Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt, Scribner, 222 pages
Many viewers know Patton Oswalt as Spence Olchin on The King of Queens or as Todd Maher in the recent remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty . Some may even recognize his high-pitched whine from his work voicing rats for Pixar films. A smaller number might remember him as an incendiary stand-up comic and TV writer, angry and obese, who shared L.A.’s open-mic stages in the early ’90s with then-unknowns Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, and Will Ferrell. But probably no one would visualize him as a depressed film addict who spent many good years frequenting the art-house movie theaters of L.A. to bone up on rare and obscure cinema.
In his latest book, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film , Oswalt takes readers through his early years as a budding comic, from his origins in New York to his couch-surfing, penniless struggles in Los Angeles. It’s on the West Coast where he becomes so disenchanted with the entertainment business that he turns to his lifelong love of film for solace.
Oswalt blows the dust off his film-history books and vows to watch every movie that received a write-up. Realizing he’s surrounded by a veritable treasure trove of cinematic palaces, he begins an obsessive four-year journey (from 1995 to 1999), haunting such American mainstays as the Nuart Theatre and the New Beverly Cinema and befriending the curators and supporting staff he finds there, forsaking all other social connections.
He treats these theaters like therapists’ offices, visiting each one at least weekly. As Oswalt becomes increasingly bitter and cynical about his own youthful dreams, he starts to equate a good set or a meeting with an agent with the viewing of a restored print of a classic. And if he stumbles into a bad movie? It hurts his career: He’ll be booed off the stage the next night.
Today we can only fantasize about the films he’s treated to — a reminder of the American cinematheque’s healthier years. Oswalt visited the DGA Theater in October 1995 for a weekend retrospective of Hammer Films, the British cult-horror enterprise whose heyday spanned the 1950s and ’60s, and was the sole audience member for most of its duration, save for a one-armed schoolteacher. Just over two months later, in late December, he was treated at the New Beverly to a restored print of Citizen Kane , along with fellow actor Lawrence Tierney, who, at least somewhat unhinged, muttered curses at the screen until he was finally spirited away by his caretakers.
Silver Screen Fiend is a confident and hilarious breeze of a book, with much to offer even those who wouldn’t normally enjoy details about a fat, lonely man’s adoration of cinematic gems. For such casual readers, this will come off as Patton Oswalt’s 1990s memoirs, entertaining in its one-liners, bits from old routines, and countless name-droppings. For film-history dabblers, this is Global Cinema 101, full of titles you simply can’t kick the bucket before having seen. And for established cinephiles, this will read like a book that was accidentally and unintentionally written about you.