HEAVEN’S GATE (Michael Cimino, 1980)
BAMcinématek, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
Thursday, November 26, 7:00, and Friday, November 27, 2:30
Series runs November 20-29
When I was a kid in school, one of the first movies I ever reviewed was Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s brazenly overbudget famous Hollywood disaster. Incensed that professional film critics were obsessed with the meta surrounding the making of the epic Western instead of simply taking it for what it was, I was determined to treat it like any other movie, forgetting about all the behind-the-scenes gossip and tales of financial gluttony. And what I found back then was that it was a noble failure, a bold exercise in genre that had its share of strong moments but ultimately fell apart, leaving me dissatisfied and disappointed but glad I had seen it; I did not want my three-plus hours back. In fact, I probably would have checked out the rumored five-hour version if it had been shown, hoping it would fill in the many gaps that plagued the official theatrical release. More than thirty years later, Cimino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning sophomore effort, The Deer Hunter, has returned in a 216-minute digital restoration supervised by Cimino, and it does indeed shed new light on the unfairly ridiculed work, which is still, after all this time, a noble failure. Inspired by the 1882 Johnson County War in Wyoming, the film stars Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averill, a Harvard-educated lawman hired by a group of immigrants, called “citizens,” whose livelihood — and lives — are being threatened by a wealthy cattlemen’s association run by the elitist Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). The association has come up with a kill list of 125 citizens, offering fifty dollars for each murder, a plan that has been authorized all the way up to the president of the United States. Leading the way for the cattlemen is hired killer Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who has a particularly fierce aversion to the foreign-speaking immigrants. With a major battle on the horizon, Averill and Champion also fight for the love of the same woman, the luminous Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a successful madam who soon finds herself in the middle of the controversy.
Heaven’s Gate is beautifully photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, the first half bathed in sepia tones, with many shots evoking Impressionist painting. The narrative, which begins in Harvard in 1870 before jumping to 1890 Wyoming, moves far too slowly, with underdeveloped relationships and characters that don’t pay off in the long run, especially John Hurt as Billy Irvine, who wanders around lost throughout the film. Using a gentle rendition of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” as a musical motif, Cimino creates repetitive scenes that start too early and go on too long, choosing style over substance, resulting in too much atmosphere and not enough motivation. The all-star cast also includes Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O’Quinn, Tom Noonan, and Mickey Rourke, but most of them are wasted in minor roles that are never fully developed. Whereas the film began by calling to mind such works as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it devolves into Sam Peckinpah-lite as rape and violence take center stage, along with silly plot twists and clichéd dialogue, much of which is hard to make out. However, all of that does not add up to one of the worst movies ever made, despite its inclusion on many such lists. It even feels oddly relevant today, as America continues to debate immigration laws. But in the end it’s just a film that tried too hard, focusing on the wrong things. Back in 1980, I wanted to see the supposed five-hour version; now I think I’d prefer to see a two-hour Heaven’s Gate that would just get to the point. It’s sharing the coveted Thanksgiving Day slot with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra in the BAMcinématek series “Turkeys for Thanksgiving,” which runs November 20-29 and consists of fourteen films that were considered disasters when they were first released but might actually be gems in retrospect. The two films are screening on November 26 and 27; among the other “turkeys” are Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Robert Altman’s Popeye, Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, and David Lynch’s Dune.
Who: Ron Howard
What: Film Society of Lincoln Center Free Talk
Where: Film Society of Lincoln Center, Amphitheater, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave., 212-875-5610
When: Sunday, November 22, free, 5:00
Why: Ron Howard visits the Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 22 for a free talk about his upcoming epic, In the Heart of the Sea. The film, which opens in theaters December 11, tells the story of the real nautical events that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. The cast features Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, and Ben Whishaw as Melville. Howard, who has previously directed such films as Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon, will bring along clips and trailers for this special conversation. (Free tickets are given out one per person starting at 4:00.)
BOUND FOR THE FIELDS, THE MOUNTAINS, AND THE SEACOAST (NO YUKI YAMA YUKI UMIBE YUKI) (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Saturday, November 21, $12, 4:00
Series continues through December 6
Over the opening credits of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, the sweet sound of children singing can be heard over machine-gun blasts and explosions, immediately setting the tone for this unusual, highly stylized war-set drama. “It was a time of mischief in Japan. Even in wartime,” it says at the end of the black-and-white credits, before cutting to a shot of the red-and-white Japanese flag blowing in the wind. Kids slowly march to school to the beating of a drum, except for Sotaro Sudo (Yasufumi Hayashi), who skips down narrow streets by himself, wearing a pseudo-military outfit and carrying a pair of binoculars to help him spy on what’s going on. When he spots someone in the teacher’s (Jô Shishido) office who he’s never seen before, he wonders to himself, “She looks too young to be an adult, but too old to be a child.” That sets the stage for the rest of the film, in which Obayashi follows a group of boys and girls as they battle among themselves, experience bullying and budding sexuality, and grow up a little too fast, serving as a microcosm of twentieth-century Japan. “It is clear that reality and lies can divide people. We should not quarrel too hastily,” the teacher says. Sotaru becomes enamored with the young woman, Kawakita (Riki Takeuchi), whose younger brother, Sakae Osugi (Junichirô Katagiri), is new in school. “Please don’t be violent,” Kawakita tells Sakae, but it isn’t long before he may not have any other choice, especially when their parents (Taru Minegishi and Toshie Negishi) consider selling her into prostitution to pay off their mounting debts.
Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast is a fanciful fairy tale that has fun playing with Japanese storytelling conventions, mixing genres while utilizing over-the-top comic-book surrealism. Obayashi, who gained international fame for his cult hit House, instills this unique coming-of-age story with scenes that not only evoke cartoony manga panels but also the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Shuji Terayama. Not one for subtlety, he intercuts several drawings of animals from an odd kind of textbook that Sotaru carries with him, making humorously metaphorical comparisons between humans and beasts. Though often silly and patently absurd, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast has an infectious, irresistible charm that will pull you right in even as you contemplate how ridiculous so much of it is. The film, adapted by screenwriter Nobuo Yamada from Haruo Satô’s novel A Time of Mischief, was made into black-and-white and color versions; the former no longer exists, but the latter is having a rare screening November 21 at 4:00 in the Japan Society series “Nobuhiko Obayashi: A Retrospective,” which continues through December 6 with such other Obayashi films as I Are You, You Am Me; Sada; The Discarnates; and his latest, the three-hour epic Seven Weeks, in addition to a special conversation and audience Q&A with Obayashi, moderated by series curator Aaron Gerow, on November 21 at 1:00 ($12).
Who: Sean Scully and Glenn Fuhrman
What: Artist talk
Where: The FLAG Art Foundation, 545 West 25th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves., ninth floor, 212-206-0220
When: Friday, November 20, free with RSVP, 7:00
Why: In 2006, Irish-born American artist Sean Scully said, “I remember growing up in Ireland and everything being chequered, even the fields and the people.” The two-time Turner Prize nominee creates abstract canvases lush with horizontal and vertical rectangles and stripes that are filled with power and emotion while always displaying the hand of the painter. The seventy-year-old artist will be at FLAG on November 20, discussing his work with FLAG founder Glenn Fuhrman in conjunction with the group exhibition “Surface Tension,” where Scully’s 2015 “Landline Deep Blue Sea” can be seen along with pieces by El Anatsui, Mark Bradford, Sam Gilliam, Sterling Ruby, Rebecca Ward, and others in an exploration of materiality, texture, and depth.
DEMOCRATS (Camilla Nielsson, 2014)
209 West Houston St.
November 18 - December 2
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson’s gripping thriller of a documentary, Democrats, is how unsurprising all of the revelations are, how we all have become inured to the pervasive power of the dictatorships that control so much of the world. Following the controversial 2008 reelection of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, who had been in power since 1980, when the country officially gained its independence from the British-led Rhodesia, Mugabe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front), and election runner-up Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, MDC-T (Movement for Democratic Change), agreed to form an inclusive coalition government and collaborate on a new constitution, to be drafted by COPAC, a committee co-chaired by former minister of information Paul Mangwana of ZANU-PF and human rights lawyer and parliament member Douglas Mwonzora of MDC-T. On the advice of Danish journalist Peter Tygesen, Nielsson requested access to the intense negotiations, and what she was given was an amazing, exclusive behind-the-scenes look into the process. Over the course of twelve shoots of between one and three weeks from 2010 to 2013, Nielsson alternately follows Mangwana and Mwonzora as they take their case to the people of Zimbabwe, traveling to rural communities and cities as their teams organize nearly six thousand town-hall-style meetings. Mangwana is a big, jolly fellow who believes Mugabe and his government are untouchable, that they will do anything and everything they can to maintain their leadership status. “Be seen as a man of peace. Even if you are not,” he brazenly says to the camera, adding, “The game of politics is pretending.” Meanwhile, Mwonzora, a much more deliberate man, explains, “We never imagined that a black man could suppress his own people.” As he makes his way across Zimbabwe, Mwonzora supports fighting back using pen and brains, not violence, imploring people to “tell us how much power we should have.” Amid claims of illegal busing and harassment by military veterans and the secret police on behalf of Mugabe, the entire constitution-making process is on the verge of falling apart, but the absurdity reaches a whole new level when the safety and freedom of Mangwana and Mwonzora are threatened.
Nielsson (Good Morning Afghanistan, The Children of Darfur) and editor Jeppe Bødskov tell the eye-opening story like a fictional police procedural, with scenes beautifully shot by cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen, underscored by composer Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s subtle score that keeps the tension mounting. Of course, Democrats is not a fictional police procedural but the very real tale of a young nation’s desperate attempt to end the suffocating rule of a military dictatorship determined to keep all of its power, despite its lip service in support of a new constitution. “Democracies in Africa . . . It’s a difficult proposition. Because always the opposition will want much more than what it deserves,” Mugabe is shown saying at the beginning of the film. But as Ernest Nyamukachi, Mwonzora’s personal assistant, says, “Everywhere you are you are afraid.” (Most of the dialogue is in English, with occasional forays into various Zimbabwe languages, sometimes within the same sentence.) In her director’s statement, Nielsson notes, “We in the West sometimes have a hard time understanding why it is so difficult to create a viable democracy in other parts of the world. The democratic values we ourselves accept in a democracy as a matter of course . . . are not taken for granted everywhere on the globe. Democrats is a sort of a primer, a form of basic research, into how difficult it is to create democracy.” What is happening in Zimbabwe might be extremely hard to swallow, but it makes for one hell of an important film. Named Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Democrats begins a two-week run at Film Forum on November 18, with Nielsson in person at the 7:10 show opening night.
Who: Members of the New Negress Film Society
What: “Irresistible Resistance”
Where: Made in NY Media Center by IFP, 30 John St., DUMBO, 718-729-6677
When: Friday, November 20, free, 7:00
Why: Formed in 2013 by Frances Bodomo, Ja’Tovia Gary, Kumi James, Stefani Saintonge, and Dyani Douze, the New Negress Film Society identifies itself as “a core collective of Black woman filmmakers whose priority is to create community and spaces for support, exhibition, and consciousness-raising.” On November 20 at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP in DUMBO, the society is hosting an evening of experimental short films and discussions about power relations around the world, held in conjunction with the exhibition “Irresistible Resistance,” which runs through November 27. The lineup consists of Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience, Saintonge’s Seventh Grade, Bodomo’s Boneshaker, James’s savage, and Douze and Nontsikelelo Mutiti’s Pain Revisited. It is all part of “Explorations,” a series of programs examining the creative process from multiple angles.
In an October 2014 twi-ny talk with Yanira Castro, the founder, director, and choreographer of a canary torsi told me in reference to a question about her relationship with the audience, “I want to create a scenario for them and to be in conversation with them and I want them to form the picture, craft their experience. Their presence dynamically changes what is occurring. That is what ‘live’ means for me. It is dynamic because of the people in the room.” We were talking about her piece Court/Garden, but we could have just as well been discussing her current work-in-progress, Performance Portrait: Live. During a November 10-21 BRIClab residency, Castro will be creating life-sized versions of durational videos made during a summer residency at Gibney Dance, in which Julie Wyman filmed company performers Anna Azrieli, Leslie Cuyjet, Peter B. Schmitz, and David Thomson frozen in individual, single gestures as if locked in a direct, mutual gaze with a spectator. There will be two public showings of the resulting interactive multichannel video installation, Performance Portrait: Live (work-in-progress), on November 20 and 21 at 8:00, featuring interaction design by company composer and pianist Stephan Moore, using a network of Kinect 2 sensors, and audience environment by Kathy Couch. Each showing will be followed by a moderated dialogue with the audience and the artists.