Easy Rider. Five Easy Pieces. The Last Picture Show. The Godfather. Badlands. Mean Streets. Serpico. The Parallax View. These are just some of the most iconic and seminal works of the era of what is known as New American Cinema, a period roughly spanning the late 1960s through to 1980 when ambitious, auteur-driven cinema found a thrilling niche within the Hollywood firmament.
Perhaps the filmmaker that best embodies the spirit of this movement is Michael Cimino, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 77. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) has entered popular folklore as the so-called “grand folly” that brought the curtain down on this era, but it is Cimino’s earlier, intense Oscar winner, The Deer Hunter (1978), that exemplifies the high-minded merits of New American Cinema at its best.
The Deer Hunter is a work of staggering scope and ambition: an epic treatise on the malignancy running through American civilian and political life in the 1970s (a common theme of New American Cinema) – from American military involvement in Vietnam, to its impact on the homefront where the psyche of its veterans marked the final casualties of that war.
The Deer Hunter’s first calling-card is its prodigious running time. Clocking in at an estimable 182 minutes, it was as if in its very density Cimino was setting a mandate for the work’s profundity. Although long films are nothing new to the film world – the film was preceded by The Godfather and its first sequel, not to mention Tarkovsky’s doctrine of “Sculpting in Time” – The Deer Hunter’s temporal posturing was markedly different from what came before. It was more a statement of colossal pitch and endurance – the staggering cut from the exhausting, opening, hour-long charting of Steven and Angela’s Pennsylvanian wedding right into the mire of combat in Vietnam approximates the shock and sensory trauma that the three key male protagonists undergo.
Embracing the seriousness of The Deer Hunter is key to appreciating Cimino’s craft. As well as the epic running time, it’s a film rife with portentous symbolism. If it’s not the doom-laden spilling of the bride’s vessel of wine, or Robert De Niro’s Mike pseudo-pontificating about “This is This”, or the Russian Roulette games, then it’s the hugely metaphoric deer hunts themselves that bookend the combat in Vietnam.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Cimino was able to extract career-best performances from his stellar cast of Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale (in his final role), Meryl Streep and George Dzundza; this writer would even go as far as to argue that only Robert De Niro’s turn as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) matches his work here.
It’s a shame, but perhaps no surprise, that Cimino’s almost unfashionable sense of seriousness and complete lack of subtlety saw him unable to build on the success of The Deer Hunter (as much as his financial troubles with Heaven’s Gate stigmatised him too). We can give Cimino thanks though for this immense document of New American cinema, as well as proof that just sometimes a genuine, enduring classic does win Best Picture at the Oscars.