Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dark Heart of Fans: Review of The Big Fan

He was beaten senseless for the crime of wearing Giants’ gear at a Dodger game. Two men dressed in Dodger blue attacked, knocked him down, then kicked him and fled to a car where a woman and child waited for them. Bad movie? Scene from the Sopranos? No, this is first day reality of baseball fans run amuck.

The awful incident reminds us of how important and fragile being a good fan can be. Being a fan involves a form of identification with a team, place and history. It can prop up fragile identities in a brutally mobile society where geography, work and even profession provide more and more attenuated identities. When recession strips away any illusions we might have about organizations being loyal to us, the few anchors we have for identity become even more important.

I’ve written before about how being a fan involves special obligations as well as special influence on the game and community. This incident in Los Angeles reveals the dark side of anger and mutual recrimination and hatred that fandom can unleash just like the destruction of the sacred grove in Auburn or the organized hooligans in Europe.

American movies and culture seldom engage what it means to be a fan, and when they do it usually reduces them to caricatures like in the movie The Fan where a psychopath kidnaps his idol.To many of us, however, being a fan does not involve being either a psychopath nor a malformed loner, rather we share it with family and friends and weave it into the texture of our lives, history and time.

Another movie reminds me both of the pathos, warmth and darkness of being a fan. The Big Fan tells the story of Paul Aufiero played with quiet implosive power by Paton Oswalt. At 35 he lives at home with his mother (what else), sleeps with a blanket embossed with Giants logo and has a picture of his favorite player hanging on his bedroom wall. He works at a dead end job as a parking lot attendant. But the dead end job provides time for him to compose with care and pain the rants he will unleash on late night sport talk radio. He inscribes them, almost etches them, with ball point on paper. He devotes his hours, mind and passion to his beloved Giants. What sound like spontaneous rants are composed defenses of his team replete with play analysis and statistics.

His mother nags him to grow up and find a life, but the point of the movie is that Paul believes he has a good life. He is not going anywhere and does not have the skill, education or quality of mind to move up. He knows there is no upward mobility world for him and for these good reasons he does not have a lot of ambition to do so. I mean why bother to dream or strive for what you know is impossible in this society.

But he does have his beloved New York Giants. The team dominates his life. He and his best and only friend Sal  attend the Giants games. In this modern world, he, like most working class families, does not have the money to actually attend the game. But Paul and Sal proudly tailgate in the cold parking lost watching a scratchy TV hooked to his car battery. 

This is OK. Paul knows his presence there proves his deeper loyalty to the team than the rich comfortable fans inside or the wimps who sit at home and watch. He knows he is their best and most loyal fan. The proof reinforces a strong and secure identity as the Big Fan. His role and  identity are reinforced by his late night radio moniker,  “Paul from Staten Island." His rants roll out with statistic, plays, and a mad logic of their own and generate his own avid following among the 2AM insomniacs who follow the ruthless, raucous, braying rituals of sport talk radio vituperation. He duels with his despised talk radio rival, Philadelphia Phil, who defends the hated hated Philadelphia Eagles. 

It looks like Paul  has little in his life to be proud of, but Paul sees it differently. He invests and gets psychic and status rewards  with his relation to the team. He also possesses a lodestar for his emotions and a way to invest his limited but real emotions and wealth. Watching him put on war paint for the games portrays a ritual of identity and community. Paul knows who he is.

The movies unfolds when he and his sidekick accidentally spot the team’s star linebacker and follow him through what may be a drug buy, then to a strip club. They humbly approach the linebacker for an autograph. Through a sad and funny misunderstanding the linebacker beats Paul into unconsciousness.

Three days later he awakes in a hospital. The linebacker is suspended, the Giants tank and his brother in law wants to sue the linebacker and team. Torn to his core and mocked and scorned now that his real life is revealed, Paul remains as stubborn as a reporter protecting first amendment sources. He will not betray his allegiance to the team even though his “hero” lacerated him and his vision.  Now he is scorned.

The  key of all our community versus personal allegiances is that we are loyal to a dream and vision, not to a reality. Cities, states, teams remain corporate shells and cold institutions inhabited by rotating personnel and our faithfulness to them emerges from our experiences of them and their place in our life and history. These loyalties stem from deeper reasons demonstrated by how Colin Firth’s loyalty to his soccer team reflect his link to his father and their complicated history in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch.

The Big Fan ends with an act of violence! To redeem himself and prove his loyalty to himself and his dream identity, Paul seeks out his mocking nemesis on talk radio, the defender of the Philadelphia Eagles.  The Big Fan draws a gun on Philadelphia Phil and for a moment we fear that he will redeem himself like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver with an act of murder. But Paul shoots him with the paint colors of his Giants and makes redress for himself and his team.

Our Big Fan ends in jail. He has proven he loves his team more than himself, a core of human courage. The issue here is not whether the team deserves the love, but that he is capable of it. People have certainly devoted themselves to things more loony or more dangerous than a football team.  This love can pervert into jealous anger and hatred unleashing the violence in Los Angeles, but it can give life and a strange nobility to the life of a big fan. 

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