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Friday, September 11, 2009

'Big Fan' captures the extreme of sports mania

We scream and howl at people we don't know – probably never will know – and we spend good money for the right to do so. Events that have absolutely nothing to do with our lives can send us into an emotional tailspin. Our passions are thoroughly irrational and we couldn't care less.

We are, of course, sports fans. We belong to the same worldwide tribe as Paul Aufiero (or "Paul from Staten Island," as he identifies himself on his favorite radio call-in show), the New York Giants fanatic who suffers a big breakdown over the course of Big Fan, which opens today.

How big a fan is Paul? He gets beaten to a pulp by his favorite player, a fictitious and ferocious defensive lineman named Quantrell Bishop. And once he comes out of his coma, he's the one who feels guilty.

Put yourself in Paul's shoes. You live and die with every Cowboys game. You approach Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware at a club and he pummels you within an inch of your life. Then you apologize for creating a Jessica Simpson-sized distraction to the team.

Big Fan writer-director Robert Siegel, a New Yorker who grew up cheering for the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Steelers, conceived of the film as "a tale of unrequited love." It's a condition with which most sports fans are familiar. "Fandom in general is a one-way street," Siegel says by phone. "It's easy to think you have a relationship with players, but you don't. Players talk about fans in the abstract, as in 'the fans were great.' But it's not like they know you're alive."

That's the rub for Paul, played by Patton Oswalt. He lives his life as a regular caller on the airwaves of WFAN, where he wages verbal warfare with rabid Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), and in the parking lot of Giants Stadium. He never has tickets, so he watches the games on a rickety TV powered by his car. He worships fervently but from a distance.

Reality intrudes when that distance is brutally shortened by his idol's fists. Now what? How to continue the rituals of fandom? How to go back to the way life was? His sports fan's cognitive dissonance – that mental disconnect that allows us to invest overpowering feelings in millionaire strangers – is thrown for a violent loop. Paul's escapist fantasy has become an existential crisis.

Big Fan is hardly the first fictional attempt to explore the fan's psyche. In Tony Scott's The Fan (1996), a deranged loner and San Francisco Giants fan played by Robert De Niro terrorizes a spoiled, Barry Bonds-like superstar (Wesley Snipes) and his family. The slugger has nothing but contempt for the fans. The stalker takes personal offense. The Fan eventually becomes a rote, harebrained thriller, but until then it brings a vicarious jolt to viewers fed up with such easy scapegoats as astronomic salaries and aloof jocks.

But Big Fan's best antecedent comes from the world of literature, not film. Frederick Exley's autobiographical novel A Fan's Notes (1968) is, like Big Fan, about a New York Giants partisan with an otherwise empty life. He lives with "a feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and either he did it or got out." He finds himself "relying on the Giants as a life-giving, exalting force." Exley's protagonist has demons far stronger than Paul's: He drinks with a sense of perpetual desperation, and he spends much of the book checking in and out of mental hospitals. His self-aware streak also sets him apart from his Big Fan counterpart, and makes him a captivating, and devastating, first-person narrator.

For the sake of disclosure, let me point out that I'm hardly above the fray of sports obsession. I stayed in bed the day after the Giants (baseball, not football) choked away the World Series in 2002. More recently, the sight of the Mavericks coughing up the 2006 NBA Finals put my stomach in Windsor knots for days on end. I consider myself a fairly well-adjusted person. Unlike Paul from Staten Island, I don't live with my mom. I have a life and a career. Doesn't matter. I caught the fan bug early, and I imagine I'll carry it to my deathbed.

Yes, Paul and Exley are extreme examples of a common breed. They use fandom to fill a gaping void. And, as Siegel points out, the salve doesn't always have to be sports. "It's no different to me than people who live through their favorite band or rapper or actor," he says. "I don't think everybody is obsessed, but on some level it's relatable to anybody who lives through things that have nothing to do with their daily lives."

Just don't tell that to Paul. Not after he went and took one for the team. As the song says, love hurts.

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