Tuesday, February 24, 2015



by Don Stradley

It's always a crap shoot when personalities from the pop culture devote an entire book to their movie going experiences. Regrettably, there haven't been many worth reading. Quentin Crisp, at the pinnacle of his 1980s fame, wrote a good one called How To Go To A Movie. His book was warm and humorous and humble. Patton Oswalt, a celebrity of sorts known for his HBO specials, movie roles, and a long stint on NBC's 'The King of Queens', should be able to write a good book about the movies. But after reading his Silver Screen Fiend, a patchy chronicle about his movie "addiction," I think Oswalt could learn something from Quentin Crisp.

It's not that Silver Screen Fiend is a particularly bad book, but the tone is off. Oswalt spent many years obsessively watching movies so he could check them off in various film encyclopedias. He was under the assumption that if he spent enough time sitting in old theaters he’d eventually become a film director by osmosis. But despite his readiness to rattle off facts and figures, I’m not even certain that Oswalt loves movies. He writes about movies the way a stalker rants about a woman. There’s no love involved, just a fixation.

Though his movie fandom dates back to his 1970s Virginia childhood when he watched The Longest Yard on television with his dad, the story begins in 1995 at the New Beverly Cinema of Los Angeles. Oswalt was there for a double feature of Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole, taking his seat in “the sort of abyssal darkness deep sea fishes thrive on.” And like a fish, he’s hooked. He decides to become a movie expert, and even finds a sort of voodoo satisfaction in checking off movies every night. He calls it an addiction, but it reads more like an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Oswalt hits the foreign films. He hits the horror movie marathons, and any new piece of junk starring Bruce Willis. Bloodsucking Freaks? He’s there. Last Tango in Paris? He’s there. You could say he’s exhaustive. You could also say he’s not discerning. Oswalt lets all of these movies settle in his gut, hoping that every camera angle and plot twist will someday burst out of him in a moment of inspiration. Meanwhile, he also spends these years seeking success as a stand-up comic, writing for 'MAD-TV', and trying to figure out if he should be an edgy, ‘alternative’ comic, or simply dumb his act down and become more mainstream. Decisions, decisions.

Oswalt can’t quite pull off Silver Screen Fiend because he sets his feet in two camps. He wants to write about his movie habit, and he wants to write about his early days on the comedy grind. He tries to link the two, and occasionally makes a smooth logical jump from one to the other, but it’s as if two separate books were hitched together out of desperation. I liked his thoughts on comedy, about how some comics get comfortable at a particular club and can never play anywhere else, and how some are deluded into thinking they could simply do a set and get a sitcom deal. Maybe anecdotes about the early days of Laura Kightlinger aren’t exactly on par with hearing about the Beatles in Hamburg, but Oswalt provides some interesting “insider” stuff. Unfortunately, when Oswalt talks movies, he’s just another nerd in the coffee shop.

Of course, he’s determined to finish his tale. So on he goes, until he reaches that fateful day of seeing The Phantom Menace. For some reason, the disappointment of this movie snaps him out of his addiction. Maybe it was just old-fashioned burnout. Or maybe it was the realization that for all of his talk, he was probably never going to direct a movie.

Yet Oswalt would rise from the ashes, overcoming a less than auspicious debut in a Kelsey Grammar movie to become a pretty good actor. I see a gritty cable show in Oswalt’s future, some 'Breaking Bad' knockoff where he’ll play a dumpy police informant who dies sniveling in an alley.

Oswalt tries hard in Silver Screen Fiend. You can tell he worked like crazy to make sense of the whirlwind years he spent as a movie fanatic. But his prose is so overwrought that he never sounds like anything more than a stand-up comic who has read a few film books. Describing Billy Wilder, Oswalt writes, “He was on a three-engine speedboat of triumph and he punched through the waves like a shark gone blood simple on surfer guts.” Reading that made me think I was in the hands of a bad Harlan Ellison impersonator. Sure enough Oswalt drops Ellison's name a few pages later, and even thanks him in the final acknowledgments.

Oswalt, who proved he’s a good actor in films like Big Fan and Young Adult, seems too eager to prove his facility with words. To make his movie and comedy addiction palpable, he pads almost every page with drug references. Perhaps Oswalt got this idea from a quote by Frank Capra that appears at the front of the book, a line that is more economical and powerful than any of Oswalt’s hyperventilating: “As with heroin,” Capra said, “the antidote to film is more film.”

There are a few gems here and there. Most show up when Oswalt isn’t trying so hard, like when he writes about a shot of Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, “slumped at his desk, not a garlic pickle in sight.” Or when he says of The Bicycle Thief, "You're rooting for two people you probably see a dozen times a day, in a 7-Eleven, in line at the DMV." Still, it's the comedy world that Oswalt paints more vividly, such as when he sees Andrew “Dice” Clay at the Comedy Store, add-libbing like mad for a miniscule crowd on a Thursday night. I also enjoyed Oswalt’s story about directing a staged reading of Jerry Lewis’ legendary Nazi death camp script, The Day The Clown Cried. The journey of a stand-up comic can be fascinating, and that’s the story Oswald should’ve told.

In short, Oswalt has nothing of significance to say about movies. For instance, he didn’t like Hiroshima Mon Amour, but the most he can say about it is that it “pissed me off,” and “ended up confusing me.”

Many of us have gone through a movie phase. For me, it was at the ratty old Harvard Square Cinema in Cambridge, a drafty place where I could occasionally feel vermin running across the tops of my shoes. I remember sitting through a Marx Brothers triple feature one day, and returning the next day for a double of Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. I was unemployed, and filled my time with movies. It was probably the best summer of my life. I’d hoped Oswalt’s book would conjure up some memories, but it didn’t. He’s just another self-made film scholar wanting to blow you away with obscure facts and sophomoric wordplay. I did enjoy a chapter at the end where he makes a list of movies that would play in the afterlife, such as an Orson Welles version of Batman starring Gary Cooper. That was fun, and it made me think Oswalt might have something to say someday.

Then again, anyone who favorably compares Kevin James with Jackie Gleason really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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