Know nothing of life except through the cinema.
– Jean-Luc Godard
Everything I learned I learned from the movies.
– Audrey Hepburn
In today’s rapidly-paced landscape where entertainment is literally at one’s fingertips, cinema as a communal experience is threatened by encroaching technology. The gathering places — arthouses, drive-in theaters, indie chains, and multiplexes alike — are failing in favor of home viewing on streaming services on television and personal hand-held devices that offer instant access to a myriad of movies and television shows. The unfortunate side effect of unparalleled accessibility is that it fosters a detached culture where art is secondary to a media product consumed amid distraction, and quickly tossed aside. Artistic works meant to be experienced on the big screen suffer as their sound and image is manipulated to fit on a small screen while creators scramble to create new content for fickle stay-at-home audiences. In the wake, collectives like Melbourne’s Cinemaniacs have emerged across the globe as an antidote to the impersonal viewing experience prevalent in contemporary society. Organizations such as this – comprised of dedicated film enthusiasts – are bringing audiences together to rediscover the joy of a big screen presentation, providing a rich foundation in cinema history in the process.
Cinemaniacs is teamed by dedicated cinephiles who are not only connoisseurs, but also rabid fans, eager to introduce new audiences to neglected, overlooked, and forgotten films. They strive to create an inclusive environment free of the dry academic approach that may alienate some of their potential audience. Instead, the public is invited to become a part of the discussion with team-led multi-media introductions and panels that spark healthy cinematic discourse. Board member Lisa Rae Bartolomei, whose primary responsibility is as the organization’s sound recordist and editor, explains the foundational principles underlining their mission:
“Part of our goal from the beginning has been to build a community around film. We felt that it was vital to have educational and informative discussions about the films we were screening and behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew as a way of making the Cinemaniacs experience a special one. We really wanted to make it accessible to everyday people, not just people in academia. Most screenings people either just play the film, or when there is a talk it’s presented in this very dry and serious manner. We want our screenings most of all to be fun; fun, but hopefully you come away with your understanding of the film enriched.”
Cinemaniacs began in earnest at rock-and-roll bar ‘The Tote’, where a group of friends united by a love of punk rock, cult films, and fringe pop culture hosted a movie night called Snakepit Cinema in the upper level dubbed the ‘Cobra Bar’. These early screenings were raw, but nurtured at the grass roots by an eager core and growing fanbase. Current board member Therese Martschinke, a Tote employee indirectly involved in the initial stage, admired from afar the dedication of the original organizers who used this unusual spot to spark a resurgence in Melbourne’s film culture. She described the rustic operation in its humble beginnings: “I hadn’t joined at the very beginning, just admired. Lee (Gambin) and Anthony (Biancofiore) before Cinemaniacs created Snakepit Cinema in The Cobra Bar upstairs at the Tote, where I work, with just a bed sheet stapled to the wall and it was incredible! Such a grungy beginning that suited the area, people and content.”
Bartolomei elaborates on the auspicious beginnings that saw the group outgrowing their humble roots and expanding into larger, more appropriate venues. She says, “Quite a few of the founding members came from the punk scene here but we bonded over a love of cinema as well as music. Our creative director (and Diabolique editor) Lee Gambin had started writing for Fangoria magazine and was keen to share his love and insane knowledge of cinema with the world and after things ended at the Tote we had discussed trying to start putting on screenings at a cinema and perhaps getting a guest out here. The impetus was a screening of A Nightmare At Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image to coincide with a visit to Melbourne of star Mark Patton. Unfortunately, Mark was not able to attend but the screening was a massive success and we decided to program a series of horror sequels that year and five years later we are still going strong.”
Whereas many outfits rely on the popular horror genre to attract audiences, the Cinemaniacs team broadened their scope by mixing genres. Their programs are structured with similar thematic threads in mind, so that in one season, patrons may find a mix of offensive dark comedy, grindhouse-era crime thriller, or award-winning musical sharing connective tissue. For instance, their current program entitled Now I Have Hate: Prejudice in Film kicks off with Robert Zemeckis’s zany cartoon noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), followed by the eco terror of John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy (1979), Samuel Fuller’s powerful examination of racial prejudice White Dog (1982), Robert A. Endelson’s nasty home invasion film Fight for Your Life (1977), and capped by Jerome Robbins’s and Robert Wise’s tragic musical West Side Story (1961). According to Martschinke, Cinemaniacs eclectic lineups have been successful at coaxing folks out of their genre comfort zones. She says, “Horror definitely is embedded in our hearts and a strong part of Cinemaniacs, but we are not a horror collective, we love all genres of film. Having the split themes is a really great way to draw people into genres that they might not normally choose to leave the house to see. People trust Lee’s programming and over the years we see people that would normally just come to our horror screenings enjoying films like Return to Oz, Annie and Cruising.”
Bartolomei, too, attributes success to the programmers’ penchant for digging up obscure cult films to pair with classics that have fallen off the radar. She says, “We always wanted to screen a wide range of films there are great and diverse film in every genre that deserve celebrating. Our audiences love horror and that will always be an important part of our programming but screenings such as Fame have been equally well received. Recently we screened Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in The Park as part of our Hagsplotation fest. It is a tense low burning psychological thriller and the audience, many of which were die hard horror fans, were riveted and at the edge of their seats. If you can take the audience into a new world, something they wouldn’t normally see, and they love it we’ve done our job.”
Bartolomei and Martschinke are quick to point out that friendship and camaraderie amongst the board members is a key component in their longevity. Both allude to the natural chemistry of the group as they bonded over movies and the opportunity to share them with others outside of their circle. Bartolomei says, “It all happened fairly organically, with Lee being the nexus that attracts like-minded folk with his generosity and enthusiasm. About half the board had been friends for a number of years and we’ve gathered some people along the way as certain jobs like marketing needed filling and through that we found some great people like Sally Christie.”
Martschinke says, “Board members always seem to pop up naturally; there is a strong core group and lots of others that help out when they can. I’ve always been friends with this beautiful crew and I lived with Anthony for ten years but I joined when Cinemaniacs did a season of horror sequels in the Cobra Bar. On top of the screenings, exclusive video interviews and introductions we started to theme the bar. The best was with Anthony recreating the front of the cabin for a screening of The Evil Dead. After that season I started going to meetings and never left!”
Having earned the respect of their community, the future holds great promise for Cinemaniacs. Down the line, they are branching into publications like the upcoming journal If I Only Had A Brain: Scarecrows in Film & Television, and partnering with progressive film institutions like the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Bartolomei is appreciative that the collective continues to grow amid the challenges presented by a modern day society with leaders who undervalue art and community. She concludes, “I think that Cinemaniacs have been lucky in having a great network of people that regularly support what we do and the film community such as the Melbourne Cinematheque and the management of the Astor all contribute to the same goal of loving and promoting cinema. Our board has worked extremely hard for free to make sure all of the aspects of the screening are top notch and I think that is reflected in the popularity of our screenings.”
For more information about Cinemaniacs programming lineups, current schedule, and tickets, visit them at cinemaniacs.net.