In another article I present Barbara Ehrenreich's argument that sports fandom of the kind we've come to see more and more in the last few decades - jerseys, face paint, chants, songs - shows a direct, inadvertent continuation of the centuries-old tradition of carnival, with masquerading, feasting, singing and rhythmic movement for everyone. And this is a good thing. It's a fundamental human drive to come together and level our usual social roles and shake our bodies and feel a part of something bigger.
But here's another angle.
Robert D. Siegel's 2009 movie Big Fan looks at a Staten Island parking lot attendant named Paul, excellently played by comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. He spends his time composing impassioned tirades he'll deliver on the radio call-in show he listens to every night. He lives with his mother, bickering incessantly. No girlfriend. Overweight. No life but his love of the Giants. He has one friend, another superfan. They watch the games from a portable TV in the stadium parking lot. One night they see the Giants' QB on the street and follow him, ending up at a strip club. They approach him and express their love of what he does, but he flips out on realizing they've been following him, and gives Paul a severe beating, hospitalizing him quite seriously. So Paul's actually influencing his team's fate, since their QB gets benched pending criminal charges. Does he sue, as his personal injury lawyer brother urges him to? And then there's the Philadelphia fan who taunts him on the call-in show. The tension builds as this loser is faced with the fruits of his little life.
Siegel's got an eye for the mediocrity of life as it's actually lived, not as the glamourizing Hollywood machine usually presents it. This sensibility served him brilliantly well in his years as editor and writer for The Onion, and with his screenplay for The Wrestler, which showed us what comes a couple of decades after fame for body slammers: small time matches and New Jersey trailer parks and colostomy bags.
In no way does the character and situation presented in Big Fan cancel out Barbara Ehrenreich's argument of sports fandom being an expression of an essential human drive. But it does add an important point to the overall discussion. Any interest can be taken to unhealthy levels - movies, music, video games, bodybuilding, stock trading, stamp collecting. Sports are such a major part of popular culture that this serves as a particularly apt subject to get this point across. Noam Chomsky asserts that sports serve as a distraction for millions, keeping them from paying attention to anything that's actually important, referring to the political and economic world, which commits atrocities and institutionalizes injustice, to which we give our tacit approval to through inaction if not active support. I agree. Rabid fandom can also be a substitute for having a life, for asking the genuinely important questions about the machinations of your ego, your relation to others, your emotional and physical health, your spiritual life and your unacknowledged psychological compulsions.
Apart from all of this, Big Fan is a great goddam movie. The script, the performances, the unexpected ending. Totally deserves to be more widely seen.