Silver Screen Fiend
by Patton Oswalt
I never wanted to be a standup comedian. Too introverted. Which is good because I’m also not that funny.
But after reading Patton Oswalt’s memoir of his early years as a standup, mostly in California, now I’m even surer that standup comedy is never a profession I would pursue. (Sorry, Midlife Crisis. Maybe there’s an over-the-hill grunge cover band you can try out for.) And I’ve also learned that I never want to be a film addict, what Oswalt calls a sprocket fiend and what I would probably call a cinema snob: someone who’s seen every movie starting with the 1920’s, only watches them in the theaters, prefers French and Swedish existentialist cinema, and knows the genesis of every film, the backstory of every director, the influences of every nuance. Someone who would tell you that Bruce Willis’s movie Last Man Standing is basically a remake of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, which are basically remakes of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which are based on a novel that nobody has read. Except that guy.
You know that guy?
Patton Oswalt was that guy. The above paraphrase is actually from a conversation he relates in the book.
But here’s the thing: That Guy is generally insufferable because he believes that everyone else thinks like he does, or at least should; he can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to know the reason why a movie uses certain angles and certain shots, why certain lines are delivered in certain ways: he can’t imagine just wanting to watch a movie and enjoy it. And while Oswalt was that guy for a while, he actually recognized that it wasn’t a good thing. He describes his film habit as an addiction, and the description is apt: it was taking over his life, ruining his relationships, everything that an addiction does to a person while they are in the throes of it and sinking towards their bottom. He got into it with good intentions: he was going to become a director, a brilliant filmmaker, and he wanted to study his craft before he dove into it. But very quickly, it went too far.
This memoir is about that addiction. It is also about the other side of Oswalt’s life, becoming a working standup and then a television comedy writer during the 1990’s. And honestly, because I am neither a standup nor a sprocket fiend, there was a fair amount of this book that I couldn’t relate to. I don’t understand the experience of doing a good set of comedy and making an audience laugh; I don’t understand the pleasures of finding a new and different way to perform that doesn’t necessarily wow an audience, but impresses the hell out of the other comedians watching you. But it was nonetheless interesting to read about those experiences, as well as the life of a creative person, and about an unusual form of addiction – but still a harmful one.
My favorite aspect of the book was this wonderful analogy that Oswalt uses: the Night Cafe. The Night Cafe is a piece by Vincent Van Gogh, and for Van Gogh, it represents the beginning of his transition from talented painter to mad genius: and the beginning, too, of the madness that eventually destroyed him, while it produced some of the greatest art in history. Oswalt talks about the Night Cafe as a place that you can’t leave unchanged, that once you go in, once you see it, you cannot be the same person. He talks about the different Night Cafes he has experiences, at least three of which happen during the time period this book covers (He mentions two others, and references the final Night Cafe that we all enter but never return from, the clearing at the end of the path), and how those experiences jarred him so seriously that he changed the course of his life. I thought that was brilliant, and even if I couldn’t connect to the comedian or the sprocket fiend, I could definitely connect to the guy whose life was wrenched from one path to another by a single experience – and the guy who uses art to understand his world. I liked that guy a lot.
I liked the book, too. And I plan to give my copy to a young man I know who is already on his way to becoming a sprocket fiend just like Oswalt. Maybe it can be his Night Cafe.