Silver Screen Fiend
You’d be hard-pressed to find a stand-up who wouldn’t have enough material for at least half of an addiction memoir. Of the careers that are synonymous with self-destruction, comedy probably ranks somewhere below suicide bomber and above human cannonball. But the monkey that made its home on Patton Oswalt’s back wasn’t alcohol or cocaine or even fame—it was movies. Slouching into revival theaters like the haggard habitué of an opium den, spending hundreds of hours with his eyes glued to the flickering screen and feet glued to the gummy floor, he occupied much of his late 20s mainlining celluloid.
Fans of Oswalt already know the depth of his cultural knowledge, a dog-eared encyclopedia of esoteric references that he tosses like darts in his comedy and writing. Silver Screen Fiend, like his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, is a slim collection of loosely sequential essays. This one is more thematically focused, taking us through a period in which Oswalt’s career upswing coincides with an obsessive completism that leads him to gorge on movies—everything from Sunset Boulevard to I Married a Monster From Outer Space. He would superstitiously check each title off in his film guides like an ”obsessive sorcerer with a jealous, sentient spellbook.” You never really believe that being a cinema junkie ever threatened his career or well-being, but Oswalt has more than enough ideas and fun, illustrative anecdotes (including a hilarious one about legendary Hollywood bruiser Lawrence Tierney yelling at the screen during Citizen Kane) to keep your attention. His writing, which is vivid and funny, features the same hyperspecific hyperbole and baroque descriptiveness he deploys in his routines, and he knows how to wring a metaphor for every last drop. ”Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives,” muses Walker Percy’s film-besotted narrator in The Moviegoer. ”What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach.” Oswalt is a lot like Percy’s protagonist, opting for the spelunker’s dark of a movie theater rather than the harsh light of day. He writes that he has long since departed that particular Plato’s cave, a reformed filmaholic, but you get the sense that there’s still a little bit of that fiend in him. B+