Back in August 2012, when we first installed our 70mm projectors at the Ritz, I had a fantasy that I would one day have an opportunity to program one of Michael Cimino's underrated masterworks for the Austin audience. Now, the powers that be are letting me show not one but two earth-shattering masterpieces by the New Hollywood wunderkind: HEAVEN'S GATE (the new DCP restoration) and YEAR OF THE DRAGON presented in 70mm (my personal print!) No words can express how grateful I am to show these two films!
Michael Cimino is best known in connection with his auspicious, Academy Award-winning feature THE DEER HUNTER (1978), for which he won Best Director and Best Picture at the '79 ceremony. Following this Vietnam War epic, Cimino was allowed carte blanche to make another masterpiece, wherever and with whomever he chose. Under immense pressure and scrutiny by his colleagues and the Hollywood trade magazines, Cimino after much consideration partnered with United Artists to produce a script that was originally titled THE JOHNSON COUNTY WARS, but which eventually became the film HEAVEN'S GATE.
The long and short of HEAVEN'S GATE is that it was the 40 million dollar prestige picture that sunk its studio. HEAVEN'S GATE went over budget, was troubled with rumors of on-set drama in the press, and was ravaged by the New York City film critics upon its initial release. In its time, HEAVEN'S GATE was a disaster, but more than thirty years later it is seen as a misunderstood masterpiece, a chronicle of a little-known or talked about section of American history by way of an anti-Western genre approach. Its sheer scope, its performances, its everything is a remarkable achievement in modern cinematic storytelling. For the full story on HEAVEN'S GATE and its history from start-to-finish, check out former United Artist executive Steven Bach's incredible book FINAL CUT: DREAMS & DISASTER IN THE MAKING OF HEAVEN'S GATE here.
After HEAVEN'S GATE, Cimino was nearly blacklisted in Hollywood. His next project came from Dino De Laurentiis, an adaptation of a crime novel by Robert Daley, with a script co-written with Oliver Stone. A film that nobody wanted to make -- or that some were too scared to make. The film was YEAR OF THE DRAGON.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON is a look into the underbelly of organized crime in New York City. Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is the one honest cop in a city just corrupt enough to function. White is tasked with the Chinatown beat and with investigating the influence and operations of Chinese Triads in the area. A veteran of the Vietnam War, White carries with him the frustration about a war fought without reason and the prejudice of a man whose friends have died at the hands of cultural others. White is a racist and sexist, but in spite of these glaring personal flaws, he is a man of integrity determined to do his job right or not at all. Unfortunately, he gets in too deep and his life outside of work starts to fall apart -- disappear, even. As his supervisor tells him in one scene, "You know what your problem is, Stanley? You care too much" He responds, "How can anyone care too much?" This line exchange perfectly sums up YEAR OF THE DRAGON.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON, too, was criticized upon its initial release. Not so much by film critics, per se, but rather by Asian American and Chinese American rights advocacy associations, which saw the film as an inaccurate, stereotyped, and racist representation of themselves. Not all press is good press, it turns out. The outcry against YEAR OF THE DRAGON was so strong that it failed to perform at the domestic box office.
For me, YEAR OF THE DRAGON never received its due -- even less so than HEAVEN'S GATE. Although the character of Stanley White is racist and sexist, he is a human character with flaws -- and, most importantly, a character. He may be all of the above, but the film is anything but. It is almost as if the audience of the time conflated this character's personality with the director or the film in its entirety. The film is about exactly the opposite. Film critic F.X. Feeney wrote poetically and seriously about the film in an issue of Z Magazine: "To go the distance with this movie is to be put in touch with reservoirs of feeling that defy easy analysis but define America in all its democratic genius and vicious, illustrious, fractious, imperial reality."
HEAVEN'S GATE and YEAR OF THE DRAGON are two wildly underrated films by a director who is a true champion of his craft. These films deserve to be seen, reevaluated, and taken on their own terms in spite of their original theatrical debuts. Some of the greatest films ever made were first spurned by audiences.
Come see HEAVEN'S GATE and YEAR OF THE DRAGON this weekend at the Ritz -- we have two afternoon shows of YEAR OF THE DRAGON on 04/27 and 04/28 and one late afternoon / early evening show of HEAVEN'S GATE on 04/28. Tickets for both HEAVEN'S GATE & YEAR OF THE DRAGON are available now!