How the West was Won
A nation has been crumbling away. One glimpse at it, from the present to the past into one tiny moment of the whole, presenting the way of progress. People are difficult, and have a way of dealing with things that isn't merely based on the will of survival, but something far more powerful than that. To say it with the words of Aimee Mann: "There is nothing that competes with habit". But it is in fact very deep and very tragic, as it isn't only one country but all of them, each the same as the rest, as human beings couldn't be more similar and equal around the world. They vary everywhere, but the constellations and the mixture are pretty much the same, and the different levels, castes and classes don't really make it less clear. Some are struggling for more than they need, while others are struggling for the barest to live by. But if you'd exchange the names and switch both sides, the game would still be the same. The tragedy is not the fact that a few countries exploit the others, that a small part of the population eats the cake while most only make it. It lies in the realization that almost nobody is interested in not swallowing it all. Not life as the most important thing there is, but something bigger than it: humanity.
In Cimino's film, the character's who seek transcendence find it only in death. Christ himself, portrayed by Kris Kristofferson in an interesting variation, has to suffer without the salvation of death, slowly dying while life goes on, finding himself in hell on earth. Will he continue to bear our sins? Cimino seems to imply that nothing ever stops, and the fact that life will go on is a testimony to the futile acts of man. What remains in our age is nothing at all. The path we have taken doesn't lead anywhere anymore. And the grace we possess has been taken from us by our own way of life.
Kristofferson is exactly where he wanted to be in the last sequence of the film. If we cut from his meeting his wife at the beginning at the graduation of the class of 1870 to the end, all his youthful dreams have come true. But like the remaining sailor at the end of John Huston's Moby Dick (1958), only a survivor can describe the catastrophe that happened in between, that life consists of. To an outsider he might seem lucky, a survivor floating on the open sea, escaped from the lifelong hunt after the phantom we dedicade our souls to. But life doesn't end after the credits, it goes on, and if the viewer thinks about the actual end of the story, it is an agonizing death of thirst in the light of the burning rays of the sun. After that, eaten by the fishes. Kristofferson is also a ghost from the past, telling us something we already know. And decadence is also a form of decay, although floating on his steamboat the fish can't quite get to him. In my opinion Moby Dick is more merciful when he finally swallows the ship. In our world the legend is dead. You decide what you'd choose for yourself.
As the flagship that sunk United Artists, Heaven's Gate was worthy to do so. Founded at the end of the 1910s by some of the most successful artists of their times, it should have proved that you can also work successfully in the industry on your own. This delusion finally came to an end when the industry swallowed what it had made possible in the first place. A decadent movie against decadence, a big budget multimillion production as the prestige object of an independent company. A fitting representation of itself, the film can be also read as an allegory of Hollywood which represents the American Dream - a lot of work to create an illusion in which you can't live. This is the first film where I liked a poet being shot in the mouth. In an even better and more beautiful one, which could despite many similarities be described as the antipode to Heaven's Gate there is a line that goes something like this: "The Gun will replace your tongue. From now on your poetry will be written in blood". It is Dead Man (1995) by Jim Jarmusch in which the protagonist is also something of a ghost, lost in time. But while Kristofferson is despite all of his doubt and loathing searching for life and fleeing from death, Johnny Depp is portraying a man who is finally discovering life on the road to his death. Both are somehow immortals, existing in a world of their own, walking on a tight rope between life and death. But it's only a curse for one of them. Jarmusch's film could be seen as a metaphysical reply to the stagnancy in Cimino's portrayal of our world. But to do this he has to travel back in time, to the Indians and to William Blake. It is interesting to note that both filmmakers can't find their answers in the future. Although I doubt that forward movement necessarily means the loss of something, while the road back shows the way to new meaning, these symptoms in American cinema doubtlessly point to a huge problem in the system itself.
Why isn't Cimino making any films today? Maybe he has found the right answer for himself. To everybody else who wants to make films: Grab a camera and go on the streets. Life is too short to wait till the industry gets you.