Tuesday, March 7, 2017

First Tuesday Book Club: Silver Screen Fiend

Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, joining us this month for the Last Cinema First Tuesday Book Club.

Welcome to the Last Cinema First Tuesday Book Club. This marks the inaugural column in what I hope will be a monthly series joining some of my favorite things: film, writing about film, reading about film, and book reports. Okay, perhaps leave that last one off the list, though if there is a way to turn something ostensibly fun and relaxing into work or a chore, I will find it.

In that spirit, I thought I would make use of all the time I spend reading – when I could be watching movies or enjoying a sunny day, god forbid – and turn it into a project for the site here. It seemed best to wait until after Oscars season to tackle another big project, but with that in the rearview mirror and the next nowhere on the horizon, let’s dig into something new.

Have no fears. This remains a cinema site, first and foremost, and in keeping with that policy, we will be discussing books about the movies. I almost never read fiction. The last fiction book I read for pleasure, in fact, was Richard Yates’ marvelous Revolutionary Road in 2008 before the film version was released. I am certain I am missing out on some fantastic literature, but non-fiction appeals to the journalist in me, whether as a well-researched deep dive into history or a subjectively involuted memoir documenting an extraordinary life.

My goal is to make these columns fun and engaging – a goal I seek with varied success in all my writing. These will not be book reports, not really reviews even. They are my personal reactions to these works, and I hope, if you have read them, you will share yours. I’ll include next month’s book at the end of the piece, just in case anyone would like to read up in advance and join the discussion. So, here we go. Let’s have some fun.

The Last Cinema First Tuesday Book Club presents:

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film, by Patton Oswalt (2015)

It should be immediately clear from the title alone why I chose to kick off this series with Patton Oswalt’s 2015 memoir, which chronicles the four years from May 20, 1995, to May 20, 1999, when the comedian locked himself in a cinema cell and lost the key. Hollywood and pop culture in general have produced countless addiction memoirs, but none follows the path of Oswalt’s journey into the church of cinema and back out into the light.

The beautiful thing about autobiographies and autobiographical memoirs is the author can never be anyone but himself or herself. The best feature interesting people telling the stories of their lives in interesting ways and read as naturally as if the author were trading tales over drinks with a group of close friends. The author’s personality necessarily shines through, and the comedian and natural showman in Oswalt appears on every page of Silver Screen Fiend.

The one-page introduction concludes with this paragraph:

“This will be either the most interesting or the most boring addiction memoir you’ve ever read. I can’t promise it ever gets ‘harrowing,’ but I can promise that I tried – I really tried – to make it funny. Here we go.”

Oswalt, of course, needn’t have been so earnest in his assurances. The book is funny because he is funny, and while he correctly points out it never matches the depths of despair of its addiction-chronicling ilk, that is precisely what makes it such an engaging and relatable read. We all have vices that are mostly innocuous and simply make up part of who we are. Coffee comes to mind as particularly popular. Most of these things will not destroy us and certainly would not be worthy of a book, however brief – Silver Screen Fiend runs a brisk 222 pages, including a 33-page appendix – but they belong to us and illuminate parts of ourselves we may not even have known were there.

Oswalt turned to cinema to mask or avoid his true needs, using his addiction to satisfy on the surface a feeling that ran much deeper. Like scratching your coat when it is your skin that itches, this can only work so long. Oswalt’s addiction to the movies coincided with his early rise in the alternative stand-up comedy world, a secret club the book chronicles just as lucidly and just as humorously as that of the “movie freaks” and “sprocket fiends” of the cinema, as he dubs them.

He moves to Los Angeles to pursue his artistic dreams and at the same time discovers the New Beverly Cinema, which would become his home for four years. Coping with the upheaval caused by his new surroundings, his fledgling career, and general mid-20s malaise, Oswalt immerses himself in a whole universe of repertory screenings and revival houses, classic film marathons and B-movie madness. He details his travails as he races from theater to comedy club and back to theater, trying to jumpstart a career while living in fear of missing the opening credits.

It is absolutely exhilarating and all-too familiar to one such as me. Here, I was going to tell of my much-storied Year of A Thousand Movies, which those who lived through it with me will remember, hopefully with some small amount of fondness. However, I realized to do so would require more words than I have space or time. If I ever get around to writing that book – that mythical work of literature, which if completed, means I as a writer will have actually accomplished something in my life – I may start there. Suffice it to say, I have traveled many a quixotic path in my film journey, a fact which will surprise no frequent reader of this site.

In the details, Oswalt’s story is unique, but its larger themes ring true for us all. I had the good fortune to see Oswalt speak at a book signing for Silver Screen Fiend the day of its release. He spoke eloquently and passionately about many of the book’s major themes, but one in particular struck me, and I know it struck my companions that day, as well.

Oswalt’s odyssey ends where it began four years later to the day at the New Beverley Cinema in L.A. By this time, he has gotten to know the theater’s longtime owner and programmer, Sherman Torgan, quite well. On this final day, Torgan tells Oswalt: “Figured you’d be handing me a script to read by now.” There are many little moments Oswalt details that pulled him out of his addiction, but this one felt monumental to me in reading it.

In relating the story during his book-signing appearance, Oswalt equated it to downloading and uploading. He spent four years downloading movies but forgot to upload anything back into the system. He began his obsessive movie watching with the goal of learning how to make a film by diffusion, soaking in the language of the cinema so that he might speak it as fluently as those he observed onscreen. By the end, however, the obsession became the goal in itself.

Torgan’s gentle jibe hit Oswalt like a sack of stones, and it hit me similarly when Oswalt gave it voice. I have spent my life downloading – watching films and television, listening to music, reading books, a never-ending procession of consumption. I have tried my best to give back, to upload something of value, but I long deluded myself into believing it was enough. I spent far too much of my youth downloading to have made up for it yet, but I’ve tried – I’ve really tried – to be better.

Silver Screen Fiend is an amusing, well-told tale of navigating your young adulthood, battling your demons, pursuing your dreams, and finding major triumphs in minor victories. It is worth the read for these reasons alone, but its true value lies in its ability to inspire. Any among us who have aspirations of producing art have surely spent our lives consuming art. Silver Screen Fiend is at its best when it jolts us out of the complacency of consumption and instills in us anew the need to create.

Next month: Life Itself, by Roger Ebert