Cinemania

| May 8, 2003

The first person who spoke to me at the screening of Cinemania was a charmingly garrulous, bespectacled gent, who opened the conversation with a sweet smile and an equally sweet “I’m in the movie”. This was just the start of a unique experience for me: watching a movie with several of the subjects present in the room. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as the movie proceeded, I went through an arc of feelings, all the way from embarrassed about how much I was getting to know about my fellow audience members, all the way to a certain affection for those characters who emerged from the darkness after the screening, looking and talking exactly as they had been on film. I left the theater thinking to myself, that though I had enjoyed the whole show, I would find it very hard to write an aesthetic appraisal of this movie. Every time I write something about the director’s take on Harvey, I would remember our conversation – yeah, it was he who came up to me at the start – and every time I mulled over Roberta’s unfortunate confrontation at the MoMA, I would remember her comments at the screening. And, of course, none of this will have any bearing on the experience of those who see Cinemania during its commercial run. But this is what I do, so I’ll give it a shot.
Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak direct this affectionate look at the lives of five hard-core film buffs who roam the streets of New York in search of a good print, another director’s cut. Each character has his or her own quirk. Jack, who is the main focus, is one of the youngest of the group, and is trying to match the Cahiers du Cinema critics who claimed to watch upwards of a thousand films a year. He is also the one who comes up with the memorable observation that sex or romance can never be as good in real life, as it will never be in black and white. Bill moved to New York right when the Fassbinder retrospective started at the MoMA, and dreams of moving to Paris and marrying a French woman. Roberta collects everything related to movies, including programs from Cannes, which she has fished out of a garbage can. Harvey is the Running-Times guy: he can tell you the running time of most any movie. Eric, who gets less screen time than the rest, is one of those who has surrendered to video, and lives among a mountain of videotapes in a cramped apartment in Queens. Cinemania follows these five as the figure out the shortest way to get from the Museum of the Moving Image out in Queens to the Film Forum in downtown Manhattan, so that they can catch the maximum number of films each day. Along the way, they discuss their likes and dislikes in the movies – Jack claims that Harvey will watch most anything, while Bill the philosopher sticks mostly to the French New Wave – their love lives, and what other people think of them.
One major problem with a movie like this, is striking the right balance between observation, analysis and the freak-show element. Christlieb and Kijak seem sympathetic towards their subjects for the most part, but every now and then, an amused tone, if not a condescending one, creeps in. The theme song, a recitation of film-related names apparently written in one drunken all-nighter, adds to this feeling. But then again, what exactly is the right tone? The politically correct one would make the movie an unbearable bore, while anything that has a little fun with the subjects may seem incredibly exploitative. I am not sure whether the directors themselves reached any kind of conclusion before they set about their task. Whenever they are a little unsure, they seem to be reverting to the “only in New York” tone, which actually might be the smartest thing to do. This is all the more true, since like true New Yorkers, the subjects are perfectly self-aware and phenomenally articulate, and therefore, feeling sorry for them doesn’t seem to be an option.
At the end of the movie, I walked away, awed at the richness of this city – where else would you actually have this problem of not being able to watch all the good movies being shown that day? – and feeling a little sympathy for the subjects, but at the same time, amazed and gratified at how happy they seem. The ending of a feel-good movie requires a happy ending for the protagonists, no matter what the larger picture, and in spite of the odds stacked against them, Jack, Bill, Roberta, Eric and Harvey seem perfectly contented in their isolated, cinecentric worlds. What else can a cine-phile can ask for?

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