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Dana's Review of Mathematically Alive

Dana BrandThursday, November 8, 2007
By Dana Brand

Editor's Note: Mathematically Alive, the documentary on Mets fans, is showing this weekend at the New Jersey Film Festival. Dana Brand was kind enough to share this review for those of you considering making the trek to Rutgers University. - M.S.

Mathematically Alive is a new documentary film about being a Mets fan. It is a moving and accurate portrait of Mets fans as a group, as a phenomenon. We are allowed our uniqueness. After all, being a Mets fan is different from being a fan of other teams. But one of several brilliant things that the filmmakers do is show us how Mets fans exemplify the human race at its best, and arguably, at its healthiest. At the end of this film, you come away with the impression that the world would be a lot better if everyone was like a Mets fan: if everyone derived their greatest pleasures from loyalty, love, and community, and not from anything as flimsy or uncertain as triumph.

Mathematically Alive doesn't have big music or elaborate computer visuals. There is no overblown narration. You could never mistake this for a commercial or a promotional film. It begins simply with a series of short spots in which a very diverse group of people, interviewed in many different places, contribute observations about what being a Mets fan means in their lives. The comments and vignettes are carefully selected. The faces are interesting, the people are honest and open. They are very serious about their loyalty to the Mets; they understand that it is something worthy of respect. But they all have a little smile on their face, as if they are aware that someone might question, as if they themselves have often questioned the reasons why they take a game so seriously. This amused, yet serious attitude is everywhere in the film. It is everywhere in the voices and on the faces of the Mets fan.

The opening creates a sense of a larger community of fans. At the end of the film, we will return to this larger community. This creates a nice sense of balance because the middle of film focuses on just a few of the individuals we've heard from in the first part. We visit the festive, selfconsciously crazy people who used to camp outside the stadium in February waiting to buy Opening Day tickets. We follow a group of women, great fans of Mike Piazza, as they travel to Chicago to attend, at Piazza's invitation, his induction into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. The women talk about their trip with a serious and joyful dignity. We understand that for them this is a pilgrimage. We are delighted when they are so grateful for Piazza's attention. We identify with their desire to be close to him and yet not to bother him. And when they gather hours early at Shea in order to welcome him back on his first visit as a Padre, and he arrives unexpectedly in a limo service instead of his familiar car and they miss seeing him, we feel their desolation.

The central portion of the film is filled with psychologically powerful moments like this. One woman movingly recounts how she managed, without permission, to scatter her sisters ashes in left field, fulfilling her last request. The driver of the Mets Mobile tells of driving his Mets-festooned car beside the Mets team bus and he imagines the conversation that the Mets players are having about his car. Collectors talk with dignity about the treasures of their collections, about their collecting as a spiritual occupation, not an economic one. They brush off the comments of those who would tell them to get a life. They know that they have a life and they know that one of the ornaments of their lives is the powerful, wonderful enthusiasm that has assembled this collection. They are not interested in selling anything. None of this is about money and one of the wonders of this film is the way in which it repeatedly shows that however much baseball is more and more about money, baseball fandom is not and never will be. In this loving portrait, fandom emerges as a pure and noble thing.

Without anybody having to say it, this becomes the main point the film. Mets fandom is shown to be something deep and real, something worth experiencing for itself. It makes our lives more interesting and meaningful. It is not an escape. It is not trivial. The film's segments show us several appealing families connected by their love of the Mets and it shows us several that are amusingly divided by baseball loyalty as well. The film shows us that Mets fandom is about living in communities, as we listen to tailgaters in the parking lot celebrating their reunions, as we follow a group of friends in green Mets jackets as they walk behind bagpipers and Mr. Met in the Rockville Center St. Patrick's Day parade.

Another persistent theme in Mathematically Alive is that Mets fandom is all about loyalty and not necessarily about winning. All of the fans in the film have been with the Mets from the beginning and even though all of the beginnings are in different years, they are all in the same internal place. For the kind of fan featured in this film, the Mets are permanent. They cannot be dislodged. They are part of what we are as people. A minister of a church near Philadelphia puzzles and yet wins the admiration of her parishioners because of her absolute loyalty to her Mets. People wear funny hats and stupid jackets and ignore what others might think. People make it clear that one of the best things in their lives is what they have felt in that parking lot, in those stands, on those resounding ramps.

All of his comes together in a beautifully constructed segment near the end of the film focusing on the seven games of the 2006 NLCS. We follow several of the people we have come to know in the film's middle section as they experience exactly what we all remember experiencing as we followed that series which will always encapsulate the particular pleasures and pains of being a Mets fan. This deeply emotional film reaches its climax as we see people who have imaginatively become our friends respond to the final game of that series. It all comes together here. All Mets fans will see themselves in these people at this moment. There are our tears, there is our philosophy, there are our defiantly smiling eyes, there is our profound unhappiness, there is our true happiness. We get this from the words of these people and we get this from the brilliant use of the camera by Coburn and Foronjy. We are inside the Mets Mobile at the end of this segment, listening to its owner Eddie Sanchez, offering the familiar eternal lament of the Mets fan. Outside the car we see and we feel the bright lights of the stadium reflected in the puddles of the wet and deserted parking lot.

There are many moments of emotionally significant visual power in this film. Coburn and Foronjy know what to do with a camera. I love the way they capture the chaotic poetry of the scene outside of Shea. And one of my favorite visual moments is a scene in which one of the women waiting for Piazza stomps off in despair with her poster as her calm and puzzled family, all eating ice cream cones, turn to watch her at exactly the same moment.

One of the best and smartest things about Mathematically Alive is that the fans speak for themselves. We do not see or hear the filmmakers. This creates a wonderful sense of generosity and openness that is the tone of the whole film. Transitions are handled by printed words on the screen. The only sense we have of an outside voice is a professor of sports psychology who says some things about the psychology of sports fandom. When he first came on the screen, I was worried. As a professor myself, I know that we can be dangerous as talking heads. We tend to talk too much and we tend to think that it is our job to explain what other people are doing. But there's no need, it turns out, to worry about this guy. He's really smart, and like the filmmakers, he is deeply respectful. He is not trying to "explain" the peculiarities of ordinary people. Rather, he humbly confirms what they have themselves said, and he puts the fan's own wisdom into an accessible, though more objective language. We need his perspective to draw all of this material together. He is the one who, near the end of the film, can put into words the point the whole film has made: that being a baseball fan or at least a Mets fan, whatever it may look like at times, is not a sickness but a form of resilient sanity.

I love this film. I think every Mets fan will. It makes us clear and it makes us familiar. And it is not just for Mets fans. Not by any means. It is a film that can be enjoyed by anyone who has any interest at all in the way human beings live their lives, develop their enthusiasms, and deal with disappointment. It is amusing, well-paced, fun to watch, and deeply moving. It is not clogged with baseball detail. It's not about what happens on the field or in the clubhouse. It is about what happens to you. You could use it to explain why you're a Mets fan to anyone who doesn't currently understand you. It's the best portrait I've ever seen of what it means to be a Mets fan. It will show you the things that you know about yourself as a Mets fan, but that you never hear about if you just watch the TV or listen to the radio. This film deserves wide exposure and our support. I am so happy that it has been made.

Dana Brand's book Mets Fan is out and available from Amazon and other booksellers as well. For more information, see metsfanbook.com.

About Dana Brand: Dana Brand's book, which has the working title of Mets Fan, will be published by McFarland this fall. To read about it, read samples, and read the table of contents, please visit metsfanbook.com. You can also check out Dana's blog at metsfanbook.com/blog/.

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