North Jersey

November 9, 2010

I watched the movie Big Fan (2009) on Netflix “Watch It Now.”  I rarely use this offer from Netflix, since I have to watch the movie on my computer, which is in my studio work space, the man cave, and the old rustic wood floor is a tad slanted, so my wheeled desk chair sometimes rolls off toward the other side of the room when I am not diligent about staking a good angle towards the desk.

Big Fan takes place in the physical and psychological cross-hatches of Staten Island and Jersey.  This is your author’s childhood homeland territory, aside from the fact that I have not spent much time in Staten Island, except for a few deliveries of janitorial supplies I made when I drove the van for my father’s company in high school.   Staten Island does not have as bad a stereotype as does New Jersey, which makes it stand out much less in character than the Garden State.  Even MTV canceled their Staten Island reality show.  “City Island” is roughly the Dutch translation, ironic for the least urban of boroughs, known for Republican politicians, Mafia McMansions and where Madonna’s 1980s video for “Papa Don’t Preach” was filmed.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, where Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Aaron Burr and Jack Nicholson are from.  The only place on the planet with better pizza and bagels than New York, is New Jersey.  Thomas Edison, Kinetoscope, New JerseyBecause of bad reality TV, and the 20th-century industrial outlands of Hudson and Essex Counties, where chemical plants, beer factories, and stacks of supercontainers sprawl for miles en route from Newark Airport towards the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels into Manhattan, New Jersey has garnered a bad rep for lack of grace, charm, fresh air or good manners.  But the worse the rep, the better the mystique, the guts, the potential for sublimation.  In 1903 the first movie Western was shot on South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, New Jersey, the same town where I went to prep school, and Thomas Edison concocted the Kinetoscope.  Solar panels were invented in NJ, ironic for a state unfairly bullied as the armpit of the U.S. – anyhows c’mon that’s Long Island.

The “big fan” in Big Fan is Paul Aufiero, played by stand-up performance artist, character actor, and Tom Scharpling radio call-in personality Patton Oswalt. Paul is a parking lot attendant who lives with his mother in Staten Island.  He is a football fanatic and his team is the New York Giants.  Paul and his buddy Sal drive over the Goethals Bridge along Rt 21 through Newark out to East Rutherford, Big Fan, Patton OswaltNJ to tailgate at Giants Stadium.  They never buy tickets, but watch the game from a TV they power through their car battery in the parking lot (the same parking lot my friends hung out at Grateful Dead shows in the early 1990s, before Jerry died).  Paul and Sal are blue collar dudes in their late 30s, zealots of the Giants franchise but priced-out of the stadium.

Every week Paul calls in to his favorite sports radio show, Sports Dog, and unleashes a jeremiad of pro-Giants, anti-Phillie Eagles pontification.  Paul prepares his remarks solemnly and monkishly in his parking lot ticket booth, scrawling in the pages of his spiral notebook.  When Sports Dog gives the cue, Paul is on fire.   Big Fan tightly and evocatively conveys the evangelical AM airwave cadence of Mid-Atlantic sports buffs, with a fierce flair for the beer-battered technocratic verbiage of football and the buffalo-wing braggadocio of gridiron shit-talk.

During the week Paul works at a parking lot, and on the weekend hangs out in a parking lot, a visual rhyme with the mentally-imbalanced stagnancy of which his family accuses him.  Paul may not have a girlfriend, but he is not a deviant or hard-up.  His mother castigates him for not being normal, like his goombah brother, a personal-injury lawyer, and plastic-lipped, bobinkus boobed sister-in-law.  The whole family gathers around the TV for the premiere of his brother’s cheapo commercial, but they have no respect for Paul’s artistic act of nighttime orations on the radio (his mother instead bangs on the wall for him to shut up).  Paul is a true outcast, but never is it believed that Paul is unhappy, and when he stomps about in defiance of his mother’s wish for him to be other than he is, “I don’t want what they have! I don’t want it! I don’t want!” he is not being lazy or unfocused or a slacker, but asserting the viability of his alienated convictions.

Not only does Paul debunk society by living with his mother – the epitome of a loser – but defies authority by refusing to press charges against Quantrell Bishop, the Giants superstar quarterback and Paul’s diehard hero, who stomps the crap out of Paul in a paranoid, coke-induced, midtown nightclub thrashing.  Paul’s lax, evasive and disaffected response to this incident triggers an onslaught of oppressive needling by his family, the media and the cops.  Like Buddha in a Giants hoodie, Paul’s interests are selfless and serve a higher purpose, and he’d rather Quantrall play than sue the quarterback and ruin the team’s record.

Bret Schundler, eating a hot dogThe backdrop exurban environs of Big Fan work on a tri-state axis of NY – NJ – PA.  Paul lives in NY, the team plays in Jersey, and his arch-enemy is “Philadelphia Phil,” an orotund “cheesesteak bozo” who calls in Sports Dog with inflected diatribes against the Giants. It is fall football season but no leaves are shown changing to mahogany, hunter, or gold. The sky is slate gray, and the most vivid hues are the team colors painted on fans’ faces. Taken as a metaphor, Big Fan portrays a sort of American common denominator interpretation of reality as a growling, binary-obsessed face-off, like 21st century game shows or political elections.  Paul’s individuated moral sense submits to such tension.  But after he is smacked down by Quantrell Bishop, Paul is forced to act upon a sequence of decisions which both transcend and subvert his estranged, creative American self, against the dreadnought of cultural expectations in which he floats a livelihood.

Paul is familiar, either first hand or second hand, or I sat next to him at Sharkey’s in Clifton, NJ eating garlic wings; or taylor ham and egg sandwiches at The Short Stop, a greasyspoon trucker diner in Bloomfield; or stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the mens room urinal at a bar in the Ironbound section of Newark where stewardesses hang out.  Sometimes it’s a good movie that stupendously, mysteriously, musty and steep, greenlights your faith in the ways of your own world and that beyond it….