in Heaven’s Gate goes on and on and on. There is no narrative justification. Little character understanding is being advanced. It is not hard to imagine a room full of studio executives, or a press screening full of trade critics, or a movie house audience full of ticketholders, brows appropriately furrowed, wondering when Cimino is going to get to the point. But just capturing this moment is the point. Here is a beautiful, communal experience of something ultimately meaningless and stupid. They are people having fun. They are people building relationships. They are people overcoming their differences and celebrating what they share. They are from different backgrounds, different walks of life, different places. They are us.

Later in the film, in this skating rink tent, Averill will read a list of 125 names marked for assassination by the SGA over the panicked shouts of these very same people. Their defeat will come. Their failure is inevitable. But in this moment, during the dance, it feels like they’ve won. They’ve built a place they call home. They’ve established a community.

Maybe we can do it.