Michael Cimino - Director

Nationality: American. Born: New York, 1940. Education: Yale University, M.F.A. in painting, 1963. Career: Moved to New York, 1963; studied acting and ballet, directed documentaries, industrial films, and TV commercials, 1963–71; moved to Hollywood, worked as scriptwriter, 1971; directed first film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot , 1974. Awards: Oscar for Best Director, and Best Director Award, Directors Guild, for The Deer Hunter , 1979.

Films as Director:


Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (+ sc)


The Deer Hunter (+ co-sc, co-pr)


Heaven's Gate (+ sc)


Year of the Dragon (co-sc)


The Sicilian (+ co-pr)


Santa Anna Winds


Desperate Hours (+ pr)


The Sunchaser (+ pr)


The Dreaming Place

Other Films:


Silent Running (Trumbull) (co-sc)


Magnum Force (Post) (co-sc)


By CIMINO: articles—

"Stalking the Deer Hunter: An Interview with Michael Cimino," with M. Carducci, in Millimeter (New York), March 1978.

Interview with Herb Lightman, in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), November 1980.

Interview with B. Krohn, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1982.

Interview with Jean Narboni, and others, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1985.

" L'année du dragon : un film ambigu," an interview with G. Camy and C. Vivian, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), December 1985-January 1986.

Interview with Iannis Katsahnias, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 401, November 1987.

"Frame and Fortune," an interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 27 February 1991.

Interview with John Pym, in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 60, no. 1, Winter 1990–1991.

Interview with Serge Toubiana, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1996.

Interview with M. Ciment and L. Vachaud, in Positif (Paris), July/August 1996.

"Michael Cimino: On Working with Maurice Jarre," in Soundtrack (Mechelen), vol. 15, no. 60, December 1996.

On CIMINO: books—

Bach, Steven, The Final Cut: Dream and Disaster in the Making of "Heaven's Gate, " New York, 1985.

Bliss, Michael, Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1985.

Wood, Robin, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan , New York, 1986.

Adair, Gilbert, Hollywood's Vietnam , London, 1989.

On CIMINO: articles—

Valley, J., "Michael Cimino's Battle to Make a Great Movie," in Esquire (New York), 2 January 1979.

Harmetz, A., "Oscar-winning Deer Hunter Is under Attack as Racist Film," in New York Times , 26 April 1979.

" Heaven's Gate Issue" of American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), November 1980.

Michael Cimino
Michael Cimino

" Deer Hunter Section" of Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1983.

Greene, N., "Coppola, Cimino: The Operatics of History," in Film Quarterly (Los Angeles), Winter 1984–85.

Films and Filming (London), February 1988.

Pym, J., "Michael Cimino," in Sight and Sound , vol. 60, no. 1, 1990/91.

Burke, F., "Reading Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter : Interpretation as Melting Pot," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 20, no. 3, 1992.

Nery, Robert, "How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too," in Filmnews , vol. 22, no. 11, December-January 1992–1993.

McCarthy, Todd, "Cimino's Sunchaser : When Worlds Collide," in Variety (New York), 27 May 1996.

Crespi, Alberto, and Federico Nazzaro, in Cineforum (Bergamo), November 1996.

* * *

Erratic as his achievement has been, Michael Cimino is, with Martin Scorsese, one of the two most important filmmakers to have emerged in the Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. His reputation must rest, so far, essentially on two enormously ambitious and controversial films, The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate , and his stature will only receive due recognition when the latter is re-released (in its "original," three-and-one-half-hour version) and revalued. One can confidently prophesy that it will come as a major revelation.

In one respect, Scorsese and Cimino appear opposites of each other. Scorsese (prior, at least, to The Last Temptation of Christ ) characteristically starts from a small, precise, concrete subject and radically explores it until it reveals strains, tensions, and contradictions central to our culture; Cimino begins with a vague and grandiose "vision" and proceeds to map in its salient features and attempts to render it concrete by developing its detail. That Scorsese's method is by far the more conducive to assured artistic success is obvious, and Cimino has yet to produce work as secure in its aim and tone as Raging Bull or King of Comedy. We may start with Heaven's Gate and its critical reception: the peak of Cimino's achievement to date (it remains, for me, the greatest Hollywood film of the past fifteen years), it was almost universally savaged by the American press. The pervasive complaint was that Cimino "can't tell a story," despite the fact that he had already managed to do so very successfully, as the screenwriter of Silent Running and the director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ; that he might wish to attempt something rather different was not considered as a possibility. Much critical and theoretical work has now been done attacking the overwhelming dominance in Hollywood cinema of the rules of classical narrative, centred on individual psychology and scene-by-scene causality: the dominance, to adopt Barthesian terminology, of the proairetic and hermeneutic codes. These form the basis of the kind of cinema to which Hollywood has so long accustomed us, but there is no reason why custom should be institutionalized as an unchallengeable and absolute system of construction, permitting no divergence.

The structure of Heaven's Gate is quite other, the best analogy being with architecture. Each scene or segment can be viewed as a building block enacting (though not in any obviously didactic or explicit way) a "history lesson" in the Brechtian sense of the term. Within obvious limits (the film does have a discernible narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end in that order), these blocks relate to each other freely across the entire film , rather than forming a causal a, b, c . . . progression; they gradually add up to a complex structure of thematic interrelatedness. It is significant that when Cimino, after the disastrous North American premières, himself edited a two-and-one-half-hour version for general release, he produced not just a shorter version but a different film: not only does he use perceptibly different takes of certain shots, but whole narrative segments are transposed to different parts of the film, and one brief incident is included which he cut from the original version. This also explains why the film, in whatever version, always appears unfinished: the addition, removal, or transposition of the "blocks" could be an interminable process, the structure (freed from the strictures of narrative causality) being logically incompletable (there was once, according to Steven Bach, a five-and-one-half-hour version). It is also significant that one of the film's finest set-pieces, the magnificent roller-skating sequence, has no narrative necessity whatever, neither developing character nor furthering the plot, though it is crucial to the film's "grand design." There are no precedents in Hollywood cinema for this type of formal strategy; to find them, one must go further afield, to the Kurosawa of High and Low and Ikiru , or to the Pasolini of Medea.

Another initial critical objection was to the film's "Marxist content." By denying the viewer the traditional narrative pleasures of causality and close identification, Cimino transfers attention from individuals to movements, and the film's overall movement is toward the destruction of a genuinely multi-cultural, non-sexist, and potentially socialist America by the capitalist greed for wealth and power. In view of this, it is ironic that The Deer Hunter has been widely perceived as a right-wing movie. In fact, the two films are generally consistent. More intuitive than theoretical, more emotional than rational, Cimino does not have a completely consistent ideological position which the films dramatize: they seem, on the contrary, often ideologically incoherent, insufficiently thought (particularly the case with Year of the Dragon , which disintegrates under the strain of its own internal contradictions). Though less formally radical than Heaven's Gate, The Deer Hunter is also characterized by great architectural strength. It is composed of five "blocks," two set in Vietnam alternating with three set in Clairton, Pennsylvania; in both sets, each block is substantially shorter than its predecessor, enacting on the formal level the theme of "dwindling" on which the action of the film is constructed. The controversial ending, in which the survivors sing "God Bless America," is neither affirmative (i.e., right wing) nor ironic (i.e., leftist): the singing is characterized by an extreme tentativeness, a failure of confidence in both an available "America" that might be blessed or a God to bless it. As in Heaven's Gate (and the point relates back interestingly to the work of John Ford and the whole complex American tradition for which it speaks), the "America" that might be affirmed, represented by social outsiders (in Cimino's case immigrant ethnic groups), is felt to be irredeemably lost, overwhelmed by the Nixonite/Reaganite America of corporate capitalism.

Cimino's career since Heaven's Gate has been as disappointing as Scorsese's since King of Comedy. There is perhaps a common cause: the sheer difficulty of setting up intelligent, personal, original, or challenging work in the era of endless mindless sequels and "packages," in a Hollywood dominated by precisely the kind of capitalist concern that Heaven's Gate assaults, more concerned with "business" than with cinema. In Cimino's case there is a more specific cause: the general distrust generated by the now almost proverbial financial catastrophe of Heaven's Gate. For all that, Year of the Dragon and The Sicilian , though neither can be counted an artistic success, seem far more interesting than The Color of Money or The Last Temptation of Christ. The former contains scenes of stunning brilliance and virtuosity, but is centrally flawed by its inability to construct a coherent attitude toward its protagonist (Mickey Rourke). The film's three most sympathetic characters—his young Chinese assistant, his wife, his mistress—are all given speeches denouncing him; he is indirectly responsible for the deaths of the first two and the gang-rape of the third. Yet Cimino also clearly wishes to affirm the character, an impulse culminating in a conclusion which even Mahler cannot save. The Sicilian , like Heaven's Gate , is an epic that precludes identification: with the possible exception of Giuliano's fiancée (a relatively minor and somewhat stereotypical role), every position dramatized in the film (including that of the hero) is shown to be severely compromised and untenable. Unlike Heaven's Gate , however, the detail of the film only intermittently comes alive, and then only in the supporting roles (Joss Ackland, John Turturro). Cimino seems seriously hampered by the doubtless mandatory fidelity to Mario Puzo's elephantine and cliché-ridden novel, and by the casting of Christopher Lambert, who totally lacks the charisma that alone would make Giuliano plausible. More importantly, perhaps, Cimino has shown himself in all his previous films intensely concerned with "America" (the ideological image more than the appalling reality), and relates rather distantly to a foreign environment.

Desperate Hours , a remake of William Wyler's 1955 thriller, was a surprisingly modest project for one of Hollywood's great overreachers, but one that offered the potential of grappling with American values at their core. Desperate Hours must be accounted partially unsatisfactory, however, and its commercial failure, with that of The Sicilian, has made Cimino's future in Hollywood increasingly problematic. It is, however, an enormously more interesting and challenging film than the original version. Wyler's film was "safe" in every way: his usual thoroughly sound, if thoroughly uninspired, direction, and an eminently respectable and sensible bourgeois entertainment. Cimino's film is neither safe nor sensible. It is characterized by an all-pervasive nervous tension, a relentless edginess expressed by all the characters and communicated strongly to the audience. The value and stability of bourgeois family life (a "given" in Wyler) are no longer guaranteed; the parents are separated, and can scarcely address a sentence to each other without an eruption; the children are disturbed and potentially rebellious. The corollary of this is that the gang who take over the household are no longer automatically invalidated: dangerous and vicious (with Mickey Rourke's leader prone to psychotic explosions at the slightest provocation), they nonetheless embody the justifiable revolt of the underprivileged in a society riddled with class tensions. Like Rourke's character, the film is jagged, unpredictable, incomplete. Character motivations are often unclear (Lindsay Krouse's role suffered from severe cuts), opaque, and eccentric, yet all the characters have vivid life, a spontaneity of action and reaction, beside which the conventional figures of Wyler's film seem pallid. As usual, Cimino's crime (in terms of commercial success) is to deny the audience any feeling of comfort, stability, or satisfaction; that is also what makes his films so fascinating.

There is no other filmmaker of whom my own view is quite so completely at odds with the generally accepted one. Heaven's Gate , above all, stands up magnificently to the test of time and repeated viewings; I have used it in film classes every year, and students greet it invariably as a revelation. Yet "accepted opinion," once established, is notoriously difficult to erode.

—Robin Wood

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