Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Michael Cimino (1939-2016): An Appreciation

By Steve Evans
Today let's talk about promises unfulfilled. This is mostly an excuse to scribble a bit about the director Michael Cimino, who died July 2 with his age in dispute. He told interviewers through the years that he was born in ’52, but sometimes he said ’48, while official records state his birth as Feb. 3, 1939. That would have made him 77.
The essential thing anyone needs to know about Cimino is he produced, directed and co-wrote The Deer Hunter (1978), which took five Academy Awards, earned Christopher Walken an Oscar, put Meryl Streep on the map, was John Cazale’s final film (he never saw the finished picture) and ranks among Robert De Niro’s greatest work. The Deer Hunter is one of the best films ever made and has been on my own Top 10 list since I first saw it 38 years ago on opening week. Now, if you absolutely had to know two things about Cimino, the other would be he also directed Heaven’s Gate, which did not win any Oscars, lost many millions of dollars, destroyed Cimino’s career and contributed to the collapse of United Artists, one of the original Hollywood studios. UA was founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, so it had been around for awhile.
Explaining the failure of Heaven’s Gate is an essay unto itself and others have explored this topic better than I, with my limited time and lack of inclination. I will note only that the film is worthy of viewing and ripe with great moments, though as a whole undone by Cimino’s notorious hubris, an inflexible and obsessive pursuit of excellence, and unchecked access to studio money, which financed an ungodly complex and multilayered plot that audiences, with their gnat-like attention spans, did not want to see. That's the short version of the folly that became Heaven's Gate. (For a deep dive into the fallout, read Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Steven Bach's Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists.)
So Cimino’s professional life, it can be said, is one of disappointment and unfulfilled promise. He never again hit the artistic triumph of The Deer Hunter and the failure of his follow-up essentially doomed him. I encourage you to read about the last years of Michael Cimino. Variety.com ran a good obit this morning.
On the flip side, Cimino never promised me he’d surpass The Deer Hunter. I’m not sure anyone could. I’d like to explain why this is an essential film, though mostly why it impaled itself through my mind, and that is why I pay tribute to Cimino today. His career was like a bottle rocket – burning fast, red hot and quickly extinguished.
Unlike most critics and film historians, I never thought The Deer Hunter was “about” the Vietnam War. Rather, it is about three men of identical working-class backgrounds but with markedly different personalities, and how they each cope with horrific, life-altering circumstances as a consequence of going to war. It’s really a look at masculinity, of what it means to be a man and how a man responds to impossible situations.
Seeing the Deer Hunter, I most wanted to be like Robert De Niro’s character and nothing like John Cazale’s character, Stan, who doesn’t even go to war.
Stan represents the weak male, the ineffectual hanger-on whose identity depends on the men he can surround himself with. The central characters played by De Niro, Walken and John Savage (a last minute replacement for Roy Scheider, who quit the production and opted, instead, to star in Jaws 2, for crissakes) -- all present variations of masculinity and how war either defines or destroys it.
While the film itself remains a devastating emotional experience, it also has the distinction of containing the single greatest sequence of unbearable intensity and suspense in the history of motion pictures. Period. I refer, of course, to the infamous sequence where De Niro, Walken and Savage are held in a Vietcong POW encampment, forced to play Russian roulette for the gambling amusement of their captors along the most desolate stretch of rat-infested river ever seen in film. They are slapped and taunted repeatedly, guns held to their heads, as the lead tormentor screams “Mau!”
I should mention that I have seen close to 15,000 motion pictures during a lifelong love affair with the cinema. Never have I seen a more terrifying and emotionally exhausting sequence than the Russian roulette tortures endured by the protagonists of this film. It ranks among the most brilliantly constructed 15 minutes of film in the history of the medium.
This picture is unusual for its time in the intensity of its patriotic fervor and religious faith, core pillars of the steel mining town the protagonists call home. But neither God nor country offers salvation. It comes only through De Niro’s daring rescue of his friends and downriver escape. Again, that Russian roulette sequence. I actually cheer when De Niro blasts a hole through the head of his hateful captor and all hell breaks loose.
And after the war, their patriotism remains undaunted, though there’s little evidence to suggest their country remembers the sacrifice.
I saw this picture when I was 15 years old and it haunted me for days afterwards. Whenever I’ve seen it in the 38 years since, I’ve found myself in the same vise-grip of total involvement. The Deer Hunter holds up.
It seems every time I view the film I challenge myself to a different question. Three decades ago, as a boy, I wondered how I would handle myself in the same circumstances as these men. Today I know the answer. The film helped me understand the only motivation a man needs to survive. Not for God. Not for country. For my children, my friends and myself. When art helps us achieve that level of clarity, the artist has really accomplished something.
When the world screams "Mau!"
I say, "Yeah? Bring it."
Thank you for a masterpiece, Mr. Cimino. I’m no longer wondering what you might have done, only grateful for what you did.
Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.