By Danny Bowes
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Yesterday, Anne Moore discussed figurative depictions of fans within Battlestar Galactica and what that tells us about fandom, queerness and shame. But what about literal fan depictions? Below, the always-badass film critic Danny Bowes tackles three different filmic visions of The Fan-- two fictional, one not-- and tells us what they might have to tell us about loving something out of all proportion.
There's a scene in Robert Siegel's excellent film Big Fan, the exact circumstances and placement of which I won't spoil, where Paul (Patton Oswalt), is at what many would consider a time for great contemplation of matters of life and death. His best friend and partner in all-consuming fandom of the New York football Giants, Sal (Kevin Corrigan), knows exactly the thing to lift his spirits: the upcoming season's Giants schedule. Immediately, Paul's spirits lift and they start discussing their predictions for the season. It's an exhilarating moment, and one that perfectly captures the guileless love of the genuine fan.
Part of what makes that moment work so beautifully is that so much of the rest of the film is given over to a study of some of the darker aspects of being a Big Fan, someone whose identity is determined almost completely by what they love. Paul is a New York Giants fan before he is anything else. His love for the team, and its (fictional) star player Quantrell Bishop, leads—in one of the most awkward ten minutes of film in the history of the medium—to Paul being beaten unconscious by Bishop, whose subsequent suspension sends the Giants into a tailspin. Paul ends up caring more about the fact that the Giants are losing than he does the headaches and vertigo he suffers as a result of the beating; this convinces not only due to the internal logic of the movie's universe, but because fandom that profound, held in greater importance than self, is not at all uncommon.
I am a fan of several different stripes myself. At times over the years I've alarmed, confused, and occasionally bored the pants off people with my passionate devotion to, variously: the New York Knicks and Yankees, the music of Radiohead, Quentin Tarantino movies, the short fiction of Howard Waldrop, and the actress Gina Gershon. That list is hardly complete either; I've risked personal and professional credibility making—and vigorously defending—the claim that Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of his generation's most under-appreciated actors. (Seriously, don't start with me on that.) If backed into a corner, I'll admit what actual shortcomings any or all of the above may have (the Knicks frequently—aas they displayed in their first-round playoff series against Miami—suck, Gina Gershon acts in lots of bad movies, Quentin Tarantino uses the n-word way too much) but I won't be particularly happy about it. I've put enough effort into trying to like late-period Radiohead albums (though In Rainbows was easy, being legitimately excellent) to provide a small city with electricity. I know from fandom.
For the vast majority of fans, in which I include myself, fandom is one aspect of a multifaceted personality. Even some whose fandom has more singular focus and broad scope—a former co-worker of my mother's, for example, was one of the top-ranking officers in the fan club of singer Englebert Humperdinck; while she was a very nice woman, I was warned when I met her to not bring up Englebert lest I have my ear talked off—are perfectly functional human beings who simply like one particular, occasionally esoteric, person or thing a whole lot. There are, though, some for whom the obsessive nature of fandom fuels, or is fueled by, their own psychopathy, creating the dreaded “stalker” archetype.
The handful of fans who, over the years, have stalked and even assassinated the objects of their ardor, have come in the eyes of many to represent fandom as a whole. This is, thankfully, changing of late, but in 1996 when The Fan, the very worst movie Tony Scott ever directed, was released it was still the dominant paradigm. The Fan posits sports fandom as the refuge of delusional psychopathic failures, but one must consider the source; what The Fan has to say about sports fandom deserves to be taken as seriously as what Tommy Wiseau's The Room has to say about football. The fact that it's called The Fan, though, is an insight into a conception of fandom that, badly stated as it is in the movie (I can't reinforce enough how epically awful it is), is still representative of a way in which, particularly within sports fandom, fans are regarded.
The problem in the case of The Fan, is that it deals with an idea of fandom not based in reality, but on paranoia and narcissism. Robert De Niro's character has effortless access to players and their milieu at all times; the sequence in which he gains access to Benicio del Toro in the sauna and (half-hearted spoiler warning) stabs Benicio to death features not a single security person for De Niro to evade. Then, later, when De Niro lurks in the dunes by Wesley Snipes' beach house, waiting for his son to swim too far out into the Pacific (which I guess was predictable, somehow, in some alternate universe in which Unintelligent Design predominates), no one finds it at all suspicious that De Niro was lurking on a private beach. Ridiculous? Extremely, but it does feed a perception that a lot of people in a position to have fans regard those fans: as always there, and possessed of an overwhelming love whose scope and sincerity borders on the sinister.
Even in Robert Siegel's Big Fan, this perspective is given a certain degree of weight. Patton Oswalt portrays Paul as a man whose entire life revolves around the Giants, and who plans his days around the phone calls he makes to a local sports radio talk show, and painstakingly scripts his remarks for when he's allowed on the air. His family regards him as rather less than a functioning adult (he still lives with his mother at 36), but until the Giants start losing and the dreaded Eagles (beloved of his radio show bete noire Philadelphia Phil, played quite brilliantly by Michael Rapaport) start winning, he has everything he, by his standards, needs in life. It's only toward the third act, when the responsibility Paul feels for the Giants demise lead him to descend into the underworld (Philadelphia, large stretches of which do rather resemble Hades), and we see him appear to unravel and debase all that he holds holy, that we get any real, objective sense that Paul is not well. Being a good movie, Big Fan handles this all in a way that makes human sense (and has a truly amazing conclusion) and never loses sight of Paul as a human being. Although Patton Oswalt has subsequently made a few jokes at the character's expense (he is, after all, a comedian) the way he played the character in the movie is free of judgment. As played by Oswalt, Paul is just a guy like any other, if any other happens to be a football-obsessed parking lot attendant who lives with his mother in his mid-30s.
The image of the obsessed fan as slightly older than he (as the prevailing image of such a fan is nearly always male) should be while still living with his parents is one of the most important linkages between Big Fan and non-sports fandom. There is no quicker way to annoy most science-fiction fans, comics fans, or anyone with a blog of any sort than to invoke the “living in his parents' basement” cliché (the additional annoyance for women fans of being assumed reflexively to be male is but icing on the cake). The stereotype irritates, as all do, because it is but one type (albeit one that does, annoyingly, exist, in great enough numbers as to not be an outlier) among many in a given group, and owes more to the individuals in question than it does fandom itself.
A counterpoint to the portrait of fandom in Big Fan (which gets away with skirting “living in his mother's basement” territory by, rather than mocking him, portraying Paul as a kind of holy fool) can be found in Morgan Spurlock's recent documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. Spurlock's pilgrims to San Diego are a bit better socialized and a lot more ambitious than Paul, but share his guileless love for the object of their fandom. The least successful aspirant profiled in the documentary, a bartender and aspiring comics artist, is nonetheless driven enough to pay his way to Comic-Con, and assured enough of his own talent that it takes almost until the end of Con for him to realize that he may not be as good as he'd initially thought.
As shown in Spurlock's documentary, there is a higher percentage of fans in science-fiction, comics, and other arts-related fandoms who aspire to create their own work then there are sports fans who still think they can make it as professional athletes. This is something occasionally used to taunt sports fans—and seems to function as a motivation for Robert De Niro's psychosis in The Fan, however ridiculous it may be to discuss that picture in terms of psychological realism—and use their devotion to something they'll never themselves do as a means of demeaning their love for it. When one cuts through all the cultural signifiers and stupid military imagery that cling to sports like a lingering fart, though, it's a performing art. There are stories with supernarratives, subplots, heroes, villains, and, as in Big Fan, Paul and Philadelphia Phil are reciprocally those things to each other. There is little, if any, objective difference between someone dressed in full Storm Trooper regalia at Comic-Con and a football fan wearing his/her favorite player's uniform jersey, with face painted in team colors.
If fandom is fandom is fandom, then it stands to reason that it is a good thing until it isn't. It must be tempting for many, as William Shatner famously did, to tell fans to “get a life,” though it begs remembering that there is more than one way to have a life. The point to life, if there is one, is surely to find happiness however and wherever one can. If the way that happens is by loving something other than oneself, and indeed more than one loves oneself, the only person who should really pass judgment on the worth of that love is the lover. That is the central (certainly not only) reason why The Fan, which presumes to judge its fan, fails. And that is why the nearly-identically titled Big Fan, thematically about the exact same thing, succeeds. Paul is allowed to live in his world without bother, with his one true love. That that love is a football team does not make it any less true.