I was shocked and saddened to learn that Oscar winning filmmaker Michael Cimino passed away on July 2, 2016 at the age of 77. It should go without saying that he will always be remembered for two films: “The Deer Hunter,” one of the best war movies ever made, and “Heaven’s Gate,” one the biggest critical and commercial disasters ever unleashed on moviegoers. He only made seven films in his lifetime, and his last full length feature film was released back in 1996. His last directorial effort was the short film “No Translation Needed” which was part of the 2007 French anthology “To Each His Own Cinema.” There is no doubt in my mind that there were many other great movies brimming inside of him, but now we will never see them which is tragic.
Deep down I always hoped that Cimino would make another movie. I remember when I first saw part of “The Deer Hunter” on cable television. In a time where flipping through channels became a habit impossible to get rid of, I could never take my eyes off what was unfolding before me. The wedding which opens the movie was extraordinary in its presentation, and the Russian roulette sequence remains one of the emotional visceral and draining moments I have ever witnessed on film. While I never got around to watching all of “The Deer Hunter” that evening, I did not even hesitate to buy it on DVD the very next day. After all these years it remains one of the most enthralling cinematic experiences I have ever sat through.
That was the thing about Cimino’s movies; that felt thrillingly alive. Whether it was “The Deer Hunter,” “Heaven’s Gate,” “Desperate Hours” or “Year of the Dragon,” there was a life force pulsating through each frame he put on screen. As terrible as “Desperate Hours” was, the images Cimino captured felt kinetic, and that wasn’t just because he had great actors like Anthony Hopkins, Mickey Rourke and Mimi Rogers to work with. For better and worse, his films were operatic to where you were reminded of the powers and beauty of cinema. Even “The Sunchaser” had a look to it that was unmistakably Cimino, and while it was deeply flawed there was an excitement to it that was undeniable.
Movies these days don’t feel that way most of the time. Many are simply made for entertainment purposes which is fine if they work, and others are made for the sake of creating the next big franchise that will spur profits beyond anyone’s imagination (hopefully). Few directors are able to capture their unique vision or get final cut with the exception of Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino to name a couple. The world of movies always needs a cinematic grenade thrown into it to shake things up, and it could really have used one from Cimino. Whatever he could have come up with, good or bad, would have made a sizable impact.
Like many auteurs, he was described as being egomaniacal, selfish, vain and self-indulgent. Who knows if he still would have been an unforgettable filmmaker without any of those attributes. True, he brought a lot of bad karma on himself with his extravagant demands, and yet it’s hard to think of another filmmaker who suffered more. The critical and commercial disaster of “Heaven’s Gate” shadowed him throughout the rest of his career, and even a recent critical appraisal and a Criterion Collection special edition of it could never take away all the shame Hollywood threw at him. How he lived through all that is beyond me. Other filmmakers have suffered flops, but they rebounded somehow. No one ever really let Cimino rebound from “Heaven’s Gate” as its failure marked the end of the director-driven movie era, and he spent practically the rest of his life in seclusion, coming out of it only to make another film or write a book.
With his death, perhaps Michael Cimino’s legacy will get a different perspective, one that’s more positive (even if it’s only a little more). Whether you loved or hated his films, his vision was unique and energetic. He left his mark on Hollywood, and nobody will ever forget that.
Rest in peace Michael.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.