Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Birthday Take: Michael Cimino in "The Deer Hunter" (1978)

Scene from The Deer Hunter
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Michael Cimino
Born: February 3, 1939 (77 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay - The Deer Hunter (nominated)

The Take

It is difficult for me to really talk about Michael Cimino without feeling a certain emotional hostility towards him. To his credit, The Deer Hunter is a very good movie, packed with emotional moments that make me love it, even if it's one of those draining films that I cannot watch too often. Not enough praise can be lapped onto what it does, even if some critics would argue that it was emotionally manipulative. Well, it manipulated mine, and I am fine with that. It's a great movie the likes of which makes me wonder why I have that hostility to speak of now. In an unorthodox twist, I am  not to here to talk about The Deer Hunter, but Cimino the director since.

In all honesty, I did have high hopes for whatever would come from his career further down the line. I always feel that way for any director who immediately connects with me. Then, you get Heaven's Gate. I don't care if you're one of those defenders who claims that it is a mistaken work of art. You can think whatever you want. For me, Heaven's Gate is atrocious for a lot of reasons, including stuff that is relative to its behind the scenes exploits. To me, to understand Heaven's Gate is to read its history and understand why it's the notorious bomb that it is.

For starters, he was an ambitious director who refused to budge on things that were critical. The famous reports of him driving out to the middle of nowhere and waiting until the weather was right is only the tip of an iceberg of a director with too much control to his name. He ended up costing the studio millions, even bankrupting one in the process. What the film inevitably brought was evidence that New Hollywood had no business working outside of a studio system, because they would never be able to work as efficiently. Sure, Cimino wasn't the only person to take down this construct, but it's  hard not to see it as the ultimate film that ended one of film's strongest periods.

In a way, it reminded me a bit of The Revenant, which was an equally stubborn film to make, but not nearly as disastrous in execution. What ended up happening for Cimino was that his original cut was ruined and released poorly. While I don't like taking away from an artist's work, it doesn't help that the final product is still a little pretentious and tied into the downfall of a system that I so much enjoyed. It was a film that also practically ended his career, save for smaller films that doesn't hold nearly as much resonance. I guess that Cimino's work was manipulative (I haven't seen Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), and it's possibly what bothered me about Heaven's Gate. Whatever the reason, I really dislike Cimino, and I don't know if I will ever give him credit because of how much of a train wreck Heaven's Gate was on screen and off.

For what it's worth, I do respect Cimino for The Deer Hunter. It is an epic the likes of which needed to be that long in order to achieve an atmosphere. However, I do think that the success went to his head and the idea of a four hour western where everyone roller skated and played violin seemed appropriate. To me, it's the perfect example of why some "visionaries" deserve interference. Maybe if this was the case, I would like Cimino more and his work wouldn't make me feel so hostile. However, it's also the sign that maybe I am judging too harshly and should give his other work a shot. My issue is that it may be too depressing to see the downfall of a guy that I used to like for a film as exceptional as The Deer Hunter

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