Patton Oswalt Can't Do a New York Accent?

Friday, September 25, 2009 |

I posted about a month ago about the release of Robert D. Siegel's Big Fan, a thoroughly engrossing film about the obsessive and illogical nature of sports fandom. Starring Patton Oswalt in his first dramatic lead role, Kevin Corrigan, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Michael Rapaport as "Philadelphia Phil," Big Fan is a film with which I both identified and which cut a bit too close to my Giants-obsessed bones. Shining a spotlight on the bewildering, oft-unreciprocated devotion fans like Siegel's protagonist, Paul Aufiero, and I show to our beloved New York Giants, the film begs the question, why do we care so much? 

It's not a question that's easily answered, and fortunately for viewers of Big Fan, Siegel doesn't attempt to answer it. Jerry Seinfeld once aptly pointed out that sports fans are ultimately just rooting for laundry. Kissing Suzy Kolber's Drew Magary took the observation a step further when, after learning that his favorite team was on the verge of signing Brett Favre, he opined that loving a sports team is "a thoughtless, irrational, singularly idiotic pursuit." Both Seinfeld and Magary have a point, of course, but that doesn't stop either of them from rooting for their Mets and Vikings, respectively. Both are able to acknowledge their own lunacy (or, in my case, bluenacy) while remaining simultaneously enraptured by it, and they're able to do so because they understand that the idiocy of investing oneself emotionally in the outcomes of sporting events is part of the bargain. In fact, it's part of the appeal. Love was not designed to be reasonable.

Still, Siegel's Aufiero (Oswalt) takes his unwavering allegiance to Big Blue to an unnerving extreme. His actions reveal a man who, in his detachment from reality, loves the New York Giants more than he loves himself. This caused some literary-leaning reviewers to draw comparisons between Big Fan and Frederick Exley's cult masterwork, A Fan's Notes. But while there are some similarities between the film and the 1968 William Faulkner Award recipient, they are only superficial. Acutely aware of and tormented by his failure, Exley fantasized about admonishing his hero, Frank Gifford, by shouting at him that "life isn't all a goddam football game! You won't always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss." Aufiero, on the other hand, uses football to shield himself from the pain of rejection, loss, and failure. To him, life truly is all a football game.

What isn’t clear, though, is why. And while this is a question that's left unanswered (intentionally) in the film, Rob Siegel was kind enough to answer it (and a few others as well) for the readers of this humble blog. What follows below is my recent interview with Big Fan's writer/director, unedited and in its entirety.

*     *     *

MW: To begin, I've read that you hail from Long Island and attended the University of Michigan. Me, too. I graduated from U of M in 1997. Did you ever meet anybody while growing up on L.I. or when going to U of M that had a Paul Aufiero-like dedication to a team? Is Paul based on anyone? 

RS: I can't say I've ever met anybody exactly like Paul. He's kind of a composite of guys I heard listening to sports radio. As a kid, I used to listen to WFAN a lot, especially Steve Somers. He was my favorite. And the conversations you used to hear on there tended to be fairly intelligent, reasoned back-and-forth discourse. As sports radio goes, WFAN is pretty high quality. But then, when I went away to college, I couldn't get WFAN, so I'd listen to other radio shows, like the nationally syndicated ESPN-type stuff. The vibe was different, more chest-thumping in tone. Those shows were more like what I have in the movie, where people are calling up and just basically ranting, delivering these testosterone-driven monologues that sound like some pro wrestler talking about how they're gonna kick their opponent's ass. So even though the movie was inspired by FAN, it's modeled more after the Jim Rome-ish type stuff. 

MW: To me, more than anything, Big Fan felt like a film about the people who inhabit the strange world of sports radio. Like you, I grew up listening to WFAN all the time (Steve Somers was always my favorite, too), so in a way Paul Aufiero as a character was familiar to me. He's a type, cut from a similar cloth as regular callers like "Jerome from Manhattan," "Doris from RegoPark," "John from Sandy Hook," "Bruce from Bayside," "Short Al from Brooklyn," and "Miriam from Forest Hills." Like Paul, these people all use WFAN's airwaves to help compensate for some sort of personal shortcoming. The difference between these callers and Paul lies in the severity of that shortcoming. Miriam is blind. Doris (R.I.P.) suffered from the same disease that afflicted the Elephant Man. Jerome suffers from epilepsy and various other illnesses. But Paul? Paul's just a guy who, for some reason, is unable to cope with adult life. He's insulated himself in a childlike state of being, under NFL bedsheets, but it is not clear why. The film's climactic scene suggests that perhaps Paul had been the target of bullies in his youth ("You didn't have to be so mean", he says to Philadelphia Phil) but it's not overtly stated. So I guess what I'm wondering is why Paul is in the state that he's in. Why does he refuse to accept the norms of adulthood? And how do the Giants and/or sports radio fit into that? 

RS: You're right--I never make it clear what the hole is in Paul's life that he's trying to fill. I didn't think it was necessary to. Viewers can fill in the blank with whatever they imagine. As for the "You didn't have to be so mean" line, I think of that as referring to the sports radio culture he's a part of. Sports radio can, at its worst, be a really angry, hostile place. And it's one Paul enthusiastically takes part in; he's one of these mean people he's complaining about. Sports radio is a lot like the blogosphere--the anonymity of the Internet frees people up to be really nasty to each other and let loose with their most vicious impulses. The tone of discourse on the web tends to be really angry, even more than on sports radio. It's just men taking on these angry personas and saying things they'd never say to somebody's face in their real lives. I guess it's cathartic. 

MW: On a related note, I found it curious that nobody else in Paul's family is a Giants fan. In fact, it doesn't appear that any of them cares about football at all. Fandom, especially extreme fandom, is often the result of breeding (so to speak). It's generational. Fathers and sons. Brothers. Family bonding over a shared experience. But Paul's brother is not a Giants fan.  And there is never any mention in the film of Paul's father.  So where does his loyalty to the Giants come from? What is the origin of his fandom? Was there a defining moment in his life, perhaps in his youth, that made him this way? That made him so psychotically loyal to a bunch of strangers dressed in blue? 

RS: It's never explained in the movie, but I always imagined that his father, now deceased, was the one who got him into the Giants. This was something they bonded over. But I don't even think his dad necessarily needed to be into football for him to catch the bug. I'm a huge football fan, and I definitely didn't get it from my dad or anybody else in my family. I'm the only Siegel who's into football. I really don't know where it came from. I just remember watching the 1979 Super Bowl between the Steelers and Rams and falling in love. That was it. I was a Steelers fan for life. 

MW: One of the things I like best about the film was that it rings of authenticity, right down to using the actual names of players (except for Bishop). The scenes in which Paul and his buddy watch games are spot on. That's the way fans watch games. They fidget nervously. They pace. They yell. They carry on. It's very visceral. And it was a nice touch to use a real sports jock like Scott Farrell (though I would have preferred a local voice).  The sports bar scene is 100% realistic (but was that close-up shot of the Flyers scoring on the Islanders really necessary?) That said, there was one little nit-picky thing about the film that  bothered me. And that, quite simply, is that Paul doesn't talk like an Italian dude from Staten Island. His brother does. His best friend does. His mother does. Why doesn’t Paul? 

RS: I'll give you a very simple answer: Patton couldn't do a New York accent. He tried during the first few days of the shoot, but it kept coming out like a Boston accent. Like "Jacobs runs up the middle for 19 yahds!" I made the decision to scrap the accent and just have Patton use his own voice. No accent is better than a bad accent. A bad accent can ruin an entire movie.

Frank Gifford is All Class

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 |

There were many highlights in the Giants opening week win over Washington, most notably the incredible strip/fumble recovery/touchdown by Osi Umenyiora and the exemplary individual effort exhibited by Mario Manningham on his first NFL touchdown. But while wins are always great, especially against a division rival, those of you who watched the game on television likely missed the afternoon's ultimate highlight.

At halftime, the Giants brought out something in the neighborhood of 80 former players spanning six decades, honoring them in a short ceremony to commemorate the final year of Giants Stadium and to acknowledge the 8 year anniversary of the tragedies of 9/11. Proving that Wellington Mara's "once a Giant, always a Giant" philosophy still holds true, it was a remarkable turnout and an amazing (and incredibly rare) assemblage of talent.

The Old Man seemed to get a kick out of seeing "wilderness years" old timers like Tucker Frederickson, Aaron Thomas, Bob Tucker, and John Mendenhall out there. And I felt privileged to get a glimpse at true legends like Andy Robustelli and Frank Gifford (pictured left), 83 and 79 years old respectively, lined up alongside heroes of my youth, Harry Carson, Rodney Hampton, and Leonard Marshall. It didn't even matter that L.T. and Phil Simms couldn't make it, because Stephen Baker could. And Karl Nelson. And Fred Dryer, and dozens of other Giants, stars and scrubs alike. 

Would you believe I even cheered Chris Calloway

After the ceremony, the players walked back down into the tunnel near the endzone where our seats have been located since the stadium opened. A few seconds later, though, Gifford re-emerged. Still possessed of the charm that once made him a matinee idol, The near octogenarian jogged gingerly over to the corner of the field, where a group of soldiers were gathered along the wall. Without fanfare or a swarm of paparazzi, or being prodded by a publicist, he approached each soldier individually, looked them in the eye, shook his/her hand, and offered each his sincere thanks (and an autograph). 

It was a small gesture that speaks to the man's enduring character. It clearly wasn't for show. Though old #16 never served in the military himself, his best friend and teammate, the late Charley Conerly, fought in the Battle of Guam and Gifford has an immense respect for the uniformed servicemen who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom. Seeing him take time out to personally thank those soldiers was, for me, an unusually moving experience.

Following Gifford's cue, Hampton and Super Bowl XXV hero Ottis Anderson came back out of the tunnel and did the same. Theirs was a similarly touching gesture.

On a day in which the 2009 Giants outclassed a division rival, the Giants Alumni exhibited a significant measure of class as well. None of the beat reporters seemed to notice, and if they did, they didn't write about it (in fact, I haven't seen a single word about the halftime ceremony in any publication). And something tells me that's just fine with Giff, Rodney and Ottis. 

Same Blog, New Look

Monday, September 14, 2009 |

You may (or may not) have noticed that Bluenatic looks rather different than it did the last time you surfed over here. That's because I did a semi redesign over the weekend, prompted by the promise of a new football season and some insightful feedback regarding the color scheme I'd been employing (dark background, white letters) and width of the main column (unnecessarily narrow).

This redesign is a work-in-progress, though, so if you should have any ideas about how I can improve the design to make it more reader friendly, please leave those ideas in the comments.


The Myth of the #1 Receiver

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 |

It seems that with lone exception of Sporting News, every preseason magazine, blog, TV pundit and sports radio host in America is convinced that the Giants can't make it to the Super Bowl this season without a true #1 (or go-to) receiver. Most of them have cited how the Giants lost 4 of their last 5 games (including the playoffs) and struggled to score points last season after Plaxico Burress exited the lineup. But while these doubters are looking at recent past performance as an indicator of what to expect in 2009, they would also do well to take a look back at some history.

The 2009 Giants, like many championship teams of the past, are built around a great defense and a dominant running game. These hallmarks of smashmouth football are what led the Giants to titles after the 1986, 1990 and 2007 seasons. In recent years, they are also what propelled teams like the '00 Ravens, '02 Buccaneers, '01, '03 & '04 Patriots and the '05 & '08 Steelers to Lombardi trophies.

In 1986, arguably the greatest season in franchise history, the Giants didn't have a single wide receiver top 31 receptions in the regular season. Their #1 wideout, statistically speaking, was Bobby Johnson, an undrafted third-year player who totaled one catch for 15 yards in the entire postseason that year. Johnson, of course, is most famous for hauling in Phil Simms' pass on fourth and seventeen at the Metrodome that season, but it is notable that his 31 receptions, 534 yards and 5 touchdown grabs were all team highs among the 1986 Giants wide receiving corps.
Do you remember who the Giants leading receiver was in Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena? No? Why it was none other than Stacy Robinson (pictured at the top of this post) a young, second-year player of North Dakota State whose 48 career catches spread across 6 NFL seasons were 9 less than a fellow young, second-year player, Steve Smith, registered last season. Lionel Manuel (3-43-0) and Phil McConkey (2-50-1) also got in on the action in Pasadena that day, as the Giants offense scored 39 points en route to their first Super Bowl championship. Would even the most ardent Giants fan argue that Robinson, Manuel, McConkey, or Johnson was a #1 receiver?

To be fair, the Giants #1 receiver in 1986 (and, it could be reasonably argued, 1990) was Mark Bavaro, who that year became the first and last Giants tight end to gain 1,000 yards in a season. Bavaro's 66 receptions from the tight end position were twice that of the Giants second leading receiver, fullback Tony Galbreath, those 99 combined receptions a strong indication that the Giants ball control-oriented rushing attack produced a lot of manageable third and shorts for Simms & Co.

In 1990, when the Giants returned to the Super Bowl (again powered by a strong running game and overpowering defense), they were again led in receptions by Bavaro and a running back (David Meggett). Stephen "The Touchdown Maker" Baker (26-541-4) and
former first-round pick Mark Ingram (26-499-5) tied for the lead among wide receivers with 26 receptions apiece. In the Super Bowl against Buffalo that year, both Baker and Ingram made career-defining plays when the Giants needed them most, but let's not fool ourselves into believing that either player was ever a true #1 receiver. They weren't.

Instead, Baker and Ingram were key cogs in an offensive machine just efficient enough to keep the chains moving, the clock winding, and the Giants defense fresh. They made plays when they had to, but they were not game-breakers. The only game-breakers the 1990 Giants had, with the possible exception of Meggett, were on defense. And that was fine. For all the talk of "stretching the field" and "keeping the defense honest," the Giants simply lined up and ran the ball down its opponents' throats. Three yards here. Four yards there. A short pass on third down. It got the job done.

Even in 2007, when the Giants actually had a true #1 wideout in Burress (his performance in Green Bay was positively Ricean) it was the unsung receivers who came up big in the Super Bowl when the game was on the line. Sure, Burress caught the game-winning pass, but the Giants never would have been in a position to make that play had it not been for the contributions of Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, and David Tyree.

Boss' 45-yard catch and run on the first play of the fourth quarter was, many believe, the turning point of the game. Steve Smith's 12-yard reception along the sideline on 3rd and 11 with 45 seconds remaining gave the Giants a much needed first down and clock-stoppage, and put the Giants in a position to take that shot at the end zone on the next play. And Tyree? Do I really need to explain Tyree's contributions that evening?

All of this is just a roundabout way of trying to say that football is a team game, and that it takes a team to win a Super Bowl--not individual superstars, especially at the wide receiver position. Despite their best combined efforts, all-world wideouts Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter and Tim Brown own zero championship rings. Lesser-light Troy Brown, on the other hand, owns three. I never said it was fair, but it is what it is.

And the Giants are what they are, too. In their 6th season under Tom Coughlin they know exactly who they are and what they're capable of. They've got one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and, even with the loss of Derrick Ward to free agency, an outstanding running game with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw (and Madison Hedgecock) leading the way. They've got a reliable if not exactly spectacular tight end in Boss, whose 6 touchdown receptions was fourth best among NFL tight ends in 2008, and a group of young wide receivers eager to prove that they can consistently make plays at the NFL level. Add all that to a sack-happy defense with a front four that's 8 deep, and you have a team that looks to be as good as any other in the National Football League in 2009. With or without a true # 1 receiver.