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Entries in Silver Screen Fiend [2014] (1)

Tuesday
Jan132015

Silver Screen Fiend (2014)

Dawn of the Night Cafés

Full disclosure: I haven't reviewed a book since high school (they were called "reports" then). In the early aughts, I earned gas money critiquing comic books; not the same commitment as a novel by any stretch,* but it was writing about writing just the same. That's a long way of saying that reviewing Patton Oswalt's new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, is new territory for me--and that a crucial lesson from his book, about not admitting professional shortcomings in public, hasn't quite sunk in.

That's not quite true. Silver Screen Fiend is a film disguised as a book about the movies. Oswalt follows up his collection of essays, asides, and autobiographical teases (2011's Zombie Spaceship Wasteland) with a more straightforward account of the four-year celluloid obsession that nearly killed him. It begins with the young comic discovering L.A.'s New Beverly Theatre in 1995 and culminates in the collective pop-cultural life-reassessment that accompanied Star Wars: Episode I in 1999.

Fans of Oswalt's comedy should know that this book is not a placeholder for a new stand-up album (though I highly recommend the audiobook if, like me, you need a fix). His literate wit and evocative imagery are all intact, but the humor melds with startling confessions of cinematic myopia: he lost relationships, friendships, work opportunities, and precious, precious time by sitting in movie theatres--by dreaming of a filmmaking career instead of making it happen.

Sure, he maintained a steady stream of road gigs, club gigs, and a ground-floor spot at a little club called Largo, but Oswalt's true passion lay in a direction that required demolishing his comfort zone; for nearly half a decade, he watched idols fight, laugh, and dance across the screen, dutifully collecting a database of cinematic history by checking off films in one of three battered, self-annotated film encyclopedias. But he lacked ambition--a key ingredient to success that best describes the heroe's journey at the heart of Silver Screen Fiend.

At several points in the narrative, Oswalt addresses his arrogance as a young stand-up. Working with other young comics who who seemed to both know what they wanted out of life and how to get it was frustrating, and sent him into a depressed spiral of comfort food, movies, and delusional inner monologues about how much everything sucked. This deadly psychic cocktail led to a deliciously uncomfortable-to-read account of a failed MADtv sketch pitch, and a terrifying cautionary tale about cramming too many films into an unreasonable time frame.**

For as skin-crawlingly honest as Silver Screen Fiend is, the book is not a downer. In fact, it is one of the most hopeful and inspiring things I've read in a long time. Using Vincent van Gogh's painting "The Night Cafés" as a framing device, Oswalt walks us through seven key moments in his life that propelled him out of the toxic messages rattling around in his skull and into bold, new adventures that reconnected him with people,*** posititivity, and possibility. Sure, it's easy to argue that being on a sitcom for nine years and voicing the lead character in a Pixar movie would open just about any door, but Oswalt makes clear that he wasn't just handed these things. He took small steps and then bigger ones, and always heeded the cosmic beacons when he felt a change in the air.

Damn it, now I'm making this sound like a Tony Robbins book. Well, does Tony Robbins talk about eating mushrooms, bumming around Germany with an unknown Louis C.K. or putting on a comic-improvised version of Jerry Lewis' unseen disasterpiece, The Day the Clown Cried? Nope. But Patton Oswalt does, and with three-thousand percent less dental real estate to navigate.

I'll wrap up this review with my highest recommendation, as well as a warning: If you're a creative loafer, a dreamer, or a kinda-sorta kind of person, Silver Screen Fiend will shake you to your core. I devoured every last word, and re-listened to several passages twice. At the end, I was left in a daze, a hard-core existential crisis. Who am I to criticize anyone's art? What latent or forgotten talents of my own have I allowed to atrophy into uselessness, scarred over by the lure of corporate-gig comfort? Do I even have dreams anymore?

I'd love to say that Patton Oswalt not only woke me up, but also pointed me in a solid direction. Who doesn't love a book review with a fairy-tale ending? But his lesson is that no external force can set you on your path; destiny is a unique code that we must unlock for ourselves. Sure, we have art as guideposts, but we can't spend our journey merely dissecting those guideposts and buliding shrines to them. Don't worry: I'm not giving up writing about movies (or books, or burlesque shows); it's as legit an artform as anything else. But I'm more conscious than ever of the need to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep doing and receiving--to remember that I'm the screenwriter, and not the audience.

Chicagoans! At 7pm tonight, Patton Oswalt will appear in conversation with film critic Richard Roeper at North Central College's Wentz Hall in Naperville, IL. Tickets are still available, and include a copy of Silver Screen Fiend, which you can have signed at the event!

*Except for a long weekend in 2003, when I read Palomar as interview research. All I remember about The Hernandez Brothers' soapy, 512-page graphic novel is a sped-up carousel of black-and-white images and the clock on my cable box, cheerfully gobbling time like a Langolier.

**Oswalt calls the result "slippage", a word that, in addition to the phrase "surfing in the foam of chance", shot a rocket through my third eye like Méliès' man in the moon.

***The kind you sit next to in a theatre, and not just watch on screen.