â€¢ The four-hour version of HEAVEN'S GATE was withdrawn last fall after scathing critical reviews, and very few people saw it. Whether the new version, pared down to two and a half hours, is an improvement I therefore cannot say, but it does seem as if some essential connections are missing, and the film as a whole is more disconnected and episodic than it otherwise might have been.
Filmed in western Wyoming and Montana, it is full of stunning visual beauty, and the Great Open Spaces of America, except in the brief indoor scenes, are always with us, and shown to excellent advantage. (One should see the film on the wide 70 mm screen, not the smaller 35 mmâ€"it makes a lot of difference.) It is also very lavishly done: it is apparent at once that this is a Big Production, sparing no expense, though one would scarcely suspect that more than $40 million had gone down the tubes producing it. Everything from costumes to interiors is done with meticulous historical accuracy. The story, based on the wars between landowners and immigrants in the 1890s, is less accurate, but that such incidents occurred is an important and neglected aspect of American history.
The actors (Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Isabel Huppert, et al.) are all top-drawer, but they seem (with good reason) to be mystified by the parts they are called on to play, giving them no clear conception of their roles or how to develop them. This is the fault of the script, which is the Achilles' heel of the entire production. The lines are not only unmemorable but often inane; there is no clear progression of the story line, and the plot development is often fumbling and jerky, so that even while one tries to give the film one's last ounce of understanding and tolerance, one finally gives up in frustration.
Michael Cimino's previous film, The Deer Hunter, had all the virtues that the present film lacks. Each detail fitted beautifully into a whole, which was highly structured and clearly laid out, and the combination of relevant detail with a sense of the whole helped to make Deer Hunter one of the most powerful and gut-wrenching films of the last decade. Since Heaven's Gate conspicuously lacks these qualities, one is tempted to say that writer-director Cimino should go and see The Deer Hunter for guidance. The very least he should do in order to rescue his career is to let someone else write his scripts in the future, if indeed Hollywood permits him to have a future.
â€¢ The French director Louis Malle is among the world's best. All his films develop character in a fascinating way, and the twists of the plot are always plausible yet endlessly surprising to the viewer. His films so integrate character and plot that it would be hard to say which dominates the other. His best-known films in the United States are Pretty Baby and Murmur of the Heart. And now he has made a film in and about America, and like so many European film makers he produces a vignette of American life that seems to elude most native-born American directors. ATLANTIC CITY exemplifies all of Malle's fine directorial qualities, carefully shaped together into a film that is at once dramatic, funny, tragic, and sardonic.
In a new kind of role Burt Lancaster is quite marvelous. With a confidence and authority reminiscent of his entirely different role in Judgment at Nuremberg (which still has my vote for the best American film of the last 20 years), he is totally master of his craft: every nuance, every gesture, every gleam in his eye, everything he doesn't say as well as what he does, contributes mightily to the characterization and exhibits minimal acting for maximum effect. Susan Sarandon is also just right: an opportunistic little chippy with dreams of grandeur but whose lower-class instincts always emerge intact in a crisis.
Even Atlantic City emerges as a character, once splendid, now tacky and run down but trying to revitalize itself as the Las Vegas of the East, bringing with it crime and the Mafia. The characters reflect the city: in one way or another they are all losers, has-beens who try to rise again or would-bes who will never attain any heights; they are all dreamers of impossible dreams, each one different in his or her own quirky way, each one fascinating to watch and analyze. The film might be considered cynical, were it not treated with such rich humor and humanity. No great theme emerges from the film, but it immerses us deeply and richly in life as it is lived and imparts to us the lessons that life itself teaches. "Art teaches us," wrote John Dewey, "not by preaching, but simply by being."
â€¢ Every moment of Paul Verhoeven's new film SPETTERS is filled with fast and varied action, like a novel coming to life before our eyes, and it is worth seeing in spite of numerous implausibilities and a certain chaotic discontinuity arising perhaps from the fact that what we have in the United States is a somewhat censored version. Apparently Europeans can absorb the truth uncensored, but Americans cannot.
Even so, there is a lot of X-rated stuff here: nudity and explicit sex scenes of all kinds. But these scenes are not introduced self-consciously or artily or exploitatively, only as a normal part of the daily life of "liberated" Dutch youth in 1980, and the scenes are intermingled with endless motorcycle races and the exhausting round of daily activities enjoyed (?) by the youth of Holland, 35 years into the postwar era, and quite different from what they were experiencing at the time celebrated in Verhoeven's far more structured film, Soldier of Orange.
A strong sense of restlessness is communicated in the film through constant and often meaningless motion. Among the film's faults, two call for special attention: (1) Almost everyone over the age of 40 is depicted as harsh, insensitive, intolerant, and repressive. But Holland is one of the most tolerant places in the world, and so are its laws, as anyone in the drug culture knows. The age of consent is 14, which hardly bespeaks the condemnation of sexual experimentation in the young on the part of adults such as is repeatedly shown in this film. The scenes of the father beating up his 20-year-old son for going out with a girl and not being home by 10:00 are really quite mad. (2) Among the psychological implausibilities, the most glaring is that the experience of rape becomes a sexual turn-on for the victim. If the writer doesn't know better than that from experience or observation, he should at least read his Freud.
The film is spoken in Dutch with English titles, and as one who learned Dutch before speaking English, I was painfully aware of how god-awful the screen translation is. One hopes that it is not equally bad in other films spoken in languages with which one is not familiar enough to check.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His area of special interest is aesthetics.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".