Why God Invented TiVo (An Occasional Series)

on December 30, 2008 by Steve Simels

Gentlemen, start your DVRs: Turner Classic Movies is showing the uncut, widescreen version of Michael Cimino's notorious Heaven's Gate tomorrow morning beginning at 2:00 am EST.

This is not, shall we say, a necessarily crowd-pleasing film. Its spectacular critical and commercial failure in 1980 pretty singlehandedly sank United Artists, and the title has since entered the language as a synonym for auteur excess gone wild (before Waterworld came out in 1995, snarky Hollywood insiders were referring to it as Kevin's Gate, as in its producer/star Kevin Costner). A contemporary review by the New York Times Vincent Canby , normally the most perceptive and reasonable of critics, called it "an unqualified disaster." And just this year, the amusing but reactionary Joe Queenan recently went even further in The Guardian, calling it the worst movie ever made. "This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates," Queenan noted. "This is a movie that defies belief."

Here's the scene in question, which IMHO defies nothing but Queenan's philistinism.

As you may have gathered from that last remark, I'm a member of that small subspecies of humanity who thinks the film with all its flaws (an unwieldy dramatic structure, among them ) is something of a misunderstood masterpiece. This isn't the time or the place to go into a longwinded defense of the thing, which in any case, speaks for itself, but the short version is -- again, IMHO -- that the reason the critics went after it back in the day had little to do with the film per se or the fact that Cimino went over budget (you can see every goddamn dollar on screen, BTW), but rather with its defiantly left-wing politics (the story is about dirt poor farmers being murdered by greedy Ogligarchs,a deliberate parallel with what was going on in Central America in the Age of Reagan). The irony, of course, is that Cimino had earlier drawn the ire of the Left with his unflattering portrayal of the Vietcong in The Deer Hunter, but that too is a story for another time and place.

In any case, the film -- gorgeously shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond in an approximation of period sepia tone -- has been mostly butchered for home video. The current DVD, which apparently derives from the same crappy transfer familiar from the early 90s laserdisc edition, is at least the uncut 219 minute director's version, but it's hideously washed out and all but unwatchable. That may or may not be what TCM will air tomorrow morning, but on the off chance that it's not, you really need to check it out and decide the film's merits for yourself.


Tags: Michael Cimino, Heaven's Gate, Waterworld, The Deer Hunter, Vilmos Zsigmond, Vincent Canby, Joe Queenan

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