Memoirs Of A Compulsive Moviegoer

In his new memoir Silver Screen Fiend, Patton Oswalt recounts his multi-year “addiction to film.” Elbert Ventura appreciates that the comedian is “unsparing in evoking the condition of on-the-spectrum obsessiveness”:

Oswalt has a good angle—a portrait of the artist as a young film buff—and the book underscores a point often lost in talking about movie love: the sheer work of being a real cinephile. Oswalt’s immersion in movies really did deliver a thorough education: He trusted authorities like [New Beverly Cinema proprieter Sherman] Torgan and [Cult Movies author Danny] Peary and saw everything they suggested; he went to rep screenings instead of settling for video; he sought out hard-to-find entries in forgotten directors’ filmographies. At once confessional and curatorial, the book portrays Oswalt as not just a celluloid sybarite, but someone dead serious about the art.

Linda Holmes remarks that “one of the best things about Silver Screen Fiend is that Oswalt doesn’t always seem very likable in it”:

The easiest way to enjoy a memoir, at times, is when it makes a famous person seem like an awesome best friend you’d love to have. Patton Oswalt, on the other hand, in his own stories, can seem not just prickly, but full of explanations of things he’s learned to rise above:

hack comedy by people who are successful but untalented, inferior art, boring people, uncool venues (“giggle-shack” is his most devastating putdown). The book is not an argument for his personable nature, as books by famous people often are. …

It is, however, an interestingly aggressive, restless attempt – sometimes successful and sometimes less so – to get to the bottom of his own fascination with dark theaters and old movies, and how it dovetailed with his developing comedy career. The farther he gets from the theaters, and from the attempt to convey their grandeur and the grandeur of film itself, the better the book is.

David Brusie finds that the book “has its faults”:

The book’s structure isn’t always clear, which sometimes makes for an unwieldy read, and a 33-page appendix listing every movie he saw over four years, while interesting at a glance, ultimately feels like padding. But Oswalt’s ample writing talents push the narrative past these shortcomings (a section with no punctuation depicting Oswalt’s thoughts while bombing onstage is particularly vivid). His decision to write almost entirely in the present tense makes the memoir feel immediate and vital. …

The book’s resolution, which includes the birth of Oswalt’s daughter, makes clear that the story is a kind of fable about the dangers of immersion in any cultural interest. By the end, when Oswalt stumbles out of the dark and squints in the light of his new life, it’s enough to make any reader seek out the many films that made him hibernate in the first place.

In a recent interview about the book, Oswalt elaborated on one of the events that finally led him out of addiction – the release of Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace:

It’s not that it killed the addiction; it made me look at the addiction from such a different angle that it didn’t hold any power over me anymore. I’ll put it this way — I was the worst kind of movie fan. I’m the kind of guy who saw 6 movies a day, didn’t write any movies, didn’t make any movies, but then could be armchair quarterbacking on a movie that I had no hand in making.

Yes, I thought [Phantom Menace] was a failure, but the dude took a shot at it. It hit me that I was spending days and days and nights and nights with my friends, arguing back and forth about this film but this guy made a movie. Good or bad, he made a movie. He’s on a different relam than you.