NEW YORK — Jack Angstreich isn't exposed to daylight very often. When sunlight does glint off the New Yorker's Ebert-like glasses, it's usually when he emerges from his apartment to dash into a cab or scurry into the nearest subway. Invariably, Mr. Angstreich's destination is always that of a darkened room: the cinema.
On average, Angstreich reckons that he sees two or three films every day - on a really good day, he'll see four or five. To call Angstreich an avid filmgoer is a bit like calling Bill Gates well off. The term just doesn't do justice to describe a man who sees, on average, between 500 and 1,000 theatrical releases per year.
"There's a sense of being on a treadmill. There's a Sisyphean aspect to it," admits Angstreich.
There's even a name for the lifestyle he's chosen: cinemania.
While his full-time hobby smacks of "only in New York," he's not the only guy who schedules his day around film listings. In fact, there are a handful of individuals who spend every possible waking hour watching one of Gotham's hundreds of cinema screens.
As a constant moviegoer myself, I've gotten to know several of these cinemaniacs over the years.
Roberta Hill shows up at venues of all kinds, and makes a point of hauling off as many fliers and programs as she can carry. Another regular is Harvey Schwartz, who often asks me or another critic to smuggle him into a press screening if we arrive without a guest. Hearing a half-whispered "Couldja get me in?" from him is a way of knowing the show is about to start. No matter how big the screen or booming the sound, one can always find him in the third row center. Jack Angstreich is a fixture at museum and art-theater screenings, and I often chat with him as I head for my preferred seating location, far from the back-row outpost he favors.
Last year, all of these cinemaniacs got to see themselves on the big screen as subjects of "Cinemaniacs," a documentary by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak.
Mr. Angstreich, who received a modest inheritance that funds his lifestyle, has pickier tastes than people like Ms. Hill and Mr. Schwartz. (Older cinemaniacs rely on Social Security or disability checks.)
"Roberta has probably seen over 1,000 movies a year for over 20 years," says Angstreich when I ask him about the sheer quantity of films viewed by cinemaniacs. "I think I surpassed her at least one year, but I've gotten more fussy about how [correctly] movies are projected, so I see [fewer] than I used to. Harvey only has enough money to see films when they're free," continues the dark-eyed, black-haired film fan, "which means museums and [press] screenings."
Moneyed or not, Schwartz manages to get his fill. He and fellow cinemaniac Eric Chadbourne resort to video to supplement their "real" moviegoing when they're not watching something on 35-mm. That's not an option for a purist like Angstreich, though, who tells me he's run across only "six other people in the world" who share his refusal to watch movies on DVDs or cassettes. Ditto for Ms. Hill, who refuses to allow a TV set into her home.
Angstreich acknowledges that every element of his life is structured around his moviegoing needs. (He has his travel routes plotted to the split second.) That means he won't show up to a wedding or a funeral if it conflicts with a film showing he simply can't miss. "I can't go out of town, or even sleep late, if an important film series is going on.... If some film is coming to New York from a Russian archive for one or two screenings, you either see it that day or you never see it."
Cinemaniacs have definite ideas of proper cinema etiquette, says David Schwartz, chief curator of New York's adventurously programmed American Museum of the Moving Image, a favorite hangout for cinemaniacs. "[It] can be off-putting for the rest of the audience - when one of them goes nuts because somebody's talking, or really yells at someone who's crinkling a food wrapper. With one of them, if the tiniest thing is 'off' with the projection, he can't take it, he just can't watch the film."
As strange as a cinemaniac's life might seem to most of us, it has supporters outside the fold.
"They may be escaping from reality," says Mikita Brottman, professor of literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, "but everyone has ways of holding the world at a distance. Some people do this by making lots of money, or by having a large family.... Why must we believe that doing things with our bodies is real, while doing things in our minds is not?"
True, but spending six hours a day in a movie theater each and every day?
"People think nothing of spending that much time in front of a TV set," says Dr. Brottman. "The interesting thing is that television gives images that are closer to reality, and happen right in our living rooms. The people called cinemaniacs want something that's larger, grander than life. In a way, they have higher standards than the rest of us!"
For Angstreich, it all began in high school. In his final year, he decided to flesh out his frequent reading about cinema (he also loves literature and music) by seeing some international classics. That's when he began to discover French New Wave pictures of the 1960s and Hollywood film-noir classics of the '40s and '50s.
His enthusiasms range far beyond these areas, though. "In movies like 'Once Upon a Time in the West' and 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' and 'Meet Me in St. Louis' and some avant-garde films," he says, "every element - music, stars, décors, colors - takes on a quality that makes me want to live in every frame."
Just don't call Angstreich pathological or maniacal. And, whatever you do, don't use the 'cinephilia' tag.
"Cinephilia basically means you make film into a fetish, which is different from taking a true aesthetic stance," he says.
"I don't go to a film just to see Rita Hayworth," he continues in his quiet, thoughtful tone, "or a particular person's camera work. I go to see a director's work, because the director is the one who holds all the film's elements in tension with each other. Nobody else is of intrinsic interest."
Then again, he adds with a laugh, "I don't actually abide by this, since I am seduced by other elements." One such "element" happens to be Hayworth, about whose charms Angstreich rhapsodizes.
AMMI's Mr. Schwartz doesn't believe such ardent moviegoers are 'maniacs,' and says he can empathize with their passion for cinema. "I don't really think they're avoiding reality," he says. "For me, seeing a film is a real-life experience - in fact, it's a heightened real-life experience.... Most of [the cinemaniacs] are looking for that kind of [intense] aesthetic feeling. They don't see movies as a place where you check your brain at the door."