Battling the Past – an encounter with Michael Cimino

Battling the Past – an encounter with Michael Cimino


How would you picture Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate? Sitting, sipping a beer in the courtyard of Bologna’s elegant Lumière Cinema, it’s a question that occupies my mind while waiting for the arrival of the celebrated American director. A question, because I don’t know the answer. There are photos of him from the set of The Deer Hunter, hair bouffant, as you would expect a 70’s director to be (and not a million miles away from Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter), but for all intents and purposes after the commercial disaster of Heaven’s Gate, the American director shrank from public view. In a sense. In reality, he’s directed further films like Year of the Dragon, though never attaining either the critical acclaim or disdain of his two pivotal earlier films. He’s also written a novel, Big Jane, which according to reports in 2001, he intends to film. But, public interest remains primarily focussed on those two bold movies that made and broke his name. How would he look now? Grizzled and wizened from his daedelus like voyage between fame and infamy?

Cimino’s appearance, as part of the annual Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, is eagerly awaited. He is, as they say in Italy, a Grande. A legend of the Cinema. Born, officially, in 1943 (rumours suggest that perhaps it was a number of years earlier), Cimino first entered film-making as a writer with credits for the influential sci-fi film Silent Running and the second installment of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series, Magnum Force. It was Eastwood, in fact, that launched the New Yorker as a director, highly impressed by his work on the Dirty Harry film. 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was a reasonable success, going on to become a cult film. From there he directed 1979’s Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter. A critical and commercial success that made Cimino one of Hollywood’s hottest properties. His next film, Heaven’s Gate would destroy this new found kudos, and bankrupt a Hollywood studio at the same time.

The early evening quiet is broken by the rapid arrival of three sleek black cars, synchronized with tinted black windows. They swerve to a halt, showily, before a medium-to-small size figure exits, dressed in a tan suit with perhaps the most impressive/ridiculous cowboy hat seen outside of Texas. 2005’s Michael Cimino has arrived.

Up close his face is obscured by both the ten-gallon hat, that dwarves him, and a pair of dark shades, that must make the dim inside of the Lumière seem like the dark side of the Moon. He doesn’t take them off at any stage.

“I’m very very proud to have given a copy of my own personal shooting script of The Deer Hunter to the library here in Bologna,” he remarks, looking around the cinema, his lips hardly moving. The skin on his face seems stretched tight. His jaw moves as if of its own volition. It may be unkind, but Michael Jackson springs to mind…

The director is here to both present his 1979 masterpiece The Deer Hunter, and to give a Director’s masterclass to Bologna’s film students. “One of the reasons I’ve volunteered to do these seminars with students, is, if I may be vulgar for a moment, that I think students have become tired of bullshit,” he says with a smile. “I like movies, – he continues, – I like the word ‘movies’, because it’s what they are: they move. Cinema is a different thing. Once you stop moving you’re dead. There’s been too much nonsense preached to students about technique, about rules, about so many things that have nothing to do with the heart of a movie. We need to reclaim, the students today need to reclaim the spiritual part of themselves, though that might sound pretentious, or ludicrous even, it’s true”.

The heart of the movie. That’s what interests Cimino, and how you get there. “Before you start obeying rules, start by breaking them,” he says emphatically. “I made The Deer Hunter as a young man. If I had gone through a film school before making this movie, I would never have made it. I would have been too afraid. Even today, the script girls say to me, ‘Michael, this is not going to work. You’re crossing the eye line’. I still don’t know what the ‘eye line’ means!”.

Perhaps, though, the era when films could be made easily by breaking the rules has passed. The age of wholescale risk taking, blessed by Hollywood moghuls, it could be argued, was finished, albeit unwittingly, by directors like Cimino himself. Heaven’s Gate remains elusively off-topic this evening.

“There’s not one cent of Hollywood money in this movie,” he says, talking about The Deer Hunter. It’s as if, even though no-one asks, the recrimination of Heaven’s Gate remains hovering under the cowboy hat. “All the money came from an English company [EMI]. All the costs were covered by them, then the film on completion was auctioned off to whatever studio would pay the most, and it turned out to be Universal at the time. I hope you can look at it with a true heart, true eyes and a true mind,” he implores the gathered audience.

This, the most emblematic of films, was released with some controversy. While winning five Oscars including those for best film, and best director, the film also caused the walkout of Warsaw pact countries from the Berlin film festival in solidarity with the ‘heroic people of Vietnam’. The portrayal of the Vietnamese, in particular the infamous Russian roulette scenes (no cases were ever documented from the war), was criticised as racist.

“Try not to look for symbolism in the movie, because there is none. There’s no political agenda in the movie,” Cimino reiterates. “It’s not even about the Vietnam war. It’s about what happens when catastrophe attacks a group of friends who are like family, in a small town. This is a movie about people. It’s simply about people. I would urge you to take it that way. It’s a story of a group of friends.”

Indeed, while there can be little argument that the Vietnamese characters portrayed in the film are one-dimensional sadistic stereotypes, part of the reason the film had such an effect was due to its portrayal of this small group of friends. While the dialogue is sparse, the movie speaks volumes. “I think that one of the reasons that the movie maintains its vitality, for lack of a better word,” he explains, “is that the actors were asked to give very much. All of the actors were asked to go beyond themselves. All of the actors were asked to do things that they had never done before. Those guys, I had sleep in those uniforms and never take them off, wet or dry, for one entire month. They never shaved, they never bathed, which is what happens in combat. You don’t get a hot shower every night. The small details like that. Everyone allowed themselves to be inspired by what everyone else was doing. It was a rare occasion.”

“I’m proud to say, there are no special effects in this movie”, Cimino continues. “There are no digital effects. When you see 9,000 refugees in the night in a burning Saigon, that is 9,000 people in the night. For real. When you see the actors jumping out of a helicopter, that’s really the actors. When you see them floating downriver clutching a log, that’s them. I know because I was there in the river with them, holding one end of the raft down because it was popping up and the log was so heavy that it was crash breaking it. Everything that I asked of the actors, they gave.”

In a very real
sense The Deer Hunter seems to be greater than the sum of all its parts. The product of a rare coincidence of talent, working together. “Making a movie is not abut your own inspiration. It’s not about only your own excitement. Making a movie is not about your own satisfaction,” says Cimino excitedly. “It’s also about inspiring other people to go the next step. I think everyone yearns, and I mean that word, yearns for a moment of transcendence in real life. When that happens in work, it’s like the greatest drug in the world. When a shot is finished, the take is made and the whole crew, the actors, the crew, everybody feels it, and you can almost see people levitating off the ground!”

It’s an intensely nostalgic sensation, listening to Cimino speak. He is here after all to talk about the past, not the present or the future. There are ghosts constantly moving in his speech. He, perhaps more so than any other director, has made his mistakes in public, and for every confident assertion about what movies should be, there’s always a hint of doubt. As if filtering through the accumulated criticism of his career.

At the end, though, perhaps he is his own greatest critic. The Deer Hunter has deservedly entered into the pantheon of great films. With the passage of time, Heaven’s Gate has been re-evaluated positively, despite its excesses. In short, with the passage of time, Cimino’s reputation has been re-established, as visibly manifested by the earnest queue of young directors/writers present here this evening who greet the New York director with reverence.

As the lights go down, Cimino begs his leave. “What I think about now is how much better I could have been [directing the film]. There are so many things that I would like to be able to have done better. That’s one of the curses of looking at one of your own movies, because all you tend to see are your mistakes. You see the places where you might have let yourself down a little bit. Where maybe your energy flagged a little bit. You might have been tired, you should have pushed for a little more, you could have done things differently. That’s why it’s actually painful. Otherwise I’d sit and watch the movie with you, but I can’t. Right from the first scene I’d think ‘Oh, I should have had the camera here’ etc.”

And so, with a skin-stretched smile, dark glasses and his little-big-man’s hat, Michael Cimino walks back out into his own past.



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