Artists who let their egos run rampant.
We have all heard the stories. They come time and time again of artists, often once talented and revered, spiraling into a pit of mediocrity, all while claiming they are misunderstood geniuses. There is a certain tragedy to this, seeing a great visionary fall into this trap of believing they are indestructible, or a newcomer unable to overcome the belief they have no more to learn. That feeling of indestructibility can destroy works of art that may have otherwise been great, and stop great careers before they even begin.
A big ego is a dangerous thing to have, particularly if you’re an artist. With it comes the assumption that everything you do is flawless. Surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’, no one ever questions what they do, and by the time the art is finished and available to the public, it’s too late for the criticism to make any difference. There are few examples as great as the saga of Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate.
The story of Heaven’s Gate is a tragic tale of an up and coming artist’s self destruction. Drunk off the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino sought to make the great American Western. Given full creative control and a budget of twenty million, the film ran over time and over budget, Cimino frequently clashed with his producers at United Artists, and the incidents that happened on set caused ripples still being felt to this day.
The film was eventually completed on a budget of 50 million in 1980 dollars, only making 3 million at the box office. It flopped so hard that it closed United Artists, which had been the studio for creative freedom. The rampant mistreating of animals on set, ranging from live cockfights to a horse getting blown up with dynamite, resulted in new regulations against such cruelty. In the ensuing fallout, Cimino destroyed many careers, including his own.
This incident ended the era of creative freedom in Hollywood. Not enough people said ‘no’ to Cimino, and he refused to listen to those who did. There is a lot tragic about this story, from the destroyed careers, to the resulting restrictions on creativity, not to mention the the animals harmed on set. Another tragedy is this film was Cimino’s passion project, the film that meant more to him than anything in the world, and he bungled it. It is forever a part of film history not as a rousing success, but as a crushing failure.
If you see Heaven’s Gate, it’s a beautiful film to look at. Not a single frame in the movie doesn’t qualify as modern art. The acting is astonishing, the direction is top notch, the sets are breathtaking, even its plot deals with the Johnson County War, an important chapter in American History. All of it however, is wrapped around a script that is dull and uninteresting. Had Cimino listened to those around him, he may have been able to improve the script enough to make the film his masterpiece, paving the way for a great future in movies.
In the making of documentary, one of Cimino’s friends said it best. ‘No one wants to believe they have an ugly baby.’ That’s true, especially when that baby means as much to you as Heaven’s Gate did to Cimino. It becomes more damaging when you believe you’re a genius, because then a legitimate criticism can be written off without a second thought. Looking at the saga of his botched western, one can’t help but get the feeling that Cimino thought of it as his show, and not the show of the characters or story.
I personally believe that’s what every artist should remember. The show isn’t yours. The show belongs to the art. People didn’t go to see Raiders because of Spielberg. They went to see Indiana Jones. People didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because of Harper Lee. They read it because of the Finch family.
You can point to celebrities and artists who are beloved and revered, but it doesn’t really have much to do with their personalities or private lives. People don’t chat with Spielberg about that time he and his mother snuck a few lobsters, or how Harper Lee took a spring walk with her father in the south. They talk about the art and how it moved them.
There’s something oddly liberating about taking that stance. You don’t worry about what people think of you and don’t have a drive to prove yourself. You don’t have that thought nagging you all the time of ‘I’ll be famous.’ You just want to make the art the best it can be, and if it makes you famous, that’s nice too.
Artists always have a lot to prove, and the desire for recognition is one of the bigger drives in a creative mind. We all make art with the goals of making better lives for ourselves and building successful careers. Remember though, it’s not you who makes the art famous, but the art that makes you famous. A good work of art can elevate its creator to new heights, gaining you a place in history and making all your dreams come true.
This is not to say you shouldn’t be confident. Confidence is a great thing that lets an artist take that risk of putting their work into the public eye. Confidence can keep you from giving up, not stopping until you’re finished. Its also a great thing to make something you’re proud of. Validation at making something great is one of the best things a human being can feel, but there is such a thing as taking it too far.
There are also many artists who can be called vain, but they may have developed that vanity over years of success. Many artists boast of how they will one day be famous, and never get there because they don’t try to get better. They effectively put themselves in a trap, and refuse to leave to greener pastures.
There’s a fine line between feeling proud of your accomplishments and declaring yourself a perfect genius. If you keep yourself from crossing that line, you’ll find things are much easier. There’s always more to learn, and always time to stop and take a look around before making a mistake. If you put your own feelings aside and give the art the care it deserves, it will be good to you.