Essays · Movies

‘Big Fan’ Sends Sports Fandom Through the Looking Glass

Patton Oswalt reveals the dark side of fandom in Robert Siegel’s football thriller ‘Big Fan.’
Patton Oswalt stars in the dark football drama Big Fan.
Big Fan Productions and Amazon
By  · Published on September 10th, 2015

If you were to judge each industry by only their fans, you might have a hard time telling Hollywood and the NFL apart. One sells itself on its artistic aspirations, the other on its history and sportsmanship; both generate billions of dollars in revenue each year and stay well behind the curve on social issues. Each fan base also segments itself into a broad middle class and a smaller, more discerning minority. People who identify as casual fans — who pay fifteen dollars to see Transformers in theaters or wear the jerseys of newly acquired free agents — are considered middle brow. People who write passionately about terrible teams and out-of-print VHS cassette tapes are the dedicated few and far between.

And amid all this desire and frustration is the ever-present pull of nostalgia. Regardless of what the history books might say, our football team was never more successful than when we were children. The players towered high above us; the newspaper headlines, filled each day with photos of our team’s stars, were further confirmation that no 53 men in existence could ever be as loved and admired as our own. Film is no different. While our taste refines itself with each passing year, we will never view a movie with such wide-eyed wonder as we do when we are eight years old. These are memories that we will carry without us throughout our lives. For some, it is the beginning of a life-long love affair; for others, an early highlight we spend decades trying to repeat.

Turns out, repeating something and expecting the same outcome can drive you just as crazy.

Many films deal with the arbitrary relationship between film fanatics and the industry as a whole, but far fewer deal with sports fandom as anything so disconnected. Robert D. Spiegel’s Big Fan introduces us to Paul Aufiero, a parking garage attendant who lives and home and roots endless for the New York Giants. This fandom is a funny thing. Rather than allow him a pure escape from his mediocre existence, Aufiero’s fandom helps identify the limitations of his own life. He spends every game day at Giants Stadium but cannot seem to afford a ticket, choosing instead to tailgate in the stadium’s parking lot. None of this phases him. Aufiero lives for the few minutes each week when he gets to be ‘Paul From Staten Island,’ a regular on a New York sports radio station who rallies Giants nation to his banner.

And that probably would have been enough, if not for a chance encounter with the star quarterback of the New York Giants. Aufiero is entranced; he sits across the club from his idol, staring at Quantrell Bishop as if he had never before considered the idea that football players might actually exist outside of the turf. In his zeal to play some small part in Bishop’s life, he oversteps his boundaries, admitting that he had been following Bishop for hours that evening. Bishop takes it poorly; Aufiero ends up in the hospital. From then on, Aufiero’s life is a wreck. The police want him to press charges, his own brother wants him to sue Bishop for all that he is worth, and worst of all, the Giants can’t seem to win a game while their star quarterback is suspended.

While many films require a second viewing to really dig into the ideas being kicked around, I will readily admit that it took me two viewings of Big Fan to appreciate what Siegel and Patton Oswalt had created. Seen once, Big Fan seems to be overly focused on the negativity of fandom. Aufiero appears to be a caricature of every nerd that ever picked up a comic book; he still lives at home with his overbearing mother, masturbates constantly, and has as his one friend the only man in his neighborhood less imaginative than himself. I had football on the brain the first time that I saw Big Fan and couldn’t shake the impression that Spiegel and Oswalt — not known for his sports fandom — were using football as a way of punching down at an audience they held in contempt.

Taken a second time, Big Fan is no more indicative of the average sports fan than Kevin Smith’s films are indicative of the average comic book nerd. To a point, it almost doesn’t matter if Siegel’s film is about football, Hollywood, professional wrestling, or any other contemporary entertainment. Paul Aufiero lives somewhere beyond the borders of the typical fan; his closest equivalent in popular culture would be the film or video game fans who live in the depths of AVClub comment sections or Twitter threads. If we were to shift Aufiero’s interest to the film industry, he would spend his evenings workshopping Reddit posts to poke holes in the pieces of popular culture he disagrees with. In another life, Aufiero writes one hell of a biopic fact-check piece.

What makes Big Fan stand out — especially after a second viewing — is the visual language that director Siegel uses to sell the satire. While Big Fan might be about a loser football fan who gets punched in the head, Siegel shoots the film with all the urban energy of an early Martin Scorsese film. Neither director nor actor hides the fact that Paul Aufiero is their everyman rendition of Travis Bickle. In one late scene, Aufiero even stands in front of a mirror and slowly paints his face white and green to match the colors of the Philadelphia Eagles jersey, drawing comparisons to Bickle’s famous self-confrontation in Taxi Driver. We can see in Aufiero aspects of our own fandom and desires, but Siegel and Oswalt keep the character just too far out of reach for us to every genuinely connect with. His instability invites us in and keeps us firmly locked out.

Of course, the actions of Aufiero in the film also seemed more farfetched than they do today. It’s hard to watch Big Fan now without thinking of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was recently thrown in jail for refusing to give out a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Two years ago, a scene where Aufiero lies his way through a police interview to ensure that his team’s starting quarterback didn’t miss a game was ridiculous. Now it seems considerably less far-fetched. My darkest fear is that Big Fan is only just a little bit ahead of the curve, waiting like a modern-day Network for the insanity of the real world to keep pace. I guess I’m grateful that my team has never won a Super Bowl. It’s hard to lose your mind over what you’ve never had.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)