JANUARY 20, 2015
WALK INTO A BOOKSTORE, or open the bookstore app on your phone, and you’ll find plenty of memoirs, arguably the literary form of our time. Many of these belong to a specific subgenre: the addiction narrative. It’s easy to see why. Addiction is inherently dramatic — the memoirist struggling against her own worst impulses, searching for redemption — and it’s largely a struggle with oneself. Write a memoir of your difficult childhood and you might very well end up offending entire branches of your family tree. Not that addicts turned authors don’t take the same risk, of course, but in the addiction narrative, the memoirist comes off looking at least as bad as everyone else.
Perhaps due to the proliferation of these kinds of accounts, writers have discovered that the concept can be applied to more than just illicit substances. Two new memoirs demonstrate this, taking film — the movies, that is — as their central subject.
Tara Ison, who grew up in Southern California, is a novelist and teacher. Also a screenwriter. (She co-wrote the script for the Christina Applegate film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and is thus directly responsible for a very particular cinematic memory shared by countless ’90s kids like myself.) Ison’s new collection of essays, Reeling Through Life, is an account of her relationship with her first and abiding love. In the introduction she writes:
I’m a child of the movies, a movie freak, a film junkie, a cineaste. It’s a lifelong addiction, the activity for which I happily forsake all else. I don’t believe it’s wholly a craving for escape — my passion for watching movies is more engaged than that. It is a proactive desire to enter into and inhabit other realities, other lives. To slip into someone else’s clothes, trod along in their shoes, try out their actions, accents, and attitudes. To imagine myself as an Other, and to layer that Other’s experience into my own. It’s a desire for more layers — and a desire to learn from those layers, to figure out who I am and how to be in the world. Movies have gotten under my skin, formed my perceptions, influenced the choices I’ve made. I’ve learned how to live at the movies, from the movies; I am who I am because of movies, and, to some degree, all the other movie freaks out there are, too.
From there, in an investigation of her “lifelong addiction,” Ison frames each essay as if it were self-help: “How to Go Crazy” draws on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted; “How to Lose Your Virginity” leans on Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Romeo and Juliet (the Franco Zefferelli version from 1976); “How to be a Jew” offers a winning account of her desire to live out the plot of Fiddler on the Roof. Reeling Through Life isn’t meant to be criticism: it doesn’t offer measured appraisals or nuanced considerations of any single filmmaker’s contribution to the art. Instead, breathless and impassioned, Ison shows how and when her favorite on-screen characters and stories synchronized with her own life, or, more often than not, failed to do so. It’s possible that film buffs may not appreciate her breezy approach to cinematic history, but I found it delightful. Rather than a seminar, Ison’s book has the feel of a dinner party, where the hostess tries out voices, does impressions, acts out whole scenes and plots.
Those summaries are the best parts of Reeling Through Life. What’s odd is that the writing is less engaged, even less searching, when Ison relates the plot of her life. Although given the arena, this is, quite possibly, inevitable. Compared to the outsized personalities and last-minute plot twists in the movies, one’s own experience is bound to seem less dramatic, less meaningful, less like a story. There are a number of minor, pitch-perfect details, particularly from Ison’s ’70s adolescence, but there’s still the sense that she’s frustrated with the un-cinematic material that life has provided her.
For example, in an essay titled “How to Be a Drunk,” Ison writes about deciding to become an alcoholic at the age of 11, after seeing Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, “one of those ‘social issue’ network television Movies of the Week from the 1970s, meant to be instructive and realistically gritty yet still exploitative ratings-grabbers.” Sarah may have left grief and ruin in her path, but people paid attention to her.
Portrait of … movies are not made about normal, stable teenage girls, after all, only about girls with problems. With distinction. Parents might listen to, but they do not hear unless peril raises its hand and yells Present! I should be appalled by all the deceit, by a fifteen-year-old girl prostituting herself for alcohol; I should be horrified by the brutal death of a sweet horse. And I am. This is horrible. But that degree of dysfunction and damage feels unimaginable to me, both implausible and unnecessary; no one I know has a horse, and my parents’ unlocked liquor cabinet is stocked for the Apocalypse. Sarah went about this badly, let it get out of control, is all. I want the distinction without the messy fallout, a manageable dusting of Something Bad, why I can’t achieve this, why I can’t stay on the Good Girl side of the imaginary line, flirt but not dance with the demon, yet still have the problem. I want the problem. I want to be the problem, authentically visible and voluble, just for once.
Ison is having fun here, for sure, but as the essay goes on, following her relationship to alcohol up until the present, the self-examination on display feels superficial. She’s not, she explains, an alcoholic in the poète maudit sense, like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, but she’s also not a happy drunk who needs alcohol to sustain her happiness, like Dudley Moore in Arthur. At the end of the essay, she wonders whether or not she is even the real thing. A friend, however, is more interested in why Ison continues to ask the question. She answers, “Hoping to seem deeper and more interesting than I am, to offer evidence of the Tortured Artist to fulfill narrative convention, something to add a justifying glamour to my story.”
The consequences of Ison’s true addiction are revealed in the very last essay, “How to Be a Writer.” As a child, she copied out a poem from one of her books and showed it to her dramatic, emotionally exhausting mother, claiming the work as her own. Her mother didn’t detect the plagiarism, and pronounced her daughter a literary genius. Ison knew that her mother’s opinion wasn’t terribly well informed; still, she liked thinking of herself that way. But how to become a real writer?
True to form (addicted, in other words), she looks to the movies for guidance: she enjoys Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in Reds, Robin Williams in The World According to Garp, Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys — but if film can depict most things, the act of writing is one aspect of human experience it hasn’t been able to fully portray. Writers drinking, brawling, and generally misbehaving have turned up on screen, but the creative act itself is almost entirely internal: no canvases to show or instruments to play. It’s not until years later that Ison rents a small apartment in San Francisco, every inch the iconic artist’s garret: tiny and bare, save for desk, bed, and typewriter. Really, though, this is her rehab facility, a place where she can detox from all the movies she’s watched and do the work she needs to do without worrying about what kind of story she’s starring in. It’s there that she’s able to write her first novel the only way a writer can, by sitting at the desk hour after hour, day after day, month after month.
Patton Oswalt is a comedian who has spent much of his career detailing his obsessive relationship with popular culture. He’s done bits on the television show Cops; the autobiography of legendary, and legendarily coked-out, movie producer Robert Evans; and the bleak portrait of marriage painted by old commercials for Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats. He’s also pursued these interests in a number of other venues, including podcasts, videos, and even a book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (2011), which, though enjoyable, never quite cohered into a whole in the same way that his comedy specials do. However, with Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt has attempted to write a book that works as a book, and not just as a translation of his stand-up routine.
Like Steve Martin in Born Standing Up and Tina Fey in Bossypants, Oswalt chooses a crucial period in his development as a comedian for the focus of his book. After several years working the road, playing to near-empty rooms for gas money, Oswalt moved to Los Angeles. He was looking for new opportunities, and he found them. He got steady work on television, writing for MADtv and co-starring in the Kevin James sitcom The King of Queens, and he also discovered his own tribe of comedians at a club called the Largo, working with and learning from performers like Zach Galifianakis, Maria Bamford, and Paul F. Tompkins. But what he wanted was to make movies, and the way to do that, he thought, was to see as many as he could. Silver Screen Fiend follows Oswalt through four years of his life — four years to the day, actually — from May 20, 1995 to May 20, 1999. During that time, he went to double features at the historic New Beverly Cinema on an almost daily basis, keeping careful notes of all the movies he saw. In the first chapter he writes:
But now it’s 1995 and the first of many nourishing, sun-warmed days has been pushed behind me, behind the swinging doors of the New Beverly.
I take my bent, warped-spring in the briny darkness. This is the sort of abyssal darkness deep-sea fishes thrive on. Fueling themselves on glowing, volcanic vents on the ocean floor. The New Beverly has a volcanic vent of its own — up on the wall, there, big enough for a megalodon shark to swim through. Or a horde of zombies to shuffle through. Or a fleet of spaceships to fly through. Me and the other deep-sea fishes inside the New Beverly — the movie freaks, sprocket fiends, celluloid junkies, single-star satellites and garden-variety misanthropes, loners and sun haters — we, too, feed from the glow pulsing off of the screen. The movie screen — that’s our volcanic vent.
As similarly obsessed as they are, there’s a difference in Ison’s and Oswalt’s approaches. For Ison, watching movies is a way of trying on different identities, imagining herself into others’ lives; for Oswalt, movies are a canon to master, a data set to memorize. As far as dichotomies go, it’s almost too neat, the intuitive-feminine and the analytical-masculine, but there you have it. Even though Oswalt is more of a completist than Ison, as demonstrated by a 30-page appendix listing every movie he saw in the memoir’s four-year period, he devotes little time to recounting actual stories. In his book, plots are summed up in a sentence or less — his real subject is not movies but movie-going; the high that comes from seeing the right movie in the right place at the right time. And, of course, the lows.
In explicitly framing Silver Screen Fiend as an addiction narrative, Oswalt has set up a tricky challenge for himself. When a memoirist is addicted to alcohol, drugs, or some other substance, the point in the story where she bottoms out (as she always does) is fairly obvious, what with the ruin and degradation. When one is addicted to the movies, however, the bottom is more difficult to recognize. In the middle of the book, Oswalt writes about going to a movie marathon devoted to Hammer, the British studio famous for churning out sneakily clever horror flicks in the ’50s. After watching nearly 24 hours of film in two days, he can’t keep the movies straight anymore. In his mind, Dr. Frankenstein is bringing dinosaurs back to life to battle the vampire women of Mars. As he’s getting out of his seat, he notices a man sitting in the same row. They nod and congratulate each other for making it through: the first, last, and only words they exchange. Nothing too dramatic, but the moment sticks with Oswalt as emblematic of something; the gap between life and art, maybe, but at that point, he can’t quite put it into words.
What finally gets him to consider the limitations of his obsession is the event that did the same for millions of geeks: in 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. Oswalt was a huge fan of the franchise, and had been anticipating the prequels since he was a kid. But that turgid, overblown spectacle of a film, “like watching C-SPAN but everyone’s wearing monster masks,” sunk him into a dark night of the soul. Later, over dinner, he and his friends discussed the numerous faults of the movie, and how they could have been fixed. But why spend all that energy on a terrible film? Or, for that matter, a good one. “Movies,” Oswalt realizes, “— 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 of our bluster and detailed, exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film.
Obvious, maybe, but as a media addict, prone to telling myself that reading one more book or listening to one more album is all I need to unlock the mysteries of creativity, I found his insight welcome. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Compared to the mid-to-late-’90s time frame of Silver Screen Fiend, the Pizza Hut lunch buffet of media now available is indescribably vast, and is sure to make addicts of millions. Let’s just hope some of them look up from their screens, at their lives, and create.