“It’s what life is about … you need to be passionate about something.”
As a diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan (that’s football, for those unaware of sportsy things), I know these things to be true:
1. Fuck the Cowboys.
2. Fuck the Giants.
3. No, but really, fuck the Cowboys.
That is to say, I rather dislike the Dallas Cowboys, a team that has been annoyingly and erroneously dubbed “America’s Team.” I also have little love for Cowboys fans. Which is not to say I hate someone because they happen to root for the Cowboys — several people close to me are (inexplicable) fans of Jerry Jones’ garbage squad — but I might just have a little less respect for them.
That being said, I made a very conscious decision to go into America’s Parking Lot, a documentary about Cowboys fans and their pre-game tailgating rituals, with an open mind. I found myself faced with my first struggle with this decision before I even got into the theater. This being the doc’s world premiere, the guys featured in the documentary where all there, and they were a living fucking stereotype. They stood in a circle in the parking lot, Cowboys gear and big belt buckles aplenty, beers in hand (Bud Light, of course, despite the cheap and easy access to Shiner, this being Austin), loudness abounding. Circled up like that, it was like Dante’s Tenth Circle of Hell (Disgust). But I swallowed my contempt under one softly-muttered “fucking Cowboys” and reset my bias to zero. I really wanted to give this flick a fair shake, not just because it’s my “job” as a critic, but because I love the concept of it, Cowboys-association aside.
The topic of sports fandom, nowhere more omnipresent than at a pre-game tailgate, is fascinating. I don’t claim to be any “better” than these die-hards, mind you. I go out of my way to make it back to at least one Eagles game a year back in Philly, I try to see Philly sports teams whenever they make their way out towards me, and I have a veritable mini-shrine to the Eagles and Phillies in my apartment, including framed photos, framed collages, signed footballs, plush footballs, flasks, blankets, bags, jerseys, countless t-shirts, etc. Why do I and so many like me invest so much time, money, emotion and devotion to these teams? After the Flyers’ recent playoff collapse, a friend asked me, in dead seriousness, whether those who aren’t invested in sports are generally happier. It’s a legitimate question.
Between the four major sports, there are 122 teams. Assuming differently located teams win their respective championship in a given year, that means that 118 fan bases, over 96% of these fans, ultimately wind up disappointed. The odds are never in our favor. I have friends who really don’t follow or care about any sports and I don’t think they’re fundamentally happier because (1) they have their own obsessions which are not always or exclusively “happy” experiences and (2) I think sports fans actually, deep down, like the pain and suffering and disappointment.
Being at Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, watching my Phillies become champions, was incredibly and the single best fan experience of my life. But if I’m truly honest, no less memorable was watching the Eagles crumble in their last game at Veterans Stadium, losing the NFC Championship to the soon to be Super Bowl champions. The first is a much happier memory, but that Eagles loss is just as indelible and I’ve probably talked about my experience there as much as my Game 5 experience. We love our teams’ wins and we cherish our team’s championships. But just listen to any local sports radio call-in show and you’ll see how much we also hate-love our teams’ losses and dissecting their every flaw.
My point is, the topic of sports fandom is a fascinating one. Which is ultimately what made America’s Parking Lot so disappointing — not that it was about Cowboys fans, but because it just really didn’t do a good job of getting at the heart this subject. Which is not to fault director Johnny Mars (yes, that’s really his name) for trying. He came at this from a good place, inspired by documentaries like Heavy Metal Parking Lot and having experienced some of the infamous Gate 6 tailgates himself.
Until a few years ago, the Cowboys played at Texas Stadium and outside of one of the gates (Gate 6, pay attention!), a massive and infamous tailgating ritual had been going on for two-plus decades. Hundreds of people shared in communal eating, drinking, pep rallying and heckling of opposing fans. It really was a thing to behold, and I have to admit that, having tailgated at many stadia, I’ve never really seen a thing like this. One of the guys focused on in the documentary, Cy, spent over $13,000 on a trailer that he uses solely for cooking up food for his fellow tailgaters. That’s nuts, but also kind of awesome.
In addition to following Cy, America’s Parking Lot also primarily follows “Tiger” (I don’t remember his real name as everyone calls him Tiger), and here’s pretty much everything you need to know about Tiger: his first marriage fell apart because he literally (and admittedly) chose his devoted Cowboys fandom over his wife, his second and clearly much more understanding wife let him name their daughter Meredith Landry, and he freely admits that “I think about the Cowboys more than I think about my kids and wife, and that’s nothing against them.” While he also cooked at the tailgates, his big role at Gate 6 was as the pep rally leader — he wrote up a big speech each week about the game and the visiting opponent, and spoke to the gathered masses through a bullhorn. Both he and Cy are likable protagonists for a documentary like this, even if Tiger (in particular) exemplifies everything I hate about the arrogance of Cowboys fans (for example, he claims in 2007, when the documentary starts, in all seriousness that “you think the NFL, you think Texas Stadium,” which is just beyond idiotic).
After introducing us to Tiger, Cy, the Gate 6 tailgate and some its other regulars, the film moves on to the then-impending demise of Texas Stadium and rise of the behemoth Cowboys Stadium. Introduced with a promo video for the new stadium, including a talking head from owner/potential-super-villain Jerry Jones, the documentary then explains the insanity of costs involved in building a new stadium (the extravagant Cowboys Stadium wound up costing $1.15 billion) and the use of personal seat licenses (typically referred to as PSL) as a way to make back these costs.
PSLs are insane. Take Cy’s story. A season ticket holder for decades, he naturally wanted season tickets in the new Cowboys Stadium. Now with a PSL, before you can actually buy your season tickets, you have to buy the right to buy your season tickets. So to get good seats comparable to the great seats he had in Texas Stadium, Cy had to pay the Cowboys organization a one-time fee of over twenty thousand dollars. All this money does is give him the right to spend more money on season tickets (and if, in any given year, he doesn’t buy season tickets or sell his PSL to someone else, his PSL goes away). Cy had to take out a 30 year loan, and put off building a new house, to pay for the opportunity to buy his season tickets.
Now, of course, Cy didn’t have to do this. He could have been like Tiger who, unable to afford that steep PSL price, purchased a far cheaper PSL (and, thus, had the right to much crappier season ticket seats). Or he could choose to simply stay home and watch the game on his big screen, or at a bar, as some other Gate 6ers chose to do. And this is where the film falls short because that’s what the documentary really fails to dig into. Why does Cy choose to spend such an inordinate amount of money on this corporate entity (any sports fan who thinks “their team” is anything other than a finely crafted corporate marketing machine is drinking too much of the Kool-Aid), putting aspects of his life on hold? Why does Tiger allow the Cowboys’ on-field performance to so effect his personal and emotional well-being?
These questions are at the heart of fandom, and Mars skirts a full exploration. He touches on the fringes of it and then veers back to the economic issue, exploring the issue of PSLs a bit more with talking heads from NY Tines and Forbes reporters talking about how PSLs are pricing fans out across the country, and comparing these costs to the pros and cons of the value that these new, expensive stadiums provide to their respective cities (values that are typically undercut by the public taxpayer money that is put into the stadium building). It feels like Mars was uncomfortable with allowing the documentary to rely solely on the nature of fandom, with Cy and Tiger as the main focus, and instead felt the need to make it a more “weighty” documentary.
And it’s a shame because Cy and (particularly) Tiger make good documentary subjects. Both are personable and funny (despite being Cowboys fans) and there’s a sadness that hovers around the edge of Tiger and his fandom which is both fascinating and slightly depressing (there was a moment in the film, watching Tiger scrawl out one of his pep rally speeches, that I found myself drawing analogy to Patton Oswalt’s utterly depressing character in Big Fan, who similarly invested too much time and energy scripting out his calls to a local sports radio show). In one minute, Tiger is self-effacing and funny, claiming that “I’m just some drunk Johnny [Mars] met in the parking lot.” In the next, after a big loss, he’s telling Mars not to tell him that he shouldn’t take it seriously, because that will just make him angrier. Tiger also presents a perfect example of the dichotomy of the “us versus them” sports fan — at one pep rally, before a Giants game, he extols his listeners to “put the whoop on a Giants fan, don’t put up with any shit, if you get thrown out, you get thrown out,” and yet we later see him at another pep rally welcoming opposing fans with opening arms. There is a lot that really could be dug into with the film’s subjects, and Tiger in particular, and a more accomplished documentarian might have been able to get there. But Mars is too raw and perhaps likes Tiger too much to be willing to really take the film into Tiger’s devotion, a place that could turn out to be pretty dark and uncomfortable.
As a result, the film not only feels a bit meandering, but it lack an emotional through-line. We’re supposed to care about the end of the Gate 6 tailgates, and what happens when Cy and Tiger wind up in different parking lots at the new stadium (Cy, because he got plum season tickets, is provided access to a much closer and nicer lot). We’re supposed to be fully invested in this, and while we come to like Cy and Tiger and want to see them happy, we aren’t given enough to really understand why this matters. In fact, the aspect of the documentary focusing on PSLs actually does a better job of hitting the heart, particularly when Mars follows Tiger to a trip to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Packers fans talk about how their stadium was renovated in a way that didn’t try to financially bleed the fans. This, in turn, leads to the question of what happens when your team sucks, and we see how, after the 2010 Cowboys went 6-10 (ha!), a ton of fans tried to sell their PSLs (more than any other fan base that year), and Jerry Jones filed over $80 million in lawsuits against corporations who had defaulted on their PSLs. These are also interesting questions, how the economics of fandom work, particularly with a bad team or in a bad economy, and Mars does a better, though incomplete, job of exploring this.
At the Cowboys’ last Texas Stadium game, Tiger gave a very heartfelt speech and after the ‘Boys lost (ha!), he tells us: “that’s what happens when I do sentimental … it’s my fault.” It’s not, of course. But I think Mars suffered from the same thing, feeling too sentimental to really take this documentary where it should have gone on the small scale. And in trying to make it something bigger, looking at the economics, he winds up muddling everything. America’s Parking Lot is not a bad documentary by any means, particularly for a first effort. It’s just disappointing because it could have been so much more. In that respect, the experience of watching the doc is the perfect analogy for being a sports fan, where you generally walk away from the season disappointed, wishing your team would have been better.
America’s Parking Lot had its world premiere at South by Southwest 2012. Dallas sucks, and I cannot wait to see Tony Romo sucking on some of Fletcher Cox, the Eagles’ recent first-round draft pick.