While the official competition line up for the 69th Venice Film Festival will be released tomorrow, the festival organisers have announced today the list of classic films which will be screened at the Lido. Like Cannes, every year Venice dedicates a section of its programme to screening important works of world cinema.
Among this year’s list will be Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander and Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But, the big news is that Criterion have provided a restoration of the legendary and infamous Heaven’s Gate from director Michael Cimino.
Now, chances are if you are a movie enthusiast then you will have heard of Heaven’s Gate but probably won’t have seen it. The film is regarded as the biggest flop in cinema history, it is a film so notorious that other flops since have been labelled with a Heaven’s Gate type pun. For example, the Kevin Costner film Waterworld was comically referred to as Kevin’s Gate when it lost a spectacular amount of money at the box office.
It is a film that is bloated and massively self indulgent. A film where the producers had no control over its mad, money grubbing director and kept plunging more money into funding his wild and far reaching vision. By the time the film had finished shooting, it had amassed a budget of around $44 million (around $120 million in today’s money) from United Artists, who needed the film to make a big splash at the box office in order to save a studio that was falling into bankruptcy because of its inability to tell Cimino he was going too far.
When the film made around $3 million for its entire domestic run, United Artists sank. Unable to recoup its losses, the studio had to merge with MGM in order to stay afloat. In other words, Heaven’s Gate ended one of the most integral periods of modern Hollywood. It sank an important studio that was responsible for putting funding into films and filmmakers that had something to say. Rocky, Raging Bull, Annie Hall, Midnight Cowboy, Carrie and many more were all products of United Artists. Who knows what it could have done now in a film market that is reliant on robots thwacking each other and pirates in metaphysical situations to produce big returns.
This was a studio that put its money into interesting, confrontational films and saw a return on their investment. Heaven’s Gate ended that. And at the time, it was a film that was kicked to pieces by the critics, even after its four hour running time was cut back to 149 minutes.
Since then it has been widely unavailable on home video, the fact that it was so routinely trashed upon release meant that no one would put forward the money to give it a big release. Because of that, the reaction to it has altered. Today, the film divides opinion. There are those who think that it should be held in the same regard as Cimino’s previous work: The Deer Hunter and the fact that it was such a bomb doesn’t stop it from actually being a well crafted and thematically rich film. Many critics have in fact admitted a love for it, The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth and the UK’s longest serving film critic Philip French have held the film in high regard.
Others still hold it up as a colossal mess and one that deserves to be held as the same self indulgent, self important piece of whiffle that it was pronounced as upon initial release.
I am in the latter camp. I only saw the film very recently and while the scope of the film is undeniably grand and ambitious, it fails under that weight and is a film marred by a director who only wanted to go further. All I see is a dictatorial filmmaker being let wildly off the leash when better results would have been achieved by pairing it down and making it more simple. Not to forget that it commits the greatest cinematic crime of being boring as hell.
The 219 minute cut of Heaven’s Gate is the one which will been shown in front of critics and audiences at the Lido. And as it is a restoration that has been overseen by Criterion, it is highly likely that we will see a subsequent DVD/Blu-Ray release, which should rightly be packed full of special features which explain how it came to be such a disaster.
The Venice Film Festival runs from August 29th to September 28th. Come back tomorrow to catch the festival’s official line up.