The $5-a-Night Film School

Patton Oswalt tells the story of his obsessive cinephilia—and declares his readiness to direct.

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian

EXT. A MOVIE THEATER—NIGHT. Big bold letters on an illuminated marquee spell out the evening’s double feature: Hal Ashby’s A Confederacy of Dunces, followed by Terrence Malick’s Blood Meridian. We glide past the box office and up to a calendar by the doors to see what else is coming. There is Sergio Leone’s 1988 epic Stalingrad, Orson Welles’s Batman (Richard Widmark as the Joker!), James Dean in Kenneth Anger’s On the Road. Then Peckinpah’s Superman, Coppola’s Doctor Strange, Russ Meyer’s Jaws of Vixen. Capping the glorious month of film-going is Scorsese, with his adaptation of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, starring the great John Cazale.

None of these movies will ever be appearing in a theater near you, of course. This lineup of coulda-beens was conjured up by comedian Patton Oswalt, and appears as a coda in his new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend. Oswalt had first sketched the idea for the series—a repertory program for a “netherworld movie palace”—on his website in tribute to his friend Sherman Torgan, who died in 2007. As the longtime proprietor of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, Torgan served as docent into cinephilia for a generation of L.A. filmgoers. (One of them, Quentin Tarantino, bought the place after he died.) Dedicated to Torgan, Silver Screen Fiend sees Oswalt revisit a seminal period of his life—that fevered post–Pulp Fiction stretch in the ’90s when everyone wanted to become an auteur, and the New Beverly became Oswalt’s “$5-a-night film school.”  

Before Ratatouille, before The King of Queens, before Twitter, Oswalt was just another hustling comedian trying to get a toehold in Hollywood—and launching what would become a nearly destructive habit. It all begins on a Saturday afternoon in 1995, when Oswalt settles in at the New Beverly for a double feature of Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. After the show, he heads back to his apartment and makes notes on each film’s entry in a couple of movie books (including Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, a three-volume series that’s launched a thousand habits). A compulsion is born. “It will be four years before I pull myself out of it,” he writes.

Silver Screen Fiend hopscotches across that period in Oswalt’s life, juxtaposing his art-house aspirations with the grubby reality of career-building. He came to L.A. for a writing gig at Mad TV, a job he scarcely took seriously—that is, when he was doing it at all (much of his time at the office seemed spent playing Doom). During a pitch meeting, he unloads with a rambling sketch idea involving a bike shop-turned-brothel in post-apocalyptic L.A.—brain residue from recent binge viewings of Dr. Strangelove, The Bicycle Thief, and Belle de Jour.  (The producers politely passed.)

Even funnier is his account of his first film role as an extra in the Kelsey Grammer vehicle—there’s a phrase from a forgotten past—Down Periscope. He had one job: To say, “Radio message for you, sir. It’s Admiral Graham.” Like many extras with too little to do, he plunges into a rabbit hole of over-preparation. A bit of business he throws in while sitting in the background of a shot prompts the director to ask, “What’re you doing back there?” Pondering his single line, he agonizes over the proper delivery: “Did I risk saying the whole line flat and unaffected…? That would be more Method, I thought. More Meisner.”  When the cameras finally roll for his big moment, he flubs it.

Patton Oswalt.

The ostentatious nerdiness on display in Silver Screen Fiend has long been a calling card for Oswalt. He has never been shy about proclaiming his influences (or, if you’re feeling cynical, affirming his own good taste). In Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, his 2011 memoir, a chapter about life in suburban Virginia mingled R.E.M. lyrics with an appreciation of Philip K. Dick. Silver Screen Fiend is peppered with shout-outs to other idols: Harlan Ellison, H.L. Mencken, William Burroughs, Roger Ebert. Flip through his website and Twitter feed and you see a side that the memoir foregrounds: Patton Oswalt, Big Fan. If a viewing of Pulp Fiction was the nudge that sent him into his cinephilia spiral, Tarantino’s example as the ultimate fanboy colors Oswalt’s public persona. He has used his higher profile to plump for his favorite things—the more marginalized, the better.

Oswalt is unsparing in evoking the condition of on-the-spectrum obsessiveness. His fandom devolves into a compulsion to go down a checklist of movies, with less and less thought into why he wants to see them in the first place. At the peak of his habit, he becomes a pushy, obnoxious fount of free-associative trivia. His girlfriend stares at him in disbelief when he refuses to walk her back to her car at 2 a.m., simply because he doesn’t want to miss a second of “an all-night horror-thon at the Cinerama Dome.”  (She later breaks up with him.) I can relate: back in the Blockbuster days, I once annoyed my girlfriend by refusing to watch a rental when I realized we took home the pan-and-scan—not letterboxed—version by mistake. (She married me anyway.)

In an age when writing a memoir has become a mere box to be checked on an entertainer’s to-do list, Silver Screen Fiend has the advantage of an animating theme. The book still doesn’t quite sidestep the drawbacks of the contemporary pop memoir, reading too often like an anecdote dump straining for profundity. But 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 Torgan and 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.

Indeed, this memoir of cinephilia could have used more cinephilia and less memoir. There’s some juicy stuff here about the boom days of the L.A. alt-comedy scene—he has an entire chapter on the now-fabled staged reading he mounted of Jerry Lewis’ film maudit The Day the Clown Cried—and Oswalt has never been hesitant to dish (even as he leaves out some names), but the book is at its best when it’s just him watching, thinking, and talking movies.

A screening of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast has him wondering about its influence on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. A childhood viewing of Nosferatu on 8 mm is remembered as pure sensory overload. (As the projector bulb ignites the dust in the air, “The perfume is cannibal cookout.”)  A showing of Apollo 13 leads to a rumination, several paragraphs long, on one line delivered by character actor Clint Howard. That wondrous purgatorial rep series in the epilogue offers a glimpse of the more adventurous, unclassifiable book this could’ve been.

In many ways, it’s beside the point, since the book isn’t really for us. If his New Beverly addiction was his “Training to Become a Great Filmmaker,” consider this book a highly public declaration of intent, one of those tactics to force one’s self to finally get out there and do something. I hope he gets the chance. Oswalt knows his movies, and his ardor is infectious. That’s no guarantee that he’ll make good ones, but Silver Screen Fiend makes you root for the day when we can judge for ourselves.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt. Scribner.

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