Doodad Kind of Town

March 7, 2009, 1:17 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The next time you’re at the local multiplex, struggling to enjoy the feature while the guy behind you loudly chomps popcorn and explains the plot to his date, remember these words from cinephile extraordinaire Jack Angstreich:

“You can’t let people ruin a film. I’ve had to rip the food out of people’s hands and throw it on the floor. Really, there’s no alternative. If you don’t get up and beat the person up or threaten them or something, then you’re going to actually have the film be ruined. You have the right to kill them. You have the right to do whatever you need to get them to stop.”

Angstreich is a guy who takes his moviegoing pleasures very seriously. He has the phone numbers of the projectionist booths in every major art house cinema in New York, and he’s been known to get up in the middle of a film to call in complaints about the sound or picture quality from the lobby pay phone. He figures he ought to get a cell phone so he can start making these calls from his seat.

Jack Angstriech is one of five passionate cinephiles profiled in the 2002 documentary “Cinemania.” Actually, “passionate cinephile” doesn’t begin to cover it. These people have no jobs, no spouses, no meaningful relationships to speak of – save for the ones they have with actors and images on the movie screen. Their entire waking life consists of trooping from art house to art house in New York City, seeing up to four films a day after constructing elaborate personal schedules to be sure they have maximized their viewing opportunities. All but one refuse to watch films on television or home video – most don’t even own televisions. And most scrape by on disability benefits, while Angstreich supports himself on the generous inheritance received from his late aunt.

In addition to Jack, there’s also Roberta, a diagnosed obsessive-compulsive and hoarder whose collection of program notes and movie tie-in merchandise is so extensive she can barely move through the tiny apartment from which she’s about to be evicted. She’s been banned from MoMA for physically attacking an usher who attempted to tear her ticket in half, but that hasn’t stopped her from trying to regain entry while disguised in a cheap wig and garish makeup.

Bill, a self-described cultural theorist and philosopher (it says so on his business card!) is besotted with European films and French women, although he spends far more time in the presence of the former than the latter. His long-winded online dating profile includes an exhaustive list of his favorite directors and genres, plus a reference to his “Mediterranean personality”(meaning he has both intellect and passion.) Not mentioned in that profile is his elaborate pre-movie ritual: packing a tote bag with peanut butter sandwiches, an extra sweater, and two vials of anti-anxiety meds; then methodically washing his eyeglasses in order to have a pristine, unobstructed view of the screen.

Then there’s Harvey who lives with his mother and a voluminous collection of movie soundtrack albums, but no turntable on which to play them. He’s committed the running times of thousands of movies to memory, and will notify the theatres when their advertised running times are incorrect. Eric, who eschews foreign films in favor of 30s musicals and comedies, lives in a tiny hovel of an apartment littered with stacks and stacks of VHS tapes and sleeps on a dilapidated sofa. He rattles off his opinions of actresses ranging from Ginger Rogers to Loretta Young with a mechanical, “Rain Man”-like detachment.

“Cinemania” isn’t about movies and the people who love them, so much as it is about cinephilia as a manifestation of mental illness. It has an uncomfortable ‘freak show’ vibe that isn’t entirely modulated by the subjects’ willing – even enthusiastic – participation. You can’t help but come away wondering what happened to these people. Some of them aren’t young, and they obviously have few resources. Roberta, in particular, was well into her sixties when this was filmed and about to lose her home. Filmmakers Angela Christlieb and Steven Kijak don’t give us a clue as to where she ended up, let alone whether they were in any way able to help her. That feels irresponsible to me.

But just when you’re getting really depressed, it’s Angstreich who brings a glimmer of hope and sanity to the proceedings. Despite his violent stance on handling movie talkers (from which he actually does relent moments after declaiming it), he’s by far the most balanced and emotionally healthy of “Cinemania’s” lot. He alone among this group has a non-cinephile roommate, a few past romantic relationships, and some perspective on cinema vs. reality. Over dinner, he tells Bill he “give(s) you credit for liking (European films) but not for understanding them,” then recalls a time when he, like Bill, wanted to live the life of people in French movies, sitting in cafes and having intense romantic experiences. He travelled to Europe where he found out (and here I’m paraphrasing from memory) “It’s just sitting in cafes, it’s boring. I didn’t see the Milky Way in a cup of coffee like in ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her.’ When you put a frame around something you intensify the experience. But it isn’t real.”

That’s the wisest insight in “Cinemania.” And one that’s likely to be lost on its other subjects.

10 Comments so far
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Sounds like a fascinating flick, Pat, and your observation that’s it’s about mental illness seems right on.I wonder what a doc on more “normal” cinephiles would look like?

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick – Good question. The subjects of “Cinemania” are apparently sort of infamous in New York for their constant presence in the major arthouse theaters. I wonder if the filmmakers knew the extent of their problems before they were already well into making the film.

Comment by Pat

Wow, I have not heard of this but am blown away by the synopsis! I might be afraid to watch it for fear of seeing myself on screen, but this really sounds fascinating.

Comment by Daniel Getahun

Daniel – It is a fascinating film, though in a slightly uncomfortable way. But don’t discount the role that emotional disorders and mental illenss play in these people’s obsessions. One admits that he will forgo the weddings and funerals of close friends or family if there’s a film playing somewhere that he just HAS to see. I’m sure you’re much more balanced than that!

Comment by Pat

I sure hope I am!

Comment by Daniel Getahun

I was a bit curious about this film, but not really moved to see it. It DID sound like a chronicle of mental illness to me, and I’ve had bad experiences before with sick people being filmed as is (Grey Gardens). It is, as you explain, like a freak show.I think this film might give some people the wrong idea about film geeks. I see the same people over and over at the films I attend (and they see me). There’s nothing wrong with us intellectually and emotionally that I have been able to suss out. But how many people who see this film will know that?

Comment by Marilyn

Marilyn -I quite agree. Obviously it’s possible to have an enthusiasm or even a “healthy obsession” that doesn’t necessarily become an unhealthy compulsion. But the people who made “Cinemania” apparently weren’t interested in telling that kind of story. As I said, it’s not about how much they love movies, it’s about how crazy they are.

Comment by Pat

Not only have I seen this film, and been both humored and disturbed by it, but “Roberta” actually sat in the front row two years ago at a screening of an Austrian documentary I saw about the slaughter of animals at a meat packing plant, at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan. One of the two friends who attended with me, lives on the lower east side, and he alerted me to the older middle-aged moman, (who looked much like a vagabond) carrying paper bags with newspapers. Lo and beold, an usher came in and escoted her out, as a result of my friend insists was an incident weeks before when she harrassed other patrons who came in late to another film.It is very sad to think that people would give away their lives to such mindless activity, never evincing any kind of accountability for all the hours they spend in the theatre, only embarking on a mission to “see everything” as if that should be someone’s sole aspiration in life.I think Jack Angstreich’s statement that you print here pretty much sums this sick behavior up in a nutshell:”You can’t let people ruin a film. I’ve had to rip the food out of people’s hands and throw it on the floor. Really, there’s no alternative. If you don’t get up and beat the person up or threaten them or something, then you’re going to actually have the film be ruined. You have the right to kill them. You have the right to do whatever you need to get them to stop.”I always second-guess my own fanaticism, as many of us no doubt do from time to time, but we only need to look at the cinemaniacs to really be sobered.Great post here Pat!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam,Thanks. I can only imagine what it must have been like to encounter the infamous Roberta in the flesh; she comes off as a deeply disturbed woman in this film.

Comment by Pat

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