Sil­ver Screen Fiend: Learn­ing About Life From an Ad­dic­tion to Film

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Peter Gren­dle

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.

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