Film

This Thing is Not a Thing: Obsession with Artifice in Robert Siegel’s “Big Fan”

Big_Fan

Robert Siegel’s Big Fan emulates the string of highbrow, intelligent mainstream American films from the 1970’s; gritty character studies of the American antihero, like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. But Siegel’s character, a chubby, bumbling New York Giants fanatic and perpetual man-child (played by comedian Patton Oswalt), is pathetic in a different sense. Mentally unstable because of his bizarre obsession with the team (and in particular fictional player Quantrell Bishop), Paul desperately tries to keep the reality outside of his television at bay as much as possible so as to sustain his fantasy world. Nothing more perfectly sums up the ethos of this forever lurker than the opening scene, where Paul is at work in his illuminated and lonely booth as a late-night garage park attendant, surrounded by empty cars with nothing but sports radio to keep him company, reciting to himself this simple mantra: “I can’t tell you how sick I am… I can’t tell you how sick I am.”

And it’s true. His own words only hint at just how sick Paul is, his life devoted to an artificial cause that even he, at times, must realize is artifice. The quote above comes from one of Paul’s many pre-planned diatribes which he pens before calling his favorite radio talk show host, Sports Dogg, where he is known to the host and listeners as ‘Paul from Staten Island.’ In these rants, Paul denigrates archrivals the Philadelphia Eagles while simultaneously praising his own team, yet there is little substance in any of his tirades. There’s almost no mention of stats either from the game just played or season-wide, no hint of self-concocted strategy, no talk of theory. Instead, his recitations amount to little more than braggadocio and name-calling, a nightly ritual in which he partakes in order to outdo rival caller ‘Philadelphia Phil’ (Michael Rapaport). What’s more, Paul spends hours crafting his speeches before delivering them, beginning them at work and staying up to wee hours of the morning much to the chagrin of his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz). And yet Paul is so proud of his sermons that he tells his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) that he’s merely “going off the cuff.” So inarticulate are his railings that when the radio host and audience discover via Philadelphia Phil that it is Paul who was assaulted by Bishop, Paul can barely muster more to dismiss the very real assault charges than by saying “This thing is not a thing.”

But of course, things are not going well for Paul, despite how he chooses to see it. He’s a thirty-six year-old nobody working a dead-end, low-paying job as a parking attendant. He lives with his elderly mother who hordes soy sauce packets. He and his buddy Sal religiously drive to Giants stadium decked head to toe in blue only to spend their time watching the game from a TV hitched to the car battery in the parking lot because they cannot afford tickets. Giants paraphernalia hangs from his walls, his Giants bedsheets presumably the same he had as a child, a poster of his god Quantrell Bishop hovering over his bed. After making his routine call to Sports Dogg, he pulls a bottle of lubricant from his dresser drawer and masturbates, what his mother calls “dating [his] right hand.”

A quick summary with abundant spoilers: Paul and Sal see Quantrell Bishop at a gas station and decide to follow him, driving for several hours before arriving at a strip club. They watch Bishop in his VIP section with his entourage and finally muster up the courage to go speak to him. In doing so, Paul lets slip that he saw Bishop make a stop in Stapleton, where—unknown to Paul and Sal—Bishop’s posse stopped to pick up drugs. Intoxicated and paranoid that the two losers were following him, Bishop becomes violent and thrashes Paul, putting him in a coma for a few days. As a result, outside pressure from Detective Velarde and Paul’s attorney brother Jeff to pursue damages against Bishop, but Paul is unwilling to comply. As the incident gains traction and notoriety, Bishop is temporarily suspended, and the consequences become increasingly direr both for the Giants and for Paul, as his carefully-constructed fantasy world comes ever closer to being shattered by reality. Through a bit of amateur investigation, caller Philadelphia Phil discovers and reveals on air that the until that time unnamed victim of Bishop’s bashing is none other than Sports Dogg’s own ‘Paul from Staten Island.’ Enraged and humiliated, Paul calls in and tries to set the record straight, only further embarrassing himself when his mother picks up the phone. Paul then decides to make contact with Philadelphia Phil, finding him at a sports pub in Philly. When Phil goes to the bathroom, Paul follows and locks the door behind him, pulling out a gun and shooting Phil several times. After a beat, it’s discovered that it was only a paintball gun, coating Phil’s Eagles jersey in Giants colors. Paul dashes from the bar, only making it a block or two before being tackled by police. A while later, Sal visits him in prison, and Paul says that his family has stopped visiting. Sal reveals the Giants’ new season schedule, and both wax poetic about how the team can easily rack up several victories. Staring through the glass, the phone to his ear, Paul smiles and remarks “It’s going to be a great year.”

Siegel’s excellent eye adorns the straightforward and looped narrative with subtle background details. In the hospital, Paul’s older brother attempts to convince Paul to sue Bishop, but Paul refuses, instead saying “This is what I want,” and closes his eyes and crosses his arms as though he is a corpse in a casket, a powerful image relaying to us the kind of dead life Paul has chosen to lead. When Paul goes to meet Phil, he first changes his outfit in a public restroom, wherein he adorns the uniform of the team he hates most. The tiles of the bathroom are New York Giants blue, and his transformation shows his externalizing of what he loves most. In the bar, sitting next to Phil as they watch the Eagles take on the Giants, the crowd giddily chanting “Giants suck,” Paul laughs hysterically, his face painted half green, half white like a dejected, mad clown who is a hollow walking caricature of a person. Yet none of these details, nor Oswalt’s performance, ever signify derision or contempt for Paul. Rather, the direction and acting show warmth for the misguided fan. Undesirable as his lifestyle might be, the question of whether any of it is inherently wrong lingers.

Yet the film stands as a testament to the confusing and sometimes destructive nature of obsession, not just with sports, but with any subculture large enough for individuals to delve into while simultaneously closing off the outside world, effectively letting the obsessed live vicariously through his fantasy. Oswalt himself admits that while he knows virtually nothing about sports, he is a comic book addict, and that the mediums are essentially two sides of the same coin. This fanaticism can even lead an individual to violence, such as Paul’s faked shooting at the climax of the film. The fanaticism can be sexual in nature. Berated by his mother for having no contact with women, it’s clear to the viewer that Paul’s sexual needs are fully satisfied through an imaginary, homoerotic relationship with Bishop: at the strip club, neither Paul nor Sal are interested in the half naked woman who sits in their respective laps, instead focused intently on Bishop across the way. Behind them, a woman wearing a thong squats on stage during her dance between their heads, but neither seem to notice. When Bishop is pulled from the starting roster and the Giants suffer multiple defeats, Paul’s attempts to masturbate are thwarted by his inability to become erect. In order to rectify his flaccidness, Paul has to corner his enemy in the men’s dimly-lit bathroom, point his pistol at him, and release a stream of team colors all over his nemesis’ chest. Just how different is this from the young, sometimes outcast millenials who have devoted themselves to worshipping anime characters or living for alternate, fictional universes? How different is Paul from the psychotic Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s Misery? What separates Paul from the basement-dwelling, internet-fixated conspiracy theorists funneling all global events through their limited worldview? With any of these personalities, if the artifice that justifies their existence is removed, they become a deflated sack of nothingness, a ball of flesh devoid of being; they are, quite truly, existing for something that does not exist for them. But the true brilliance of the film comes in asking the audience to ponder just how bad Paul’s condition really is. Is it as destructive as these other examples? Is there something wrong with someone living such a life contently even if the outside world, which Paul rejects, scorns and mocks it?

Siegel and Oswalt bring a character to life that has no arc. Whereas traditionally we witness undergo a transformation, Paul undergoes no such change, remaining at the end exactly where he was at the beginning. Instead, Paul desperately tries to fend off the intruding reality attempting to sabotage the life and persona he’s carved out for himself. Though the real point, I think, is that whether Paul changes is irrelevant; we know and see that there are droves of others like him (like Philadelphia Phil), and too many will be able to carry on blisffully without being battered by their self-appointed savior.

Through pilgrimages and mass gatherings (the journey to the stadium and masses inside), inane insider chat (radio talk shows), religious iconography (posters, paraphernalia, clothes), and sexual fulfillment (Paul’s pleasuring himself) and violent, frustrated release (the bathroom shooting), Paul Aufiero offers us an insight to the underbelly of an American culture driven by imagery and spectacle, devoid of substance or sustenance, removed from the reality that exists outside its comforting and reassuring bubble. In a world where the ability to escape is greater than ever, and the easiness with which one can reaffirm his delusional beliefs, the Paul Aufieros of the world are bound to multiply, albeit in the dark, dank background in which they dwell.

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