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My Darling Clementine, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2014

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE-008-(1000003974)My Darling Clementine-008

This classic western directed by John Ford was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. The screening used a 4K DCP, which offered excellent visual quality. The film had been digitally scanned at 4K from the Museum of Modern Art’s 35mm nitrate fine grain master. Then it was restored at 4K at Cineric Inc. with the audio track restored from a source element at Audio Mechanics. This was a demonstration of how good digital can be when the technology is set at the right level of quality and used well. A discussion on digital restorations and screenings produced the comment that 4K should be the minimum for digital cinema: something my experience of viewing confirms.

This great western, filmed in Ford’s favourite Monument Valley, makes excellent use of the landscape and vistas. This provides the setting for one of the finest performances by Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. The Catalogue quoted Tag Gallagher; “Wyatt combines the godhead of Lincoln, the passion of Tom Joad, the directness of the Ringo Kid.” Somewhat over the top, as indeed is the film, but it aspires to and achieves mythic status. It is worth noting that two of the performances quoted are indeed by Fonda, but the third is by John Wayne. Much of the strength of the film arises from this combination of two artists, Ford and Fonda.

But it also arises from the writing – Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller: the superb cinematography by Joe Macdonald; and fine production design by James Basevi and Lyle Wheeler. The music also aspired to mythic status, and the use of the traditional song, ‘We’ll gather at the river’, is memorable.

And the quality also stems from the fine supporting cast. Walter Brennan as the Clanton patriarch is splendid. And Victor Mature as Doc Holiday has a memorable sequence in which he quotes Shakespeare: far better than the ham he is sometimes thought to be. As you might expect for the genre the women characters are less developed, but Cathy Downs is excellent as Clementine and Linda Darnell makes Chihuahua memorable.

This was one of the great pleasures of the Ritrovato week, and unsurprisingly the Arlecchino cinema was packed. The film looked great on the large screen, wide enough for scope but masked to 1.37:1. Undoubtedly this restoration will circulate in the UK in the not too distant future. My fear is that we will only get a 2K DCP. Despite there being quite a number of 4K projectors around – we have three cinemas in Leeds and at least one in nearby Bradford with this technology – the UK distributors rarely expend the effort of resources to provide this quality. Several exhibitors have told me that one requires a minimum screen size for 4K projection: 10 metres in quoted. However, Torkell Sætervadet in the FIAF Digital Projection Guide (2012) provides several pages of refutation. One aspect that gets overlooked is that digital is not just about the number of pixels – 4K offers a greater degree of dynamic contrast: and My Darling Clementine is a film with magnificent dynamic contrasts. Let us wait and hope.


Posted in auteurs, Festivals, Hollywood, Hollywood stars, Westerns | Leave a Comment »

Re Heaven’s Gate re-opened

Posted by keith1942 on August 3, 2013

[Written in the 1980s but not published, it seems relevant to actually present this piece as the film is re-issued].

Heaven’s Gate was produced by United Artists and written / directed by Michael Cimino. One of the virtues of the film is the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, which is at times stunning. The film was released in 1980 in a version running 219 minutes: a previous director’s workprint ran for 325 minutes. The 219-minute release was withdrawn, partly due to very negative Press criticism, and replaced by a 149-minute version. The film became notorious because it overran its budget four times and nearly bankrupted the studio. Then the original cut was re-leased in the mid-1980s: to more positive critical comment. In 2012 a new version of 216 minutes was released: the main difference apparently being the removal of the intermission. The film deals with an actual historical episode in 1892 known as the Johnson County War, a violent confrontation between the Wyoming Cattle Association and immigrant homesteaders. Phil Hardy [in the The Encyclopedia of  Western] reckons that the film’s basic plot is factual. He also suggests that much of the US criticism of the film flowed from objections to it re-presenting a very negative event in US history. The events ended with the US President ordered the US Calvary to ‘rescue’ a mercenary army when their massacre plans went wrong. In the Cimino version the main characters and much of the action differ from the historical record: numbers are inflated including the total of fatalities. The film central characters include James Averill [Kris Kristofferson]; a Marshall caught between the two sides. Ella Watson (Isabelle Hubert] Averill’s lover who also runs the local brothel. And Nate D. Champion (Christopher Walken), who works for the Cattle Association but is also in love with Ella.
In Movie 31/32 an article by Robin Wood argued for a re-assessment of Heaven’s Gate. It took issue with the critical attacks on the film and, with close textual analysis, put the case for the movie as both a masterwork and an important political text. Robin Wood makes detailed comparisons between the longer and shorter versions of the film. He makes positive comments on the narrative form and style of the film. He also argues for a particular political reading of the film. It is worth noting that he pays little attention to the historical events on which the film is based. While his arguments about the aesthetics of the film are convincing, it seems to me that the political argument by Robin Wood is both incorrect and dangerous. In part this stems from a distinction between art and politics: the view of F. R. Leavis and one which Robin Wood has never completely broken with. But what is equally disturbing about his piece is that it offers a series of political definitions that are dubious in the extreme. Robin Wood sees Heaven’s Gate as an elegy for a lost collective/socialist alternative in the United States’ past. But this alternative that he describes actually contains little real collectivity or genuine equality.
In this article I want to point out the discrepancies between the film’s representation and a genuine alternative that is able to avoid oppression based on class, gender or “race”. I believe this is important not just because I reject the arguments presented by Robin Wood, but also because it appears to me that much media criticism allows to pass unchallenged the distortions of political struggles found in films like Heaven’s Gate. I want to argue that effective criticism must embrace both the politics and the aesthetics of a film and question its values, even if it wishes to then agree with it.
My objections to the ‘re-opening of Heaven’s Gate’ s is in part its failure to confront the film’s ideological project: by this I mean the dominant values that are inscribed in the film’s narrative, often in a taken-for-granted fashion. For example, part of his argument concerns comparisons, but the comparisons that Robin Wood chooses to make are, firstly, “ the great distinction of The Deer Hunter [1978] lay – certainly not in any informed or intelligently political attitude to Vietnam (on that level Cimino’s naiveté is indefensible) – but in its essential nature as at once the culmination of and elegy for a whole tradition of American cinema and American mythology”. This is an inadequate response to one of the more racist films of recent years. To take just one example, in the film the Russian Roulette torture is shown being inflicted by the Vietcong on U.S. prisoners, but the reports of the time were of U.S. soldiers perpetrating such atrocities on Vietcong prisoners. This is not naiveté; this is political distortion of the worst kind.
In a similar vein Robin Wood writes of the same film’s ending, “the final singing of ‘God Bless America’ is less an affirmation than a funeral wake…” It would be more critical to ask why it is a wake and what sort of elegy it presents. The United States lost in Vietnam – the wake in The Deer Hunter is part of the process of coming to terms with that defeat. And in that sense the film leads on to the post-Vietnam cycle of films, including Rambo [First Blood, 1982], which re-affirm United States chauvinism. And the heroes for whom if offers an elegy would appear to be those played by [amongst others] John Wayne. There is little to choose between the depiction of Vietnamese liberation fighters in The Green Beret (1968) and The Deer Hunter.
The second comparison in the article is with an earlier classic;“ [The] Birth of a Nation [1915] celebrates an America established upon the denial of Otherness (the Klan/blacks opposition clearly paralleling that of calvary/Indians in the classical western), and centred on family/monogamy/’purity’, involving the simultaneous idealisation and subordination of (white) women. Heaven’s Gate shows the destruction of a possible ‘alternative’ America (one located in the historic past, but bearing in its values striking resemblances to the radical movements of the ‘sixties’ and ‘seventies’): a democracy in which Otherness is accepted and valued, in which women become the equals of men, in which sexual arrangements have at least the potential to become non-possessive and non-coercive, and in which the family is subordinated to the collective community.”
To choose one of the most notoriously racist of all Hollywood films as the point of comparison seems to be rigging the argument as bit. But equally it needs to be questioned to what degree Heaven’s Gate actually depicts an alternative picture of collectivity and liberated sexual relations.
Firstly, Robin Wood makes great play with the film’s treatment of its central characters, claiming that the film moves away from Hollywood’s more usual pre-occupation with individual motivation and causation. Even so he has to admit that, “…every scene in the film is in some sense about a character or relationship, there is not a scene from which all the half-dozen main characters are absent.” Despite his arguments about collectivity it is individual heroes and heroines that dominate the film and its actions. For example, in the case of the film’s hero Averill it is HIS arrival on the battle scene in the final epic confrontation that swings the balance in favour of the immigrants. And it is HIS personal duel with the villain Canton (Sam Waterston), coupled with the loss of HIS loved one, that ends the main narrative section of the film. A resolution of the story much in line with the individual heroics of the traditional western.
Wood makes similar assertions regarding the chief villain, Canton, leader of the Cattle Association, “he is personally insignificant and his power derives solely from his wealth and class position.” Wood is right about the social relations but wrong about the narrative when he claims “the essential comment on him is made in purely visual terms: the magnificent shot that closes Part 1 of the original version shows him literally vanishing into the dust of his own horses.” But after Canton rides away the shot ends on a locomotive hissing steam and it is Billy Irvine (John Hurt) enveloped by the steam who disappears. Irvine in fact is a ‘hollow man’ and the visual symbolism first him perfectly. [Note that video versions I have watched slightly crop the image [a frequent problem] and Billy is not seen at the end of the shot]. The film is clearly a star vehicle, with the key characters all played by well-known Hollywood or European film figures. [Mickey Rourke, who appeared in later Cimino films, has a small part]. But there is no star figure to represent the homesteaders. The nearest is local entrepreneur and the proprietor of Heaven’s Gate, John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges).
Robin Wood suggests that a key feature of the film is Averill’s desertion of his own class for the side of the immigrants. But this desertion does not show any commitment to the ‘alternative values of an other community’. Like the film itself Averill displays little feeling for the life of the immigrants. Wood himself notes how he drives past a heavily burdened women and children without offering any assistance. He makes a group of male immigrants wait while he finishes a cup of coffee, though it is his job to listen to and help in their problems. The commitment he does show is to the LAW, the law made by his own class. His criticism of his own class concerns the breaking of that law, as when he remarks bitterly, “ dammit…the Cattle Association had the law on their side.” Robin Wood rightly points out that Averill dithers over committing himself to the immigrants side when they opt to fight the hired mercenaries of the Cattle Association. But even when he decides to fight he does not display commitment. In one scene he passively watches the immigrants, including Ella (Isabelle Hubert) his lover, ride to battle. The events that appear to change his mind are the rape of Ella by Cattle Association mercenaries and the killing of one of his friends, not a homesteader. His whole response seems more weary resignation and disillusionment, not strong commitment.
Robin Wood tries to stress similar representations of other leading characters and important scenes. One scene he highlights is the rolling skating dance that takes place in Heaven’s Gate itself: this is a tented entertainment area and bar. He writes of the musicians in this scene that there is “ the sense that they are performing not so much for as with the dancers [is] confirmed when the young fiddle player joins the dance.” In fact the young fiddle player does not join the communal dance, he precedes it with a bravura display of fiddling and dancing, i.e. performing ‘for’ rather than ‘with’. Another point Robin Wood raises is that the celebration “raises such infectious energy that one has little chance to ask why Ella is suddenly accepted without qualification by a community that only a few minutes earlier appeared to be more than somewhat divided by her.”. the more relevant response would have been to ask, if Cimino’s film is so concerned with collectives, why does it need to ignore continuity in its efforts to centre a set piece round its star and heroine.

Robin Wood’s argument sees the film as having two complementary strands, “…it is in its playing down of the heroic individual and its emphasis on the communal action of the common people (here the immigrant farmers), shown groping towards the formation of a socialist democracy – the solidarity of many nationalities (tending like Nate and Ella to stress their belief in America by American names) and both sexes (the women playing as active a role as the men).” Just as I feel he downplays the individualism in the film, so I feel he over emphasises the collective and the liberating. The only woman accorded a special status or relationship is Ella, who is both a star and the lover of the upper class hero. There is precious little equality or less restrictive relationships for the wives of the immigrant farmers, forced to watch their husbands squandering scarce family resources on individual male pleasure in Ella’s brothel.
Any ‘socialist’ co-operation is only in evidence during the final battle scene. Earlier all we see are the immigrants at loggerheads over land claims and boundaries. The formation of their army is only achieved by the violent suppression of a minority who do not have the stomach for fighting. The attitudes of this army seem more akin to petty bourgeois attachment to land and property than to socialist co-operation. Their conscious commitment is to the status quo, and their desperate resolve to fight appears to be concerned with the danger that they will be locked out from its benefits. A key scene is the community’s debate inside Heaven’s Gate on the issue of fighting. The main speech in favour contains phrases such as ‘Eastern speculators’ and ‘poor people with no voice in this country’. This is the language of populism not socialism, The main narrative story, (while different in tone), would easily fit into a Capra movie, the little people oppressed by the wicked capitalist, rescued by the upper or middle-class hero.
In this respect it is interesting that another comparison Robin Wood draws with both Cimino movies (The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate), is with the films of John Ford. Ford’s films are filled with populist ideas and sentiments, a populism which is related (both in his films and historically in the United States), with reaction, racism and chauvinism. Instead of drawing such positive comparisons between them, Robin Wood should have considered what their populist values stand for, both then and today. The Americanism after which Ella and Nate name themselves is a chauvinistic creed that has successfully expropriated the name of two continents – the United States being only one part of the Americas. He should have considered just how the film’s criticisms of a past historical racism relate to the ongoing racism and oppression in the United States today; when the descendants of those Eastern European migrants have, to a great degree, joined the haves and it is black people [still], including people from the other Americas who are on the receiving end of racist oppression.
A far better point of comparison in terms of new forms of collective action, of equal participation for women, of genuine anti-racist struggle, would have been the film Salt of the Earth {1953). This was made by Hollywood professionals [Paul Jarrico, Herbert J Biberman, Michael Wilson, Sol Kaplan and Will Geer] working outside the studio system and recounts a conflict between Mexican workers and a large mining corporation in New Mexico. One of the distinctions of the film is that the women have a degree of autonomy unusual in this period. This is a film that has no illusions about the reactionary nature of the dominant values in the United States, and a film which consciously draws the connection between United States chauvinism and its racism and sexism. The filmmakers were all on the Hollywood blacklist and harassed by the FBI. The film was on the receiving end of a vicous campaign by the entire Hearst Press. Note that it has not been restored and re-issued recently.
Robin Wood avoids this comparison. It would seem that one reason why he fails to analyse the real political standpoint taken up by Heaven’s Gate is that he fails to relate his sense of aesthetics to his sense of the political. At the end of his article he notes some of the criticisms of the film and then responds, “For me, the sheer beauty of Heaven’s Gate – expressed through, but by no means confined to its rich, elegiac images – makes all objection secondary.” This is really reactionary criticism, which also returns us to The Birth of a Nation. It draws a false division between art and politics. Griffith’s film may have been seminal in the history of Hollywood, but primarily it is an example of conservative politics re-writing history in order to strengthen its own base. This is the same task performed by both of Cimino’s movies. By failing to confront the politics of these films, criticism like that of Robin Wood ends up supporting both their politics and their effects. Interestingly he spends little time discussing the film’s ending, described in Time Out as “strange and dreamlike, blandly turns a blind eye to shut out the atrocities and casuistries we have witnessed.”
Both Cimino’s films above are contained within the dominant values of the USA: values that are part of a system that is class bound, imperialist, racist and patriarchal. They do deserve some of the praise provided in Wood’s article, but they also need to be the focus of keen criticism. For me, Heaven’s Gate is a fine film, but I question how much better it is than many other Hollywood films and Hollywood westerns. Certainly its politics are not that distinct from many others.

It is worth considering the director Michael Cimino, whom Robin Wood clearly regards as a gifted auteur. Themes and style usually define auteurs, so it is interesting to look at the themes of a number of the films that Cimino directed.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) is a heist film starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. It is really a buddy movie, with the heist going badly wrong and with a downbeat ending for the hero/duo.
The Deer Hunter centres on members of an immigrant community going off to fight for the USA in Vietnam. The two central characters are played by Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken [also in Heaven’s Gate]. Both suffer because of their involvement in the war, but there is no sense of the Vietnamese except as the ‘other’.
In Heaven’s Gate Nate [Walken] character dies because of the contradictions of the conflict as does Ella. Averill ends back where he started, among the wealthy and privileged US East Coast elite. And, as I argue above, I think the immigrant homesteaders never achieve more than a not clearly defined ‘otherness’.
Year of the Dragon (1985) is summarised in Time Out, Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) “standing alone in the teeth of public opinion and police distrust, he conducts a clean-up campaign on New York’s Chinatown …”. The review, rightly I think, characterises the character as racist and asks a similar question about the film and Cimino himself. I should add that one villain in the narrative is the media, symbolised by the treatment of television: White smashes one late in the film. The film also features one of those macho sex-cum-rape sequences, which are clearly misogynistic.
Desperate Hours (1990) is a relatively straight remake of the 1955 William Wyler film. However, one addition, which takes us back to The Deer Hunter, is that Anthony Hopkins plays a Vietnam vet.
Robin Wood comments on both The Deer Hunter and on Heaven’s Gate as “a nostalgic lament for the hero’s non-viability in the context of contemporary America.” He means, of course, the USA: there are some viable vital heroes and heroines in Latin American films. And the questioning of the viability of the Hollywood western hero does not start with Heaven’s Gate. It is already there is two films that Wood himself mentions – My Darling Clementine (1946) with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and The Searchers (1956) with John Wayne as Ethan Evans. And a later example would be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, clearly also an elegy for the Western. The narratives involving these three heroes also involve the ‘law’, an essential aspect, as Wood notes, of Heaven’s Gate. The law is part of the classic opposition in westerns between civilisation and the wilderness. And to a degree in all three films there is a tension between the law and what one might call’ natural justice’. And this is also a contradiction writ large in Heaven’s Gate.
Robin Wood is right to argue that there is a strand of US cinema that finds the traditional hero problematic: a reflection of changing contradictions in the US position in the world. However, very few of those heroes have any socialist stance. Even Reds (1981), which I think is better than Wood allows, turns the pioneer US socialist into a recognisable Hollywood hero. The Great October Revolution is dramtised in that film when John reed (Warren Beatty) achieves coitus with Louise Bryant (Diana Keaton). Equally there is little socialist content in any of the heroes of Cimino’s films. Moreover they seem to have particular problem with people from South-East Asia. Thus European immigrants are OK in The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, but Chinese immigrants in The Year of the Dragon are a problem.
And Cimino is little better on gender. Wood comments on Heaven’s Gate “It is part of the film’s great interest that it raises, tentatively, through Ella, the possibility of new and less restrictive forms of sexual relationship.” Not quite, Ella [as is often the case with sexually liberated women in Hollywood films] is killed off. In The Deer Hunter the women characters fulfil a subordinate role. They are almost entirely absent in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. And as I have suggested, The Year of the Dragon offers strong does of misogyny.
There is another theme apparent in Cimino’s films: the threat to the ‘American home’. In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot the little church, a symbolic centre to ‘small-town America’, has been moved outside the town, redundant. In The Deer Hunter it appears necessary to defend that home with a military conflict thousand of miles away. Heaven’s Gate’s distance is that of time, about 80 years. But in The Year of the Dragon the threat is right here, centrally in New York. And in The Desperate Hours it arrives at the very door of ‘the American home’. This suggests that fear rather than any vision of the future motivates these films: fear of the ‘other’. And a fear that increases as the years go by and the supposed threat comes nearer and nearer.
I think Robin Wood is right to claim that Michael Cimino has made an unconventional and interestingly critical film with Heaven’s Gate. This would also be true of Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) or Nixon (1995), but the films of both directors fail to break out of the dominant values in the USA.

There is a description, production history and details of the different versions of Heaven’s Gate on the Wikipedia pages.

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