Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Learning From Film

I recently watched the film “Heaven’s Gate” and was reminded how much a writer can learn from a film—even a bad one.

I’m sure Michael Cimino didn’t set out to make a bad film and may not consider this as broad a failure as history has judged it. Nonetheless, this 1980 blockbuster has been panned by hordes of critics—both professional and amateur; was a bust at the box office, contributed to the demise of United Artists and virtually destroyed the director/writer’s career.

Few books have had such a calamitous impact on their creators.

Personally I think it could have been a great film. I believe it was Cimino’s intent to make a great film (why aspire to anything less?). It had an ambitious and worthy premise: a historical incident in which wealthy cattle barons set out to slaughter immigrant settlers encroaching on their property, with government giving nod to the intent. The film had a stellar cast, much good dialogue, some beautiful music and poetic cinematography (though there were occasions when smoke and atmospheric effects made it difficult to see what was going on).

The major flaws in the mix were a lack of clarity in some important areas, scenes that contributed nothing to the flow of the work and an exhausting length.

The issue of clarity is the first lesson for the writer. The opening of the film devotes a good 20 minutes to the graduation of Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt from Harvard. It then flashes forward 20 years to Wyoming where the former is a lawman and the latter a drunken cattle rancher who can’t decide which side he’s on. Other than citing a previous relationship between the two men there appears little necessity for the lead in. It could have been handled with a simple bit of dialogue. I suspect Cimino’s intent in this and some other places was to parallel the privileged lives of the wealthy and the insecurity of the poor. If this was his good intention, it failed and served only to confuse most viewers. That was probably also the intent of the epilogue which, again, failed.

If you’re going to say something, say it clearly enough for all to get it. Symbolism is fine provided the symbols can be understood.

And, speaking of saying something, there’s the issue of mixed languages in a work. There’s a scene in this film where the immigrants assemble to decide whether to flee or fight. Apparently Cimino sought to be historically accurate but the lengthy period of babble is more annoying than enlightening. If introducing a foreign tongue, be sure the meaning is clear. Cormac McCarthy is good at this. When he has a passage in Spanish the action generally makes clear the message.

Now we come to scenes. There are several in this film that could have been cut with no loss to the project. For example it’s obvious Cimino loved the scene where characters dance on roller skates. Poetic—yes. But it contributes nothing to the forward movement of the plot. The time spent here could have been used to better advantage expanding on the major characters, who are all too thinly addressed. If you like a scene which does nothing to advance the tale save it for another day.

As to length, a story should only be as long as it takes to tell the tale. Make every word count.

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