In theaters this Wednesday, “Michael Cimino, an American mirage”, signed by Jean-Baptiste Thoret, is a deeply moving and melancholy documentary on this America which has irrigated and shaped the work of an immense filmmaker.
What is it about ?
In April 2010, Critic and filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Thoret hit the road with Michael Cimino, from Los Angeles to Colorado. “If you want to understand my films”, the director of Journey to the End of Hell had then told him, “you have to see the landscapes where they were shot”. This oral and recorded road-movie will first become a profile published in the Cahiers du Cinéma then a book, Michael Cimino, America’s Lost Voices (published by Flammarion). Ten years later, Cimino is no more, but his ghost continues to haunt certain recesses of American space.
Filmed during the winter of 2020, and edited during the year of the start of the pandemic, Michael Cimino, an American mirage was first broadcast some time ago in a 52 min format on the Arte channel, under the title Michael Cimino: God Bless America.
In this theatrical version of more than two hours, Jean-Baptiste Thoret sets out again in the footsteps of Michael Cimino, in search of his West, this real and fantasized America which irrigated and gave the flesh of his films, grandiose spaces of the Montana where he shot Heaven’s Gate, to the community of Mingo Junction, Ohio; this small iron and steel town which served as the setting for Journey to the End of Hell.
Michael Cimino, an American mirage is the portrait of a filmmaker who remains one of the very rare examples of directors whose career was killed dead when he was on the rise after his dazzling debut, only to be crucified barely two years later due to the failure of The Gate of Paradise and his cruel demystification of the American West, causing the bankruptcy of the United Artists.
Although Thoret does not entirely share this analysis, as he explained elsewhere in a interview published in the newspaper Liberation in the weekend edition of January 15-16. If the filmmaker had been able to brilliantly get back in the saddle with the fabulous Year of the Dragon, it is above all Le Sicilien, in 1987, which will record the premature death of Cimino.
Tortured, unsuited to the Hollywood machine, the man was as brilliant as he had an oversized ego, intransigent and incapable of making compromises, artistic or financial, which could have curbed his vision. The film is also rich in anecdotes, told in particular by Oliver Stone, who lets go: “If he had worked more simply, delved into himself, he would have done himself a service. It would have served his vision better. […] He wanted to break all the rules too quickly. He could have slowed down a bit and worked more. I don’t think he died having completed his work, as an artist.”
If Quentin Tarantino refuses to fall into the game of commentaries on the rise and fall of the filmmaker, preferring to dissect with the passion that characterizes him the importance of the work of the late filmmaker, James Toback, who notably wrote a screenplay for him on mafia godfather Frank Costello, does not hesitate to put his foot in the dish. “As a director, you can feel this obsessive, manic and fetishistic nature in him. Everything was done as he thought and wanted it to be. There was no compromise possible”.
Toback’s remarks, which regularly appear in the documentary, are very interesting. But one can also wonder about his presence can be problematic in the film; he who was caught in the wake of the storm of the Weinstein affair, with more than a hundred damning testimonies concerning him, including that of Julianne Moore…
Punctuating the documentary with his soft voice, Cimino also reveals himself to be a filmmaker of paradox, cursing then resigning himself against a Hollywood industry that has long marginalized him and curbed his creativity. While praising a bygone era, the 30s and 40s; the one where the Majors had filmmakers like John Ford, whom he admires deeply, under contract. A time when, precisely, the stranglehold and control of the studios were absolute, and left little space for the artistic freedom claimed by Cimino.
“At the time of John Ford, it was healthier to work continuously, three films a year instead of just one every twenty years. This does not always produce excellent films, but it is less brutal than the launch of an independent film in today’s film industry” said Cimino to Jean-Baptiste Thoret in their interviews.
The latter then asked him if he had not, deep down, the feeling of belonging to a previous generation, arriving too late to set up his vision. In the manner of a Sam Peckinpah, moreover, whose tumultuous career was enamelled with lost battles because doomed to a perpetual cantilever. A filmmaker whom Cimino greatly appreciated. “You’re right, I would have preferred that pace. I remember, and I find it crazy, Victor Flemming made Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same year! I prefer that!”
A moving and melancholy Road Movie
We could still abundantly nourish this aspect evoked at length in the documentary, enamelled with fond memories of the filmmaker, who also underlines that the American Critics were especially unleashed on him rather than on his films.
He was, moreover, a filmmaker still hurt by these attacks and the rumors circulating in the halls of Hollywood, many years after the release of his films, whom we had the immense honor of meeting at length in 2013, when his absolute masterpiece The Gate of Paradise came out in a restored and complete version.
And it is not without a certain emotion that we found and heard in Jean-Baptiste Thoret’s documentary some of Cimino’s considerations and introspections, on his masters, his relationship to cinema and to the power of the image, of its movie theater.
Over the 2h11 of the documentary, Jean-Baptiste Thoret devotes a large part – more than 30 min -, from the opening of his film, to returning to the small town of Mingo Junction. Once prosperous and flourishing thanks to its steel industry and its blast furnaces, it is now only a shadow of itself, like an almost ghost town, gradually emptied of its inhabitants. The blast furnaces, economic lifeblood of the region, died out a long time ago.
One more victim in the long list of cities located in the Rust Belt, she who had enthusiastically welcomed the filming of Journey to the End of Hell. The meeting with the inhabitants who remember, some of whom also participated, and tell how the film was able to capture the hearts and souls of its inhabitants, is something very moving. Especially when one of them, appearing in the film, recounts his own experience of the Vietnam War, after a discussion around the legendary Russian roulette scene in the film. One of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema.
“The shooting of the film changed the lives of some” says one of them; “They suddenly felt important, because we had chosen to make this film here”. John Savage, also present in the film, abounds: “they felt reflected in the film. They had lost people in the war. These small towns are surely the ones where there were the most volunteers. This is still true today”.
And we are heartbroken. Because many places used during the filming of the film are no longer, or are falling into disrepair, due to lack of maintenance and money. A question of priority too, in a city that now survives more than it lives. And also because it’s a whole section of a certain American culture, nostalgic and disillusioned, proud and sometimes harsh, which is gradually disappearing.