Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This Week in Arrested Development, Part 2: Big Fan

"Big Fan" is the first film directed by Robert Siegel, screenwriter of Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" and former editor of The Onion. Shot on an extremely low budget (probably in the neighborhood of $500,000) and employing the RED camera, the movie stars comedian Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, probably the most dedicated fan of the New York Giants. I have to say that the decision to release this movie at the beginning of the football season was quite a daring one, as it delves deeply into the mindset of a football fan, resulting in a flawed, but disturbing and sad film.

I will admit right away that I never cared much for sports, so I never understood the appeal to waste away an entire Sunday watching football or baseball games. The funny thing is that I still enjoy sports movies because they actually get to the drama of a game, while cutting out the boring moments in sports (not to mention the endless commercial breaks). Sports has been so ingrained in the male culture that any man like myself who openly admits to not liking sports is given that look that says, "You're not masculine enough." Although if I were to suggest that sports is only a way for men to substitute the triumphs of rich athletes for the failures in their own lives, then that would probably trigger a violent response from any sports fan.

"Big Fan" goes there in a way that you can interchange the interests of the main character Paul with something like, say, movies, and it would still be insightful about the concept of rabid fandom and how it discourages personal development. The title of this blog post suggests this was going to be connected to the "Inglourious Basterds" review, didn't it?

Paul Auferio is a 35 year old Staten Island man who still lives at home with his mother, while working a dead-end job at a parking garage toll booth. His life revolves around his dedication to the New York Giants. He attends the games every Sunday with his best friend Sal (played by Kevin Corrigan), although there is one catch to it. Since Paul and Sal do not actually make enough money to afford tickets, they watch the game outside Giants Stadium with a portable television sitting in the trunk of their car.

Not only that, Paul makes nightly calls to a sports radio show, even preparing his thoughts beforehand in a notebook, and achieves the amount of "celebrity" that a frequent caller to a radio show could possibly achieve. He even has a tit-for-tat feud with another caller, Philadelphia Eagles fan "Philadelphia Phil". At the end of his phone calls, you can see the look of self-satisfaction on Paul's face when he feels he cuts Phil down to size with his own shit talk.

Later in the story, Paul and Sal see their favorite Giants player, Quantrell Bishop, on the street and follow him and his entourage to a strip club in Manhattan. Needless to say, when Paul reveals to Bishop that he may have followed him, the football player becomes paranoid and viciously beats Paul, sending him to the hospital. The rest of the movie centers around the aftermath of this incident and whether Paul will press charges against Bishop. Why would he not press charges? Because without Bishop, the Giants have less of a chance to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. When I call this movie disturbing, it is mostly due to this unwillingness on Paul's part to do something for his own self-respect.

You can see the common narrative threads from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and especially "The King of Comedy" in this movie: the story of a loner who eventually reaches his breaking point. Much to my surprise, "Big Fan" does not go where you would expect it to go. Robert Siegel shows equal parts frustration and admiration for Paul. While Paul does not explore life much beyond his dedication to his favorite team, he also is somewhat of a non-conformist in society. Unlike his low-level, somewhat sleazy lawyer brother who married his large-breasted secretary (after he cheated on his first wife with her), Paul does not see living the family life with wife and kids along with a better job as the goals he needs to achieve in his life.

The tragedy of Paul is that his supposed non-comformity is an act of conformity in itself. "Big Fan" does not shy away from exploring the most damning aspects of the culture of sports fanaticism or any kind of fanaticism, for that matter. You watch people like Paul and wonder why they need to invest so much time devoted to nothing but sports. At a certain point, your life becomes nothing more than about what you blindly love. In Paul's case, you would think the beating he takes from Bishop would remind him that the things he loves do not exactly love him back.

There is a sort of danger in putting all your eggs in one basket, regarding your personal interests. There is such a thing as having an unhealthy obsession that prevents you from learning from all the diverse things that life has to offer you. I could never imagine ever having to converse with someone like Paul because he would tune out every topic that does not involve football. Then, he would try to turn the conversation over to what his interests are and expect that everyone cares about football as much as he does. When you look at Paul, you wonder how this man will ever age gracefully when he seems resistant to attaining any level of wisdom or self-awareness.

However, one can ask how different any of us are from Paul? We all have things we are obsessed about (and write blogs like this about), but where do we draw the line when our interests take over our lives to the point of de-valuing ourselves? When do we reach the point, as Paul does, where we take pride in meaningless victories? Is rebelling against maturity an act of non-conformity or a resistance to common sense? At what point is it necessary to put away the childish things that may hold us back?

Robert Siegel does a fine job of exploring these questions. It is also obvious from his script for "The Wrestler" and "Big Fan" that he understands the fringe aspects of sports. As much as a viewer like myself may find these characters a little too much to take, there are also moments when the emotions are more universal than you would care to admit. Both of these films resist portraying these characters in a condescending way, for the most part resisting cheap shots at their lifestyles.

One has to also give credit to Siegel for his spot-on casting. Though Patton Oswalt is not a professional actor (and, in a few moments, it does show) and is widely known for his takedown of the KFC Famous Bowl and being the voice of Remy in "Ratatouille", his face and body type is spot-on for this role. One can also see that hiring a professional comedian, who has not hidden his surly nature in his own act, aids the sadness and loneliness of the character. Though sometimes, Oswalt's line readings reveal his inexperience, his subtle facial expressions are quite effective. Kevin Corrigan is also strong, though I do probably feel he has played this type of character so well so many times, it cannot be that much of a surprise. I also have to credit Siegel for casting Michael Rapaport in a small, but important role that is perfectly suited for how off-putting he can sometimes be.

"Big Fan" is a bit rough around the edges and certainly shows a director learning how to use the camera to tell his story. Sometimes, the movie does tip over a little much into embarrassing the characters, such as an extended scene early on in a car between Paul and his mother, where she goes on about finding the used tissues from his, um, bedroom activities in his wastebasket. I have to say that Paul's story was both relatable and horrifying in equal measures. It is far from a great film, but still haunting to me. It will be barely released, starting this Friday in New York and Philadelphia, though most will probably catch up with on DVD. I can imagine a sports fan picking up the DVD, based on a superficial description of the film and then getting angry when the film forces them to be aware of who they are.

I sometimes fear that we are developing into a culture that devotes so much time to minutiae that we often miss the big picture as Paul does. That many of us think so little of ourselves that we define our existences by the things we love and admire than the actions we take. We turn our interests into objects of fetishization, which often prevent us from progressing and growing. Though I can understand why Paul would want to resist the lifestyle that his more successful brother has, I also found myself wanting someone to sit Paul down and tell him that he should not think so little of himself to define his life via a corporate sports franchise.

After all, it is just a game.

Big Fan was viewed in June at the BamCinemafest at the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn.

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