"Good evening Vikings fans," began film fest programmer Tom Yoshikami as he introduced Sportsfan, quickly receiving scattered cheers and a few more hoots from the late night audience sitting before him. This documentary about those blonde-braided, horn-helmeted and purple-painted fanatics from the land of ice and snow was one of the final movies to be screened Friday.
The primarily Packer-backing audience in the auditorium at Monona Terrace quickly got into the story, which followed the highs and more numerous lows of Vikes fanatics over the course of the team's ignominious 2005 season.
"The regular football season lasts 17 weeks," begins the title sequence in Sportsfan, which originally aired on Spike TV last Thanksgiving Day and boasts Jon Stewart and Ben Karlin as its executive producers. It was because of the involvement of the latter -- a UW graduate -- that the film was programmed as part of the Wisconsin's Own, a seemingly strange choice given its west-of-the-border subject matter.
Beginning at spiritual heart of the land of 10,000 lakes otherwise known as the Minnesota State Fair, and flexing its muscles briefly at training camp in Mankato, the documentary follows each week of the Vikings season as experienced by some of the team's most dedicated followers. These include a pair of hosts on a cable access sports talk program (one of whom was present at the screening), a lifelong fan gradually succumbing to cancer, and a school counselor (Joseph Juranitch) who suits up in furs to play Ragnar, the Segway and snowmobile riding berserker who is the NFL's only human mascot.
Given that the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl and its close calls in the early '70s are a generation gone, the tragedy of the NFC Championship game in early 1999 looms large over the imagination of these fans. They consider it an important marker in their fandom, though, as they considered their commitment to the team a strong antidote to Minnesota's deserved reputation for many fair-weather fans.
Alas, 2005 was a devastating season in every way. The Vikings kicked off autumn with a string of losses after having trading star wide receiver Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders, and subsequently lost their star quarterback Daunte Culpepper to injury by the halfway mark. Things started looking up when they subsequently won six in a row, but the team ended the season one win out of making the playoffs. Then there was the "Love Boat," to consider, the scandal in which 17 members of the team allegedly participated in a sex party in a rental boat on Lake Minnetonka.
Though Sportsfan wasn't conceptualized as such, it gave a good look at how super-fans deal with a disappointing season.
The fact that the Vikings were a featured team, in fact, was mostly a result of corporate politics in the world of global media conglomerates. After Jon Stewart came up with the idea for a documentary about one team's football fanatics, the team at Viacom (owner of Comedy Central) used late night sports talk as a gauge for finding an appropriate team. There were only three NFL markets in the nation, though, which had such a station not owned by Clear Channel. They were Miami (which producers thought overexposed), St. Louis (boring), and the Twin Cities. Ergo, Ragnar and company.
The audience at the theater was engaged, laughing and jeering (as Packers fans, of course) throughout the screening. There was also a lively discussion afterwards with some of the crew behind the documentary, along with one of its star fanatics.
Sportsfan was coupled with Ball Saved in a dual documentary screening at Monona Terrace, the third pair in a sextet of films screened there Friday night. It will be screening again there at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday.