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June 17, 2005


Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak - 2002

I first heard about Cinemania about a year and a half ago when Lumena saw it on cable. I later read about it after the Ultimate Film Fanatic series first aired. At least a couple of viewers asserted that the contestants on UFF were nowhere near as knowledgable about films as the people profiled in Cinemania.

The documentary covers the life of five residents of New York City who basically live to watch several movies a day, more precisely movies playing in theater type venues. I lived in New York City for about seven years so I know it's easy to do, provided you have the funds and are willing to let go of other aspects of having a life. I use to know people like this that I use to see usually at screenings at the Museum of Modern Art.
My alibi, and I'm sticking to it, is that I was a Cinema Studies student at N.Y.U. Besides, I didn't want to disappoint one of my teachers, film historian William K. Everson, who told us students that there was no excuse not to see at least one movie a day.

A couple of the characters have been classified as disabled, while another is living on unemployment checks. One lives at his parents' home, while another is able to live off of inherited money. Four usually make the rounds of the venues that are devoted to film art and history such as Film Forum, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and even the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The very cheerful Harvey will take in two or more films when he can at a mammoth New York City multiplex. Bill and Jack are both avid readers. Jack is seen reading a book on political theory and also discusses how his reality of sitting at a Parisian cafe was nothing like the experience presented in French movies. Bill proclaims that one his occupations is a writer, but except for a personal ad, nothing is written, much less published. Eric is an older man with a preference for classic musicals. Roberta is an older woman who insists on keeping her admission tickets untorn, and who collects a dozen or so programs or other written material that occompanies the presentation of a film in the name of preservation.

To describe some of these people as pack rats is gentle. Having lived in New York City, I know that it is very common to live in a very small apartment with too many books. But garbage is part of the clutter shown. I guess the camera lights were to bright for New York City�s legendary rats to make a cameo appearance.

The film makers generally do not make any judgment on their subjects, but let them speak for themselves in their activities. Jack and Bill are the most self reflective. Bill attempts to create a social life for himself, albeit one where he can have friends to see movies with. Jack is seen at a gym, attempting to deal with girth developed with years of bad food and little physical activity. The film presents the subjects as part of New York City's film going infrastructure.

Are these people more fanatic than the participants of Ultimate Film Fanatic? Yeah, sure. Do they know more about film than the UFF crowd? Not necessarily. Eric, for example, mispronounced Antonioni and Fassbinder, and discussed skipping a retrospective of Alain Resnais. These names may mean nothing to most contemporary audiences but are respected with critics, historians and other film makers as three highly influencial European directors. So maybe I'm being a bit of a snob here, especially since the UFF series was pretty much about mainstream American films. Based on my experience, at least the contestants from the "Mountain" region all had jobs, except for Vince who was a student. Two are married. Everyone bathed, and wore clean clothing. I guess the biggest difference was that the UFF participants all were willing to not go to the movies long enough to attend the audition, and then go to Los Angeles for the taping. We didn�t even go to any movies during our time off. We did take advantage of our per diems to eat well at dinners where we sat around and mostly talked about movies.

One of the film makers, Angela Christlieb, initiated making the film as the result of meeting with Jack at a large number of screenings. Christlieb even characterized herself has having been similar to her subjects with her film going compulsion. As Christlieb is a film lover who has transitioned to being an active film maker, this film provoked questions in my regarding the relationship between art and the audience.

There are bibliophiles who do not write. I am certain many of the Dead Heads who followed the Grateful Dead from town to town are not musicians. The cinephiles in Cinemania have neither made films nor have added in any way to film scholarship. There are countless non-athletes watching ESPN whose lives revolve around televised and live sporting events. Are these kind of devotees something new, as the result of mass media? Have there always been an audience that had their lives center on art? Are they more visible now? Is it that there are more of this type of person now? Why is the person who can rattle off sports statistics with ease more cool than the guy who carries filmographies in his head?

On a more professional level, is there a balance between art and life? Who decides? What I am thinking about here are the truly dedicated film critics and historians who manage to both watch a prodigious amount of films and also write about them.

Maybe Cinemania can be viewed as a document about one symptom or result of living in a consumer culture. One may argue that the subjects of the film are no better or worse than the average American who watches several hours of television a day, or the recreational shopper, or those who need to keep up with the fashion of the moment such as in music or clothing. No easy or facile answer here, other than that the characters of Cinemania aren't that different from the rest of us, just a bit more obvious in the way they live their lives.

Posted by peter at June 17, 2005 03:28 PM