Friday, June 29, 2018

HARLAN ELLISON: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (Erik Nelson, 2007, USA)


Ellison’s prose incisors are weapons that shred his adversaries, giving voice to his vociferous condemnation of stupidity and vapid fandom: a shrill cry from a man with a mouth who must scream. Erik Nelson’s documentary gives us a rare insight into Harlan Ellison’s wonderland though he doesn’t pretend to understand what makes the Ticktockman tick: Nelson remains virtually invisible and lets Ellison run the show. This is not fanboy adoration where Nelson bends over at the altar of Ellison, offering his orifice for deific recognition.

There are a few eloquent friends and peers such as Neil Gaiman, Robin Williams and Dan Simmons who share their stories and dangerous visions, but basically Ellison talks about himself and his life. We see brief clips of past interviews from the Today Show and Tom Snyder, and see the angry young man has not disappeared from the visage of the elderly grandmaster: he is still fueled by pugnacity, a wraith of wrathfulness. But there are tender moments when Ellison’s shtick dissolves and the real man emerges unguarded, an intelligent and remarkable man who is as human as you and me…only more so. But it’s his words that count, literally, millions of them through the years and awards that are to become his legacy.

This documentary should convince you to pick up copies of not only his fiction but also his non-fiction and essay collections, which are too numerous to name here. After the feature is over, let Harlan read a few stories to you in his own idiom, then watch the dialogue between him and Neil Gaiman while they eat pizza, making you a silent partner in their friendly interaction. Buy the books, read the books, Harlan is not a number, his life is his own: you might learn something from him. But if you can’t figure it out, I’ll give you the answer: Naomi Campbell.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN (Julien Temple, 2006, UK)



Not nearly as good as the documentary WESTWAY TO THE WORLD but a personal and insightful documentary about one of the most intelligent and passionate rock ‘n roll artists of our times. Strummer's friends and peers share their intimate stories around a campfire and Julian Temple intersperses this dialogue with home movies and archival Clash footage. His London Calling radio program is used as a voice-over narrative transition to show his multi-faceted love for language and music.


Maybe the only way to truly understand someone (or get as close as possible) is through their creative outlet and expression; in this way, we understand Joe Strummer more through his musical influences than his own voice! This is not your typical “talking head’ documentary; it flows without introduction, a fluid dialogue from one person to the next. What more can be said about Joe Strummer? He was a great musician and a socially conscious songwriter whose raw six-string voice continues to echo long after his death.


The state of current rock music saddens me so maybe the next Zack de la Rocha or Joe Strummer is just around the corner. I wish more were said of his last album STREETCORE because I think it his greatest achievement since the final Clash record. Bono said what made him angry was that the Clash should still be making music. I disagree. I’m afraid they would be dinosaurs like U2 or THE ROLLING STONES and a mere shadow of their glory days, bands that have nothing important to say anymore and just churn out the same drivel. Like a supernova, we had them for a short period of time. 


FINAL GRADE: (B)



Sunday, June 24, 2018

BILLY BUDD (Peter Ustinov, 1962, UK)

 
 

Billy Budd is a flower not yet fully bloomed, weeded-out by the cruel injustice of a rigid Rule Of Law that suppresses morality and appeal. Peter Ustinov deftly adapts the great Herman Melville novella, a story of the harsh life amongst England’s warships and the tyranny of maritime Martial Law.

The angelic Billy Budd is pressed into service, leaving behind him THE RIGHTS OF MAN and venturing towards his cruel fate aboard the AVENGER. But Billy is so damn innocent and likeable that he adapts easily to his new life, and earns friendship and respect of the crew, including the Captain. But the sadistic Claggart can’t stomach Billy’s naïve presence. Billy is a man so tender that he doesn’t even despise Claggart and peers beneath the veneer of tyrannical pugilism to see a lonely and empty vessel.

Peter Ustinov films in glorious black and white Cinemascope, this wide-screen cinematography utilized in the tight quarters and confines of the tall ship. The period detail and set designs are amazingly realistic, with characters often framed amid the deep focus of the claustrophobic interiors or vast calm sea. This wide-angle photography creates a subtext that makes the characters seems smaller than the story, which diminishes human life in contrast to the narrative’s morality. Terence Stamp is wonderful as the baby-faced Budd, his shock of hair and gentle attitude an untainted human template. But the stuttering youngster lashes out when confronted by the bold-faced lies of Claggart…and becomes victim to Martial Law. Even the Captain and his staff don’t want to hang Billy, that they understand the circumstances of the assault, but they are held captive to the unwavering Law that demands execution without appeal.

What is Law without individual Justice? Fascism.

FINAL GRADE: (A+)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

IT'S ALIVE (Larry Cohen 1973, USA)


Frank Davis fathers a genetic mutation whose killer instincts lead it directly from the cradle to the grave. As the creature’s creator Frank feels akin to Dr. Frankenstein and carries the moral obligation of stopping the gruesome deaths, knowing he must be the one to destroy the beast to find his own salvation and, more importantly, be accepted back into mainstream society. Director Larry Cohen appeals to the pregnant fear that gestates deep within our social consciousness: modern apprehensions concerning prescription drugs and pollution, their effects upon developing fetus’ and even a woman’s right to choose. Cohen also dissects the nuclear family unit, as the Patriarch commits infanticide, the one who carries the responsibility of creating this monster (or thinks he does), while the wife is relegated to the periphery of the story. Cohen focuses upon Frank’s emotional isolation and keeps the wife drugged and restrained: the man can handle the problem while the woman is unable to cope with the stress.

Cohen upsets the typical cinematic convention of “pregnant-mom-rushed-to-hospital” by allowing the first act to move slowly: the man isn’t a bumbling idiot and they talk and take their time, dully arriving at their destination. As Frank awaits the introduction of his second child, Cohen offers exposition spiked with humor through dialogue and a running gag in the waiting room. He crosscuts these scenes with a bored doctor who practically berates the lost Lenore (a Poe allusion?) and demands she push harder. He then cuts back to Frank and the other fathers before showing a nurse stumble through the doors and collapse in a bloody heap. Frank then bursts into the delivery room and we see a frightful apocalypse: the medical staff has been mutilated and Lenore is screaming about her baby. The scene is over-the-top and borders on camp, the blood looks like congealed Jell-O, but the actors bring it back down to Earth.

Bernard Herrmann’s score relies on innuendo and subtly to underline the horror, and seeps into the narrative with a time-released precision. Cohen uses point-of-view double exposure to show the world from the monster child’s perspective, utilizing low angle and quick editing techniques. He smartly refuses to show the creature in a full medium shot, only offering glimpses and extreme close-ups of the Rick Baker puppet…which is for the best because it looks rather silly.


Eventually, Frank must take control and hunt down his progeny, and armed with a police rifle he stalks the sewers in search of the newborn. But seen through a father’s eyes the killer becomes nothing more than a scared and hungry baby, and he takes it in a blanket to comfort. This would have been the interesting and complex ending; instead, Cohen goes for the visceral thrill and static declaration…another has been born in Seattle.

Final Grade: (C)

Friday, June 8, 2018

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)


Violet Venable is a manipulatively violent and venerable Matriarch, a woman shattered by the grief of her dead son; a faceless man consumed by his own dire obsessions. Catherine Holly is the man’s cousin, witness to some horrid event that has left her emotionally paralyzed, engulfed by repressed memories and locked away in an asylum where she must face her religious tormentors…as well as her own inner demons. Into this predatory environment stumbles Dr. “Sugar”, a scientist on the cutting edge of a new psychiatric treatment called a Lobotomy: if he can cure Catherine, then Ms. Venable will donate a million dollars to his failing Institution. But the sweet Doctor isn’t convinced of Catherine’s mental illness and he must make a moral decision between possibly destroying one woman to help hundreds others.

Director Joseph Mankiewicz is able to transform this verbose screenplay into a visually exciting drama with tight framing, extreme close-ups and deep focus photography, utilizing themes of predation and death such as the Venus Flytrap, a grim statue of the Reaper, and even the name of his Institution…Lion’s View Asylum. Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor eat-up the screen with undeniable tension while Montgomery Clift deftly plays the part of mediator trapped between these two deadly rivals.

The final act comes together in a flashback as Catherine releases the truth in a damning torrent: she and her Aunt where only pawns in a game of pederasty, and her Aunt could not live with this awful confession. Mankiewicz films the frisson of the chase scored by a clanging metal dirge, as Catherine’s cousin (whose face is never revealed) races towards his doom where neither money nor borrowed sexual favors can save him. A skeletal woman robed in black and the scythe of death descends upon her memory…while those he victimized eat her cousin alive. Through this catharsis Catherine is saved while Violet descends into unknown depths of despair and anxiety, and ascends upon her throne towards her final resting place.

FINAL GRADE: (B)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988, Japan)


A whimsical tale of childlike imagination about a young girl and her baby sister: siblings who fear the death of their mother while learning to commune with nature. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s creation is imbued with the vital spirit of symbiosis as human beings destroy the world and forget that they are an integer of nature’s elemental algorithm.

Set in the late 1950s, Satsuki and tiny Mei move into a dilapidated farmhouse in a small farming community to be closer to their mother, who is sick and in the hospital. This taps the quicksilver anxiety of all children who fear the death of a parent, especially a subtext concerning radiation poisoning in a country still suffering from nuclear fallout: their parents must have been children themselves during the war. One day the energetic Mei falls through the rabbit hole and into the lair of a forest troll, the spiritual protector that resides within an ancient Camphor tree. She names him Totoro and his gentle furry mass wobbles and yawns playfully, and the other smaller wood sprites seem more scared of this little girl than she of them! Soon her big sister Satsuki meets Totoro at a bus stop and gives him a gift, an umbrella to shelter him from the rain. In a beautiful scene, Totoro becomes enamored with the sound of raindrops tapping upon the taught fabric and shivers with excitement before catching his Catbus to some unknown destination.

The sisters are the only ones privileged to see the forest spirits, and even their father pays tribute at a withered shrine; another example of how distant humanity has grown from its roots. Miyazaki’s wonderful imagery tickles the imagination, from a ritualistic dance under the twinkling stars and a ride upon a magical top, to the many-legged tour-de-force of a Cheshire bus. But a letter causes the girls alarm when their mother cannot return home from the hospital, and little Mei becomes lost amid the fields and swamps while tying to find her mother and give her a stalk of corn…because she picked it herself. One frightening scene is fundamental to create frisson: a pink sandal floats ominously upon a lake while the village elders search for her body with bamboo sticks. Satsuki pleads for help and Totoro sends for the Catbus and all ends happily ever after; her mother is going to be fine, the family reunited, and live in harmony with nature.

Final Grade: (A+)

Monday, April 9, 2018

ZABRISKIE POINT (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970, USA)


Mark and Daria are birthed from the barren womb of Death Valley: he drifts among the clouds while she drives endlessly, both drowning in sea change. ZABRISKIE POINT is a film of its time: post-1960's radicals and counter-culture protest Big Business and a Fascist Administration, the fat white men who rule the world. It is also a film of our time. Director Michelangelo Antonioni creates a vaporous dream-world where his characters linger; Mark in his hijacked plane rising above reality and Daria racing down the two-lane blacktop…both about to clash with harsh reality.

Mark and Daria escape together far from the madding crowd and into the desert, imagining their free love shared with other castaways and drifters. Both characters are archetypes, meant to represent ideals rather than multi-faceted individuals, and possibly Antonioni displays contempt (or perhaps futility) for the nihilistic militant drama that ends on a long road to nowhere. We feel emotionally disconnected from the narrative, although Alfio Contini's intense Scope cinematography is always interesting: he utilizes roving close-ups and pan shots that are disorienting and experimental, and often focuses our attention upon billboards and advertising like militant propaganda. This creates frisson as the dichotomy between those in power and those without is delineated; Mark and Daria represent those without power with only one way to (attempt to) attain it: debt bondage. Her boss, a Real Estate tycoon played by a stout Rod Taylor, is a cipher for the Overseers who gouge the planet and its people for their own profit.  

After their brief affair, Mark chooses to return to meet his fate in a rain of bullets, unwilling to be in debt either physically or philosophically to The Man. Daria’s option is more profound for she can become part of the Order, accepted into the status quo: she looks towards the mansion on the hill and makes up her mind; imagining an explosive orgy of fire and death, she drives away disappearing into the scintillating desert haze. Antonioni films the final explosion from seemingly twenty different angles, showing the destruction in slow motion while the soundtrack thrums with hypnotic Pink Floyd music. If destruction is a form of creation, what New World Order awaits Daria?

Final Grade: (B-)

Friday, April 6, 2018

THE PASSENGER (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975, USA)


The Girl becomes witness to a middle-aged man’s crisis as he virtually disappears into the stark desert air; she becomes the passenger unable to un-Locke his identity and purpose. Michelangelo Antonioni structures the film with an emotional complexity and stunningly languid visuals; a self-reflexive narrative that exists within David Locke’s intuitive and hastily extemporized perceptions.

The plot is rather mundane as Locke assumes the identity of a dead acquaintance named Robertson and leaves his entire life behind him, his only goal forward momentum on a road to nowhere. He begins to live Robertson’s life through the deceased’s diary, picking up papers from a Munich locker and keeping scheduled meetings. He is soon pursued by gunrunners, foreign assassins, and his own past while racing towards an inevitable nexus of these disparate elements. He is accompanied by a nameless companion, a beautiful girl met serendipitously, who attempts to understand his malaise, to guide him towards salvation, but she is ultimately powerless; Locke steers his Mercury towards his own cruel destination.

Antonioni films in long breathtaking vignettes, each shot embracing the characters and peering into the abyss of Locke’s soul, revealing the stark banality of human nature: sometimes we don’t understand ourselves, we can’t explain our own actions, we just act without premeditation. The fatal climax is a seven minute tracking shot: it begins with Locke meditatively resting on a bed awaiting his final meeting as Robertson as the camera slowly tracks through the window’s iron bars to the dusty courtyard, then slowly back again as we follow the girl, Locke’s wife and police back into the room where he has been murdered. This is one of the greatest shots in cinematic history and should be studied for its technical achievement and sublime mise-en-scene. Locke’s wife, who has finally discovered the deception, speaks the truth: she never knew this dead man.

Final Grade: (A+)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

THE LIMEY (Steven Soderbergh, 1999, USA)


A father journeys into his own heart of darkness, a seeker of answers tainted by regrets and mistakes, searching for the truth of his daughter’s death and finding only himself to blame. Director Steven Soderbergh envisions a stark and violent character study of an obsessive father who must know why his daughter died…and who was responsible.

Terence Stamp’s bravura performance as Wilson the vengeful patriarch is violently empathetic, at once imbuing the protagonist with intense outbursts and gentle repose, his gunpowder retribution existing outside the metaphysical realm of moral order. Stamp carries the film with his Cockney slang and subtle inflections, at once imposing a riposte humor contrasted by his inhuman brutality. The supporting cast plays against his persona perfectly with Luis Guzman and Lesley Ann Warren as his only links to a disintegrating reality, and Peter Fonda as the object of his murderous desire. Soderbergh utilizes disparate editing techniques to induce frisson: flash-forwards and flashbacks dominate the narrative structure, and dialogue is often juxtaposed out of sequence. This unorthodox editing heightens the suspense as the pieces finally fit together to deconstruct the crime thriller genre by giving us an introspective and thoughtful climax: the payoff is not what we expect.

The sparse soundtrack is an ominous and lonely dirge of self-destruction, punctuated by sixties rock zeitgeist as defining the antagonist and his free fall from grace. The background sound often speaks in the lulling whispers of the ubiquitous surf, a soft accusation that condemns two men for their transgressions (and aggressions) but offers them hope. Wilson growls: “Tell me about Jenny” while Valentine grovels on the rocky shore, but Wilson already knows the answer. Satisfied, he understands that the thing he thinks he wanted wasn’t that thing at all. He lives free to keep his daughter’s memory alive: for Jenny.

Final Grade: (A)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

HEAVEN'S GATE (Michael Cimino, 1980, USA)



FRUIT OF THE POISONOUS TREE
The DEER HUNTER is a tale that focuses upon character, specifically the love story between two men: the war is a means to propel the characters towards resolution. But here at HEAVEN’S GATE, Cimino is concerned with the war first, the grand sweeping epic that deconstructs American Mythology; the characters of Averill, Nate, and Ella exist as secondary elements, as a means to reflect upon the injustices and frustrations of the main theme.
The plot of HEAVEN’S GATE is based very loosely upon the true account of the Johnson County War in 1892. But Cimino is only tangentially interested with historicity (like THE DEER HUNTER, this is not a film based on fact but based on theme) so he makes dramatic changes to the characters and plot. However, he is very interested in making a real world of three dimensions for the tale to inhabit, of birthing a dirty and sodden reflection of the American West which is atypical in historical dramas or genre films. The plot involves the Association, a morally bankrupt organization that has the backing of the US President and his Cabinet which becomes a doppelganger of the US Government itself. This organization hires a cadre of criminals to execute without warrant or trial 125 immigrants named on a Death List. These citizens are accused of stealing cattle and procuring and settling land that is needed to propagate the Association’s big business opportunities. Cimino shows two distinct scenes of local immigrants stealing or possessing the Association’s cattle but the reason is quite obvious: they are poor and starving. What Cimino quite rightly points out in the narrative (and Averill mentions more than once) is that there is a lawful remedy for the Association. It’s called the Rule of Law. But the Association has its own ideas about Law and decides that vigilante Justice is the quickest and most economical Final Solution.  
THE OUTSIDERS
James Averill is a rich man playing at being poor and Nate Champion is a poor man playing at being rich. This is a story of outsiders, of people struggling to attain equal rights, to become something more, to struggle against the situation they are born into. This is the gateway to salvation (not starvation) where immigrants risk everything to come to America, the Land of (In)Opportunity. Averill is a wealthy man who comes to Johnson County as a Sheriff, to fight against injustice, to stand up for the rights of the poor immigrants. He is a good practical man who is respected but he has another life: he has a home elsewhere. This is explained through a photograph of his Harvard days that he keeps by his bedside, as he smiles next to a beautiful young lady beside a tree. (Which is a visual cue for the entire conflict: from the mock battle in the first act at Harvard twenty years before to the slaughter in the final act. Here Cimino joins the past and present, in one simple image, metaphor and reality are superimposed). Though Averill may have the best of intentions (and he does) he remains an outsider to the community, arguing against an armed conflict that cannot be won. It is revealed that he at one time belonged to the Association but he was banned because he stood up against their unethical practices.
Billy is a minor character who is a friend of Averill’s but still belongs to the Association, but he also stands against their decision to execute immigrants for stealing cattle. Billy doesn't quit, he follows along in a drunken haze, never participation and offering only a tepid voice of irony and sarcasm. Billy is also an outsider to this country: he’s English and therefore a neutral observer (because that war has already been fought and won by our county). He acts like a cipher of reason and subverts the events with barbed humorous insights condemning this travesty without actively participating. It’s no coincidence that Billy is shot in the jaw during the final battle while taking a slug of whisky: once again spoken truth is obscured and irrelevant and makes no difference to this Final Solution.
Nate Champion is an immigrant himself who now works as a hit-man for the Association. He is raised above the impoverished community and has made a place for himself, saved money and brought civilization to the wild. He executes farmers who steal his company’s cattle without warrant to charge, arrest, or trial. He is a specter of Death riding the range. Cimino aggravates (in a good way) our expectations by revealing Nate as a complex human being, a man who is not a cold blooded killer but one who struggles to become something more than his caste. Though he murders a man in his first scene, he spares another young boy in another. He curses at the wagon trains of immigrants to go back to where they’re from (a modern American sentiment) though he’s one himself.
Ella is also an outsider in her own community: she is a Madame of the local brothel. Cimino relies on the typical Hollywood cliché of the beautiful hooker with a good heart but this doesn't seem to upset the narrative. Excellently portrayed by Isabella Huppert, she also becomes a complex persona and not a trite characterization. She provides a service for the community and takes money and cattle as payment: unfortunately, much of the cattle are stolen property. The men would rather fuck than feed their families it seems. But she is largely irrelevant to the story until the halfway point of the film when Averill and Champion both visit her. Not only do they know her but they are friends with each other, or were close at one time. They both love her and Champion asks for her hand in marriage while Averill only wants her hand, her physical body, to remove her from the danger.
DEATH OF A NATION
This affair is only one variable of the whole equation. Ella agrees to marry Nate because she wants to stay at Heaven’s Gate, to be a part of the community of her peers and not a stranger in Averill’s strange land. When Nate takes her to his home (which sits outside of the town, isolated) it is wallpapered. He says this brings civilization to the wilderness and she smiles touchingly. So in a later scene when the building is on fire, the call-back is important: the fire curling and blackening civilization: the wilderness (or chaos) has won. Ella is a reactive person and joins the entire community (she warns them too) in the final battle.
In a typical story, this love affair would generate the fuel for conflict and would be important to resolve but here Cimino focuses upon a much greater theme. This anarchic narrative structure baffles many viewers who would prefer to be spoon-fed exposition, to be given every narrative link in an orderly fashion to reach some understanding of the linear story. But Cimino deconstructs the typical Western melodrama by revealing these character interactions much later in the film because the story is not about their love triangle: it is about the (still)Birth of a Nation and its impact, as these characters become victims of a corrupt notion, avatars of a repressed and impotent society. It is the Rule of law that levels the playing field and when it is manipulated by the powerful few (the 1% in modern terms) then Justice can never prevail and oppression is the norm.
Cimino’s use of circular motion fulfills at least two important functions for his theme of a class conflict. First, it ties together the privileged graduation celebration and the mock battle in the first act and the Immigrants roller skating dance and very real battle later in the film. This contrast between the rich and wealthy dancing to a classic waltz for entertainment, to come together and join in community, is exactly like the citizens of Heaven’s Gate who join together around their own folk music. This juxtaposition alludes to the elite and poor being not so much different after all. The use of The Blue Danube also hints of the European influence upon the upper class, that they are (or are children of) immigrants into this great Melting Pot. The fact is that the only true American is the Native American Indian, and they are not overtly represented in this narrative. So the circular motion of each dance thematically overlaps to become one, tying together two disparate social classes into one shared school of thought and emotion. The two battle scenes (the mock scene were Averill climbs the tree and grabs the bouquet) and the brutal conflict upon the windswept and bloodstained field (were Averill never reaches the tree) are also circular, possibly representing the corruption of society, of group conformity spiraling out of control. The motion also agglutinates the battle and dance, violence and entertainment as one movement, a prescient audience desire that often confuses the two, confounding both meanings. After all, this is a movie about war and people go to the movies to be entertained (at least viscerally or superficially). I believe this post-modern reading of the film stretches Cimino’s intent but struck me as visually and emotionally acute.
The title of the film denotes a Christian belief concerning the entrance to the ethereal realm of Heaven, an allusion that here in the United States is the gateway to a better life. But the reality of the gritty narrative seems pessimistic and pejorative, that this allusion is nothing but an amoral illusion. God is either absent or dead and the nearly powerless victims are left alone to fend for themselves. Bu the immigrants come to the New World with the best of intentions and work ethic, to raise families and own their own parcel of land, to gain a modicum of equality and political power. Since it’s self-evident (though not explicitly stated) that the town was named by the immigrants, the title of the film is full of hope and promise. Cimino subverts the original intent and offers a cynical reading: HEAVEN’S GATE is often the name of cemeteries too.
ORIGINAL SIN
The original one-sheet poster (see above) is also very interesting in what it depicts or, more precisely, what it redacts. The film is advertised as a passionate romance between Kris Kristofferson (as James Averill) and Isabella Huppert (as Ella) that reflects and encompasses their patriotism (which comes a close second). The story does indeed mirror their relationship and their patriotic fervor but not in a melodramatic way: the tragedy of their romance is contrasted against their (and our) national tragedy. Also, the All-American love story that the poster wants to promote is actually exposed upon viewing the film to be a sordid extra-marital affair, subverting the message from romantic ideal to polemic concerning patriarchal authority and entitlement. Then there’s the ghost of Nate Champion haunting the frame, a monochrome spirit imposed over the US flag. Note the three stars of the flag to hint at the lover’s triangle. Again, the image promotes a story that is but a shade to the film’s true narrative, revealing a love story that isn't even mentioned until the half-way point of a nearly 3 1/2 hour film! Does this represent the fracture between Cimino’s intent and the studio’s vague understanding of his vision? This could help to explain the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of HEAVEN’S GATE upon initial release. It’s like expecting to see Lean’s DR. ZHIVAGO and being shown Godard’s WEEK END instead. Both are masterfully constructed but for competing purposes, and audience expectations are set quite differently. The poster can also be read as the joining of two cultures or social strata, Averill the wealthy and Ella the poor, with the obvious Capitalist dominance of the privileged protagonist in the composition, towering above the meek and nearly powerless.
The final act depicts Averill arguing against an armed battle with the Association and their hired guns. He seems to be as frustrated as the townsfolk but here he is powerless, as his station as Sheriff is now an empty philosophy. He can do nothing but leave because, as I stated before, Averill has a home to return to. He cannot even save Ella from the coming storm because she is already home, an outsider now subsumed into this microcosm. Her intention is also one of revenge, of anger in discovering Nate murdered.
Averill does indeed join the final battle which revolves around a large tree, analogous to the tree at Harvard during his youthful idealistic days. Cimino once again displays a circular motif as the battle goes round and around like clockwork, as if metaphorically this is a conflict that will last forever. The people and places may change but the war is always the same. Averill is able to bring his education to bear and help build wheeled fortifications as shields to advance and attack. He is able to help the immigrants go on the offensive. And they almost win a Pyrrhic victory.
Suddenly the cavalry arrives to save the day, the American flag snapping in the cold hard wind. But the soldiers are not here to save the victims: they arrive to save the criminals. The government does end this cowardly charade but fails to right the wrongs, to see that the guilty are held accountable. It supports the status quo.
Cimino begins and ends the film with James Averill. He is full of lightening energy in the opening shot as he races through the maze-like streets of Harvard to attend his graduation. He is brimming with reconstructive anticipation towards a better and brighter future, not just for himself but the country. As the pretty women look on, Averill wins the bouquet during the mock battle scene as he climbs the tree, playfully pummeled and beaten by his adversaries. His bloody nose is a badge of courage and victory. Then Cimino cuts to twenty years later and the road map of frustration and violence has been written upon his face. Averill has experienced the real world but still holds on to his ideals. The final shot of Averill upon his yacht floating upon a calm sea has the feel of a funeral barge. As if the proceeding lifetime was nothing but a fever dream, unreal, and he has only ever existed in this purgatory of quiet desperation.
James Averill has suffered the death of his passion and ideology. Is the fruit of his labor corrupted by the poisonous tree? 
Final Grade: (A+)