Raw Bites: Michael Cimino, One Perfect Thing

My day starts at 5:14 am.

My body’s clock is synced with my six-month-old daughter’s, so I know I have around forty-five minutes before she’s awake and sitting up in her crib babbling. In those forty-five minutes of freedom, I do the usual just awake shuffle: piss, turn on the coffee pot, take out the dog, smoke, take my middle-aged man medicine, pour coffee, and sit down and read.

Typically, I read the news on my phone because once the baby is up, I’ll have to stash all of my devices because the kid is absolutely bugshit for them. So no Facebooking or Twittering while she’s up (Which, by the way, is ALL day. The kid does not nap. Although, she does sleep all night, which happens to be the trade off, and personally, I’d rather have a full night’s sleep than a couple of hours during the day to write and read.), and I’m more or less cut off from the world (It’s really not that bad. I kind of like not having access to traditional and social media during the day. Before you ask, no, we don’t have cable, we stream only and don’t have an antenna. Seriously, it’s a blessing and you should try it sometime).

Anyway, a couple of Sundays back, I’m reading the news, scrolling past all of the horror and buffoonery that’s made our country into a Kurt Vonnegut novel over the last forever and a day (By the way, it’s not that I don’t care what’s happening in our wacky, wacky corner of the world, it’s just that I read about it all night once the baby’s tucked in and by the time Sunday rolls around, my eyes are practically shedding blood from all the sick shit we’re currently—or, more correctly, have always been—embroiled in). Sunday’s are for light news, stuff that doesn’t make me want to pack up the family and bundle us off to Costa Rica. Sunday is meant for celebrity gossip and junk science articles about the latest thing that will kill you or turn your brain into mush. You know, crap that just fills the eyes but that you don’t take all that seriously (like coffee and tea are carcinogens and Benadryl gives you Alzheimer’s), but read about anyway because you need a good laugh to start off the day.

It’s this kind of stuff that I was looking for when I read this headline from the Washington Post:

“Deer Hunter,” “Heaven’s Gate” director Michael Cimino dies

For those of you who believe that cinema just kicked into high gear with the release of Fargo and Pulp Fiction—and I know that’s going to sound a little ridiculous to a lot of you, but there are more than a few people out there who think just that. Or even worse, when the first X-Men flick was released—Michael Cimino was one of those nutty directors from the 70’s who completely changed the way films were made. In Cimino’s case, he was more or less a study in the way not to make movies. You see, he made this flick called Heaven’s Gate and it was the most expensive film ever made (at the time) and then it flopped both critically and financially (Although, in retrospect, Heaven’s Gate just happened to be way ahead of its time visually. You can see its influence over filmmakers such as Refn and Von Tier in virtually every shot). It flopped so badly that it killed the studio that released it.  

 

It’s a hell of a legacy and you would think that such a disaster would have killed his career along with the studio that released Heaven’s Gate. But it didn’t, Cimino went onto make another six films. All of them were just okay, as was his debut film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. What made Cimino great in the eyes of the film world was his second beast of a flick, The Deer Hunter. If you haven’t seen it, you’re a dick and need to be punched in the face. I say this because artists rarely create a perfect product. There’s always some flaw that fucks it up in some way whether it’s a movie or a book or record. But with The Deer Hunter, it was perfect, or as perfect as Hollywood allows a film to be. How perfect was The Deer Hunter, you ask? Well, it was so starkly realistic that my old man had to get up and leave the theater where he was watching it with my mother a quarter of the way through the movie.

My father was a POW during the Korean War. Korea was a brutal little conflict that was essentially the UN vs China (By the way, China won) and it’s often thought of as America’s “forgotten” war (mostly because we lost and lost badly). But, trust me, it wasn’t forgotten in our house. The war, along with my father being a prisoner of the Chinese, completely shaped our lives because of his treatment on and off the battlefield.

Here’s another swift history lesson. In the 50’s, there was this miserable cocksucker named Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was a commie hunter. He went after the movie studios first and then the soldiers who fought in Korea and the European front during WWII. My dad just so happened to be one of those soldiers. My old man came back home in a body cast and was then grilled for months by the FBI while he was recovering trying to find out of if he’d been turned into a commie spy during his eighteen agonizing months of captivity.

The Korean War turned my old man into a paranoid, angry wreck of a human being. Which, in turn, made our family life more than a little contentious.

Anyway, as my mom tells it, they went to The Deer Hunter the week it opened largely because of Robert De Niro. De Niro was the shit back then and my folks knew that if he was involved in it, the flick was bound to be pretty good. So things are going along okay, the old man is watching Mike (De Niro’s character) and his buddies yuck it up and get drunk at their pal Stevie’s wedding. Then they go hunting, get into a few arguments, and then once the day is done, Cimino fast forwards to a battlefront in Vietnam. Mike is a born again hard ass who had been in the jungle for months. His pals Stevie and Nick, not so much, they’re fresh to the front and scared shitless. The three newly reunited pals end being captured and thrown into a waterlogged tiger pit and are forced to play Russian roulette against one another.

My dad didn’t even make it to when De Niro and his pal Nick (By the way, the character of Nick is the role that made Christopher Walken, Christopher Walken, if you know what I’m saying?) square off in a Russian roulette game that allows them to escape. As soon as he saw the tiger pit, he got out of his seat and split so he could go out into the lobby and smoke a half-a-dozen cigarettes. But it wasn’t only my old man who had this kind of reaction during this scene. Even non-Vets were horrified over it (and the later Russian roulette scenes where Mike goes back to Vietnam to find Nick). As far as I’m concerned, that’s some serious power. That’s what art is meant to do. It’s meant to allow people to experience other lives and shake them to their core by what they’ve seen or read or listened to. But it’s beyond rare when it actually happens, and when it does, it changes the world.

Needless to say, The Deer Hunter became a huge hit. It made fifteen million dollars (and this is back when a million was a million), won a mountain of awards, and earned Cimino a blank check for his next flick from United Artists, the aforementioned studio that went belly up for bankrolling Heaven’s Gate.

And that’s, unfortunately, what Cimino is going to be remembered for, his one gigantic fuck up and that’s a shame. Because even though Cimino was seen as an eccentric screw up by the studios and the public, he somehow managed to claw past all of the bullshit that life throws at you and focus just long enough to create a single masterpiece of a film, one perfect thing.

If only all of us could be so lucky.


Keith Rawson is the author of hundreds of short stories, essays, interviews, and articles under both his own name and several pseudonyms. He is a regular contributor to LitReactor, Gamut Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Spinetingler Magazine, and many others. Rawson is the former publisher of Crime Factory Magazine, and co-edited (with Cameron Ashley and Jimmy Callaway) the anthology, Crime Factory: The First Shift (New Pulp Press). His short fiction has been collected in three books, The Chaos We Know, Laughing At Dead Men (Snubnose Press), and the forthcoming, Please Stand By (280 Steps Publishing). He has also published a collection of his poetry and paintings, All Those Hungry Mouths (Beat To A Pulp). He lives in southern Arizona with his wife and daughters.

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