Even if you’re not much into stand-up comedians, you might know of Patton Oswalt. He first caught my eye with his endearing performance as needy, stout-hearted constable Bob Sweeney—a sort of rural Lou Costello—on the grandly entertaining AMC series Justified.
In December 2013, Oswalt appeared as a guest programmer on TCM where he introduced four films, two of which I had never heard of: Aaltera (from Spain) and The Wind Journeys (a French-Belgian production).
At first, I reacted with my usual scowl—as if this were Kim Kardashian introducing Last Year at Marienbad. Quickly though, Oswalt showed himself to be an intelligent and keen observer, as well as a daring programmer. I don’t recall much about those two films, beyond being impressed that Oswalt, known primarily as an entertainer, would cast his net so far and so deep. He went places few other TCM guest programmers would go.
Recently, Oswalt published a book, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film (New York: Scribner, 2015, 272 pp. $15.00). The title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s only partially a book about film; the “addiction” is really an obsession; and the life lessons only come when the obsession fades.
For me, reading this book was like looking into a broken mirror reflecting piecemeal reflections of my younger self: a smile here, a cocked eyebrow there, a wide and a wondrous eye. I’d been as obsessed as Oswalt when a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The obsession ended with the distractions of entering college. Along the way I picked up a few of the habits that Oswalt describes, one of which I quit only in the last ten years.
I see my film going then as an obsession rather than an “addiction.” True, it did have a physical feel to it, as though a foreign chemical had imbued my very DNA, turning me into a shiny-eyed zombie. With movies, I was like a moth rushing a candle. When you’re watching a dozen movies a week, including all-night weekend marathons, questions of taste and aesthetics matter less—much less—than getting that fix, that magical suffusion of silver light.
I’d watch anything: even the Bowery Boys. In my frenzy, I had the disturbing sense that if I could somehow see every movie ever made (or at least the ones in the two movie books which I checked off religiously) I’d achieve wholeness, my life tied up in a neat celluloid beribboned package. Like Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, I would cry out “It is accomplished!” as I slumped dead in my first row seat as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla comes to its end.
(One other peculiar parallel between Oswalt’s life and mine: I attempted, for a short while, standup comedy. However, I learned, to the loud crashing of my ego, that I was a bad, very bad, standup comedian. (“How bad were you?” the audience roars.] Well . . . I was so bad, the audience successfully petitioned club management to replace me with Carrot Top.)
Oswalt’s life as a “sprocket fiend” began in May 1995 at the New Beverly Cinema, a retro house in La Brea, California, with two Billy Wilder features, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. (This was at the dawn of the rise of independent moviemaking.) He’d been a mere regular moviegoer up to that time (in fact, he saw Pulp Fiction at the same San Francisco theatre I did the previous year. At the end, he
provides a list of every movie he saw during this period, with places and dates. Throughout I found myself musing at how we must have just must missed each other in various San Francisco movie lobbies.)
“I’ll create one of those things someday, I tell myself,” Oswalt puts it, obsession curling its claws into his psyche. “And my films will march and lunge and glide and swoop in ways no one has ever dreamed of. All I have to do is keep watching. I’ll know when to make that move.”
The when of “that move” is never made clear. “…I have every reason to believe,” he writes later, “that this [constant relentless movie-going] is a viable process for mastering a skill.”
That seems to be about it for Oswalt’s game plan to be a movie director, even though he’s closer to the center of the action than I, who stayed safely in Northern California, ever was. He wrote six screenplays, sold three, none of which, unfortunately, he discusses in any detail—screenwriting is a legendary route to the director’s chair. He landed some tiny film roles all the while hustling stand-up gigs. He didn’t take some of the other steps I thought were required, like networking at film schools and screenwriter conventions. The closest he seems to get is staff writer for MadTV.
I took a different and, I’d say, more tangible steps when I returned to regular movie-going in the mid-1980s, with goal of being a screenwriter. In addition to writing screenplays, I tried to immerse myself in the business of Hollywood with workshops, conventions and subscriptions to Daily Variety and Premiere, both of which I read assiduously. Once upon a time, I could tell you which side Michael Ovitz parted his hair on, or Sherry Lansing’s favorite perfume. (Surely, memory loss can be a blessing.)
Outside standup comedy, Patton Oswalt’s only life was being a screen fiend, a pure movie junkie, like the teenage me. His dream of being a movie director might have been a mere rationalization. A dream. To extreme movie buffs, a darkened theater is all the reality there is. Everything outside those walls is distracting unreality. They risk love and honor for the sake of an all-night horror-thon (during which Oswalt stubbornly stayed behind in the theatre, letting his date walk to her car alone . . . at two in the morning. Alone.)
Oswalt’s obsession lasted four years, as he traveled from mostly highbrow films (Persona and L’avventura) down through mainstream movies (A Civil Action and Armageddon) to the sediment (Ghidra, Three-Headed Monster and Spice World: An obsessive’s need knows no bounds and I should know. I recall struggling with all my soul to stay awake until 2:00 AM to watch Reunion in Reno on a Friday night in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Don’t remember that one? Me neither.
After each screening, Oswalt would dash home and check off the movie as listed in three books he kept on hand: The Film Noir Encyclopedia, Cult Movies and The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. As for me, I typed up my own lists, listing cast, director, writer, composer et al. As for check marks, I first used Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV and then Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies through its multiple editions, until about ten years ago when my wife started muttering about “men in white coats.”
Oswalt’s style is, naturally, like a stand-up routine: bright, choppy and fast, if not always fluid. In addition to funny tales of film going (including an encounter with noir legend Lawrence Tierney) there are also long riffs on Oswalt’s adventures in the comedy business in the 1990s. Comedy buffs might find these sections of greater interest. I didn’t laugh that much because I wanted him to talk more about movies, to plunge deeper, express the joys we all know he experienced, because we’ve experienced them too.
Unlike genuine addicts (you know, heroin, meth, alcohol), Oswalt had an easy time kicking the habit—all it took was a couple of viewings of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, exactly four years after his addiction started, to help him realize “that for all our bluster and detailed exotic knowledge about film, we weren’t contributing anything to film.”
“Movies,” he rightly concludes, “—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—
should be a drop in the overall fuel formula of your life. . . . The engine of your life should be your life.”
Once he reaches this conclusion and frees himself (along with burying a friend and mentor who helped him along during his obsession), the book should wrap up nicely. Unfortunately, it goes on longer than it should with a swarm of extras, including a collection of “Collected Writings on Film.”
Of these, the most amusing is Oswalt’s vision of a “netherworld movie palace,” where the productions that never happened in this world can at last be seen. Count me among those who can’t wait for my expiration date so I can see Orson Welles’ version of Heart of Darkness. Among other afterlife surprises Oswalt envisions are Sam Peckinpah directing Superman and Terrence Malick directing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (This, frankly, is ridiculous beyond words: Everyone knows Sam Peckinpah—and only Sam Peckinpah—will direct Blood Meridian.)
I recall Louis Malle being quoted as saying, “Life is more important than film.”
Clearly, that idea struck both of us. Since he walked away from a compulsion that had lost meaning, Patton Oswalt achieved great success as both comedian and actor. (And if he plays his cards right, he could even become a regular TCM host.) Though he’s not yet the director he dreamed of being, he’s opened up to real life, bookended by glories (the birth of his daughter Alice) and appalling tragedy
As for me, I quit screenwriting years ago. However smart and clever I thought I was next to Patton Oswalt, clearly, I was nowhere near smart and clever—nor lucky—enough.
Maybe I’ll take up comedy again. . . .
Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield