Back and Forth

Nick Pinkerton on “Desperate Hours: The Films of Michael Cimino”

Michael Cimino, Heaven's Gate, 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 219 minutes.

IT WAS PERHAPS INEVITABLE that a Michael Cimino retrospective would pop up in the wake of the filmmaker’s death at age seventy-seven in June, but something along the lines of BAMcinématek’s nine-film Cimino series might very well been in the works regardless. After a career that, in the balance, was filled with more setbacks than triumphs, Cimino had recently been the subject of a rehabilitation effort. In 2012 his epic Heaven’s Gate (1980), whose over-budget shoot, box-office failure, and key role in the foundering of United Artists studio had effectively derailed Cimino’s until-then charmed professional life, was vindicated with the imprimatur of the Criterion Collection, accompanied by journalistic reappraisals like that of the Village Voice, which suggested the movie “Maybe Was a Masterpiece All Along.” Last year Cimino appeared in a jaunty mood at the Locarno Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement honor, briefly serenading the crowd at the Piazza Grande with Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” memorably featured in his The Deer Hunter (1978).

Cimino’s final feature film is the twenty-year-old Sunchaser, a failure by virtually every measure that a movie could fail by. After Heaven’s Gate and the accompanying stigma, he returned to work sporadically beginning with Year of the Dragon (1985), an overcooked policier starring Mickey Rourke as a Brooklyn Pole assigned to duty in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where he sets about breaking up the conspiracy of silence around the triad gangs and starts up an affair with a reporter played by model-cum-stiff-line-reader Ariane. To a very large degree, however, Cimino’s reputation would continue to rest on his output of the 1970s, turned out during a brief moment when he appeared to have the Midas Touch.

He was raised in a comfortably well-off Italian-American family in Old Westbury, Long Island—this much, at least, is certain. Cimino’s own accounting of his biography has to be taken with a grain of salt—his reports of his Vietnam service, after the success of The Deer Hunter, buckled under scrutiny, and his birthdate was long a matter of some dispute—but he has stated that his mother was a costume designer and his father a music publisher who worked with marching bands. This would make some sense, for among the most consistent features of his work are an interest in the American immigrant experience and a love of pomp and ceremony: funerals (Year of the Dragon has three), weddings (the Russian Orthodox blowout that opens The Deer Hunter), and dances (the Harvard graduation ceremony and big-tent hoedowns in Heaven’s Gate). Another consistent item is a rather nasty view of women—it’s tempting to call Cimino a misogynist, though I’m not sure he was sufficiently interested in women to actually hate them, notwithstanding reports in a 2000 Vanity Fair profile that he was planning to launch his own brand of ladies’ blue jeans.

Cimino moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Yale with an MFA in painting, and turned his visual arts background into a career in the commercial field, directing ad spots, and made inroads into screenwriting from there. Two films on which he shared script credit, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973), the second screen outing for Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, will play BAM. The latter, on which Cimino collaborated with fellow director-to-be and gun fancier John Milius, is a roundly impersonal and dirty-effective little directed-by-committee number that has Harry going Internal Affairs, confronting a rogue, clandestine unit within the San Francisco Police Department. It’s no masterpiece, but well understands the basic laws of Harry’s firm, measured conduct in a firefight, “a model of Apollonian restraint next to the Dionysian incontinence of his enemies,” per the critic Dave Kehr.

Michael Cimino, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.

Eastwood gave Cimino his big break, co-starring with Jeff Bridges in the Cimino-scripted-and-directed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), produced by Eastwood’s Malposo company. A wryly funny, strangely sweet road movie built around the chance partnership of a greenhorn crook and an old hand (Bridges and Eastwood, respectively) looking for a big score, it has a real feel for the contemporary west—Cimino would always favor Albert Bierstadtesque landscapes fringed with whitecap mountains—and the ceremonies of masculine ribbing. Until his 1990 Desperate Hours, a remake of a 1955 William Wyler home-invasion thriller starring Rourke and Anthony Hopkins, terribly miscast as a Vietnam vet baseball buff, it’s certainly Cimino’s most reigned-in undertaking, content to suggest rather than belabor. In fact, it’s the only wholly satisfactory movie that he ever directed.

The Deer Hunter, of course, was the film that garnered all of the prestige—like Coming Home, the same year it was received as having lifted a moratorium of silence around the national trauma of Vietnam, though in fact disreputable drive-in pictures like Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1972) and Deathdream (1974) had been the real point men. The film’s first act, set in a Monongahela Valley, Pennsylvania mill town but mostly shot in the precincts of Cleveland, has a gorgeous Ashcan School grit as shot by the prodigiously gifted Vilmos Zsigmond, but the “In the shit” passages are flatly bogus, and the blue-collar vamping is embarrassing when placed next to really coal-dusted Keystone State–set films like George Romero’s Martin (1977) or Wanda (1970), whose director, Barbara Loden, got a lot less chances at the brass ring than did the eternally snakebitten Cimino.

As to Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s nearly four-hour retelling of the circumstances around the Johnson County War that rocked rural Wyoming during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, it is every bit the rough going that its reputation would suggest. Cimino is at his best when indulging his ethnographic impulse, re-enacting the rites of the new Mitteleuropean immigrants in the no-longer-so-wide-open west, and he has an undeniable enthusiasm for violence—in his hands a conflict that resulted in a couple of dozen fatalities is shot as the Battle of the Somme, with lots of lip-smackingly gory vignettes. Whenever he has less than a four score of background actors at his command, however, things get dicey. In laying out the triangular relationship between Walken, Kris Kristofferson, and Isabelle Huppert, Cimino follows an impulse to draw every scene out into a “moment,” then drizzling the results with David Mansfield’s treacly soundtrack. The aim appears to be American Visconti, but the result is an abiding monotony that is something like being force-fed lyricism as a goose is prepared for foie gras. The financial catastrophe that followed the movie’s release is often cited as one of the death blows dealt to so-called “New Hollywood” which, legend has it, had given heretofore-unknown, unchecked clout to the director-artist, though as a filmmaker Cimino is rather closer to another bombastic commercial-director-turned-imagist-auteur, Ridley Scott, and his failure to eventually transition into the snowblind 1980s of Bruckheimer and Don Simpson is in many respects baffling.

Heaven’s Gate, shot in spittoon tones by Zsigmond, does have its share of indelible images. With the exception of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Cimino is better as a crafter or grace notes than entire movies: the bunkhouse bristling with bodies in Heaven’s Gate, the dumb-drunk basketball court scene in The Deer Hunter, the death of a punkette gun moll buffeted between cabs and left splayed in the street in Year of the Dragon. Among contemporary filmmakers, he reminds me of another director with a very strong visual sense who is highly capable of producing distinctive standalone images, but shows little ability to ground those images in a larger emotional framework: Zack Snyder.

While the reassessment of Cimino continues apace—and has long been underway in Europe—he by no means has shed his notoriety as a cautionary tale of ego run amok. In this respect it is fitting that his most consistent collaborator in his latter days was Rourke, to whom he gave an early speaking role in Heaven’s Gate, and who, like Cimino, also underwent a significant cosmetic transformation that almost certainly adversely effected his professional standing. Cimino himself might have preferred to identify with another “Roark”—Howard, that is—the architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, which he had hoped to adapt throughout his life. (And which, oddly enough, has longtime been a passion project of Snyder’s.) A more instructive point of comparison might be Cimino’s elder and onetime benefactor, Eastwood, who at no point has displayed an overwhelming genius for film form, but through dint of hard-headedness, economy, and solid nuts-and-bolts fundamentals has turned out a dozen or more films of the first order, including one just released in his eighty-sixth year. It comes down, again, to the old issue of “Apollonian restraint” and “Dionysian incontinence.”

Watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it’s tempting to read an autobiographical note into the mentor-student relationship that Cimino develops between Eastwood’s taciturn Thunderbolt and Bridges’s fresh-faced, cocksure Lightfoot, introduced gabbing with a car dealer who taunts, “I don’t know if you’re man enough to take on a car like this,” a note of ribbing that will recur throughout. The feeling for youthful braggadocio and quiet adulation here have a tenderness and earnestness that’s absent from the small, slight Cimino’s later films, with their recourse to callous, tough-guy postures, and it all makes for a fine, tender movie deeply cut from the American grain, with its amber waves, hidden treasure in a one-room schoolhouse, and sense of the schoolboy’s anxiety about measuring up against the big men he wants to become. And in this film, at least, Cimino more than measured up.

“Desperate Hours: The Films of Michael Cimino” runs through October 6 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.