Michael Cimino, a chaotic author

In the prologue of cimino, the new biography of Michael Cimino by Charles Elton, the author describes stopping at his subject’s mansion in the Hollywood Hills, knowing full well that the director would not be home. Elton showed up on the mansion’s doorstep in 2018, a year and a half after the director died at the age of 77 from undisclosed causes. He was there to sift through the artifacts of a career that changed the course of American film history even if it also, to some extent, got lost on it.

The idea of ​​a biographer adrift in a Xanadu cluttered with garlands of rosebuds is as old as Citizen Kane, and the ghost of Orson Welles – the author making masterpieces in his protean image – haunts the memory of Cimino’s own life in indirect but suggestive ways. The legendary “final cut” privilege bestowed on Welles on his debut doubled as the title of Steven Bach’s best-selling account of Cimino’s disastrous 1980 western production. The Gate of Paradisea film as synonymous with the idea of ​​top-down directional control as Kanealthough this is a cautionary tale rather than an indicator.

As a revisionist western examining the raw, remorseless violence of a country’s capitalist system, The Gate of Paradise remains powerful and provocative, its flaws subsumed in masterful painterly beauty. But it’s also a case study at the difficult intersection of auteur exceptionalism and blockbuster bloat. The film’s signature sequence, featuring hundreds of costumed extras partying on roller skaters around a wooden ice rink with the vigorous accompaniment of a bluegrass band, was indelible enough for James Cameron to diverted to Titanic; his excess also serves, subconsciously, as an emblem of Cimino’s debauchery on set. Caught up in their own circular reverie, players play endlessly, while barely out of frame an untold corporate fortune burns.

“There was no chaos”, writes Bach in final cut on the manufacture of The Gate of Paradise. “There was its opposite…a quiet, determined, relentless pursuit of the perfect.” What Bach’s book leaves unexplored is the dramatic idea that Cimino’s on-set perfectionism (and its ultimately chaotic consequences) existed as a counterpoint to the impulsive, messy, maddening ways in which it existed in the world – tendencies over which he both did and did not exercise any control.

Elton’s biographical method is mostly muckraking, and he’s good at it. cimino isn’t written from the perspective of a sidekick or a devil’s advocate (or even, really, a movie buff); it is sprawling and granular, structured around recorded testimonies of an artist who, as he grew older, did his best to live a secretive and private life. “I googled myself once,” Cimino told his friend, novelist FX Feeney. “I don’t know most of the people I’ve been.”

Bbefore Kane-like the isolation of his later years, Cimino had always been good for a quote, especially about himself. “It’s hard to lift pride with humility,” he observed in 1978 when accepting the Oscar for best director, for The deer hunter (1978), the hyperbolic and hugely problematic Vietnam War flick, which instantly put the former hired screenwriter on the same playing field as movie brats – Coppola, De Palma, etc. Any discussion of Hollywood in the 1970s necessarily includes massive director egos writing checks that their backers cashed, but Cimino’s iconoclasm set him apart even from the crowd.

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