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: Without a Shot in Hell

Having delivered my version of a yearly review of cinema in a not-so-timely fashion (I can link to it, for I own the copyrighted material), it’s now time to address the impending announcement of nominations for the 84th Annual Academy Awards. In years past, I offered predictions of the likely nominees in eight major categories and selected whom I “objectively” and personally favored to win. Unfortunately, for those of us who hate the idea of such awards but still watch the Oscars anyway (because of tradition and to be abreast of what’s happening in international film culture), the races in the major categories this season are so predictable. Even if Martin Scorsese scored an upset win for Best Director at the Golden Globes for Hugo (2011), we still know it’s between Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) when it comes to Best Picture. Moreover, Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer have emerged as the ones to beat in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress competitions for their performances in, respectively, Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011) and The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011). This sounds so boring you may as well not tune in, right?

So instead of predicting who will get nominated and who among those nominees will probably take home the gong, I’ve decided to do something different this year: below, I (attempt to) make cases for dark horses in various categories, some of which even I am surprised I have an opinion about. It’s my way of both commending film artists and craftspeople and ripping the Academy a new one. Of course, I’ll have egg on my face if any of the following are actually nominated in the attendant categories. Let’s get to it!

Best Original Score: Last year, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s win for The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) apparently signaled the Academy’s acceptance of electronic scores. Although the Nine Inch Nails duo are likely to be nominated again this year for Fincher’s newest effort, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), I would rather see a spot open up for the heart-pumping and energized score that the Chemical Brothers supplied for Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011). A creepy fairytale-like theme recurs throughout, at times picked up by the menacing assassin Isaacs (played by the great Tom Hollander), who gleefully whistles the tune so as to taunt our fierce heroine (Saoirse Ronan) and us, the audience. Moreover, Wright, perhaps owing to his background in staging ecstatic rave parties, marries the Brothers’ dizzying electronic score to the seizure-inducing sequence in which Hanna breaks out of a US military-owned facility, finding her way along the labyrinthine concrete underworld of air shafts and secret passageways. We’re with her in this frantic moment, mostly thanks to the pulse-pounding beats, which push her out of there and throughout the globe-trotting film.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Despite the esteem of all three lead performers in David Cronenberg’s newest exploration of our taboo sexual desires, it’s not difficult to single out Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method (2011). Funnily enough, it has nothing to do with those much-talked about tricks she can pull off with her jaw. As a young, intelligent woman labeled a hysteric in Dr. Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) care at the turn of the twentieth century in Zurich, Knightley kinda goes ugly, and we know how much Academy voters love “ugly” performances (see Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins’s Monster [2003], Nicole Kidman in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours [2002], and even Halle Berry in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball [2001]). But that’s not why she deserves this notice. For me, Knightley made the film, for without her no-holds-barred performance, how could we have been interested in the dry philosophical and academic debates about sexuality and morality between Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud (embodied by an always interesting Viggo Mortensen)? Knightley imbues her Russian Jewish expat Sabina Spielrein, the crux of the men’s conversations and eventual falling out, with a voracious appetite for provocative ideas and erotic pleasures; it’s no wonder the young and confused doctor, Jung, falls so dangerously for her. It’s a pleasure to watch all three actors–but especially Knightley–engage the heady material of early psychoanalysis with such passion and conviction no matter how much what they say sounds like bullshit today.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011) is a rather bitter pill to swallow, especially for Academy voters, I suspect. It’s not a particularly edgy film, but it is an edgy film to be pushed so flagrantly for Oscar (as it’s been reported that Reitman pushed back the releases of the trailer and the film itself so that it wouldn’t peak too early in the Oscar race, just as his Up in the Air had apparently done in 2009). But enough about Reitman. And rather than choose Andy Serkis for the dark horse in this category as others have probably done (his motion-capture performance as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes [Rupert Wyatt, 2011] is actually a leading role and the subject of an article yet to come), I choose Patton Oswalt. As Matt Freehauf, Oswalt is heartbreaking, even if his visible disability, his mangled leg due to being the victim of a homophobic hate crime in high school, doubles as Mavis Gary’s (Charlize Theron) invisible disfigurement and ultimately unites these two outcasts from opposite ends of the social spectrum in high school. (That’s a nice way of saying she’s a self-centered, emotionally damaged bitch to his embittered and vulnerable geek.) And it’s just that vulnerability and bitterness that Oswalt imbues in his character that makes him stand out.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Is Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) an ensemble or not? This has long been debated, with those who say so quoting the plurality of the title as well as the incisive portrait of competition among two of the eponymous wedding party members. But then there are still others who decry the emphasis placed on Annie’s (Kristen Wiig) miserable lot in life, citing that same pluralism of the title as misleading. Even so, during this awards season, only Melissa McCarthy of the ensemble has picked up any Oscar buzz, for her portrayal of the singular lady Megan, even going so far as to ride the ecstatic raves wave all the way to winning an Emmy for her titular turn on the critically derided Mike and Molly sitcom. No matter how crowd-pleasing McCarthy is as the confident, uncouth, and cuddly Megan, it’s still Kristen Wiig’s show. The Academy in the past has bestowed this accolade on women in comedic roles, but Wiig’s performance walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. As Annie, a single thirtysomething who feels threatened that she’s losing her best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), not only to a new husband but also to a new best friend (Rose Byrne, as Helen), Wiig makes us root for her even as we laugh at her. Wiig and her screenwriting partner Annie Mumolo may paint an incredibly pathetic portrait of the sometimes hard-to-love Annie, but I imagine that as we continue to discuss Bridesmaids, the representation of the film’s 30s-set womanhood might soon dominate the conversation. The self-consciousness, desperation, and low self-esteem of Bridesmaids‘ leading lady is so finely drawn and played that to ignore Wiig’s tour-de-force performance is to miss out on one of the film’s greatest wonders. If I still haven’t convinced you to take a closer look at Wiig, recall the wordless scene in which she bakes a single, lavishly embellished cupcake, contemplates it, and then devours it.

Best Original Screenplay: I’m not going to complain when Woody Allen is the top contender in this category, for I thoroughly enjoyed his Midnight in Paris (2011) and its sharp and funny script. Still, I can take comfort from the fact that, in an alternate universe, Joseph Cedar is nominated and wins for his original screenplay for Footnote (2011), repeating his Cannes 2011 victory. Although it hasn’t been released in theaters yet, I saw this Israeli film at the New York Film Festival. It’s a mixture of genres: melodrama, comedy, thriller. It’s about the professional and personal rivalries between two Talmudic scholars–father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi). Footnote delivered on film critic and now assistant NYFF programmer Scott Foundas’s promise to us in the audience: it is the most thrilling picture about the dry, academic world of Talmudic scholarship. It’s fast, wordy, smart, and funny. To say any more might ruin the somewhat surprising aural and visual pleasures afforded to the spectator of this great film, which is appropriately universal in theme and scope but myopic in subject matter.

Best Director: It’s a shame that the only major notice that Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011) is likely to receive is for Albert Brooks’s deservedly praised portrayal of a heavy, Bernie Rose, in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role competition. Especially since we know that he will lose (to the very fine Christopher Plummer from Beginners). I would like to see Refn, like Footnote‘s writer-director Cedar, repeat his Cannes 2011 glory–not only by being nominated for Best Director but also by winning the award. Drive may have divided critics and audiences, but its deconstruction of the action film and the genre’s dualism between violence and humanity, winningly set to the alluring hues and sounds reminiscent of similar works from the 1980s, was so assuredly choreographed. Drive is a bold statement and one of the most cinephilic offerings of the year in a year teeming with them (see Hugo, The Artist, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse [2011] as examples).

Best Actor in a Leading Role & Best Picture: At this moment, I don’t have any ideas for dark horses in the Best Actor in a Leading Role or Best Picture races. It’s between George Clooney (in The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (in The Artist) in the former category, and if the Golden Globes are anything to go by, the films they represent will also duke it out in the Best Picture competition. The juggernaut that is The Help won’t win Best Picture and can only realistically expect Octavia Spencer to take home the trophy for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In any case, I have no real beef with the likely contenders for Best Actor. Clooney and Dujardin are probably going to be joined by Brad Pitt from Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011), Leonardo DiCaprio from J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011), and Michael Fassbenderfrom Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011), who all delivered Oscar-worthy turns. It doesn’t matter to me who wins (although I would rather see Pitt win than Dujardin), but it would be cool to see the dark horse among these five, Fassbender, lead the pack for his near wordless performance as a sex addict in an all-around intriguing and challenging film.

Predicting the nominees–and therefore the dark horses–of the expanded Best Picture category is a bit more difficult. All I will say is that it would be cool to see Drive added to the list, even though I don’t think it was the best picture of the year. In fact, I couldn’t identify one.

Now, I’m going to hope against hope that these actors, writers, directors, and composers wake up on Tuesday to hear their names announced as nominees. I doubt any will be chosen, but I’ll tune in anyway to watch the Oscar telecast, sick of the whole thing and dutifully filling out the ballot as each winner is proclaimed.