For decades, they’ve been the bellwether for motion picture excellence. Film fans and cinephiles alike have watched their monthly releases like announcements of past prescience, reconfiguring their own celluloid ethos and “need to see” lists based on their picks. The company themselves makes the following pronouncement as part of their website mission statement:
Since 1984, the Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, has been dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.
There’s a lot being said in those simple words. As part of its policy, Criterion strives to find “important” and/or “classic” films to champion, ones often considered the “greatest” from around the globe. The rest illustrates their desire, as preservationists, to provide each offering with as much context and aesthetic clarification as possible.
So imagine the reaction when it was announced, almost haphazardly, that the label was planning on releasing Michael Cimino’s company killing flop Heaven’s Gate as part of its pattern. No. not his Oscar winning take on Vietnam, The Deer Hunter, or his last ersatz epic The Year of the Dragon. No, the company that claims it is out to celebrate the landmarks of the medium have decided to dedicate an entire special edition release of the film that forced United Artists into turmoil and cost many studio suits their jobs. Hatred at the time, it managed a meager one week release before being pulled for extensive reediting. The newer version was equally savaged and sank without a trace. With its budget of $44 million (between $160 and $200 million at today’s rate) and a return of less than two (about $7 to $10 million now), it is typically considered one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.
And yet now it’s getting a full blown Criterion Collection release. What? For its part, the company makes this announcement on their website.
A visionary critique of American expansionism, Heaven’s Gate, directed by Oscar winner Michael Cimino, is among Hollywood’s most ambitious and unorthodox epics… (it’s) a savage and ravishingly shot demystification of western movie lore. This is the full director’s cut, letting viewers today see Cimino’s potent original vision.
Meaning…what, exactly? If it’s the cut that many saw before the film was pulled for reevaluation, it was pretty much panned by every major critic at the time. If it’s something new, ala the ever-changing movie mythos known as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (currently at a reconfigured 269 minutes, and counting), then where has the hoopla been? Usually something like this would warrant extension discussion among scholars, especially for a movie that makes such bold artistic choices as to “critique American expansionism” and demystify “western movie lore.”
But to take things a bit further, many claim that Heaven’s Gate officially ended the first phase of the post-modern era in Hollywood. It’s fatal flaws illustrated the hubris connected to the rise of the American auteur. Linked to such other “noble” failures as Coppola’s One from the Heart and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, it supposedly marks the moment when the autonomous writer/director was dropped down a few career pegs, making way for the high concept conceit (exclusively guided by studio/agency synergy) that would come to define the 1980s.
Now, the backstory here could indeed warrant a historical reappraisal. By all accounts, it was a brutal, insane shoot. In the book Final Cut, by Steve Bach, former senior vice-president and head of worldwide productions for United Artists studios, Cimino is depicted as egomaniacal and completely out of control. Not shirking its responsibility in giving the newly crowned Academy Award winner carte blanche, a case is made for a studio striving for further Oscar gold, allowing for massive budget overruns and production delays, and getting an awkward, unmarketable albatross in return. In fact, there was a documentary made out of the turmoil. Based on Bach’s tome, it remains a cruel indictment of a production - and personnel - completely out of control.
Yet the question remains - why is Heaven’s Gate getting such specialized treatment? Why is it earning such a place in Criterion’s catalog when so many other meaningful films do not? And better still, a look at the tech specs reveals very little about the controversy. No inclusion of exposes like the aforementioned Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate. Apparently, it’s all the fault of the Europeans. Just like Jerry Lewis and jazz, the continent has decided to adopt Cimino’s folly, finding it to be a devastating reevaluation of the entire Wild West mystique. Some would argue, but the consensus is growing. As they have with many other misunderstood masterworks, they’ve decided that Heaven’s Gate was/is “ahead of its time” and deserves special recognition. Oddly enough, the Criterion announcement came as Cimino was being honored by this year’s Venice Film festival.
It’s sort of surreal. A man who hasn’t made a successful movie since the ‘70s (since Gate, he’s helmed only four other feature films) and whose singular claim to fame fluctuates wildly from masterpiece to mawkish is right up there with Renoir, Hitchcock, and Godard…and not for what is, by far, his best work. If Criterion is looking to broaden its hand-picked horizons - and recent titles like Quadrophenia, Eating Raoul, and Rosemary’s Baby seems to indicate so - there are many more deserving titles to choose from (we’ll have a List This recommendation on same in the coming weeks). Until then, we get to wonder how one of the most notorious efforts in the history of cinema, a film on par with such prickly fare as Cutthroat Island, Town and Country, and Mars Needs Moms, ends up considered a “classic.” The movie itself hasn’t really changed. Clearly, some of the critical “criterion” has.