‘Silver Screen Fiend’ by Patton Oswalt
A film can feel as personal as a dream, and more often than not, it can be just as dull to hear about. As with dreams, when we go on and on about our experience of films, we’re usually just going on and on about ourselves. Which is fine — it just makes a memoir about a comedian’s addiction to cult celluloid about as potentially attractive as the dry, butterless bottom of the average large popcorn.
It’s of two distinct reliefs that “Silver Screen Fiend” comes from the multifaceted writer, actor, rat-voice, and ever-aspiring-director (Oh, how he longs to direct!) Patton Oswalt.
For one, Oswalt’s a good writer: clever and readable, close to his own voice and clear. (An epigraph from a Timothy Donnelly poem inspired by “The Shining” is a hint at Oswalt’s ear for words.) For another, while the memoir recounts a four-year stretch of the late ’90s that found Oswalt obsessively structuring his life around screenings of cult films at the New Beverly in Los Angeles (and, now and then, the squeaky-springed seats of a few other cinemas), he remains vigilantly self-conscious of the risks that attend his mission.
Oswalt’s is indeed a tale of addiction — at one point he opts to let his date to “I Married A Monster From Outer Space” walk herself home so he could stay put for “Mr. Sardonicus” — but the trip itself is more about the hours he spent outside of the box of the moviehouse, dashing off lazy sketches for MADtv between games of “Doom” during the day and taking the stage to do stand-up at the UnCabaret, the Comedy Store, the Onyx, the Largo, wherever he could.
Loosely structured around a sequence of what Oswalt calls “Night Cafes” — “room[s] you enter, and then leave having been forever changed,” the term inspired by van Gogh’s early painting — Oswalt’s relationship with film (meticulously checking off each title he sees in “The Film Noir Encyclopedia,” the “Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film,” and the three volumes of “Cult Movies”) actually seems like the stabilizing element of a career hitting an abrupt upward arc.
Though “Silver Screen Fiend” is suffused with great films (and the appendix, which lists every film he watched over the course of four years, makes for a worthwhile to-do list on its own), it may be more satisfying for comedy buffs than film fans (or “sprocket fiends” as Oswalt calls them).
The best parts of the book take place when Oswalt leaves his seat at the New Beverly. At a 1992 gig at the comedy dojo of San Francisco’s Holy City Zoo he stammers through a train-wreck set in front of a room full of comedians, his confidence rattled, his bolo tie ridiculed. He does a gig at the Onyx that’s mistaken by one attendee for an AA meeting. He takes an especially awkward meeting with Jerry Lewis, following a far more awkward attempt to perform-mock the legend’s heavily guarded Auschwitz-clown drama.
The deepest Oswalt ever takes us into the movies is onto the set of his first film appearance in the 1996 Kelsey Grammar submarine comedy “Down Periscope,” where he plays a navigator with a single line of dialogue and a dream (and, as it happens, a staff writing gig at MadTV that cuts short his stint at the radar).
But even if Oswalt keeps his impressive lapses into “Fact Fever” in check, his encyclopedic knowledge and frothing enthusiasm for films (from sleek noir classics, to gory B movies, to cliche-riddled independents, to big empty blockbusters) is relentlessly present, whirring in the background like a projector. His fervor for film brings out some of his best writing. He watches-studies “Casablanca” at the New Beverly as “Los Angeles rain is tattooing the roof.” He refers to “La Jetée’’ as “[Chris] Marker’s elegant single post-apocalypse stanza.” He describes Cocteau’s castle in “Beauty and the Beast’’ as “a place that needed to be left behind before it had any value.”
And in classics like “Sunset Boulevard,” “Ace in the Hole,” and “The Nutty Professor,” Oswalt finds (respectively) the “[o]bsession, darkness, and magical thinking” that will shape his career standing in the far crueler beam of the stand-up stage. There, and here, you could listen to him go on for hours.
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