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When titans fall

Remembering Michael Cimino and Abbas Kiarostami, the two greats of world cinema

I was just getting used to the painful reality of childhood cinematic icons shuffling off their mortal coil at regular intervals when the double whammy happened. Even accounting for age and ill-health, it is always a shock when an icon passes. And when two do within days of each other, the shock is compounded.

To me, Michael Cimino was the tragic hero of Hollywood. After being awed like everybody else by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I looked up Douglas Trumbull, the film’s special effects supervisor, and discovered that he had directed a sci-fi film called Silent Running (1972). It is in perusing the credits of Silent Running, that I mentally clocked the screenwriter’s name—a certain Mike Cimino. The name cropped up again as the writer of Magnum Force (1973), the second in the Dirty Harry series. Cimino’s directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) was a pleasant-enough heist film, but his next film, his masterwork as the critics are fond of saying, The Deer Hunter (1978), is a jaw-dropping piece of work, chronicling the impact of the Vietnam war on ordinary Americans.

I must pause here and add for the sake of trivia fiends that the famous Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter is echoed in John Woo’s Vietnam saga Bullet in the Head (1990). I wasn’t part of the chorus that hated every minute of Cimino’s infamous big-budget flop western, Heaven’s Gate (1980), simply because I fell in love with Vilmos Zsigmond’s ravishing cinematography that shone through, even on the studio-butchered edit that I watched on VHS. Cinema being the vast universe it is, I soon moved on to other discoveries, until I read Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. This coincided with the critical reappraisal of the film that built up to a crescendo, culminating with the 2012 release of a 216-minute director’s cut at the Venice Film Festival. Sadly, I couldn’t watch it in a cinema in all its majesty, but Criterion came to the rescue with a pristine Blu-ray, “letting viewers today see Cimino’s potent original vision”, as the blurb on the packaging correctly notes.

Cimino never really recovered from the initial Heaven’s Gate debacle, and he made a few serviceable but unmemorable features until his death. Heaven’s Gate also became an unfortunate shorthand for ambitious films. Kevin Costner-starrers Dances with Wolves (1990) and Waterworld (1995) were both dubbed ‘Kevin’s Gate’, despite being profitable at the box office.

And so to the other master who passed along with Cimino, Abbas Kiarostami. I could wax eloquent about his Iranian masterworks, but I’d rather look at his two non-Iranian films, made in his waning years. Both Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) are of a piece, in that on the surface they are about relationships, but they are not.

These are playful works by a titan in full command of his cinematic language, which keeps you second-guessing about the nature of truth and reality. Connoisseurs of cinema will sorely miss both titans.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 10:03:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/When-titans-fall/article14483372.ece

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