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July 15, 2006

"The Sicilian"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Have many filmmakers had careers as peculiar as Michael Cimino's? Cimino started out with a bang. A degree from Yale ... A successful career making TV commercials ... A move to Hollywood that resulted in script sales and a job directing a Clint Eastwood movie ...

In 1978, Cimino made a Vietnam epic entitled "The Deer Hunter." The film was a genuine triumph for him. Many people found it to be a beauty; they were moved by it; they took its themes as large statements. Journalists and critics debated the film over and over again. It was a sensation; organizations showered it with awards. Amidst all the respectful controversy and the genuine passions, one thing seemed indisputable: A new Major Filmmaker was among us, one who was set to go on to ever greater things. Move aside, Marty. Make room, Francis.

Ever since, though, Cimino has done nothing but stumble. His overblown, cocaine-and-ego-fueled Marxist Western "Heaven's Gate" earned a place in the film-history books as a landmark fiasco. It was a critical disaster, and was so expensive yet unpopular with the public that its failure brought down the studio that produced it. "Heaven's Gate" is even sometimes said to have put the definitive end to America's '70s "personal filmmaking" era. Here's a clip from the film. That's a lot of large-scale, elegiac filmmakin' for the sake of very little in the way of story or character.

Cimino licked his wounds for a few years. When he returned in 1985, it was with an Oliver-Stone-scripted Chinatown cop thriller, "Year of the Dragon," that was clearly intended to establish his bona fides as a filmmaker who could work on schedule and on budget. Yet, although the film did OK with the public and was nothing if not convincingly professional, Cimino himself didn't really bounce back. The mojo was gone. The critics stopped making a case for him. The public stopped caring.

The movie world generally had moved on too, into the post-great-filmmaker era. Cimino -- nothing if not a great filmmaker wannabe -- has since dribbled out a movie every five years or so, to wider and wider yawns. When "Sunchaser" was released in 1996, hardly anyone noticed. Michael Cimino had been swept under the rug. As far as I can tell, Cimino these days spends his time accepting awards from the French -- the French think "Heaven's Gate" is a masterpiece -- and getting his body and face retooled. He hasn't made a film since "Sunchaser."

Perverse creature that I am, my own feelings about Cimino have followed the exact opposite direction. I didn't care for "The Deer Hunter"; it struck me as a bloated, draggy crock. But I've grown very fond of his work since. I'm hardly a fanatic, but watching a Cimino film is something I really look foward to. They're so over the top and full of themselves that I watch them in a state of transfixed and awestruck happiness, much the way I watched "Showgirls." "Heavens Gate" -- well, I never! "Year of the Dragon" -- lord almighty!! "Desperate Hours" -- my oh my!!!

A little while ago, The Wife and I caught up with Cimino's 1987 "The Sicilian," from a Mario Puzo novel about the popular Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano. (The cinephile in me is mortified to admit that I've never watched Francesco Rosi's 1962 classic about the same character, "Salvatore Giuliano." Rosi's film is often described as documentary-like and/or neorealist, and is available on a Criterion disc. $36 for a DVD? Eat me, Criterion.) The film that Cimino made is clearly meant to be experienced both as a sumptuous gangster picture (with a kind of Western-cowboy mythos happenin' at the same time), and as a parable of integrity and celebrity. Salvatore is a hero to his people! Yet what happens when what he has set in motion starts to slip out of his control? Life gets dark and gruesome. Dreams are shattered. Watching the film's story, it's hard not to think of ... the Michael Cimino story.

Quick verdict: Good gosheroonie! 10 out of 10! I wasn't disappointed one bit: I found "The Sicilian" spectacularly unconvincing and deliciously preposterous. It didn't hurt my enjoyment that the film was full of some of the hammiest acting since, well, the very overheated "Desperate Hours." The arm-waving, the shouting, the face-pulling ... As Giuliano, Christopher Lambert makes a nice contrast -- he has all the expressiveness of a male model minus the usual male model's acting flair. "The Sicilian" is a romantic epic that fails completely to sweep you away. Imagine watching a straight-faced "Zorro" spectacular that never once clicks emotionally. I loved it.

What makes Cimino such a special case is the way that he combines a lot of impossible-to-deny filmmaking talent with a straining-at-the-bit case of art-ambition and the emotional/ intellectual sophistication of a hero-worshipping, comic-book-addicted, 8 year-old boy.

With every shot Cimino makes, he's proving to the lords of cinema that he is, by god, a great, pulp-blockbuster-elevated-to-the-status-of-art, '70s-style movie artist. In "The Sicilian," Cimino tries to make every scene in the film as memorable as, say, the famous sequence in "The Godfather" when the baby was baptised while enemies were showily rubbed-out.

Not a one of Cimino's scenes makes much of an impact. Cimino seems completely unaware that the reason that Big Filmmaking Gestures sometimes become memorable is because someone has gone to the trouble of setting them up. Our hearts race while Michael Corleone tries to steel himself to shoot top-cop Sterling Hayden because we've been made to understand how the act will affect Michael's life. If the distant subway sounds that nearly everyone who has watched "The Godfather" remembers are a genuinely great filmmaking gesture -- they seem to rumble right through Michael, and through us too - it isn't because there's something inherently great about distant subway noise. It's because the scene itself is already a scorcher.

"The Sicilian" is completely lacking in the basics of involvement. The interstitial, human-scale material isn't just badly-done, it's absent. So nothing we watch matters. What's bizarre about the film is that none of this gets in the way of Cimino's faith in himself. He carries on carrying on. Underbudgeted, badly-dubbed, miscast, horrendously acted, and a stranger to the term "basic believability," the film is nonetheless one florid, showy, impassioned directorial showpiece after another.

My own interpretation of Cimino's failing is this: Cimino comes at filmmaking like a graphic designer. To him, it's all a matter of shapes, lighting, angles, moments, gestures, motion, and cutting. Put all that from-the-outside-in stuff in its proper place, and the result has gotta be a terrific movie, right? Right?

But there's more, I think. Part of what fascinates me is the way that Cimino enacts a specific idea of great filmmaking. He knows just what it is to be a great filmmaker. Passion? Check. Vision? Check. Themes? Check. And then he puts it out there -- and he does so skillfully and with conviction. His idea of what it is to be a great filmmaker isn't even a bad one; it's one that was commonplace in the sophisticated filmworld back in the '60s and '70s. Yet something's unquestionably missing from his work nonetheless. What is it?

Practically speaking, I'd venture this: Cimino fails to grasp the fact that, where dramatic and narrative material is concerned, it's more important to bring the situations, the characters, and the actors to life than it is to dress and light them well, or to decorate them with Big Themes. I'll also venture that Cimino is missing certain personal qualities: some basic shrewdness; a sense of perspective; and maybe also the ability to let go of the "greatness" obsession and simply attend to the job at hand. (I wrote about the perils of "greatness" here.)

In his own mind, Cimino inhabits the same empyrean as Visconti, Bertolucci, and Coppola. He never seems driven by the material; what drives him seems to be nothing more than his vision of himself. What an ego! Not a surprise that Cimino was once said to be preparing a verson of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." How I wish he'd had a chance to make that movie! By the way, anyone who hasn't treated him/herself to King Vidor's 1949 version of "The Fountainhead" is missing one of film history's most delicious absurdities. Watching "The Sicilian," about all you genuinely register are Cimino's aspirations and pretentions. Yet at the same time, and on the most mundane level, you also experience the film as an overripe TV miniseries that for some reason asks to be taken as Tolstoy yet that struggles with the basics of coherence and audience identification.

All that said, and while I'm having a good time chuckling at Cimino's expense, I wouldn't want anyone to think that my enjoyment of Cimino's films is entirely campy or condescending. He really is talented, and he really does work up a head of real creative steam. I really did watch "The Sicilian" all the way through -- I can't deny this fact -- and I really did have a good time doing so. I wasn't just campily transfixed; I was also genuinely happy. You aren't going to catch me among the crowds who argue that such mistakes should never be made, or who will interact with them only via condescension and irony --

The usual filmchat thing to do at a moment like this is to veer into one particular, well-worn argument: "The willingness to be carried away by your delusions, to say 'damn it all and full speed ahead,' to throw off the censoring creature who tut-tuts over your shoulder, and to charge heedlessly into the unknown is basic to the arts. Better to enjoy the ride and get off on the daring than to wince, or to carry on as though such a mishap should never have occurred. 'Mishap'? Did I say 'mishap'? Shame on me. I'll take the sincere, the headstrong, and the absurd over the knowing, the smart, and the self-ironic any day. Lords of cinema: Bring me more such ludicrously-earnest mishaps!"

In fact, 90% of the time I'm happy to buy and use the above argument; I'd be curious to learn if you buy it too. But in the particular case of Michael Cimino I'm not so sure ... He's the exception to what's generally a very useful rule. He's so out-there embarassing that I'd personally have a terrible time making him the poster boy for anything I really care about. (That includes passion and vision.) He's so pretentiously full of himself, he talks and presents himself in such overlofty ways, his films are so pushily All About Michael that it isn't surprising to learn that he's a short man who wears cowboy boots and goes in for a lot of plastic surgery. OK, that's a cheap shot. But, somehow, it feels right.

It seems clear that Cimino's brain inhabits a delusional world inhabited only by his own fantasies and projections. In the case of someone like an Ed Wood, that combo of determination, conviction, and delusion can be fun. Ed Wood was so bad a filmmaker and he operated on such a tiny scale that he's easy to adopt as a kind of art mascot. It's so sweet that he had everything an artist needs but talent! Cimino, a similar mix of delusions, is a more ponderous, and harder-to-feel-fond-of case. The presence of actual talent muddies the waters still further.

Finally I have no idea whatsoever what to make of the Cimino phenomenon. There it is, I guess. And, in some nutty way, I'm grateful for it.

Surfing around, I notice that Gore Vidal did a polish on the script of "The Sicilian"; that Cimino dreams of making a film of Malraux's "Man's Fate"; and that he has written a novel. I wonder what that's like!

Here's a good 2002 profile of Cimino by Nancy Griffin. Here's another visit with him. Despite my enthusiasm for Cimino's work, I haven't yet watched his 1996 movie "Sunchaser." I wonder if it will delight and puzzle me as much as "The Sicilian" did. I'm looking forward to finding out.

How have you responded to the Cimino phenomenon? Can you think of another filmmaker whose career has been quite as bizarre? And what do you suppose it's like to be Michael Cimino?



posted by Michael at July 15, 2006


Michael Cimino's The Fountainhead? Oh my, I think I have a new addition to my Greatest Unmade Masterpieces list...

I didn't particularly care for The Deer Hunter either.

Posted by: A. Horbal on July 15, 2006 3:20 PM

It sounds just too good, doesn't it? Where's the mogul-producer with the guts to take the chance?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2006 3:33 PM

As far as counterculture movies in the 70's, I think Richard Sarafian might rate right up there with Cimino in terms of bizarre. Vanishing Point had the best ever mad highway chase scenes, good cinematography (for the era), but lousy characterization, unless you count the Dean Jagger role.

My own personal Sarafian film favorites are The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and Man In The Wilderness.

His movies are hot and cold - good stuff intermingled with crap, like Sunburn. Talk about confusing sub-plots and bad characters.

Of course, offbeat westerns are always a hit for me; Cat Ballou, Once Upon a Time In the West, and There Was a Crooked Man are among some of my picks for high watchability.

Hey, I need to get my list started to serenade ol' Whisky Prajer!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 15, 2006 10:34 PM

I was never a fan of Cimino. I thought Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was moronic. I didn't care for the Deer Hunter, though the final scene is quite moving.

I think George Lucas compares well with Cimino. Lucas has-or had-some film sense but is largely tone deaf to the subtleties of dialogue and acting. THX 1138 had some clever ideas and striking images and didn't overstay it's welcome. Lucas's best films are those in which he was not the sole writer/director. He didn't write American Grafitti, and The Empire Strikes back was co-written by Larry Kasdan and directed by Irving Kershner.

Then Lucas ran off the rails, seemingly consumed by his belief in all tha Joseph Campbell horseshit about the hero's journey. Lucas seems to believe his success validates everything he does. He seems to think he's fulfilling his special destiny by continually making the same film on an ever more elephantine scale. But there must be part of his mind that still has some objectivity about the vacuousnes of what he's doing, so he keeps talking about how one day he's going to direct some uncommercial art movies. He's conned himself into believing the directorial doubletalk written by publicists that filmmakers routinely dish out for public consumption but usually know better than to take seriously.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on July 16, 2006 3:17 AM

For a look at Cimino and the Heaven's Gate situation (and a ton of other interesting movie stuff) check out the documetary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.

Posted by: KaneCitizen on July 16, 2006 9:26 AM

May I claim some degree of expertise on the subject of Fountainhead? After all, I've seen the film ... well, I've lost count, but it's probably more than 10 times. It has such staying power for me because, to be honest, I don't really watch it anymore so much as watch the reactions of my friends who are seeing it for the first time -- reactions of incredulity and hilarity. Darn; it's been months since I've seen it last. Literally months. It's about time I saw it again. Y'all should too.

Posted by: Fredosphere on July 16, 2006 9:22 PM

"The Deer Hunter" - The film was "controversial" when first released, at least among movie critics, because it valorized Vietnam vets and their awful experiences in Indochina. Funny to think how very moderated patriotism was perceived as nationalistic in the late 70s. How times have changed.

Steven Bach's book "Final Cut" about the making of "Heaven's Gate" is a very entertaining account of the dissolution of United Artists. Bach was one of the executives who green-lighted the film. Recommended for Hollywood buffs.

Posted by: jult52 on July 17, 2006 8:16 AM

Aren't there some GOOD directors out there whose movies you could watch and review? Your delight in incompetence and failure fully explains your inability to comprehend The Fountainhead.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on July 17, 2006 9:31 AM

I like his early film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT a lot. It's one of my favorite Eastwood pictures--Jeff Bridges seems to bring out something more relaxed and affable in him.

A little of the later Cimino goes a long way for me. He makes spectacular use of Cinemascope-wide images, but the dialogue and acting and "ideas"--whew. I think he missed his era. He might have been a great silent director.

Posted by: Steve on July 17, 2006 1:25 PM

Dunno what it would be like to be Michael Cimino, but these kind of elegant, thoughtful, well written little essays are why I tune into read Michael Blowhard.

Posted by: MQ on July 19, 2006 6:31 PM

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