Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sports, movies, and other diversions

I swear up and down that I don’t believe in jinxes, but it seems to me like every time I get it into my head to wrap a post (or even half a post) around an idea like “look how well the Yankees are doing!” they proceed to hit the skids. Dropping the last game of four to the Sox isn’t terribly surprising, unlike Mariano Rivera turning in a sub-average performance in extra innings to cough one up to the Rangers, but even that’s not completely unheard of. Still, maybe I should just lay off baseball until the E number is in single digits.

And I’ll turn my attention to football a little bit early! As it happened, my wife was listening to ESPN Radio yesterday morning, which was a doubly-glum experience as the sports pundits were predicting the final standings for each division and had both my wife’s beloved Steelers and my beloved Giants finishing closer to the bottom than the top (and in four-team divisions, that means either second-to-last or last). You might think that kind of vexation on top of the tribulations afoot within the American League East would really put a damper on my day, but eh, not so much. Three reasons why:

1. My expectations are higher for the Yankees than the Giants. Between their astronomical payroll and the fact that they have had a few home-grown future Hall of Famers for the past decade and a half, the Yankees are supposed to be contenders for the pennant (if not the world championship) every single year. The Giants go much more up and down. Sometimes they win the division, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they sneak into the playoffs and get bounced in the first round. Sometimes they make it to the Superbowl and get manhandled by the Ravens, and sometimes they upset the heretofore-perfect Pats. With the Giants, I take what I can get.
2. Pre-season predictions may be unpleasant to listen to when they are unflattering towards your team of choice, but they are really meaningless. Believing in them is a lot like believing in, oh I don’t know … jinxes? Ahem.
3. Questions of arguably misplaced faith in the team gave me a good impetus to finally watch my Netflixed copy of Big Fan.

Hey, remember Netflix? Remember how I said I was going to watch at least (on average) one Netflix movie per month, or cancel my membership? I was doing really well through April but then I just lost all ability to carve out an hour and half at a go. But last night I gave myself permission to ignore any and all housework or other domestic projects and, once I got the little guy to bed, kick back on the couch in front of a DVD and see how far I could get into a flick before my wife got home from work (which turned out to be basically all the way through, astonishingly enough).

Big Fan is a humble independent film which most people have never heard of, but it’s a dark slightly comedic character study that stars Patton Oswalt as a New York Giants super-fan and was written by a longtime writer/editor for The Onion and that is a pretty good introduction to a wide cross-section of my own personal interests. Beyond that, it’s not really a movie I would go out of my way to recommend to anyone who didn’t share those particular interests. I enjoyed it, but as long as something isn’t incompetently constructed or insultingly stupid, I tend to enjoy most entertainments, so that’s faint praise.

Right off the bat, the movie hit one of my soft spots, which is nostalgia for growing up in New Jersey. Oswalt’s character, Paul, lives in Staten Island but the Giants, of course, play their home games at the Meadowlands in NJ, and the whole greater NYC area has its tribal territorial boundaries but there’s a lot of bleedthrough which creates a greater sense of place and the suburban neighborhoods of Staten Island aren’t that different from where I grew up. (In point of fact, I maintain that when people who aren’t from the northeast think of “stereotypical New Jersey” what they are in fact envisioning is Staten Island, including the accent, but that is a rant for another day. Or entire week.) It’s difficult to put it into words – maybe it’s just after Jersey Shore being so prominent in the collective consciousness it was nice to see the old stomping grounds in the colors and beats of football season’s autumn-to-winter stretch. And any movie that has a scene of people eating New York style pizza is just gratuitously pushing my buttons, come on.

Mostly the movie presents Paul as a weird, sad little guy who has a weird, sad little life. And when his life becomes more complicated than he’s used to (more complicated than he is really prepared to deal with) his reactions are increasingly weirder and sadder. He works as a booth attendant in a parking garage, he lives with his mom, and the best moments in his life are when the Giants are winning or when he gets on the air on a local sports radio call-in show. Oswalt does a great job connecting the scenes where he’s writing out what he wants to say on the radio, scenes where he’s on hold and practicing exactly how he’s going to inflect each word, and scenes where he finally gets on-air and plays it off like these streams of carefully chosen verbal constructions are coming off the top of his head. It’s almost a disservice having Oswalt play the character because his delivery elevates the material, which is of course cliché-ridden borderline drivel, despite the fact that paul’s best friend Sal always listens to the call-in show and tells Paul his calls are poetry. There’s a great moment where the camera is looking over Paul’s shoulder as he writes an impassioned defense of his favorite player (currently in some legal trouble) and falls back on innocent until proved guilty and a little thing called the Constitution. But he spells it “Constitusion” which pretty much sums it up.

There’s some good tailgating in East Rutherford scenes, which actually threw me off a bit for a couple of reasons. Paul’s favorite player, whose unflattering actions are pretty crucial to the plot, is of course a fictional creation named Quantrell Bishop. In the world of the movie, Bishop is not just Paul’s favorite but massively popular, so not only does Paul have a Bishop jersey (he actually has 2, one in home colors and the other white for road games, which is another nice touch) but lots of people in the tailgating scene do, too. Which honestly pulled me out of the movie a bit, since I started to wonder how much of the budget went to ordering custom jerseys, and whether they got them from or an unlicensed merchant …

Two, maybe three people reading will get this joke.
The other distracting thing about the tailgating was that I know, having grown up a Giants fan in NJ, that it is incredibly hard to get tickets to Giants home games. People bequeath season tickets in their wills. People bequeath PLACES ON THE WAITING LIST for season tickets in their wills. So through the whole first parking lot montage I was wondering how a couple of minimum-wage schlubs like Paul and Sal could possibly afford Giants tickets. The answer, of course, is that they don’t: they drive from Staten Island to the Meadowlands, tailgate with the crowd, then sit in the parking lot and watch the game on a portable tv. Rimshot.

Anyway, Paul has his arc where he hits rock bottom and ludicrously takes up arms to oppose the slings and arrows and all that, and then there’s a coda which shows that he hasn’t really learned anything, all of which is kind of beside the point because it’s all just an excuse to contrast how really passionate individuals who wrap themselves up completely in geeking out about something are universally misunderstood by everyone around them who isn’t a geek of a similar stripe. Except maybe for the “misunderstood” part, because there are scenes where Paul’s family wonder when he’s going to get a real job or find a nice girl and settle down, and there are scenes of Paul on his own living his life, but the scenes of Paul on his own do absolutely nothing to disprove any of the assumptions his family has. There’s an absolutely cringe-tastic exchange between Paul and his mom at one point where she says he never dates and he insists that he does and she scoffs that he must consider himself to be dating his hand and then she proceeds to go on and on about the circumstantial evidence that marks Paul as a heavy (and untidy) masturbator. The audience never sees Paul interact with any women outside of his family and employees at a bar, and there are not one but two scenes in which, yup look at that, Paul is about to rub one out (or trying to, and failing, because his problems are getting so bad even that small pleasure is out of reach). So not so misunderstood? Paul’s own family think he’s kind of pathetic, and the whole movie shines the spotlight on how pathetic he really is. Even if he is really good at being the kind of person who roots for the Giants and lives and dies by their wins and losses and is something of an audience favorite on a call-in show, ultimately those things are presented in the movie as pretty shallow and silly and unimportant.

But at the same time it is a movie! 91 minutes of artifice! The audience is only allowed to see what the author is determined to show them! Paul is derided by those who should know him best (with the exception of ever-faithful Sal) and the audience is given evidence which does nothing to contradict that. But the story condenses weeks, maybe months, into an hour and a half of scenes. It’s a character study, which implies that by the end we will know everything that it is necessary to know about the main character. And that may be true as far as a fictional character goes. But in real life, you’d have to do some serious editing-down to get across weeks of a person’s life in an hour and a half, and any argument can be proven if you very selectively cherry-pick your data.

Isn’t that really one of the big stumbling blocks of modern life? We get little microbursts of information on a subject and we think that grants us a deep understanding. We judge things, especially people, on first impressions or the single most outstanding and outrageous things known about them, which is almost never the complete story, and we tell ourselves that the person who cut us off in traffic is a worthless human being who deserves to die in a fiery wreck. (Well, I tell myself that anyway, I admit.)

I’m probably giving Big Fan a little too much credit for trying to be consciousness-expanding; futility of speculating on authorial intent aside, I think the message of the movie is probably more along the lines of “delusion never dies” than “judge not lest you yourself be judged”. Still, it’s something to ponder, the next time an unflattering portrayal of a character-type in a movie makes you say “I totally know somebody just like that!” Because there’s always more to people than what you have time to observe, and more than would likely fit on a DVD.


  1. oldguy@center.universeAugust 11, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    Remember none of the main cast members of Jersey Shore are actually from the Garden State!

  2. It's true, and had I digressed into my infinitely recursive rant about New Jersey (mis)perceptions I no doubt would have mentioned that. But focused-upon gel-heads aside, at least Jersey Shore takes place in New Jersey (I don't rule out entirely that they might have made a show called Jersey Shore populated with kids from Philly and Staten Island and taking place in Rehoboth) and if you wanted to go nuts you could say that Seaside Heights plays as big a role as Snooki or the Situation in the show's "cast". The setting's the thing I was getting at, at any rate, and watching Jersey Shore you do get a certain particular flavor of Jersey vibe. Watching Big Fan you get a different flavor of the same.