On Saturday the 2nd of July 2016, one of New Hollywood’s most important and polarizing figures passed away at the age of 77. Inappropriate though it may sound, it is cruelly fitting that Michael Cimino should be taken from us two days before Independence Day, so vividly did he illustrate American hubris in both his polemic choice of subjects and the unchained grandiloquence of his vision.
To filmgoers with even a rudimentary knowledge of pop culture history, Michael Cimino was a cinematic Icarus; the gifted prodigy who rose to the peak of Oscar glory in just two films only to come crashing down to Earth with a box-office bomb that nearly bankrupted an entire studio. Indeed, it is hard to talk about his career without reducing him to the cliché of the mad visionary artist, cursed by politics and vindicated by history, reclusive and rebellious to the very end.
The thing with clichés, though, is that they’re frequently used as easy substitutes for complex characterizations as means to communicate a larger idea. In Cimino’s case, the image of the tortured egocentric visionary many people have of him is intrinsically linked to the ideas communicated by his films. From the libertarian bromance of Thunderbolt & Lightfoot to the redemptive New Age gobbledygook of The Sunchaser, Cimino’s portrayal of doomed antiheroes espoused ideals of maverick independence and resilience that form the core of American mythology. In his best films – The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate and Year Of The Dragon – he put those ideals on trials by fire, extolling their fundamental virtues without losing sight of their great personal cost.
And indeed, who among American directors of such caliber and prestige could have known that cost better than Michael Cimino? Who better than he embodied the extraordinary strengths and limits of the single-minded individualism inherent to Auteur theory as applied to the American capitalist model? In just three years, Cimino joined the likes of Friedkin, Coppola and Allen in bringing that idea to the pinnacle of industrial glory before almost single-handedly dismantling it. Before Heaven’s Gate was even released to its disastrous first press screening, reports of Cimino’s megalomaniacal behaviour were already becoming the stuff of Hollywood legend: He blew up a horse! He had an entire set dismantled and rebuilt just because a street was six feet too small! He made the crew wait hours before rolling camera because he didn’t like the shape of the clouds in the sky! Gone was the brave and promising Oscar-winner behind The Deer Hunter, replaced in people’s minds by a pretentious, power-drunk Frankenstein with delusions of grandeur.
After a butchered recut, scathing reviews and dismal box-office receipts, studio executives decided that giving directors complete creative control on multimillion dollar-budget productions was no longer a risk worth taking. A decision that would be comforted by the similar failure of Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious musical One From The Heart two years later. The Auteurist revolution behind one of American cinema’s most exciting and innovative decades was over. Though he would make a brief resurgence in critics and filmgoers’ esteem in 1985 with the controversial Chinatown-set thriller Year Of The Dragon, he never truly regained the power and prestige he’d earned in the 1970s. After his epic 1987 adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Sicilian – starring a catastrophically miscast Christophe Lambert as legendary Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano – failed to make a profit, he only directed two more feature-length films in the space of nine years before all but retiring from the public eye. His 3-minute segment for the Cannes Film Festival’s 60th anniversary film To Each His Own Cinema would end up being his final contribution to motion picture arts.
Throughout his career, Cimino attracted as much controversy for the political content of his films as he did for his overall merits as a director. Despite – or perhaps because of – its widely-recognized dramatic potency, The Deer Hunter’s notorious Russian roulette scene came under strong criticism for depicting the Vietcong as crazed savages. This not-unfounded accusation of racism would later return with the release of Year Of The Dragon, which Asian-American advocacy groups protested for its stereotypes, racial slurs and fetishism. In truth, the racism present in these films is more the consequence of Cimino’s pessimistic overall outlook on men in general than it is the expression of any sincere prejudice. That pessimism is, of course, a base assumption under which many thrillers and action films operate; what makes Cimino’s particular brand so interesting is the mixture of indulgence and consciousness with which he transcribes it.
Cimino’s professional trajectory and reputation mirror his characters’ propensity for partially self-inflicted personal wounds consequent to their adherence to cultural paradigms. The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate both examined a group of friends’ different ways of coping with the experience of a betrayed American promise – military and psychological invincibility in the former, freedom and opportunity in the latter. Through the lens of Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the sumptuous landscapes of Pittsburgh and Wyoming become visual embodiments of an idealized Americana polluted by the violence, greed and pain it has inspired. Year Of The Dragon’s Stanley White may triumph over corruption and bureaucracy to get the bad guy, but Cimino’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Oliver Stone) makes a point of emphasizing his bigotry, his alcoholism and his failure as a husband – all of which are implicitly traced back to his involvement in the Vietnam War. Again, founding cultural myths are both critiqued and affirmed: The lone self-reliant rebel who makes no concessions is rarely a happy, well-adjusted person, especially when working in profoundly flawed institutions, but their ideals are still worthy and necessary ones. In life as in art, Michael Cimino illustrated what happens when American individualist fantasies collide with the rest of the world.