Michael Cimino, director of the acclaimed “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and the panned and financially ruinous “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), died today at age 77. I consider the former film slightly overrated (except for the pre-Vietnam part) and the latter underrated. But in both cases, I left the theater with the strong feeling that I had seen something, a sense I rarely got the time and get even less now.
“The Deer Hunter” is being talked about again after all these years. It is seen as a vehicle for understanding the political success of Donald Trump.
The New York Times today began a piece about Trump’s appeal in the “rust belt” as follows:
This faded mining town (Greensburg, Pennsylvania) east of Pittsburgh seems right out of “The Deer Hunter,” one of many blue-collar, gun-loving communities that dot western Pennsylvania. For Donald J. Trump, such largely white, working-class towns are crucial to his hopes in the presidential campaign — and that’s one reason he campaigned in this region on Tuesday.
Leon Wieseltier connects the dots. He writes:
As I watched the extraordinary first hour of the film — the steel mill and its fiery floor; the homely tavern with its clinking beer bottles and its crooning jukebox; the VFW hall festooned for a wedding with a banner that proclaimed “serving God and country”; the Russian Orthodox church, its onion domes reaching stubbornly for the heavens past a bleak industrial sky; the hunting party in the Allegheny Mountains, in which a crude, even revolting masculinity somehow collides with the sublime — the elegiac tale suddenly acquired a sharp political point.
The film is the great cinematic poem to the world of what we have come to call, as a consequence of the current presidential campaign, “the white working class.” “The whole thing,” Christopher Walken says lovingly about his Pennsylvania town on the night before he and his friends are to deploy to Vietnam. “It’s right here.”
The world of these people, “the whole thing,” has been shattered and lost. The economic foundations of their way of life were destroyed by the unforgiving logic of globalization, and then by the recession and its scandalously uneven recovery. The blandishments of the digital economy passed them by.
Their current rates of alcoholism, life expectancy and suicide are now notorious. But only a little while ago, those measures of human breakdown and social collapse were not widely known.
Since much of the white working class lives in states with large rewards in electoral votes, it had been the national custom to pause and remark upon their misery only every four years; and in the years between general elections, when the course of American history, or rather the interest of American politicians, did not run through Ohio and Pennsylvania, they had generally been met with indifference and even contempt. . . .
Republicans have been indifferent to them because Republicans revere winners and they are losers. Democrats have been indifferent to them because they are culturally embarrassing (and because many Democrats, too, have had little time for losers).
Now they finally command the attention of the country — they have been discovered — which is itself a victory for fairness in America; but a large portion of them have gained this recognition by debasing American politics with a desperate preference for a strongman. It is one of the lowest ironies of this low time.
Like Wieseltier, Cimino wasn’t enamored with “this time.” But in a 2015 interview, his first since 2002, Cimino was troubled by Hillary Clinton (“I feel like I’m talking to Hillary Clinton talking about Benghazi; all you get is bullshit”), not Donald Trump, who wasn’t in the political picture yet. His choice for president was his friend Clint Eastwood.
Cimino also talked about “American Sniper” (a great film), “deflategate” (a non-scandal), transgenderism (he denied rumors that he’s “transitioning” and called them “personal assassination”), Jane Fonda (not a fan), and of course his two big movies.
In another interview, Cimino said: ““Hollywood has always been crazy. It’s controlled anarchy. But how can you loathe something that has given you so much?”
Upon learning of Cimino’s death, writer, producer and director Christopher McQuarrie, tweeted: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter and yes … Heaven’s Gate. Michael Cimino. May the rest of us do half as well.”