Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Nature of Obsession – Reflections on “Big Fan”

I consider myself obsessed. Obsessed with TV shows like LOST and Dexter and True Blood. Obsessed with rock music. Obsessed with movies.

And obsessed with sports. Especially basketball.

I never talk about sports on this website. That’s not the focus. This site is all about entertainment culture in movies, music, and TV…not sports. Yet, sports are also an obsession of mine. I can talk as easily about the Major League Baseball winter trade meetings as I can about Avatar. I know the ins-and-outs of the NBA as well as I know the ins-and-outs of LOST. I just don’t feel the need to write about it.

The movie, Big Fan, made me want to. If only for one article.

It tells the story of Mike from Staten Island (Patton Oswalt), a loser with a job at a parking garage who lives with his mother. He has no girlfriend, no prospects, seemingly no interest in women (outside of masturbating at bedtime), and only one friend to speak of. The highlight of his day comes late at night when he calls into his local sports talk radio show to talk big about the love of his life: the New York Giants and their star player Quantrell Bishop. He writes his diatribes down like love letters and delivers them with more passion than he has for any other aspect of his life.

But then disaster strikes. Mike runs into his hero, Quantrell, doesn’t have the stones to talk to him, so he and his buddy decide to follow the athlete to a Manhattan strip club. There Mike makes his move, which has some major consequences.

I will admit that the level of my sports fandom has declined over the last couple years. Anyone who knows me well – or even vaguely – knows I’m a Lakers fan. I grew up worshipping Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Showtime Lakers. I went to games. I met Byron Scott and gave a high-five to Big Game James. I made bets on games in the school yard, and spent my spare time reading every news item I could about the Lakers and the rest of the league so I could outpick the winners of each game with my dad in our annual NBA Pick-Em competition.

But something happened two years ago that changed me a bit. The Lakers made the NBA Finals in 2008, facing off against the Boston Celtics – our long time rivals. We were the favorites. We wound up losing the series in six games, breaking my heart. It wasn’t the losing that soured me, though; it was game four.

The Lakers were up by 24 and the Celtics stormed back to win 97-91. I’m a vocal fan when I watch games. I’m the guy that claps for every basket, whoops at incredible plays, and threatens the refs from my couch when the call doesn’t go my way. For the first half of game 4, I was in whoop and holler mode, excited and giddy. The Lakers had this one. And then in the second half, the wheels fell off, and with each Celtic basket and Laker mistake, I found myself slipping deeper and deeper into despair. By the middle of the fourth quarter I was in tears – the first time I’ve ever cried during a game. I actually shut off the TV and didn’t finish the torture. Some fan I am.

Even as the Lakers waltzed their way to the 2009 NBA crown, I was still heartbroken by that game 4 loss, and haven’t recovered. Robert Siegel’s movie, Big Fan, is about that sort of fandom – the sort where entertainment becomes the center of a person’s universe, where a basic, irrelevant game and its players can become nearly god-like.

In this movie, Mike makes some very unique and frightening decisions, informed by his love for his treasured New York Giants. When it comes to them he is unreasonable and unpredictable. The great thing about the movie is that we sympathize with Mike while at the same time marveling at his stupidity. I sympathized because I understand him – I understand the draw of sport as the source of obsession.

What makes people so obsessed with sports? With anything? Sport can transport us somewhere that movies, music, TV and books cannot. They can make us feel like supermen. I can read a comic book and dig the fantasy, living vicariously through Spiderman and Batman, but at the end of the day I know it isn’t real. With sports, on the other hand…it is real. When Kobe Bryant makes a game winning shot, it could be me doing that. When Payton Manning throws for a touchdown, or Ryan Howard launches another homer, it gives me hope that I could be like them. They are playing a game, sure, one in which they excel, but it taps into that little kid who wrote in his school journal in Kindergarten that he wanted to be a “basketball star” when he grew up (I have proof that I did just that).

Big Fan is the first film I’ve seen that deals realistically and thoughtfully with the nature of sports fandom. It made me reflect on my own love and obsession for sport as well. This is, if I haven’t already implicitly made it clear, a movie you gotta see.

Now here’s the part where I give you the tagline that should go on the DVD case: “Once you see this movie, you’ll be a BIG FAN of Big Fan!”

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