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Heaven’s Gate at 40: how we learned to love a notorious flop | Film

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For 40 years, Heaven’s Gate has been synonymous with “expensive flop”. And not just any expensive flop, but the type of boondoggle associated with the fussy indulgences of a self-styled film artist. It is considered the symbolic end to a decade where the inmates ran the asylum, when iconoclasts like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were allowed to operate within the studio system with minimal interference. The film’s director, Michael Cimino, was blamed for pushing United Artists into bankruptcy. It could not be allowed to happen again.

Yet there’s another lesson to be learned from Heaven’s Gate: don’t trust conventional wisdom. Stories about out-of-control productions are difficult for the films themselves to overcome, and only commercial success is a powerful enough counter-narrative to manage it. Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was called “Kevin’s Gate” before it came out and won best picture, and seemingly every James Cameron production has drawn ugly headlines, which Titanic and Avatar survived and The Abyss didn’t.

Cimino’s wounded revisionist western never stood a chance. There’s no point in pretending that Heaven’s Gate, in any form, would have been a box-office sensation. Reviews were apocalyptic when it premiered in a 225-minute cut in New York City. (Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “an unqualified disaster”.) Reviews were equally bad when it was yanked after a week and re-released in a 149-minute cut. (Roger Ebert called it “the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen”.) And it’s hard to imagine any great public appetite for an American epic about a country built on wholesale slaughter of poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Five years after Heaven’s Gate, the story of its making and unmaking was memorialized in Final Cut, a book written by Steven Bach, who was an executive at United Artists when the ship went down. It’s one of the great books of its kind – on par with Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, about The Bonfire of the Vanities – and Bach is admirably reflective about the studio’s failings, not just Cimino’s. But impressions of this rolling catastrophe are hard to shake: the money pit of schedule overruns and reshoots; horror stories of animal abuse and a dictatorial director; the insistence on giving a major role to a French actor, Isabelle Huppert, whose English was barely intelligible; a work print for executives that ran a staggering five hours and 25 minutes; a release date that moved back a full year for additional postproduction; etc.

Now that the dust has settled – and Cimino certainly kicked up world-historic amounts of dust – the film has steadily and rightfully gained in appreciation, boosted by 2012 screenings of a “director’s cut” at the Venice and New York film festivals, and a Criterion release. All the key stakeholders in the film’s original release are gone, the entire apparatus for studio film-making has changed, and even infants at the time are now middle-aged. Heaven’s Gate can finally be seen properly, in a complete cut, freed of the baggage that it wasn’t nearly sturdy enough to carry at the time.

If Heaven’s Gate epitomizes the excesses of the 70s film-brat boom in Hollywood, then it should also represent the revolutionary spirit at its core – a determination to reject the myths and traditions that studio film-making had stodgily upheld. It’s an anti-western, for starters. It’s also just anti-west, in that it’s about how the civilizing forces that tamed the country in the mid-to-late 1800s were, in fact, the villains, violently suppressing the dreams of immigrants and other unfortunates. Immigrants may have built America, the film suggests, but only the few could take ownership of it.

Though the film needs a more commanding actor at its center, Kris Kristofferson cuts a persuasive figure as Jim Averill, the Harvard-educated man who serves as marshal for Johnson county, Wyoming, where class warfare is about to break out into the open. A small band of wealthy cattle barons, united under the name Wyoming Stock Growers Association and led by the ruthless Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is looking to steamroll the immigrant settlers scattered around the county. Using trumped-up charges of cattle rustling, the WSGA comes up with a list of 125 people and recruits a posse to slaughter them, with the tacit support of the US government. Averill stands in the way, and others fall on different sides of the line, including Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), an enforcer whose loyalties shift dramatically.

Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert



Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists

With shades of Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller, another revisionist western about capitalists encroaching on an obscure outpost, Heaven’s Gate stages a love triangle between Averill, Champion and Ella Watson (Huppert), a French woman who runs a whorehouse and takes payment in stolen cattle. There’s more than a hint of the modern in how freely Watson shares her love and her body, but her business, with its bartered forms of payment, accommodates the community’s needs harmoniously. So does the rollerskating rink in the center of town, which features one of the few truly joyous sequences in the film, with seemingly every citizen gliding around the floor. This is what happens, Cimino implies, when settlers become neighbors, and act in solidarity.

Yet the real direction of the country is determined in the lavishly catered sitting rooms of the white and wealthy, like the board meeting where Canton gets near-unanimous approval to start what would become the Johnson county war. The second half of Heaven’s Gate devotes too much time to the lawless chaos that ensues – proportionality is not Cimino’s strong suit, here or in films like The Deer Hunter and The Sicilian – but the film doesn’t want its audience to understand the violence here as any old western shootout. This was a genocide carried out by the monied class against a mostly eastern European population, abetted by a government that would ultimately look the other way.

Drawing on old photographs, Cimino and his legendary cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, recreate the era with a sumptuous attention to detail that makes it clear that all of those cost overruns ended up on screen. Some critics at the time complained of its muddiness, but a better word for it is “tactile”, like an illustrated history coming to full-dimensional life. Cimino asks his audience to live in that space for longer than expected, much like the 51-minute wedding that opens The Deer Hunter, and the price for the film’s vividness is lumpen pacing that occasionally drags it down. There’s a sense that Cimino did lose perspective while obsessing over minutiae.

But Heaven’s Gate should not be seen as the calamitous end to an adventurous decade of director-driven studio films, but a messy kind of apotheosis, one last challenge to audiences to reconsider their understanding of what westerns and historical epics can do – and, most of all, what America itself is capable of doing. And now, decades later, it’s past time to reconsider our assumptions about Heaven’s Gate.


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Great British Bake Off Tweets: Finale

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We finally have our winner.

It’s been a truly wild experience watching The Great British Bake Off during a pandemic, but all the bakers got through it…even if they were melting the entire time. Here are some of the best tweets from the finale:

1.

Bake off contestants: “Can’t we just have air con in here?”
Director: “No”
“Why not”
“For the tension”
“But this isn’t how baking works”
“I will start a fire in here too if you don’t bake”
“but the chocolate”
“Shut up”
#GBBO

3.

I think a lot of us can heavily relate, this year, to crying with our head in the fridge. #GBBO

6.

Can @noelfielding11 follow me around cheering me up and saying “you’ve come back from worse” please? #GBBO

8.

Imagine the iconic looks we’d have from Lottie in the final of Bake Off. Such a shame. #GBBO #GBBOFinal

12.

dave just vibing at the end of the showstopper while peter and laura are in anxious despair #gbbo #gbbofinal

13.

the bakers asking whether they each need help in their final showstopper = this is so ♥️♥️♥️ #gbbo

15.

I can hear people cheering out of their windows the city of Edinburgh has been well and truly rocked by Peter #gbbo

17.

Not gonna lie I got more than a little teary-eyed at the mini film at the end- 2020 has been a dumpster fire but #GBBO has ever been a little oasis of calm in the middle of it all. Thanks to all the crew who made it happen.

18.

Went from a solid emotional keel to BAWLING at that montage? Rowan making waistcoats? Lottie visiting Marc and his kids? Peter’s family’s reaction? Dave’s gorgeous new baby? IN. BITS. #GBBO #GBBOFinal

20.

Bake Off could have easily skipped this year…

..but they didn’t. Instead the production team, catering, hotel staff and the cast self-isolated for a week and then bubbled *for weeks* so that the show could air.

A huge commitment, for a show we really needed #GBBO

21.

And finally:

I’m so emotional (surprise surprise). How beautiful was that ending!? I can’t believe it’s over. I feel so blessed & so incredibly proud of everyone who managed to make it happen. Huge congratulations Peter! Lottie and I clocked you as our winner from day one!!! #GBBOFinal #GBBO

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25 Celebrities Who Are Just As Obsessed With "The Undoing" As You Are

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Dick Ross obituary | Film

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Richard Ross, my mentor and friend of 40 years, who has died aged 84, was a passionate, kind-hearted intellectual and a pre-eminent figure in film education for three decades. A modest man who wore his achievements lightly, he was known by peers and students alike as Dick.

Born in Hokitika, New Zealand, Dick was the son of Paddy Ross, who owned a cycle shop, and Muriel (nee Bell) a school teacher.

Dick studied theology at Canterbury University College, but left before graduating. There he met Phyllis Hamilton, a textiles artist. They married in London in 1957 and Dick pursued a career in journalism. A stint at the Exchange Telegraph was followed by five years with Visnews international news agency. His ability to remain calm under pressure – he thrived on impossible deadlines – came to the fore when, in 1965, he joined BBC TV News as an editor.

The gatherings at the Phyllis and Dick’s house in north London attracted many of the leading lights of the literary and artistic world of the 1960s, including the artists Pat Hanley and Bill Culbert (fellow New Zealanders) and the British artists Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley, all of whom became friends.

Portrait of Dick Ross by his friend the painter Bill Culbert
Portrait of Dick Ross by his friend the painter Bill Culbert

While at the BBC, he also taught screenwriting part-time at Nottingham University. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of European cinema. In 1980 Dick was headhunted for the role that would come to define him: professor of film and television at the Royal College of Art. A maverick with an instinct for spotting potential, Dick changed the lives and launched the careers of countless young film-makers. The RCA Film school was voted the best in Europe by the International Association of Film Schools, in 1985 and 1986.

In 1989, Dick accepted the position as co-chair with film director Miloš Forman at the graduate film department of Columbia University, New York. From 1990 to 1992 he was chairman of the graduate film department at New York University.

Following his return from the US, Dick worked at the National Film and Television School from 1995 to 1998. Always in great demand as a visiting professor, he then lectured in Israel, Malaysia and throughout Europe.

In recent years Dick was beset by tragedy. Phyllis died in 2014, followed a year later by his son, Adam. Dick retired from public life, dividing his time between an apartment in Wapping and his house in the Vaucluse, France.

He is survived by his daughter, Rebecca, his grandchildren, Ellen, Sebastian, Rebecca and Oscar, and his great grandchildren, Alexander and Svala.


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