Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: "Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film" by Patton Oswalt

I've been a big fan of Patton Oswalt for some time now. I think he's a pretty good actor (he particularly gave a terrific performance in Charlize Theron's Young Adult a few years back), and I love his comedic observations as well. One friend of mine says that Oswalt and I share a similar sense of humor, although clearly only one of us is making a living off of it.

One thing I didn't know I shared with Oswalt was an obsession with the movies. Those of you who know me well know I've been a huge movie fan for almost my entire life, and at the very least, see everything nominated, or in contention, for Oscars each year. And thanks to a year-long American film class in college, I consumed a healthy diet of classic movies as well.

Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend isn't your typical celebrity memoir, although it does chronicle a period of his life when he dealt with a serious addiction—to going to the movies. From 1995-1999, while focusing on his career as a stand-up comic and dreaming of one day acting and directing, Oswalt went to the movies at least several times a week, often at the New Beverly Cinema, watching classics and lesser-known films as well as new releases. While watching movies brought him pleasure, expanded his cinematic horizons, and stimulated his creativity and his desire to one day see his work on the big screen, it also caused him a great deal of stress, as he planned comedy sets and other work, as well as social obligations (when he had them) around movie times. (And the constant diet of movie concessions wasn't good for his waistline either.)

"Movies—the truly great one (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life."

And if just seeing that many movies each week and planning his life around them wasn't enough of an obsession, he also compulsively felt the need to "check off" each movie he saw in one or more of five film reference books, chronicling the location, date, and time he saw each film. This action became a routine he couldn't shake—it's almost as if seeing the movies didn't count if he didn't record seeing them.

As Oswalt provides background on each movie he saw, and places it in the context of his personal and professional life, he also chronicles the evolution of his career, from first getting the comedy bug while doing an internship in Washington, DC, to dealing with the ups and downs of good and bad performances, to his time both as a writer for MADtv and his tenure on television in The King of Queens. He struggles with jealousy of other comedians who achieve the success he craves, and worries about being able to realize his ambitions.

I enjoyed this book very much, as Oswalt did a great job informing, entertaining, and making me think. While I had heard of many of the movies he mentions in the book, there are a number I wasn't familiar with, so I enjoyed his perspective on those films. I did feel that the book was a little disjointed at times, as he occasionally shifts from one subject to another rather abruptly. But in the end, I found this tremendously appealing. (My favorite part of the book was a tribute to the late owner of the New Beverly Cinema, in which Oswalt imagined a month-long film festival, creating twists on popular movies with classic actors and directors.)

If you're more than simply an occasional movie watcher, or interested in the path some comedians follow toward success, you'll enjoy Silver Screen Fiend. Oswalt writes with humor, heart, and a whole lot of film trivia.

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