Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review – Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

If you're not in Southern California, Hawaii, or Japan, it's unlikely that you've ever heard of Bookoff. Bookoff is a Japanese chain of used book stores that also sells music and movies and has started to open stores here in the states. I go there because it reminds me of the days when you could go to Tower Records and spend and hour or two browsing books, music, and movies, before piracy put the final nail in the coffin of the music/record store industry.

I don't go there often, because I have a tendency to overspend and at the rate I read, I have more books than I will ever get through in the rest of my lifetime. Still, when I go to Bookoff, I usually go straight to the shelf dedicated to movies. There's always a book or two I can't resist. A few months ago, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt was one of them. It sat on my shelf until last night (Halloween night). I'd spent the better part of the day/evening watching horror movies back-to-back-to-back. I couldn't handle another. Despite this, I kept the TV on, to some cable network showing Frankenhooker. I think Mr. Oswalt would approve. I ended finishing it up by lunchtime the next day. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect. I know that I love his stand-up and the improvised rant  he did about Star Wars for Parks and Recreation showed a depth of knowledge and geekiness, that I couldn't help but admire.

If he was planning a similar rant on classic film, I was all in.  It wasn't that, well, only partly that. It was more of a personal memoir about a certain period of his life, almost a coming of age story, about him coming to terms with what it means to be a standup comic and find a place in the entertainment industry, all the while trying to cram as much film into his head in an attempt to eventually direct films. 

Silver Screen Fiend centers around about a four-year period of Oswalt's life between 1995 and 1999 when he did little but perform standup and watch mostly classic films. It opens with  a double feature at the New Beverly in Los Angeles, Sunset Blvd. and Ace in the Hole and how this was the start of his downward spiral into hardcore film addiction. Now, hardcore film addiction sounds like something from one of his comedy bits, but as you go through Silver Screen Fiend, you come to realize that he's not really joking.

The first chapter sets up how he got to the point in his life which led him into his descent into screen fiend madness. It was smart and insightful and always interesting, but I find didn't much in that first chapter that was funny, like he promised in the intro. It was almost like watching the first part of a movie, where you're just getting introduced to the characters and their place in the world before the real action starts. The rest of the book is interspersed with laugh out loud funny observations and anecdotes.

The subtitle sums up the entire book, Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. In his effort to become a success as a stand-up comic, writer, actor, and would-be director, he immersed himself in two things, performing stand-up comedy and going to the movies 3 or 4 times a week. All of this is told through great stories about his short stint as a writer for MADtv and the LA alternative comedy scene, told with insight and self-deprecating humor, and tied into the classic films he was watching at the time.

One of my favorite things was the story about his first movie role in Down Periscope (1996). He played Stingray Radioman (not a name of a person, but the guy on the submarine Stingray who operated the radio). As much of the film was set in a submarine, he was in the background much of the time, turning the knobs on a fake radio on submarine set that one of the producers said was the same one used on Run Silent Run Deep. He had one line, "Radio message for you, sir. It's Admiral Graham." He was in the background much of the time and wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, so he would think of things to use in the role. He would be drinking coffee. Maybe the coffee tastes really bad, so he would take a drink, make a face, and put the cup down like it contained nitro glycerin. At which point, the director, David Ward, who wrote and won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Sting, stopped and said, "Patton, don't do that."  He'd seen enough well-meaning background actors, trying to breathe life into their parts to know that he meant no harm, but he still was distracting from what was really going on in the movie.

Through all of this, his love for film shines through, despite the insanity and weirdness of the entertainment biz. Eventually, he comes to realize that while he is telling himself that spending every chance he can get in a dark theater watching movies preparing him for a film career, in reality, he is using film to avoid having a life outside of comedy and film fiendishness. Still, we get the benefit of his broad knowledge of film and the humor of his experiences in the world of modern film and television. 

The final chapter is partly a reprint of a blog he did as a tribute to the former owner of The New Beverly Sherman Torgan, when he died in 2007. He programmed a month's worth of films that Torgan could watch in the afterlife, none of which were ever made, but might have been had the cards fallen different or the people lived longer. It's an incredible list. Every film is something I would love to see. 

The Appendix is a list of every film he saw in the theater from that Sunset Blvd./Ace in the Hole double feature in May 1995 to Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in May 1999. Set in two columns it runs over 20 pages, often two or three films a day. Though mostly classic film, the list is interspersed with first-run films from the period just about everything worth and not worth seeing from Saving Private Ryan and As Good as It Gets to Spice World

As a film aficionado, Silver Screen Fiend makes me feel good about myself. He is so much a bigger film geek than me. At the same time, it makes me feel bad. He is so much a bigger film geek than I could ever hope to be. According to IMDB, Patton Oswalt has never directed a film, what he was dreaming of sitting in a dark theater all of those hours. I hope he gets a chance to. I'm sure it will be worth watching.

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