“Van Gogh entered a room in his mind when he painted The Night Cafe. He acknowledged his damaged (and worsening) psyche and, in acknowledging it, made a deal. He would be able to take newer, more original artistic conceptions out, would be able to capture them in paintings. His psyche found the deal acceptable. It let Vincent leave the room – the Night Cafe – with vistas and visions he hadn’t come close to in his career. But something followed him out, and latched on to him like a virus, and he was never the same.
He was a better painter. A transformed one.
…I still have both ears. My chest cavity is bullet-free.
But the concept of the Night Cafe – the room you enter, and then leave having been forever changed – is abiding, repeated event in my life. Six times, so far, it’s happened to me. All of them had to do with my creativity, and my imagination, and how I saw the world and my place in it.”
It might seem like an odd choice to open what is supposed to be a comedy memoir about movies by talking about a painting from the 1800’s. But Silver Screen Fiend is an odd book. It’s not quite an in-depth look at how movies and pop culture shaped Patton Oswalt when he was starting out as a comedian in the 1990’s, and it’s not quite a straightforward memoir about how Oswalt went from a struggling comic in ’90’s Los Angeles to the genre-spanning icon he is today. (yes, I called Patton Oswalt an icon. Fight me.)
People who go into this book expecting it to be these things will be disappointed. There aren’t nearly enough details about either Oswalt’s stand-up career (although there are plenty of great stories about the LA comedy scene in the ’90’s), and his obsession with movies is framed more by the iconic New Beverly Cinema where he saw the films, instead of the movies themselves.
With Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt is trying to do something bigger than just share how he got his start in comedy, or talk about his favorite movies – although there’s plenty of that. Instead, he’s trying to make a statement about how he progressed from an obsession with watching what others created, to creating something himself. He uses the idea of a “Night Cafe” – an experience you have that affects you so deeply it changes the course of your life and remains imprinted on your soul – to show how his obsession with seeing classic films at the New Beverly made him the artist he is today:
“I’m in Los Angeles, with a steady writing job on weekdays at MADtv, a dozen ‘alternative comedy’ spaces to go up in and work on material – and now this, the New Beverly, my $5-a-night film school.
Pretty good trio of films to start off my education with, right? Sunset Boulevard – a cynical, heartbroken writer, dragged to his doom by a true believer in the illusion of film. Ace in the Hole – a satanic, exploitative reporter who picks apart a dying man at the bottom of a pit in the hope that his career will rise back into the sun. And The Nutty Professor – an ignored nerd who’s tempted by popular monstrosity. Obsession, darkness, and magical thinking. Sitting in my apartment late in the night, penciling the star, date, and venue name next to The Nutty Professor in two film books, I will have no idea I’ve entered my fourth Night Cafe.
It will be four years before I pull myself out of it.”
Loving movies and pop culture is not a bad thing – Oswalt’s book proves that films can be just as rich and legitimate forms of art as paintings and literature. But this book acts as a warning to obsessive fans of any medium: it’s good to study the masters who came before you, and loving their work is fine, but you have to create something of your own. Oswalt describes hanging out with friends and spending hours criticizing The Phantom Menace, and he realizes he’s, “angry at George Lucas for producing something that doesn’t live up to my exacting, demanding, ultimately non-participating standards, and failing to see that four hours of pontificating and connecting and correcting his work could be spent creating two or three pages of my own.”
It’s easy to criticize (I say, in the text of a book review on a site where I’ve made a minor name for myself by doing exactly that). It’s hard to create.
“Movies – the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad) – should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life. And it hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all our bluster and detailed, exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film. …And then, once the group of us who moved down to Los Angeles got there, there was more bitching – about not getting bigger roles or better opportunities to pitch shows for ourselves. And we’d piss and moan and get comfortable – fuck, some of us built whole careers – pointing out how unfair and whimsical and chaotic the entertainment business was, how it rarely rewarded the truly talented. None of us could see how it never rewarded the inert.”
Verdict: four out of five stars