Film is a Substitute for Life – Cinemania (Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak 2002)

Pauline Kael, the famed critic at the New Yorker from 1968-91 published a collection of her film writing under the title I Lost It At the Movies. No doubt the subjects of Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak documentary Cinemania share Kael’s sentiment. These five New Yorkers have let their love of film take over their lives, leading them to reject the normality of everyday existence. While Kael turned her movie-going into some of the best prose about film ever written, none of the five here have any aspirations beyond watching and being part of an aesthetic experience.

Jack sees at least one film a day, usually two or three and sometimes four or five. This does not mean he is sitting at home with a pizza watching an American Ninja movie marathon. Jack only watches films in theatre, despises television, knows the times of the New York subway system by heart and phones the projectionist beforehand to find out what the print is like. For Jack cinema is “better than sex, it’s better than love.”

Bill moved to New York to see a Fassbinder retrospective and has been there ever since. A lover of European cinema, Bill worships Godard and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Bill is educated, but has avoided having a career. He travels to cinemas with a kit-bag, containing a change of clothing, a box of pills for any potential ailments and his home-made peanut butter sandwiches. Bill says “Film is a substitute for life. Film is a form of living.”

Harvey is less discriminate; he will see anything and loves trashy movies like Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). At one point Jack chides him for having seen every Muppet movie ever made. If American Ninja 4: The Annihilation ever played in a New York cinema Harvey was probably in the audience. Harvey looks like John Landis and has a child-like quality, especially when he gleefully explains his tactics for sneaking into movies.

Eric is older than the others and feels the best films ever made are the comedies and musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Contemptuous of the art cinema Jack and Bill admire, Eric claims people only turned towards Ingmar Bergman films when American cinema became so poor. Unlike the others he can happily watch video tapes and his small apartment is filled with classics from back in the day.

Roberta is the only woman amongst the group; a little old lady whose small stature belies her ability to physically attack a hoity-toity cinema attendant should she foolishly tear up Roberta’s ticket instead of letting her keep it for her collection of stubs, brochures and memorabilia.

Jack is the most charismatic and illuminating interviewee. For him cinephelia is the point where you pay a price, where there’s pain involved. It leads to “a life in the margins,” separate from other people. All five lead similar lives surrounded by books and memorabilia. There are no lovers present, except onscreen. Bill would like some company though and has penned a dating advertisement to attract the kind of female who sadly for him only exists in the films of the Nouvelle Vague.

Harvey lives with his mum and there are hints at an unusual childhood, but Christlieb and Kijak have no interest in forcing their subjects to face reality. It is obvious they are dysfunctional and a little odd. Why make a big deal about it? If you are passionate about film you may recognise some of your own quirks in their behaviour. And it is hard to disagree with Jack when he bemoans the banality of everyday existence, a point he illustrates with an anecdote about the time he went to a café in Paris, expecting it to be like in a Godard film, but found he was simply sitting in a café in Paris. For him the beauty held within the frame of a film is simply not there in real life.

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