Shots in the Dark


A breezy study of movie love at its most dementedly committed, Cinemania offers a glimpse into lives regimented by screening schedules and confined to darkened rooms. It’s a film this reviewer responded to with appalled recognition and helpless, cringing empathy. (The grim punchline: One man’s job is another’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. And what does that say about the temperament of those who end up in this profession?) Still, no critic I know would dream of challenging the single-minded, devotional zeal with which the stars of Cinemania fulfill their life’s calling—simply put, to go to movies all the time.

For these five New Yorkers (familiar faces to any semi-regular patron of the city’s art houses), the cinema is not just an imitation of life but, as one of them declares, a substitute. A couple have niches—Bill is a Europhile, Eric loves old Hollywood comedies. The perpetually giggling Harvey, on the other hand, sees everything, and knows the exact running time of every movie. Jack, the youngest and most philosophical about being a slave to celluloid, gears up for busy screening days with a low-fiber diet to minimize toilet breaks. Roberta, the oldest, may be the most notorious, not least for the MOMA Incident: She once throttled a staffer who dared to rip her ticket (the “queen of the cinemaniacs” saves them all, pristine).

The movie ends with the “maniacs” previewing a rough cut of the doc and Jack astutely noting, “We’re all comic relief.” Indeed, directors Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak don’t entirely avoid the sidelong sniggers of your average kookumentary. The Nova-like curiosity sometimes translates as tactlessness—as when the camera speechlessly lingers on the clutter in Eric’s tiny apartment. But affection tends to outweigh snark, even when the film shades into queasier territory. For these enraptured fanatics, moviegoing is a religion, with all the attendant implications—the simple pleasure of surrender in the dark has long been subsumed into a fundamentalist compulsion, something altogether more tortured, ritualized, and irrational. (Harvey has a big library of vinyl soundtracks but no stereo. Roberta collects multiple copies of program notes—150, according to Jack—for every show she attends.)

Built on a foundation of cinephilia, Cinemania is a valentine of sorts to this movie mecca (you have to love a city, and a film culture, that can sustain such bottomless appetites). But it also sounds a cautionary note to its target audience of buffs and geeks: How many Vertigo repeat viewings and full-attendance Fassbinder retros before passion becomes pathology?

Another fetish documentary in which preparatory diets are discussed (no grains before being fisted, no booze before administering golden showers), the behind-the-curve Beyond Vanilla explores the wide world of kink and concludes, hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Claes Lilja’s cheapo project assembles an array of talking-head sexperts: partisans of one “non-mainstream” erotic practice or another—starting slow with leather and bondage and reaching its squirm-inducing climax with blood play and the dreaded brown hanky.

Men and women of various orientations explain why they like to spank, flog, whip, cane, cut, choke, burn, or electrocute their sexual partners, and vice versa—over and over, we find out that bottoms hold the cards, and trust and intimacy are paramount. We also see nipple clamps, scrotum weights, and some crazy Tesla bulb sex toy in action (though the only real shock is the bigendered participant’s use of the penis pump as clitoral stimulus). The cheerful how-to aspect (“cut and file your nails!”) adds to the sense that the whole thing seems to have drifted in from some late-night infomercial netherland.

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