Legendary auteur and enfante terrible Michael Cimino has died. He was seventy-seven.
Starting as a screenwriter, Cimino swiftly made his way up the ladder to Hollywood ascendance after his co-writing (with John Milius) of the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force led to his feature directorial debut, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. His second feature, the landmark Vietnam Era epic The Deer Hunter, won him the Oscars for Best Picture and Director.
A week later, Cimino began filming his follow-up epic, the Western drama Heaven’s Gate, the expense and box office failure of which would turn this “Michelangelo of cinema” into a Hollywood pariah. If fellow directors like Friedkin and Coppola sank their careers with massively budgeted bombs like Sorcerer and One from the Heart, Cimino would be credited with nothing less than the bankrupting of United Artists studios. Heaven’s Gate’s legendary production difficulties, at the expense of Cimino’s dictatorial demand for perfection, would effectively end the 70s era of “New Hollywood” directors allowed free reign to create visionary new masterworks.
Lambasted by critics, Heaven’s Gate is a “difficult”, elliptical, and very long film, obviously untrue to literal history, and also astonishingly beautiful in its pictorial splendor, breathtakingly elaborate pageantry, and profound melancholy. It effectively bookends The Deer Hunter as a meditation on loyalty, the horror of violence, the spectral ravishment of Nature, the complexities of patriotism, and the devastating loss of friends and loved ones.
Though little commented on, both films are also conspicuously, if equivocally, steeped in the background of the Orthodox Christian faith. The soldiers of The Deer Hunter and the immigrants of Heaven’s Gate hail from Slavic lands, and in The Deer Hunter the Visconti-inspired wedding service is an Orthodox one. In Heaven’s Gate we never see the inside of the immigrants’ church, but we see the people lined up for a community photograph in front of it, interrupted by local bordello madam Ella cavorting with her lover, the film’s protagonist Jim Averill, in her new carriage.
One of the film’s strangest exchanges takes place early on, when Sam Waterson’s villain fumes at Kristofferson’s Averill: “You’re a traitor to your class!” Averill mysteriously, angrily replies: “You were never my class. You’d have to die and be reborn again first.” The film opens with the Harvard graduation of 1870, where Averill and his best friend, played by John Hurt, are in attendance, the latter as the class orator. Hurt, like Kristofferson, is part of the power structure in Wyoming 20 years later, but a drunken shell of himself, incapable of effectively resisting the conspiracy of the wealthy to exterminate the “anarchist” newcomers. The club where he and the Stockgrowers’ Association hang out is decorated with pictures suggestive of fraternal Ivy activities, but Waterson is not present in the film’s prologue. So I’ve always wondered just in what sense Waterson uses the word “class”: does he mean Averill is a generic “class traitor” because he sides with the poor against the rich? Or is Waterson a fellow Harvard alum, even another member of the class of 1870? As Robin Wood notes, Averill and his romantic rival played by Christopher Walken are later established in the film as old friends, but we don’t learn this for a very long time, and only in a kind of sidenote, after their present lives have put them at odds over both love and politics. So is Waterson too another old “friend”, one whose particular animus against Averill is in part fueled by the antagonism of personal ties long frayed? it is never explained, nor why Averil responds with such an esoteric put-down. Is he suggesting Waterson is an arriviste, too low class? Not a Harvard man, and thus beneath his dignity? Or is this really a profession of Christian faith, a rebuke of Waterson’s character as a servant of Mammon? The film’s title, after all, alludes to the difficulty of a rich man making his way to Heaven, and Jim Averill is the rich man and public servant (a Federal Marshall) with whose decisions the film is principally concerned.
Despite Heaven’s Gate’s disastrous reception, Cimino managed to helm two more films of epic scale, Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian. Year of the Dragon, if not quite as fully satisfying as The Deer Hunter or Heaven’s Gate, is nonetheless a film of staggering virtuosity and extreme excitement. I’ve come to suspect this film was meant to be another three-hour-plus epic and lost a big chunk of itself before release. [I suppose now, if true, we’ll never get a Director’s Cut.] Mickey Rourke, featured in a small bit in Heaven’s Gate, gives a towering star performance here, before he lost his looks and damaged his reputation. The film’s many violent set-pieces are staggeringly choreographed and often full of relentless emotional intensity.
During a funeral service, Cimino even dares to use Mahler’s Symphony No 2 on the soundtrack, as a witness comes forward in Rourke’s lowest moment to give his support to bring down the Chinese crime lord (played by John Lone) who serves as the film’s Macbeth-like antagonist. [NB: It should also be noted that Rourke’s marriage to an aging blonde of Polish stock, rocky from the film’s opening, disintegrates as he begins an affair with a gamine half-Asian journalist. This film, like Heaven’s Gate, is thus also immersed in the tensions of immigrant America, this time in the context of non-White and massively criminal new communities. Rourke’s character, appropriately named Stanley White– but called out by some of his co-ethics for changing his name from its Polish original– is a Vietnam vet, recalling The Deer Hunter, and has his own conflicted, sometimes colorfully “racist”, arguments about Asians.]
The Sicilian, Cimino’s fifth directorial feature, was adapted from a Mario Puzo novel. Set in Sicily [NB: Duh!] and staring the rather wooden Christopher Lambert at the head of a multinational cast, the film boasts the flamboyant camera choreography we would expect of a Cimino film, but admittedly is rather incoherent, despite some thrilling set pieces. I once owned the Director’s Cut on VHS and in fact was rather enamoured of the film, despite my misgivings about its muddled themes and storylines. It is in many ways suggestive, for better and for worse, of Bertolucci’s 1900.
There followed two last films, 1990’s Desperate Hours remake and 1996’s The Sunchaser, which I have yet to see. Desperate Hours again stars Mickey Rourke, opposite Anthony Hopkins, and returns Cimino’s cameras to his beloved Rockie Mountain West, shot in autumn in blazing sunlight. The hysterical tone of violence and mayhem sometimes ventures into strange, perhaps self-parodistic territory (during one brilliantly filmed but outlandish set piece, the camera crane’s past a scantily clad pair of what look suspiciously like Thai whores out wandering about in the deserts of Utah). The film is partly concerned with honor among thieves (Rourke, as the supposed genius and charismatic leader of the criminal gang, ultimately has fewer scruples than his accomplices), but also with the fraying and restoration of the modern family. Hopkins and his wife, played by Mimi Rogers, are at the beginning getting a divorce; by the end of the film their ordeal has reconciled them.
In one intriguing scene, the criminals’ battle of wills with Hopkins plays out over pandering to his little boy. Anarchic Rourke insists the boy should stay downstairs and play video games like he earlier begged permission to do, but in an act of defiance the boy loudly insists he wants to obey his father. The politics, overt or otherwise, of Cimino films are always complex, but clearly there were many “conservative”-leaning aspects to Cimino’s storytelling– and that may be part of the story of how his filmmaking career wound up in the desert.
Cimino’s personal reputation was also subject to endless calumny, including the widespread story that he had become a plastic surgery addict and a transsexual. Cimino himself once insisted in an interview with Variety that the reporter rub his face and tell him if it felt like he had anything implanted there. Cimino explained his altered appearance by strict dieting and a non-elective jaw surgery. Cimino was undoubtedly a defiantly unnormal character (Oliver Stone once described him as “Napoleonic”) and, whether it concerned him or not, lent a certain air of mystery to his life by giving sometimes contradictory and seemingly implausible accounts of certain details of his background.
But how on earth can we look at Heaven’s Gate and The Deer Hunter and not acknowledge that Michael Cimino, filmmaking genius, was a wildly implausible man? His favorite directors were John Ford and Luchino Visconti, and his staggering achievement in these two tremendous films, breathtaking in their audacity and breadth, was to fuse these influences into a pair of extraordinary wholes. Perhaps it would have been impossible to offer up a third such film in any case– directors with more opportunities at their beck have failed to match their best work a third time. And to this pair of masterpieces we must allow that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Year of the Dragon are extremely impressive works– we might call them auteurist classics; and the other three are surely stamped with Cimino’s incredibly stylish visual flair and indelible sensibility.
It is tragic to contemplate such prodigious gifts spent on such a small number of works– yet it is astonishing that works of such magnitude, as some of these films are, even exist. Michael Cimino was a genius. His fervent acolytes have compared him to Tolstoi and Michelangelo. Coppola called him his “colleague and paisan.” He was the American Bertolucci. We may reasonably state that his directorial career, truncated as it was by critical calumny and commercial desertion, was more remarkable than Von Stroheim’s. Alas, we will never have another Michael Cimino film (though I still have one left to watch). But it is to be wondered whether we will ever have another film that is even comparable in scope and style to his greatest achievements. God bless you, Michael Cimino, and thank you for the films– may they only grow in recognition until your greatness is universally acclaimed.