On the Subject of Cinephilia

My recent film-watching has largely been a series of "self-check" meta-experiences insofar as that I have been engaged in watching works pertaining to cinemania, with which I am proudly "afflicted" with no regrets -- and no pretensions that entail me failing to consider myself more or less obsessive about film. I am self-aware, and that is a saving grace...I think. In any case, the films to be considered in this entry are Film Geek and the German-produced documentary Cinemania, two works that explore the compulsively fanatical "buffery" of respective individuals regarding their fixation with cinema. To say they hit close to home was putting it lightly.

To start, I had one of the most astounding coincidences of my recent life last week. I found myself sitting near the entrance to the uptown subway station at Astor Place, talking to a friend of mine on the phone at 1:00 a.m. (a film conversation lasting roughly an hour and a half...because when I talk film, I mean business, har har). I was telling this friend about the documentary Cinemania and about the five cinemaniacs profiled therein...when all of a sudden, before me, appeared one of the cinemaniacs in person, a character in the film whom I had been describing just but twenty seconds prior! Roberta Hill, the so-called "Queen of New York Cinephiles," and one of the major figures profiled in the film, was walking directly towards me. I stood in amazement. It was like "boom," there she was, and it was indescribably surreal, like a reality I was suddenly and inadvertently creating, as if I had conjured her up or something. She hobbled over towards me, taking feeble, insecure baby-steps (she is probably well into her late 70's) and then made eyes at me when she became aware I had noticed her, begging the question if she gets notices like this often from people. When she looked a second time, this time directly to my right about two feet away from me, I decided to say something. "Excuse me," I began, "but are you Roberta?" Keep in mind that I was still very much on the phone with my friend, who overheard everything. Proudly and in a downright jolly tenor, she replied, "Yes, I am!"

I introduced myself as a fellow cinemaniac (using those exact words, mind you). I was sporting a Mondo Kim's bag and she saw that I was on the phone. I told her of the funny coincidence at hand, explaining that I had just been talking about the film and had described her as a key figure in the documentary less than thirty seconds ago when she suddenly appeared. She seemed absolutely tickled. I showed her what was within my bright yellow Kim's bag. I had just purchased a copy of Jim McBride's Glen and Randa, a new DVD release. We briefly acknowledged that there had been a recent McBride retrospective at BAM the previous week. She then said with a certain degree of disgust, "That's one thing I've never fallen in for...video!" She then told me a little about her upcoming schedule, describing the screenings she planned to attend at the Tribeca Film Festival and many others. Keep in mind if you haven't seen the film, her whole life is going to film screenings in New York, wherever they may be, like a full-time job. She then asked me where I was going, to which I replied, "Catching the uptown subway." "Oh, what a shame. I would have loved to have talked to you some more. But if you're a cinemaniac, we'll certainly be seeing each other again!"

Before she walked off and slowly crossed at Cooper Union, I told her of my belief that I had encountered one of her Cinemania compatriots at one of the Jules Dassin screenings and told her he was sitting directly behind me. She asked who it was, to which I replied, after sputtering and trying to remember for a few seconds, "Eric." She got all flummoxed and responded "Eric?! No, he never goes out!" I was obviously mistaking the names in the film. She, however, was after all, by far, the most memorable of the four profiled, perhaps because she was the only woman. And so we parted. Still absolutely dumbfounded, I returned fully to the phone conversation Roberta had unwittingly interrupted.

So that was my freaky coincidence of the year. In any case, I was watching Cinemania and, at various points, you will observe these characters attempting to figure out a movie question. I would audibly respond with things like "That's so easy" and so forth. Example: Two of the male characters are attempting to figure out the original French comedy that inspired Billy Wilder's Buddy, Buddy (1981). Right away, I knew it was the Lino Ventura/Jacques Brel farce A Pain in the Ass (1977). All of a sudden, this wicked sense of self-awareness kicked in. Should I have been proud of the fact that I, in this particular case, knew more than these willfully anti-social savants did? When I say anti-social, I mean that film nerdhood involves social interaction, but a black hole envelopes those "worthy" of being included and repels others. What delivered me from this momentary existential crisis was that I was convinced I had a life outside of film as well, even though film is still a dominant. Even though I guzzle movies like one would guzzle water after a lengthy desert stroll, I nonetheless travel and socialize much more with others concerning other subjects...hey, I was alright (not that there's anything wrong with that, to use the words of Seinfeld). But it was just simply the fact that the film forced me to examine my own movie-obsessiveness in a way that made me slightly uncomfortable and disconcerted me a little. The question of pathology enters into it with one of the cinemaniacs in the film. He fails to see it as truly pathological. I might add that a profound surprise came in one of the DVD extras. In a taped Q&A session with the cinemaniacs, when asked if any of them ever tried making their own films, other than a few ambivalent responses, the answer was a resounding No.

What was fascinating was that each cinephile profiled in the documentary had a decided niche. You had the omnivore Harvey who consumed any bit of celluloid you put in front of him and relished it, even if the movie was poor. You had the intense lover of classic Hollywood, Eric, who loves musicals and comedies of the 30's and 40's, and has a thing for Alice Faye (among others). For others, you had the foreign film buff Francophile, and the ecclectic but somehow strangely selective and well-read lad with sexual designs on long-gone Hollywood starlets. I asked myself what my niche was. I decided rather immediately that it would be pre-1990 obscure films, domestic and foreign, that fell between the cracks and were awaiting rediscovery. Yup, that was it! If it's obscure, bring it on. I wonder what that would translate to in Latin because it should go on my name-crest...or perhaps I could translate it into a Buddhist mantra.

James Westby's fictional comedy Film Geek I was much less taken with, although it certainly amused me in spots. The main liability and a glaring inaccuracy, and this is fatal, is that no film geek I know is even nearly as much of a reckless fawner as the Scotty character is ("Peter Jackson is awesome!," "David Cronenberg is awesome!," etc.). Cinephiles are haters. Profound haters. I'm a hater. Leave it to real cinephiles (Scotty is discounted), when discussing Jackson or Cronenberg, to say something like, "I thought Dead Ringers was good, but Crash, what was that man thinking?! And A History of Violence was so incredibly half-baked." They wouldn't make whopping general statements like "Cronenberg is awesome." Also, film nerds will never streamline their conversation into talking about what they thought was good about a given movie, but will instead focus predominantly on what is deficient. Cinemaniac Eric Charbourne in Cinemania is a prime example, as he opines about everything from Alain Resnais to Paula Prentiss. It is about living up to a respective film geek's ideal, often unrealistic (we all have our ultimates)...and if a film falls short in any way, it's dead meat and cinemaniacs will nitpick it to shreds, and sometimes blow it to smithereens with harsh words common in passionate diatribes. I do that. Every cinephile I know, and I know plenty, does that. Scotty, in this sense, is just not real and, because he is the center of the movie, I don't buy the movie. I mean, jeez, look what I am doing now for Pete's sake. I am being a hater, admit it! My favorite director is Jacques Rivette, and despite the fact that he is my favorite, I still can criticize his films with regularity and take a poke at his lesser efforts. It's a game of one-sided fisticuffs, the film geeks taking punches at the films they see. It is my opinion that in the true cinemaniac, absolutely nothing is sacred, even those directors and films you love.

Now, I have reasons why I hate things, and undoubtedly so do the people profiled in Cinemania. One of the greatest moments in the documentary was when two of the cinemaniacs are going through a collection of soundtracks. One of them digs out the LP soundtrack to the film The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet. "That's a great movie!," one of them exclaims. Without missing a beat, the other venomously intones, "This is not a good movie. This movie sucks!" I laughed out loud.

Film Geek misses that aspect of cinemania entirely. We're haters, Mr. Westby, not inarticulate gravelers who know few words beyond "awesome". Also, on another note, how many shots do we need to see of the character's ass when he jerks off into a sink repeatedly during the movie? Once maybe, but six times is absolutely superfluous. And if you think the people in Cinemania were pathological, wait until you meet Scotty. Not only is he pathological, but he is also pathological in a cardboard, very fictional way, and not even in a way suitable to farcical comedy. You just don't buy it as an illusion of any reality. I am not even going to go into the shot choices, which were often jaw-droppingly clumsy and distracting. The ending, also, was ill-realized. What could have been a clever riff on Taxi Driver's possibly real, possibly imagined denouement is simply soft-in-the-head wish fulfillment. Harsh criticism for this film, no? Ah ha, but I am a cinephile. I'm like the scorpion who gives the unfortunate and ill-fated frog a ride. It's my nature.

I was drawn into seeing Film Geek upon seeing the trailer for it online. The first scene is a clincher. Watch it below.

Unfortunately, Film Geek doesn't keep its promise. So, in my run-in(s) with one, possibly two, of the cinemaniacs in Cinemania, do I feel a sense of kinship with them? In one sense no, in another sense yes. Yes in that I feel all cinephiles share a brother/sisterhood, and a common love of something close and important to them. No in that professing a sense of this brotherhood in a microworld that defies such brotherhood is futile and silly. I mean, look at it this way: At the Jules Dassin screening where I may have encountered one of the cinephiles, I felt so strongly a need to interject into his conversation he was having directly behind me with a bit of my own connoisseurship. I did not because I would have been enveloped in a kind of impromptu contest. I know this because it has happened before. But we share a common love and a common penchant for hatership that one film depicts and celebrates and another film obliviously ignores. The great thing about Cinemania also is that it does not criticize its subjects, and even treats them as human beings as opposed to subjects most of the time. Film Geek reaches a point of mean-spiritedness when it inflicts a variety of painful happenstance on a character with a serious social handicap and expects us to laugh at it. We laugh with the cinephiles in Cinemania, never at them. That's the fundamental difference between these two films.

POST SCRIPTUM: I ran into one of the other cinemaniacs of Cinemania, Harvey Schwartz, some time later at a rare MoMA screening of Ingmar Bergman's English-language The Touch (1971), starring Elliott Gould and Bibi Andersson. After a conversation about soundtracks (specifically T.R. Baskin's) and running times (specifically Born to Win's), he informed me that Roberta had passed away not too long ago. She had been in ill health for awhile. There was some kind of memorial service for her, at which they screened a few of her favorite films. I have encountered another of the profiled folks after writing this as well: Bill Heidbreder, who was rather rude and seemed angry when I confronted him to complement him on his part in the film. When I told him that I encountered Roberta, he literally yelled at me, "Robert is dying!" Well, that relationship's out the window, I guess.


  1. Really love your blog! It's a treat to read. Keep them coming. Great story about the cinemaniac. I think I ran into one once too.

  2. I agree with you on the Film Geek, quite a frustrating depiction -I'm never really sure who this film is for? I feel the same for the recent The Watching Detectives. I'd complain, but you've already spent way to many words talking about something that does not deserve such attention in these areas.

    Cinemania was also something I related to, especially with respect to the issue of project and a screening in print. But it also made me realize how much of an addiction this process is. It is like heroine. Who said that? Oh yeah...