“It was the biggest-budget film ever given to a young director at the time,” Brambilla tells New Times from London.
The Milan-born artist went on to direct 1997’s Excess Baggage, starring Alicia Silverstone, Benicio Del Toro, and Christopher Walken, for his second feature. But by the end of the decade, Brambilla gave up directing movies and dedicated himself to his own art.
His first solo show as an artist was in New York City in 1999. Except for a handful of shorts (including the music video for Kanye West’s "Power" in 2010), Brambilla works as a creative predominantly sampling old film clips to create his own layered video artworks.
Brambilla’s latest video piece, Heaven’s Gate, made its debut at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) this week. This is the fourth video piece from the London-based artist, and its Miami run will be the first time audiences will get to experience it.
Like many artists over the past year, Brambilla was struggling to process feelings of stress and anxiety during lockdown orders in 2020. He started to create. Viewers can clearly see Heaven’s Gate is riddled with undertones of uncertainty, fear, and worry — all very relatable feelings, given the circumstances.
“This piece specifically was made during lockdown, and there was a lot going on in the last year so there’s a kind of anxiety and apocalyptic underscores which run through the piece,” Brambilla explains.
The artist admits his mental state influenced the piece and had it been created during calmer times, that sense of calm would have been reflected in it. Heaven’s Gate features a lot of dark themes juxtaposed with scenes of smiling faces and dancing figures.
When you begin your visual journey into the piece, you start at a sort of virtual ground level. Small bursts of blue light emit from the darkness. Drums can be heard eerily in the distance. Suddenly, you start to ascend.
Each level is distinct yet blends with the previous tier. The music gets progressively louder and more intense as you near the top and final level. The visuals are stunning and also a bit overwhelming, but the end result is a fantastical experience.
Brambilla took the title from the 1980 film of the same name by director Michael Cimino. Although the film failed at the box office, its production woes are still talked about until this day. Heaven’s Gate famously bankrupted the United Artists studio after it was released.
“I wanted the title [of the piece] to connect this Hollywood dream-factory concept and to the narrative featured in the piece itself,” Brambilla says.
While the story of Heaven’s Gate the movie tells of the collapse of the studio and the fall of the director as auteur, the story of Heaven’s Gate the artwork tells of an empire collapsing.
Brambilla’s video pieces are essentially using sample clips and images from movies and layering image over image to create an awe-inspiring visual. He made his first video piece in 2008 at a time when GIFs and memes were in virtual diapers. Since then, his pieces have become increasingly intricate and magnificent.
Heaven’s Gate, in particular, loosely tells the story of the seven levels of purgatory, a la Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Brambilla explains how each tier of the 8-minute-and-45-second piece features its own protagonist who acts as a representative for that section. While many of the scenes are recognizable, there are a lot of obscure references and hidden morsels.
“I’ve always been fascinated with this idea of consciousness and what is consciousness and how we remember images and forget other images and these moments that kind of stay in your mind and this idea of expressing it through the language of film,” the artist says.
The irony is not lost on Brambilla that he was once a Hollywood film director and now he creates video art as a commentary on the state of the film industry.
“Film has become a medium that is no longer a director’s medium," he explains. "The spectacle of film has become sometimes more important than the content of film.”
Heaven’s Gate is available to view at PAMM through early 2022. The setup at the museum involves large television screens positioned as a sort of totem pole.
“From the ceiling to the floor, you’re watching this narrative scroll before you as a loop,” Brambilla says with childlike excitement. “It’s going to look different from anything you’ve seen before.”
Heaven’s Gate. On view through early 2022, at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Tickets cost $16.