Silver Screen Fiend
by Patton Oswalt
2015 • 240 pages • Scribner
I first heard of Silver Screen Fiend when I couldn’t get to my laptop fast enough to keep Hulu from autoplaying the next segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers at full blast at godawful in the morning. (Why was I watching Late Night with Seth Meyers clips at godawful in the morning? Hi, I’m Clare, I find Seth Meyers personally inspiring, nice to meet you.) And there was Patton Oswalt, promoting his new book and explaining that he should have known the film obsession of his youth was an addiction when he made his date walk back to her car alone at three or four in the morning.
I adored the memoir portions of Oswalt’s last book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In that book, he absolutely nails the frustration and lack of cultural resources endemic to American suburbia in such an immediate, identifiable way. While the experimental comedy portions of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland rarely landed for me, the vocabulary he gave me that I could apply to my own suburban childhood was massively useful.
And yet, I’ve cooled on Oswalt as of late. I still find him an engaging memoirist and funny comedian—check my Netflix queue if you don’t believe me—but his going on a rant about how comedy is too politically correct these days on Twitter after assuming that Joss Whedon was chased off the site by rabid feminists angered by The Avengers: Age of Ultron’s treatment of Black Widow understandably dampened my enthusiasm. For the most part, I can follow Oswalt joyfully down his intricate comedic constructions, but when he ends up accusing people like yours truly for destroying comedy, it’s a little hard to swallow. It’s the sort of thing that reminds me why I’m actively trying to read an equal amount of women authors to men authors this year. Whatever tolerance I’ve had for behavior and thinking like that has evaporated in recent years, shortly after realizing that I don’t have to put up with or even consume them.
That’s largely how Silver Screen Fiend played out for me. For the most part, I was right there with Oswalt, as he detailed the joys of film and the compulsive, superstitious thinking that led him to spend so much time at the legendary New Beverly. His concept of addiction incorporates compulsive and superstitious behaviors, the way film became Oswalt details his concept of Night Cafes, named after the Vincent van Gogh painting that marked a drastic shift in the artist’s work and his mental state. Night Cafes are rooms or moments or places that, once you enter, change you completely forever. And he talks a lot about his time on the alternative comedy scene in the nineties, from the different vibes of comedy rooms to horror stories about entitled comedians and/or actors (names are not named, save for one shady but still legal footnote about a nineties sitcom star and his “friends”) to a truly fantastic story about the end of his live readings of Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried. (Featuring Bob Odenkirk uttering the immortal line, “Chevy Chase was born to play a clown who leads children into a gas oven!” ).
And Oswalt offers up a truly moving tribute to Sherman Torgan, the owner and curator of the New Beverly Cinema, who passed in 2007. He details an entire month of cinematic programming composed entirely of films that never got made, with the delight and reverence a true film buff inevitably feels for their cinematic mentor.
But Oswalt’s realization that his obsession with films has become a destructive addiction comes when, after dissecting the recently released The Phantom Menace with friends, he concludes that they’re not contributing anything to film. I understand where Oswalt is coming from—his misadventures at the New Beverly were purportedly to train him to be a film director, something he did not accomplish during the period covered here—but the idea that film criticism, even something so casual as a pack of Star Wars fans pulling apart the mess of The Phantom Menace, is not a contribution to film is just baffling. Given that Oswalt refers to a handful of film books, I’m guessing that Oswalt doesn’t consider such discussions criticism in a constructive way. Which, of course, is certainly his right to do so, but I can’t follow him there. Overindulging on anything to the detriment of your life is destructive, I agree, and focusing on the negative to the point that you’re not actually moving forward on your life goals is also destructive, but film criticism is a brilliant, important thing. All criticism is a brilliant, important thing, and I don’t know if it’s a good idea to dismiss casual film dissection as not “important” enough to properly count as criticism. Of course, Oswalt’s point is that it was hardly casual… but it still shades too closely to the line where I divide from him for my comfort.
I rented this book from the public library.