Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
“I think Cimino is sitting behind me at Chi Dynasty. Get over here!”
That’s the text I got that initiated my encounter with the man who made the movie that meant and means more to me than almost any other. The man, of course, is Michael Cimino, and the movie is Heaven’s Gate – though I could almost as easily say the same thing about The Deer Hunter, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot or Year of the Dragon – to my mind, Cimino would be one of the greatest directors who ever lived if he had only done any one of these masterpieces. Hell, forget about the masterpieces – he’d be one of my favorites even if I only judged him on his lesser films. His criminally underrated remake of The Desperate Hours is, for example, more impeccably framed and edited than most directors, myself included, could achieve on their best day – and it was his worst film.
His best film, Heaven’s Gate, is an epic like no other – an epic not only in terms of scale and visual grandeur but also in terms of emotion, philosophy, and history. The closest anyone ever came to its ambition and depth of feeling was Visconti with The Leopard, but Cimino’s film always had more personal resonance for me as an American and a Western fan. Heaven’s Gate is the ultimate Western, the one that both absorbs all of the Westerns that came before it and shatters their mythology, providing a template for every great revisionist oater that would follow, from Eastwood’s Unforgiven to Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo. It’s a beautiful, spectacularly romantic film that’s also as bitter as they come – a movie about America by an artist who loves his country’s promise and harbors deep resentment at that promise’s perversion. The final scene, in which one man’s resignation stands in for an entire nation’s moral bankruptcy, is the most affecting finale I’ve ever seen in any movie – I can’t help but think that the heartbreaking chill it sends through the viewer’s nervous system is the real reason the movie was so cruelly dismissed on its initial release.
Like Ozu, Ford and Scorsese, Cimino seems to have been born incapable of putting his camera in the wrong place – and like those directors, he saw the world in a way different from anyone else. And it’s a vision that’s so subtle and complex that it can’t really be replicated – you can’t steal shots from Cimino the way you can from Hitchcock or Godard or Bertolucci. I’ve always been mystified by how he achieved his emotional, intellectual and visual effects in a way that I’m not by most directors. (Interestingly, one other director I did feel this way about was the other master of cinema who passed away this weekend, Abbas Kiarostami.) Given this mystification, Cimino was always at the top of my list of directors I wanted to meet, yet I always assumed this was a pipe dream given his Salinger-esque retreat from the public.
Then came that text. I was at home with my fiancée on a Wednesday night when Chris Landers, the producer of my first film and the only guy I know who’s more obsessed with Cimino than I am, texted me that he was sitting just a few feet away from the master himself in a Los Feliz eatery. I jumped in my car, sped to Chi Dynasty, and found Chris sitting at the bar with a vantage point that offered, sure enough, a clear view of Michael Cimino dining with a female companion. Did I mention that Landers is an even bigger Cimino fan than I am? Here’s how big: he still carries his original ticket stub from opening weekend of Heaven’s Gate around with him in his wallet. This ticket turned out to be good for entry not only to the Century Plaza in 1980, but Cimino’s good graces in 2015. After an hour of consuming a hefty amount of liquid courage, Chris and I walked over to Cimino’s table, the stub in Chris’ hand. “Excuse me, are you Michael Cimino?” I asked. “Who wants to know?” was the gruff reply. “Well, we’re both filmmakers and great admirers of yours,” I said. “In fact, my friend…” and I gestured to Landers, who revealed his prized ticket stub.
This was the moment of truth: either Cimino would think we were his biggest fans or his most terrifying stalkers. After what seemed like an eternity of silence – I think it was about three or four seconds – Cimino’s grimace turned into a huge smile and he said, “Have a seat, boys!” Landers and I didn’t wait to be asked twice, or for Cimino’s date to protest our crashing her dinner – we grabbed a couple of chairs, pulled them up, and proceeded to grill Cimino for an hour on everything from the choreography of his long takes in The Desperate Hours to designing one of the greatest shoot-outs of all time in The Year of the Dragon to Clint Eastwood giving him his big break on Thunderbolt. In fact, the amount of ground we covered was astonishing – just as Cimino was able to pack 10 movies’ worth of ideas into any one of his films, he knew how to tell stories that had massive entertainment value as well as maximum information per paragraph.
I would never have guessed he had only a year to live – he talked about moviemaking with more youthful enthusiasm than anyone I’ve ever heard, including Quentin Tarantino. I think he was genuinely touched by the fact that Chris and I had devoted so much of our lives to studying what he did, and the simple pleasure he took in our appreciation made me so, so angry at the assholes in the industry and the critical establishment who delighted in taking him down. What did they have to gain by exiling this brilliant, sensitive, violent poet from the art form he mastered as well as anyone who ever lived? Cimino spoke generously about other filmmakers with whom he had worked, like Eastwood and Oliver Stone, and seemed motivated by nothing more than wanting to make and see great films, yet after Heaven’s Gate those of us who loved his work had to make do with a fraction of the output he should have had. Why? Other directors made expensive flops and kept working, and few of them could claim a movie as singular as The Deer Hunter on their resumé. One can find some consolation in the fact that appreciation for Cimino’s work increases with every passing year while imbeciles like Vincent Canby, whose moronic New York Times review of Heaven’s Gate destroyed its reputation before anyone even had a chance to see it, are long forgotten. But this doesn’t really undo the damage that was done in terms of robbing film culture of what should have been.
At the end of our conversation, Chris told Cimino about my work with the American Cinematheque and suggested that Cimino let me interview him onstage after a screening of Heaven’s Gate; Cimino replied, “No way. Never in America.” It’s a shame, because aside from being a great filmmaker, Cimino could have been one of the world’s great film teachers – it’s sad to me that he felt so maligned by the American press and the industry he contributed so much to that he couldn’t share his wisdom with the world the way he shared it with Chris and me that night. In the days since Cimino’s death, a lot of people have quoted the tag line from Heaven’s Gate: “What one loves in life are the things that fade.” Yet I don’t think this sentiment applies to Cimino. His work has done the opposite of fade – it’s endured, prospered and improved with every passing year and will do so as long as there are places that show movies and people who want to watch them. And my personal memory of him has done anything but fade since that precious night in East L.A.; he seemed larger than life then, and he seems larger than life now.