,We all have those moments in our lives. That indescribable emotional, intellectual, and sensual instance when we realize that the person we are staring at, that person staring back at us, is generating this iridescent feeling within of affection only more so. This profound realization that this person gets me, understands me, and even sees life the same way I do. We feel connected. We are them and they are us. We usually call this emotion, this realization, this attachment…..love.
Normally, we attach this label to people or animals. But we also use that term when describing works of art we admire (movies, books, plays. painting, or sculptures). and the people who create them (directors, authors, playwrights, screenwriters, painters, sculptors, etc.).
Today, I want to start this series by describing the moment I fell in love with the work of director Michael Cimino.
It happened early on in his supposedly monumental folly called Heaven’s Gate (1980) – a western about the real life Johnson County War in 1892 Wyoming when rich cattle ranchers hired a mercenary army to kill immigrant farmers encroaching on their grazing lands. A movie that failed so completely that it derailed Cimino’s career and made the western unbankable for over a decade. It is also credited with destroying 1970s director driven Hollywood and replacing it with the studio controlled moviemaking that we still have today.
Keep in mind that I came into this movie cold. I had not seen Cimino’s two previous films: neither his Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (1978) nor the Clint Eastwood thriller Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).
As I settled into my seat for a Sunday matinee on the film’s opening weekend, all I knew about Heaven’s Gate was that it had been released the previous November to such horrible condemnation that United Artists had pulled it from release for reediting. That it was now only two and a half hours long instead of the nearly four hours of the original version. But it had my favorite cinematographer (Vilmos Zsigmond) and a number of actors that I already loved (John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Joseph Cotton, Brad Dourif). And the movie’s imagery that I glimpsed in the trailer had blown me away and whetted my appetite for more. As the lights went down, I expected a muddled story but gorgeous scenery.
I began to think the critics’ opinions were wrong from the movie’s opening shot of Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) running across the 1870 Harvard campus, already late for his own graduation. I felt an inhalation of wonder when he caught up with the parade of graduates. The sweep of the camera crane starting up high then dropping down to catch Jim as he fell in beside his best friend Billy Irvine (John Hurt).
But the moment when I fell in love with the film and the director was after the commencement ceremony when the graduates and their ladies fair waltzed on the Harvard Yard to the strains of the “Blue Danube”.
The choice of music and the circular dancing conjured up memories of Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But the waltzing circles within circles were also visually setting up much of the story that would follow. The graduate waltz would be echoed later in the roller skating of the Wyoming immigrants.
Jim’s dancing with the Beautiful Girl (Roseanne Vela) would be echoed later in his solo waltz with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) at the same roller rink.
And the large circles the graduates made on the lawn would be echoed in the final battle between the immigrants and the cattle ranchers’ mercenary army.
It was a scene that even Newsweek’s David Ansen conceded in his otherwise dismissive review was a “cinematic grand slam”.
In that moment, my life changed. I bonded with Michael Cimino and his movie. I came to believe that I got him and he got me. From now on, I was all in with what he wanted to do. And that I wanted to make movies for a living. Subsequent viewings of The Deer Hunter and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot merely affirmed my belief.
Decades later, when my family visited England, I had us visit the same place where the scene was filmed (Mansfield Quad at Oxford University). Standing on the lawn, I could still hear the “Blue Danube” in the air.
Experience the moment below: