Gwen met Roberta more than twenty years ago. She lived on Spring Street near Prince and often carried an old twin lens Rollei with her. One day Gwen asked her if she were a photographer. She said no, but she was documenting all the movie houses in the city. That day she was off to Queens and hoping to get some good shots. Roberta said that she had a lot of undeveloped film but had not processed any because she did not have a darkroom. Gwen said she could use her darkroom, but Roberta turned down the offer. Gwen was puzzled. All she could get out of Roberta was the comment that she would be heartbroken if some of the shots did not come out. It was then that Gwen began to suspect that she probably did not have any film in her camera. The camera was probably being used as a passport to roam the city and look at all of her beloved movie theatres. Roberta was very vague about her background but Gwen did learn that she was a film buff. Then Gwen lost track of her.
A few years ago Roberta’s image popped up in a film Gwen rented called Cinemania. It was about a small group of New York film buffs. Roberta and her pals spent all their time going to films and film festivals. To them it was not just a hobby or a job, it was a vocation. One thing Roberta and all her friends had in common was their unkempt looks and their shopping bags filled with brochures, reviews, schedules and other literature. Whatever the theatres were giving away they wanted. Included in Roberta’s collection were soda cups with film advertising on them. She had a complete set of plastic dinosaur cups from a Stephen Spielberg movie and was very proud of them.
Watching Cinemania made it clear that none of the film buffs who were featured had any lives at all outside of going to films. One of them admitted that he had inherited a small legacy from a relative and that if he were careful with the money he could do nothing but go to movies full time for the rest of his life. In one way or another, all of them agreed that what the rest of us call reality was boring and of no interest to them. In the course of the film one of them said, “ What’s left after seeing a great film but a trip home? ” From looking at their lives via the documentary, I had to agree with them that films were infinitely superior to the real world that they had thus far experienced.
What would Plato have made of such people? The philosopher claimed that what we see all around us is an illusion and we are like people chained in a cave watching shadows flickering before us on a wall and thinking that they are real. Feature films, for all their fascination, are merely copies of copies. And yet here are people who revel in the fact that they are utterly enchanted by these flickering illusions and who have no desire to free themselves from their mania because they find the world outside the cinema dull, uninspiring and utterly without interest.
According to an employee of MOMA Roberta became such a pest that she was eventually banned from the museum’s film openings after she had tried to choke a ticket taker for tearing her ticket in half. It turned out that Roberta had kept all her ticket stubs intact from the time she began going to movies and accused the ticket taker at MOMA of trying to ruin her life. Then Roberta took to wearing disguises and tried to sneak into MOMA showings but she was always spotted and escorted out. When I was renting Cinemania the woman at the video store on Elizabeth Street said she knew Roberta from various film festivals and she was the most obnoxious person on the face of the planet. Everyone who goes to see films on a regular basis knows Roberta and has stories about her. For example, when I told Peter Koper about her he said that when he went to see an obscure foreign film with John Waters, there was Roberta taking copious notes. Her comment was that the film was not commercial.
One of the other film buffs said he sometimes longed for a real date but his fantasy girl was Rita Hayworth who satisfied him completely because she was flat and was mostly in black and white. The real flesh and blood Rita, were she still alive and in her prime, would have held little or no interest for him. Poor Rita. She used to say that she had the same trouble with men in her real life. She could never live up to her celluloid image in their eyes. What a fate.
In the course of the film Roberta confessed that she absolutely adored the last scene of A Farewell To Arms starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. In it Helen Hayes dies in the arms of Cooper and just before the fade out we see what looks like hundreds of white doves flying towards Heaven. You could see that Roberta was deeply moved by what she had just seen. She looked as if she were holding back tears when she blurted out that it was obvious that Helen Hayes had to die because Gary Cooper loved her more than he loved God. God, being very jealous, had to kill off Helen Hayes according to Roberta.
Perhaps one of Roberta’s dreams will come true and, through the magic of films, she will be absorbed and transported into the very matrix of cinema where her youth will be restored so that she can play out the rest of her life on the Silver Screen. She just might be lucky enough to be cast in the role of Helen Hayes in A Farewell To Arms and be able to expire in the strong and loving arms of Gary Cooper, and then her immortal soul would be escorted to Heaven by hundreds of white doves. A lady could do a lot worse.