Cinema Gotham Catches Highly Contagious Cinemania
May 14, 2003 | One of the more sought after tickets at this year's Tribeca Film Festival was Cinemania, a documentary directed by Stephen Kijak and Angela Christlieb, which details the existence of five movie-obsessed New Yorkers. And by this I mean to suggest obsessed. A wise man once noted that there is indeed a fine line between clever and stupid, and the featured "cinemaniacs" are situated well, now that I think of it, I'm not even sure there's a level on the chart for these five. You can gauge for yourself this Friday, when Cinemania begins its limited engagement (scheduled now for one week) at Cinema Village, located at 22 E. 12th Street between 5th & University.
Perhaps you fancy yourself a film buff? I certainly did, at least prior to watching Cinemania. Like many other cineastes (note that only a movie geek in the truest sense would dare refer to him or herself as a "cineaste"), I certainly have my preferred venues, favorite seats (absolute back row, center), and even save ticket stubs. However, the surface similarities end there. Their viewing habits are such (literally around three to five movies daily) that they have become recognizable fixtures on the repertory / revival circuit a woman seated next to me at the Tribeca showing actually recognized "cinemaniacs" Jack and Harvey, who were in attendance. Cinemania follows our five buffs around New York City as they catch showings at such landmark theaters as the Film Forum, Museum of Modern Art, the Walter Reade, and the Anthology Film Archives. Throughout its 80-minute duration, it even follows some of them into their homes (if I dare refer to them as "homes" in the traditional sense many are simply vessels for movie memorabilia and apparently places to merely crash and review upcoming schedules). Their obsessions are so complete that none have full (or even part-time) work after all, such a constraint would interfere with their viewing schedules. A few of the "cinemaniacs," and their more salient eccentricities, are as follows:
Jack Angstreich, who lives off of a carefully guarded inheritance, fosters sexual fantasies about Rita Hayworth (only in black and white, mind you), has nightmares "in video," and appears to live in an apartment constructed entirely of books. He has also adjusted his diet so as to avoid gastrointestinal disruptions during viewings;
Bill Heidbreder, who collects unemployment, features films from the French New Wave, dreams of residing in Paris, relocated to New York to coincide with a Fassbinder retrospective, and places a personal ad (none of our five seem to be particularly lucky in matters of relationships) that pretty much reads like an introduction to a movie-geek web site;
Harvey Schwartz, who collects disability, hundreds of movie soundtrack records (although his stereo no longer works), and can tell you with an admirable and disconcerting accuracy the length of virtually every film he has ever seen. (By the way, Harvey clocks Cinemania at 83 minutes, not 80 as the Tribeca Film Festival program notes.) He also giggles incessantly.
Also featured are Eric Chadbourne and Roberta Hill, the two elder "Cinemaniacs" who not surprisingly possess a whole host of issues as well.
Ironically, Cinemania did not start out as a co-production between directors Kijak and Christlieb. Kijak knew of Jack from his roommate. "I had heard the stories, you know the legend of Jack," Kijak recently told Cinema Gotham. "I said this is too good. I had to meet this guy." After pitching the idea of a short and subsequently making it for "Split Screen" on IFC, he wound up meeting the fellow buffs. "It's a situation where you meet one and you meet them all kinda thing. He [Jack] took me around and was just pointing the rest of the guys out."
Christlieb had the group in mind as well, and had already begun shooting with Jack (she worked as a ticket seller at the Anthology and had seen the same group coming in and out on a near-daily basis). "I was shooting him [Jack] at the Anthology Film Archives, and there she [Angela] was, shooting me shooting him," Kijak recalls. When Christlieb discovered this, she thought that it would work well for the feature she was envisioning. About a year later Christlieb took her trailer to Germany, where she was able to secure funds from various German sources and Bavarian Television (although technically a German production, Kijak had a relationship with US-based Wellspring, which ultimately became the world sales company). Upon her return to the States, Christlieb contacted Kijak. "It was just really fate, you know? I was already immersed in the subject myself and was kind of unsure about whether or not I wanted to get a feature out of it, and that just kind of sealed it," notes Kijak. The end result, shot over a period of three years entirely on mini-DV, has become a festival hit and continues to play around the world.
The participants were enthusiastic about the attention, and had already established a rapport with Christlieb. "They were really proud to have their very marginalized, eccentric, oddball lifestyles finally being looked at seriously," Kijak comments. This "look" has prompted some harsh criticism of the film some have opined that the treatment the five have been given is condescending and perhaps even ill-willed. Kijak retorts: "We have been accused of the 'point and giggle' and you know what? They are very funny people, they are very self-aware, and there's tragedy and humor in all of it, but you don't spend two years intensely focused on a subject with that attitude in mind." In fact, the five are actually fully aware of their "oddball" status and speak freely about it in the film. As Kijak notes, "Their candor was kind of extraordinary. It's kind of like a badge of honor that they wear that 'we're not normal.' And the film raises that question, 'what is normal?' This isn't the first time that they have had to think about this question."
"Cinemaniac" Harvey Schwartz, who affectionately (I think) dubbed me "internet guy," certainly doesn't have any misgivings about the final product or the attention it has received, including at Tribeca. "I got to meet Michael Almereyda, and he was cool," Harvey told Cinema Gotham. He also got to meet Anthony LaPaglia. "I'm a big fan of Anthony LaPaglia, and I watch his show [Without a Trace] every week." He then wryly notes, "When I'm home." As to the criticism lodged against the film, Schwartz finds it amusing. "I think they are missing the point. One of the first reviews I got... I had to laugh at him. He was complaining about us, and I realized that he was a film geek like us, and that was what he was complaining about. He was perturbed that there was a movie about people that actually watch films and he had to make fun of it." Schwartz raises a valid point: identification to some extent with the subjects of this film is unavoidable - and downright frightening - at times. "Some people like to blow things out of proportion," Schwartz comments, "but people already know about our film and they haven't seen it yet."
One of the stranger (and most entertaining) experiences of Cinemania comes at the end of the film, when the five are taped viewing a rough cut of the documentary itself (I refuse to ponder the implications of watching a film about people who watch films while those watchers, watching themselves, were in attendance). "I take no credit for that whatsoever. That was Angela's idea from the get go. In this instance, you really couldn't really think of a more perfect way to do it," notes Kijak. He's absolutely right seeing and hearing these five critique a film about themselves is both humorous and somehow troubling on many, many levels.
According to Kijak, the five are still doing what they have always done. "What was so great is that we knew if we came back a year later, there would be no change," he remarks. According to Schwartz, things have changed only a little. Although he will watch videos (he gets screeners from a friend), he has found it tougher to get into critics' screenings these days and does not see as many films as he would like. "Who has money to see every damn movie?" he laments. He can't even take solace in his soundtracks he still does not own a stereo that works. The irrepressible Harvey, however, continues to giggle.
Cinemania has now played almost thirty film festivals across the globe, including Rotterdam, Edinburg, Munich, Sweden, Brussels, and, of all places, Transylvania (!). It has also been broadcast on television in Iceland, Sweden, Austria, HBO Latin America, and will open theatrically in the U.K. in September. "Somehow we really conquered the U.K. It's really been received well there," notes Kijak. The Tribeca Film Festival showings were successful, and the upcoming engagement at Cinema Village has Kijak very excited. "I gotta say it's a really nice homecoming," says Kijak. "It's exciting to bring this home to New York."
Also exciting is the fact that all five "Cinemaniacs" as well as directors Kijak and Christlieb plan to attend the 7:00 PM showing of Cinemania this Friday evening at Cinema Village. As noted above, it's slated for a limited engagement of one week, so be sure to get to this one quickly. If you consider yourself a movie buff (or cineaste) especially a New York based one you'll likely enjoy the sights and the company of these amiable eccentrics. At the very least, you'll be entertained, and perhaps even educated. It's inevitable that some of the similarities between the intended audience and the obsessive subjects will prove identifiable, painfully funny, and maybe even a little disconcerting. And that's good cinema.
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