To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “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” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).

Jump Cut: “Tell Me That One About Kenny G Again”

Some films—good and bad—stick with you long after you’ve seen them, for a variety of reasons. There’s an intricately choreographed five-minute-long tracking shot re-enacting the British evacuation of Dunkirk. The guffaw-inducing sight of a soft mannequin, a stand-in for a bad guy, being dragged along the subway tracks. John Williams’s two-note theme for the mostly unseen underwater villain. But cinema being an audiovisual storytelling medium, it is often what is said that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

I love collecting movie quotes, but in preparation for this article, I actually had difficulty listing my favorite lines. Watching as many films as I do, dialogue from movies I love and feel disinterest toward inevitably and unconsciously wind up in my idiolect. My movie-mad sister is my best friend, and we often communicate in Movie Talk. But even now, I’m struggling to come up with an example of something that we say to each other—with and without hints of irony. Just as it is for practically all cinephiles, I guess films are just so ingrained in our brains, so tightly knit into the fabric of our everyday lives, that the origins of some movie references we make regularly go unexamined. Let’s attempt to change that.

Then again, there are also memorable movie quotes that don’t fit easily into everyone’s daily conversations. Most of the entries on the following list of my favorite movie lines fall into this category. I should also note that this inventory is by no means comprehensive; I may continually add to it as they come to me. I invite you to tell me your favorites, too, in the comments section below.

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Let’s start with the line that inspired me to post on this topic: in Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake of the classic romance Sabrina, a charming Julia Ormond stars as the titular daughter of a chauffeur who has loved the younger, commitment-phobic Larrabee brother David (played by Greg Kinnear) all of her life. During the opening credits, which unravel as she narrates her lovelorn situation (he doesn’t know that she exists, that she watches him routinely woo rich women from her perch in the tree outside her apartment above the garage on his family’s estate), Sabrina heavily breathes, with the slightest hesitation, “David… did a GAP ad.” I love the combination of her sincerity and the ridiculousness of her words. It’s as if—at what age? 30?—she is a teenybopper.

To be fair to poor Sabrina, she also makes an astute, perhaps even eloquent, observation later on in the film, after she’s returned from Paris elegant and confident. David’s older, uptight brother Linus (Harrison Ford) whisks her away to Martha’s Vineyard. He pretends to want to sell his house there so as to keep her away from a now-smitten David (but who’s now engaged to the daughter of a tech tycoon Linus is doing business with), so the conniving businessman invites her to take photos of his property. An amateur photographer, Sabrina reflects on her lonely, voyeuristic existence growing up, all while snapping views from the Linus’s house: “Every time I look through a camera, I’m surprised. It’s like finding yourself in the middle of a story… I think I’ve been taking pictures all my life, long before I ever had a camera.” Doesn’t that make up for her simple, pathetic idolization of a smug, rich jerk? Besides, opening up to Linus (and influencing his heart to melt in the process) is just the beginning of her journey to discover of who she really wants.

Sabrina and Linus enjoy the view of the harbor—and then of each other. Image courtesy of http://www.cineplex.com.

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Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006) is about a group of four middle-aged women in Los Angeles, three of whom are either extremely wealthy or very well-off. Yeah, yeah, it may be best remembered because Jennifer Aniston plays against type as the fourth friend who has no money—and some questionable taste in men—but the real star of the show is Frances McDormand, who plays a successful clothing designer with anger management issues. In my favorite scene, she waits in line at Old Navy and flips out when a couple jumps in front of her as she walks toward the cash register. During the confrontation, in which neither the cashier nor the manager sympathizes with her passed-over situation, she points her finger in the butting pair’s faces, accusing them of ignoring her and shouting, “Yes, those two people! With their stupid fucking faces!” Why do I love this line? First of all, I should note that I’m biased: McDormand is one of my favorite actresses. I always find her entertaining. But because she lowers her voice as she spits out this line, it sounds as if she’s a monster saying, “stupidfuckingfaces!” Brilliant.

Be warned: if you butt in front of her while she’s waiting in line, Frances McDormand’s gonna come after you! Image courtesy of http://www.hotflick.net.

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If you’ve even just skimmed through the About the Site page on CINE FEEL YEAH, you might have noticed that one of my favorite comfort films (yes, like the food) is The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996). A woman-centered adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, it stars Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman as neighbors who start spending a lot of time together after insecure veterinarian radio host Garofalo tells an amorous listener that she looks like the “dumb blonde” Thurman when he asks her out on a date. It’s a long story as to how he’s given this impression when he first meets them both at the radio station. More importantly, there are many choice lines in the film, but my absolute favorite is a quick exchange between the two women. Garofalo is sobbing in the department store where she let a cosmetics saleswoman make over her face. Pissed off that society dictates women make themselves attractive to men through cosmetic enhancement, she says, “If I was a guy, I think women would like, line up to go out with me. I’m smart. I have a good sense of humor. I make a great living.” Without missing a beat, Thurman nods, “I’d fuck you.” Garofalo responds, “Thank you, honey. I know you would.” This dialogue effortlessly gets at the root of female friendships. They don’t know each other well at this point, but they support one another in the face of seemingly absurd adversity—especially from the small voices deep within.

Opposites attract: Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman are best friends and know just how to comfort one another. Image courtesy of http://www.iluvcinema.com.

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The last two quotes I have for you right now are actually part of my everyday speech. Not only that, they are also the only two lines spoken by men to make the list. The first (or second-to-last, depending on how you look at it), comes courtesy of David Deblinger’s character in the sweet but acerbic and little-seen rom-com/satire of the fashion industry Intern (Michael Lange, 2000). Dominique Swain plays the eponymous gofer at a fashion magazine. During her tenure, she falls for the dreamy deputy art director, rolls her eyes at the shallowness of the industry’s top decision-makers, and even uncovers an editor’s selling insider information to a rival glossy rag. The intern befriends Deblinger’s flamboyant, straight-talking accessories editor, who, in the end, confronts another frustrated co-worker with the immortal line, “What’s with the angry?” Despite his sentence’s despicable lack of grammatical cohesion, I love to repeat it—ironically. You never know, if you use it to ask someone about what is making him or her upset, you might just put a smile on that person’s face.

I apologize: I couldn’t find a photo of Deblinger in Intern during my Google Image search. In its place, I’ll offer that I’m 99.99% certain I saw the actor riding the subway in Brooklyn once while on my way home (I think it was the No. 2 train). He was talking with his female companion, so I didn’t dare interrupt their chat to say anything. And definitely not to ask, “What’s with the angry?”

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24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) is my all-time favorite film, and it is so highly quotable. I know it like the back of my hand, which is why I am usually disappointed in others’ estimations of its quotiness (can I coin that right now?). For example, I’d waited years to meet someone who had ever even heard of it. (Generally, whenever someone asks me for the name of my fave film, I have to repeat the title at least twice.) And when I finally did, while studying abroad in Northwest England, he quoted the movie back to me. How exciting, right?! Well, he chose the least creative line (“There’s a barbed wire fence! There’s a barbed wire fence!”). Well, to each his own, right?

Anyway, my favorite utterance comes early in the film, too. Steve Coogan, as real-life TV personality and Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, directly addresses the camera following his exhilarating hang gliding experience in the Pennines (director Winterbottom uses mostly real footage of Wilson himself performing the stunt). In doing so, Coogan/Wilson steps outside of the film while remaining fixed in the frame: “You’re gonna be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film. All of that actually did happen. Obviously, it’s symbolic. It works on both levels. I don’t want to tell you too much, don’t want to spoil the film. But I’ll just say, ‘Icarus.’ OK? If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t, doesn’t matter. But you should probably read more.” Obviously, this is a pretty long, context-specific quote (he’s referring to the fame and fortune he and others attached to Manchester’s music scene cyclically gain and lose, by the way), so I don’t use the whole thing. I abridge it (“You should probably read more”) and try to imitate his flippant, condescending tone. Again, I never earnestly deploy the line, and I mainly just say it to my sister, who gets it, about someone else. After all, the movie’s all about irony.

Who is it? Steve Coogan or Tony Wilson tells you what to expect—without spoiling anything.