WOULD you take two weeks off to sit in the dark for up to 10 hours a day? Many Melbourne International Film Festival regulars do, but that eccentric leave application is only the start of the sacrifices that cineathletes must make.
MIFF may be a marathon but it starts with a race: a 100-metre dash to purchase a festival pass and book sessions. With several hundred films to choose between and two or three sessions of each film, the cineathlete must select sessions artfully and avoid clashes. Time is of the essence: as critics in the lead-up to MIFF single out films not to be missed, these sessions sell out quickly. Cineathletes fear that these films will be booked by people who won't necessarily enjoy them and that we, the MIFFanthropes, who would actually appreciate those films far more, will miss out.
A cost-benefit analysis is needed. The mini-pass (10 films plus three bonus sessions) is probably the best value for the amateur. The economic break-even point for the more expensive full festival pass is around 40 films. This allows a leisurely double or triple feature daily regimen for those who wisely take the fortnight off work and abandon all family responsibilities. But for the dedicated who try to combine full-time work or home responsibilities with catching up on international cinema, it requires five sessions in a row on the weekends and some sleep-defying double or triple features after work during the week. You can depend on hearing the sound of an also-ran who has pushed it too hard at MIFF ''sawing logs'' at some time during the festival.
For those not working or caring, the optimal number of films to see without a break is a critical performance issue. Many seem to think it's a simple case of the more the better but the third film is the sweet-spot, where one is totally receptive and relaxed but there is no risk of injury (such as deep vein thrombosis) setting in. In recent times, many of the best films have had long running times, as much as four or five hours in some cases. This year, fortuitously, it's a middle-distance course. Even the longest films recommended by The Age's critics this year, whether sublime and spiritual (Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly) or epic and depraved (Yoon Jong-bin's Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time), are well under 2½ hours.
Like competitors in the Olympic shooting events, most cineathletes wear glasses. Failing eyesight and advancing age are no barrier in the cinema (just as on the shooting range). However, the prudent will call on their optometrist to check that their prescription is still correct. Despite her youth, a prime-age competitor with an unchecked glasses script once came out of her 70th session at MIFF, experiencing stabbing eye pains as she re-emerged into the light. In those days, the Eye and Ear Hospital could get you back on track by injecting an anti-inflammatory into your eyes with very fine syringes, but that could be considered drug-cheating these days.
A haircut is mandatory for tall competitors, to reduce air resistance and avoid friction with spectators seated behind. The final preparation involves a shopping trip and making a two-week supply of sandwiches. Crafty attendees move into the Olympic Village - otherwise known as a city hotel or furnished apartment - for the duration.
An unsettling German-American documentary about five US film buffs, Cinemania, screened at MIFF in 2002. The group included the legendary Queen of New York Cinephiles, Roberta Hill, who was barred from many New York cinemas for picking fights with patrons and usher-abuse. Such was their obsession with celluloid, the documentary revealed, some cinemaniacs take changes of clothing and toiletries to the cinema to avoid trips home to wash and go on a constipating diet so as to be able to see five films back-to-back without a toilet break.
True cinephiliacs see around five films a day every day of their lives. Ten hours a day, week in, week out, sitting alone in silence in the dark? That is living.
David Weir has attended MIFF every year since 1997.