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Cinemania (Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak, 2002)


    During the closing credits of the Cinemania, a German documentary that follows five obsessive cinephiles around New York City to investigate their extreme bond with the movies, the directors include sound bites of the subjects criticizing the film that just finished. One of these forthright characters complains about the filmmakers’ unfortunate decision to shoot on DV. Another participant comments on the obvious focus on content over form in the documentarians’ process. Obviously, a certain amount of filmgoing sharpens one’s critical senses, because those two grievances would be my chief critiques of what’s otherwise an enjoyable look at the almost frightening grip that cinephilia has on these people’s lives.


    The five movie fans that the movie tracks are certainly a noteworthy bunch, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they picked out individuals that are at least recognizable at sight to anyone that frequents the various local repertory theaters. Learning more about them is, to varying degrees, fascinating in the clichéd way that staring at a car wreck is. Take for example Bill, a middle-aged man who timed his move to New York City to coincide with a Fassbinder retrospective. He notes that he hasn’t had sex in many years and then calls film “a substitute for life.” Seemingly like all of the subjects here, he isn’t romantically involved, and when he’s shown placing an obscenely long personal ad, about ninety percent of its length details his filmgoing habits. Unemployed during the period the documentary was made, he makes the observation that he’s sacrificed his career goals to be able to attend the movies more frequently and frets about how the impending end of his unemployment benefits might prove detrimental to his screening habits. It’s revealed that none of them has a conventional job. Jack, the youngest of the group at just over thirty, lives off of an inheritance. The other three members of the group collect disability of one form or another. The common theme between the members is that their fixation seems to provide a diversion from the real world. They all seem aware of this to some extent, but there are times when their distinctions between reality and filmic fantasy feel disturbingly blurry.


    One has to sometimes question whether the filmmakers behind Cinemania are snickering at their subjects. Though the final scene in the movie shows the cast members viewing a rough cut of the documentary and generally responding with approval, there’s a definite streak running throughout that encourages the audience to laugh as these hardcore movie mavens are contrasted with “normal” people. Such instances are somewhat outweighed by the affectionate tone that’s applied to the discussion of their eccentricities and the filmmakers’ generous inclusion of the participants’ unconvincing arguments against a prioritization of the real world over the celluloid one. Still, there’s no escaping the feeling that the longer that any of the cinephiles appears on screen, and the more of their personality quirks are revealed, the worse they come off. The most potentially shocking moments occur when their homes, which are either compulsively organized or horribly chaotic (I can’t quite tell which), are shown. Since these scenes present an environment that the editorial process can’t elide or much enhance, their presence goes a long way toward making it easy to dismiss concerns that the behavior of the participants is being unfairly exaggerated. It’s telling that probably the most enjoyable moment in the documentary is a positive one, which shows two of the participants as they giggle over the uproarious ending of The Smiling Lieutenant. It’s equally telling though that the most vividly rendered story details Roberta’s expulsion from MOMA (since rescinded) and suggests a potential danger in such extreme behavior. For those five minutes of absurdity, the quirkiness almost resembles a cautionary tale for budding cineastes like myself.


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Jeremy Heilman