Cinema is full of stories of reversals of fortune, but not many as jarringly extreme and sudden as Michael Cimino’s. In 1978, not yet forty, he won the best picture and director Oscars for the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, only his second film (his first was Clint Eastwood’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot). On the basis of its huge success, he obtained backing for an even more ambitious project, the western Heaven’s Gate, which went way over budget, and ended up losing all of it. Almost no American critics liked the film (although many of them only saw it in a butchered version), and the stories of Cimino’s excesses made him almost unemployable, especially after a very entertaining and high-profile book by one of the studio executives, Final Cut, charted the whole messy history (Cimino derides the book as a work of fiction). He didn’t work for five years after that, and hasn’t made anything at all since 1996 (except for a short film, part of an anthology, lasting just a couple of minutes). In a recent interview, he summed up his status as follows: “Being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird kind of occupation in and of itself.”
The Deer Hunter
Heaven’s Gate was always better received abroad, and by now it’s much more highly regarded at home too, recently receiving what almost constitutes a form of “official recognition” via a release of a restored-version DVD on the Criterion label. Ironically, it probably gets more attention now than The Deer Hunter – put crudely, it seems to me that film’s status was retrospectively downgraded in the light of the mass hatred for Heaven’s Gate, although not to the point where it might itself become a candidate for reclamation. I recently rewatched both films in quick succession (an investment of some six and a half hours) and found it a remarkably complex enterprise,
The Deer Hunter starts off in an industrial Pennsylvania town, on a day when one of a group of friends gets married, on the eve of shipping out to Vietnam with two of his buddies. One of them makes it back more or less intact; one loses his legs; the third goes missing, but the first later goes back to find him. One of the film’s central oppositions is between the deer hunting of the title, a self-aggrandizing, ritualized enterprise constructed around the ideal of bringing down the quarry in one shot, and the famous Russian roulette sequences in Vietnam, where the emphasis on the one shot constitutes an apex of human degradation and incoherence. The film doesn’t spend even token time on the war’s putative purpose or conduct, presenting it as little more than a sick mess, the effect of which further draws out and strangifies the fractures that always existed on the home front. In the last scene, the assembled group sings God Bless America, evading any easy reading – not with sarcasm or utter hopelessness, nor with blind patriotism: like much in the film, it’s a scene that seems to tempt us into a more superficial reading, based on our preconceptions and impulses, than it’s actually capable of supporting.
The film has the feeling of grappling with a subject of almost impossible immensity, of trying to find a structure and a mode of expression equal to the sadness of its subject. The best analysis of the film that I know of, by Robin Wood in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, disentangles its complex strands with surgical clarity, while allowing that the scalpels can only reach so far: he concludes that the film’s greatness perhaps lies “in the richness of its confusions.” Among many other things, Wood’s essay is masterful in drawing out an element which I’d registered, but hardly mulled on in such detail – the way in which its treatment of the three main characters played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep expresses “the universal bisexuality our culture strives to repress.” Reading Wood’s account, and mulling on the sly radicalism of Cimino’s achievement, it seems plausible there was something primal in how the world soon turned on him, seizing an opportunity to quell some unresolved anxiety in what he represented.
I’d watched The Godfather again a few weeks before rewatching The Deer Hunter, and while that remains a staggering feat of story-telling, and much more obviously influential on American storytelling in recent decades, it seemed almost limited and self-absorbed by comparison (Wood seems to have little time for Coppola, judging his work “a daunting mixture of the pretentious and the banal, in roughly equal measure,” with the Godfather films constituting “only partial” exceptions). The Godfather remains tremendously provocative about the nature of post-war America, but only insofar as we choose to regard the somewhat rarified trajectory of the Corleones as an experience with inherent metaphorical resonance (there’s virtually nothing of what you might call “the real world” in the film). Compared to that film’s impeccable sense of assurance, The Deer Hunter preaches and rambles and occasionally seems to lose its thread altogether, but while it draws on American myths and archetypes, it obsessively bores in on one of America’s thousands of culturally specific environments (marked in this case by the steel mills that dominate the town, and by the fraying Russian immigrant heritage), yet universally struggling and unfulfilled. On the other hand, Cimino was never a documentarian – as my wife pointed out, the deer hunting scenes, supposedly taking place above their Pennsylvania town, were actually shot half a continent away.
Wood rates Heaven’s Gate even more highly than The Deer Hunter, placing it “among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema.” Set in the 1890’s, it depicts how a group of establishment Wyoming landowners (acting outside the law, but with the tacit support of authorities and institutions) launch what we might now almost call a campaign of ethnic cleansing against a “death list” of immigrants; Kris Kristofferson plays a marshal, an establishment man himself, but disgusted by these actions. More than the previous film, Heaven’s Gate is marked by its extreme visual beauty, but not of a glassily pictorial kind – there’s a slight gauziness to many of the images, so that the film and its meaning often seem to be dissolving away from us. Of course, respondents often analyzed this quality, along with Cimino’s discursive approach to narrative and relationships (if one wasn’t sure about the politicized sexuality of The Deer Hunter, it becomes even clearer in Heaven’s Gate), as denoting simple ineptitude. But in a way, they only confirmed one of his core points, that American ideals, almost as soon as they were articulated and formalized, have always been in the process of degrading and dying. If I found Heaven’s Gate slightly less stimulating than The Deer Hunter on this occasion anyway, maybe it’s only because I’ve never been particularly dazzled by America’s claims for its past, whereas we have no choice but to be invested in its present.