Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Criticwire Survey: Critical Reassessment

Q: It's starting to seem, with only a little exaggeration, that if you want long enough, eventually every once-derided movie will be proclaimed a misunderstood masterpiece. (See, among other examples, "Showgirls" or the my-neighbor's-a-porn-star comedy "The Girl Next Door.") But surely there must be cases where critics and conventional wisdom got it right the first time around, and the movie everyone thought was terrible is still terrible. What's a case where you find yourself defending history's first draft against people who want to revise the record?

For me, the answer would be Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The failure of this film was infamous back in 1980 – the huge cost overrun of the production, Cimino’s hubris which drove his crew mad, his hiring of armed guards to protect him from studio interference in the editing room, the disastrous premiere of his epic, four hour cut of the film in New York, which resulted in the film being pulled, and released the following year with half its running time taken out, which was even more critically lambasted. It ruined Cimino’s career, and was the last gasp of the 1970s where the studios gave young, talented directors carte blanche to make whatever they wanted. In recent years, the film has developed a huge following though – with many critics calling the film a masterpiece, one of the best Westerns ever made. It is natural, in some ways, to defend Heaven’s Gate – which represents an individual artists vision over corporate groupthink – and the stories about its production would be easily forgiven if the film had been a masterpiece – think Coppola Apocalypse Now for example. The problem with Heaven’s Gate though is that it is a terrible movie. Cimino’s extended cut is confused mess, starting with a long, dull speech from Joseph Cotton giving way to a longer, even more dull speech by John Hurt at Harvard’s graduation ceremony. From there, the film just gets worse and worse. The film is largely plotless – so much so that three hours in, I couldn’t believe that almost nothing had happened yet. The performances are awful – even from the usually reliable Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert – and even the epic battle than ends the films is a confused mess. The film is a revisionist, class conscious Western – which is admirable – but the film is still a barely watchable mess. The original critics were right – Heaven’s Gate sucks.

To add two more, even though in general, I’m a fan of Paul Verhoeven – but I’m with the original critics who hated Showgirls and Starship Troopers as well. Both are over-the-top camp, which would be fine if they were fun, but they’re tedious, boring and repetitive. Trying to view them as satire may well be what Verhoeven intended (in particular with Starship Troopers, where it’s undeniable) but that doesn’t make them any better. The subtext of a movie doesn’t matter much when the surface is so dull.

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