b. February 3rd, 1939
d. July 2nd, 2016
You're lucky to make one great movie. Michael Cimino has made two—three, if I'm feeling generous (or my testosterone level is spiking). That parenthetical plays into the received wisdom that this divisive auteur is a case study in virility (of varying sorts) run amok—appropriate, I suppose, to the '70s Hollywood Film Brat Boys Club to which he kinda-sorta belongs. But in making my way, chronologically, through the seven features and one short he directed, as well as the two films he cowrote, a much more complicated picture emerged: of a sensitive man sublimating his early instincts and, potentially, his natural desires, ultimately cloaking them in spectacle, egotism and self-mythologizing.
Cimino's first credits are as cowriter on the environmental sci-fi feature Silent Running (1972) and the first Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force (1973). His voice isn't especially prevalent in either film, though it's still apparent. Silent Running is a tonal and thematic grab-bag (the only G-rated movie to climax with a suicide bombing?), with an eccentric Bruce Dern performance that has more than a touch of the monomaniac to it. (His character, Freeman Lowell, cultivates his glass-domed space garden with a fervor that parallels Cimino's reported attention to surface period detail in Heaven's Gate.) And while Magnum Force is mainly a vehicle for laconic, sneering Clint Eastwood and his muddy-water politics (to say nothing of cowriter John Milius's dick-swingy firearms adoration), there's a bit of Cimino in the way the film views the avenging motorcycle cop quartet played by David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven and Robert Urich, reveling in their natural good looks, then rendering them robotic and inhuman under helmet and sunglasses (T-1000s before their time). They're still straw men created to bolster the film's ultimate argument: Harry Callahan may be a wild-card vigilante, but he's not as bad as these guys! ("A man's got to know his limitations," after all.)
Great #1: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, with its emblematic gender-fluid coupling of manly Eastwood and dandy Jeff Bridges (the latter dressed in drag at one point), thrown together by fate for a roughshod road trip through the American heartland. It's in his directorial debut that Cimino first fully reveals an eye for pretty men and their gruff companions, both ostensibly "straight," though each clearly pining for the other. (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot even have a pair of onscreen mirror images in the form of George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis's intimidating, though comically inept assassins, bickering like an old married couple.) The sophisticated insights into male desire reach a profoundly moving apex in Great #2: The Deer Hunter (1978)—essentially a mythic unrequited love story (between Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken's small-town Pennsylvania factory workers) in Vietnam-summing-up drag. Robin Wood has examined the queer thread in Cimino's early films and, as memory serves, found it homophobically lacking. It's true that both Bridges and Walken's more sensitive, feminized characters are sacrificed, while Eastwood and De Niro's cocky counterparts live to swagger another day. Yet in neither instance does it feel like these deaths are for the greater good. They're stains that will linger, likely unacknowledged, on the souls of those left behind, as well as on the American character that Cimino dissects, with id-upchucking grunginess (T&L uses/abuses the language of Westerns; Deer Hunter panders to/subverts a propagandistic patois), over the course of each film. I personally don't see how The Deer Hunter's "God Bless America" climax can be read in any way triumphantly; to me it's a clear moment of in-character self-denial—a closet door slammed shut, a band-aid placed over a gaping wound that's been festering since the Founding Fathers put pen to parchment. But it's a messy thing, America. We see what we want more often than we perceive what is.
Which brings us to Heaven's Gate (1980), the point at which Cimino gains complete control and, in the process, loses himself. This revisionist Western is no masterpiece, but nor is it an unqualified disaster. It's just there. For a little over three-and-a-half hours. Just there. In T&L and The Deer Hunter, there's a sense that Cimino is allowing for the intangible mix of psyche and cinema that results in greatness. Here, he tries forcing "greatness" through rigorous, meticulous spectacle (a working midwest city built to exacting specifics; a roller-skating musical number in which even the awkward falls seem precisely choreographed) and leeches out the soul. It certainly doesn't help that the central love triangle—involving Kris Kristofferson's grizzled Harvard-educated lawman, Christopher Walken's self-loathing hired gun and Isabelle Huppert's plucky high-plains madam—is a total dud, lacking any of the complexity (queered or otherwise) of Cimino's previous character pairings. Gone With the Wind has been invoked, though I wouldn't be surprised if Cimino was attempting an American Doctor Zhivago. Frankly, this budget-busting film's anti-capitalist leanings, personified in cartoonish black-hat form by Sam Waterston's moneyed racist, make this feel, to me, like Straub-Huillet directing Titanic. To go even more outside the cinematic references of the period, I often felt the same stultifying numbness watching Heaven's Gate—especially during its ineffectual, incoherent climactic battle sequence—that I do experiencing the Marvel superhero product of the moment. Creative freedom, strange enough, neutered Cimino's best instincts, effectively brought down a studio (United Artists, subsequently sold to MGM), and I think in some part laid the groundwork for modern Hollywood's numerous null-and-void anonymities.
The only other Cimino film I like—yeah, I feel red-blooded enough to call it Great #3—is Year of the Dragon (1985), with the potent combo of its descendent director and ascendant cowriter Oliver Stone. A lot of the problems that afflict post-Heaven's Gate Cimino are here: simplistic bluster in place of knotty soul, an overall narrative and thematic shapelessness, extremely uneven casting (John Lone perfect as antagonist Joey Tai; monomonikered Ariane as gutsy reporter Tracy Tzu, uh, not). Fortunately, in Mickey Rourke, playing anguished NYC detective Stanley White, Cimino finds a kindred spirit, a performer who, at this stage, possessed both the gentle and aggressive masculine qualities that Cimino scrutinized in his first two features. There's some of the old homoerotic sparkle in Rourke and Lone's tête-à-têtes. But Stanley White is really in unrequited love with himself, and with the renegade methods (honed by the Vietnam War) that he employs to clean up Chinatown. I think there's as much Stone as there is Cimino in this nutty noir (the Lone character's side trip to Thailand, where he uses a severed head as an intimidation tactic, is Orientalist Scarface), but it's clear Cimino is energized by the pulpiness of the material. Having failed at self-conscious seriousness, he dives headfirst, unrepentant, into trash.
…and when he emerges two years later it's with The Sicilian (1987), a two-and-half-hour (in director's cut version) bore about Italian bandit Salvatore Giuliano, based on a novel by Mario "The Godfather" Puzo, and starring Frenchman and charisma black hole Christopher Lambert. I'll never forget his single facial expression, because he glowers it in every closeup. (Insert Highlander "There can be only one!" jest here.) Beyond that, I'm comfortable calling this the least engaging work of Cimino's career, its few points of interest being Terence Stamp as a foppish Prince (perhaps a semi stand-in for script doctor Gore Vidal), Joss Ackland as Giuliano's gravel-voiced antagonist Don Masino Croce, and the eyesore of a sweater worn in one scene by hambone costar John Turturro.
Desperate Hours (1990) isn't much better, a hyped-up remake of a sluggish William Wyler home invasion thriller from 1955 (itself adapted from a popular novel and play by Joseph Hayes); more interesting to consider that Cimino is remaking Wyler after effectively doing, with The Deer Hunter, a perverse, semi-pornographic gloss on The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). But there are glimmers of the old talent here, notably in a scene in which third bad guy David Morse meets a peculiarly poetic end in the Utah badlands. (The government agent calling the gunshots is none other than Dean Norris, rehearsing his eventual botched takedown of Bryan Cranston's Walter White in Breaking Bad.) The film was cut against Cimino's wishes, which leads to several narrative gaps, not that the reinstatement of a scene between Lindsay Crouse's brittle task force leader and Kelly Lynch's turncoat lawyer (excised because test audiences apparently thought the two were lesbians) would have done anything to counter the former's horrendous, hilarious attempt at a Southern accent. Nominal stars Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers and Mickey Rourke—playing, respectively, an unhappily married couple and the home invasion ringleader—seem as if they'd rather be elsewhere, much like Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March in Wyler's original. At least Cimino stayed faithful to the source.
Of The Sunchaser (1996) I can only say it plays as a sadly pale imitation of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another U.S. of A travelogue, this time about an uptight Los Angeles doctor (Woody Harrelson) escorting a cancer-stricken young gangbanger (Jon Seda) to a mythical Navajo healing place. There's barely a convincing scene, though the film still deserves credit for the ambitious wrongheadedness of its approach. Cimino's attempting to splay his id on celluloid again, throwing in contemporary images of unrest (an African-American-led police protest; a bullet-hole in a rear-view mirror that bisects a reflected American flag), approaching New Age spirituality with an endearing po-facedness (though tell that to Anne Bancroft in her hokey, bug-eyed turn as an RV-driving hippie healer), and building to an admittedly inspired penultimate shot as the Seda character runs toward, then vanishes into a magical lake. One image does not a great movie make, and the rest of this hollow production illustrates just how far Cimino disappeared up his own derrière. Though I suspect the vociferous critical reaction to Heaven's Gate is what, in large part, put him there—so my people likely share a good portion of the blame. To what degree should we consider the thin skin of others? I wonder that each and every time I put fingers to keyboard.
I gather Cimino was more or less fine in the end—celebrated abroad, alive to see his biggest disaster re-evaluated (and to which he did some George Lucasian revisionism, reediting about three minutes, while adjusting the hues of Vilmos Zsigmond's sepia cinematography throughout), and inciting much tabloid speculation with his increasingly altered physical appearance. (Plastic surgery? Gender reassignment? Live with the question.) His final effort, a short titled "No Translation Needed" (2007), which screened as part of the omnibus feature To Each His Own Cinema, sees him comically bastardizing his own name ("Miguel Cimino") and placing himself in the esteemed company of Jean-Luc Godard. (They certainly both wear sunglasses well.) His onscreen surrogate—a French filmmaker/theater owner shooting a Cuban pop star's music video—compliments the female lead's ass, and generally acts like an entitled moppet convinced he can harness the divine energies of the universe. (So…the Star Child? Cimino did, after all, purportedly pull one over on Stanley Kubrick, who was convinced Year of the Dragon was shot on location in Manhattan instead of on elaborately constructed sets.)
In the days following Cimino's death, a friend and colleague tweeted, not without affection, that the director's bombastic films were "testaments to something."
I laughed. Quite fondly.