The best of comedian and actor Patton Oswalt lies in his ability to truthfully observe what is small but important. That's true in his comedy, but it's true in his writing, too. Here he is in his new memoir Silver Screen Fiend, talking about his desperation to make an impression in his first movie role, a tiny part in the Kelsey Grammer comedy Down Periscope:
This was my usual state of mind all through my twenties. Wasn't it everyone's? I wanted to headline comedy clubs. Wanted to get bigger roles as an actor. Wanted to write epic scripts and then direct them as world-changing movies. How in the f—- was that going to happen if I didn't make my first screen appearance somehow memorable?
Does anyone act more like an overserious senior citizen with time running out on their chance for immortality than someone in their twenties?
That last line is so smart and so pointed, right? So many of us have known, and have been, that 20-year-old, and have wanted in retrospect to have that moment back if only to tell ourselves not to worry so much about grand things.
Here, on the other hand, is Oswalt talking about what he now perceives as a weakness in his early standup:
I was still in that awkward stage where my ideas were simpler and less startling than I cared to admit, so I masked that with a lot of unnecessarily ornate vocabulary and dense cultural references.
That, as it turns out, is smart and pointed, too. Because that tendency to overwrite in response to ideas that don't feel quite as weighted as he wants them to be is the problem with the less successful parts of Silver Screen Fiend, which are, in fact, the parts to which the title refers, in which he tries to explain the depth of his attachment to the movies. (He talked about the book on Weekend All Things Considered on Sunday.) A bit like Nathan Rabin did in his memoir The Big Rewind, Oswalt is trying to tell the story of a stage of his life through his orientation to culture. But there's an effortful quality at times that echoes the description Oswalt offers of his development as a comic.
Take, for instance, his reference to his evening ritual of going to the movies as "my other routine — my lunar routine, my nocturnal gauntlet." Three is probably one too many increasingly ... well, ornate ways to say that fairly elementary thing. There are metaphors, too, that sound a little better to the ear than they hold up to close examination: he says of Vincent Van Gogh, "Masterpieces flew out of him like pigeons from a condemned cathedral."
Don't get me wrong – he's a colorful writer, and it's not a bad thing that he's a colorful writer. But the most effective material in the book is the most straightforward and confident, and the least effective feels self-conscious, as if he's feeling the obligation to do justice to beautiful films and theaters by creating prose that has adequate adornment.
Perhaps it's surprising 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's also not a tell-all – aside from one footnote that pointedly declines to do much to protect the anonymity of an actor who talked during a movie and therefore is apparently contemptible for life, he repeatedly and conspicuously refuses to name the many people he can't stand who appear in these stories.)
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. The comedy stuff is intriguing no matter how its division of the world into good and hack strikes you, and the extended story of Down Periscope is – believe it or not – both really interesting and really introspective in a good way.
And if you want to read a really long list of movies Patton Oswalt saw between 1995 and 1999, he's certainly willing to show it to you. Perhaps that's the best description he has of what this tumble into cinema was like.