Monday, June 14, 2004

TV: Final Cut

Trio continues its month-long look at flops with this sharp original documentary about the granddaddy of all Hollywood failures, Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), better known as the movie that brought down United Artists. All of the principals save Cimino are present: UA execs David Field and Steven Bach (on whose book the film is based), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and other crew members, actors Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif and Kris Kristofferson. Willem Dafoe, who also appeared in the film, narrates.

The doc takes an even-handed approach, which is only fair as there’s plenty of blame to go around. UA’s then-new team of executives, desperate to prove the studio’s viability, handed over the store to Cimino after seeing a rough cut of THE DEER HUNTER. Cimino hied off to Montana to film his epic western about the Johnson County Wars and gave free rein to his perfectionism. The doc is weighted slightly in Cimino’s favor, which is understandable if wrong-headed. (Come on, 52 takes of a single master shot? A location that required a three-hour commute each way? A first assembly that was 5½ hours long?)

The film is cleverly edited and includes a great musical TV commercial that Cimino made for United Airlines in the 1960s. It also makes use of the animated photo technique pioneered by THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. Funny how that’s become a staple in only two years. By next year it’ll be a cliché.

Cimino’s career since HEAVEN’S GATE has been gruesome. He made YEAR OF THE DRAGON in 1985, which does at least feature a great closing shootout between Mickey Rourke and John Lone. Quentin Tarantino recently named it one of his favorite action scenes. THE SICILIAN (1987) scored the most walkouts of any movie that played in the theater where I worked as an usher except for Godfrey Reggio’s POWAQQATSI, which is non-narrative and therefore shouldn’t count. The less said about Cimino’s 1990 remake of THE DESPERATE HOURS the better. 1996’s THE SUNCHASER went straight to video.

Trio is airing the 3½-hour cut of HEAVEN’S GATE throughout June. They’re also running other notable bombs like DUNE, HOWARD THE DUCK, and Gus van Sant’s art-school recreation of PSYCHO. Should any of these movies become unbearable, you can always go to the network’s website and find out how it ends.

Book: The Name of the Game Is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe (1962)

There’s nothing like a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback. Fast pace, spare prose. Some of the writers in this stable had a craftsmanship that puts today’s best to shame.

Marlowe wrote several books about Drake, The Man With Nobody’s Face. This is one of the best, a brutal tale that pulls no punches. (And from what I understand, I’ve read the cleaned-up version.) It’s something of an origin story, cutting between Drake’s efforts to find out who killed his partner on a Phoenix bank job and scenes from the character’s early life. What makes Drake so chilling is the ordinariness of his background. He comes from a good family, with parents who cared about him. He’s just a guy who “quit the human race” because he has “the hate of the world in (his) heart.”

I’d started one of the later Drake titles but didn’t care for it. Ed Gorman, who along with his able band of correspondents has forgotten more about old paperbacks than I’ll ever learn, has said that Marlowe suffered a stroke and lost his memory for several years. When he resumed writing he turned the Drake series on its ear, transforming the cold-blooded thief into a government operative. Just in time for Watergate.