Monday, February 10, 2014

The death of a form


I finally watched Heaven's Gate on blu-ray. It was a transformative and emotional experience outside of the narrative and meta-narrative of the film. There has been swaths of text and video about the rise and fall of Heaven's Gate as the once greatest bomb in film history and it's role in destroying United Artists as a studio.

This is a set not a town. 

The film announces its intent from the opening scene where a 1980 Oxford is transformed into a 1870 Harvard, replete with a mile of dirt roads and hundred of extras captured beautifully. The scale of the production is enormous in a way that is simply not done any more.

Ostensibly a Western loosely based historical conflicts between large cattle ranches and immigrant homesteaders, Heaven's Gate is a sprawling mess. Mired in incomprehensible accents and unable to find focus in either the violent horses and guns mythology of the west or the character interactions, it shifts tonally in lurches and spurts over the 219 minutes of the director's cut.


Also a set

It also one of the most beautiful films ever captured on negative.

Within the first 30 minutes of the film I was trying to explain to my patient but bored wife why making films this way has become a lost art and why it is important and started to weep.

I explained as best I could that the very act of designing and building a set on this scale simply isn't done. That to create a shot like at the top of this post today would be a dirt road surrounded by green-screens, likely in a studio, and most of the crowd would captured as individuals against green-screen and composited in. It would look fake.

I explained the density and specificity of the atmosphere was not by accident, but carefully designed to layer the image by using different amounts of smoke. The hundreds of extras were choreographed to move within the frame and populate its reality. Everything was done for real, on the location, under the sun and caught on film.


I would pause the film and walk up to our tv just to look at the grain structure. I told her that shots could be captured at 1080p and printed to canvas and one would think they were looking at a pointillist painting.

I explained how many VFX and transfer houses now have scans of negative exposed against black just to capture the grain so they can superimpose it over digital source materal and that grain will now be infinitely repeatable. It will no longer be that every print was unique and every negative. It will all look the same.

And I wept. I wept for an era of film-making that is truly dead, and a form of the art that will become irrelevant within a generation.


Heaven's Gate as a film was irrelevant to what it has come to represent for me, but it is appropriate that it broke my heart.

No comments: