Look at the filmography of documentarian Errol Morris, and two themes jump right out: first, the extent to which we humans can obsess, and second, the intellectual, legal, and mechanical apparatuses we build around death. Gates of Heaven gave us a tale of dueling pet cemeteries. The Thin Blue Line painstakingly investigated an investigation — a botched one, of a murder. A Brief History of Time and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control offered the thoughts and theories of men bent on taming lions, trimming hedges to perfection, building small robots, studying naked mole-rats, and knowing the nature of the universe. Mr. Death, a fortuitous intersection of subjects if ever a filmmaker had one, follows a man whose devotion to building a more humane execution system brought him to the wrong side of — which is to say, into the favor of — a pack of Holocaust deniers. Though released under the auspices of ESPN and the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, Morris’ latest short, Team Spirit, looks at a slice of humanity practically made for his feature-length documentaries: sports fans so obsessed that they arrange to express their team affiliation even in death.
One fan had his body not laid in a casket, but propped up in a recliner and draped in a Steelers blanket, as if asleep — in front of a television playing a Steelers game. Another went buried entirely in Cowboys attire, and requested that all her funeral’s attendees, priest included, wear the jersey as well. A NASCAR fan who never got to drive on the track did, ultimately, ride a few laps on it, albeit as an urn of ashes. A funeral home director remembers a fan who requested everything at his ceremony be Ravens purple. “That’s my first memory of any sort of sports-related funeral we did,” he explains. “Until we got this Orioles casket.” As a merely casual viewer of sports, I’ve never quite grasped the process by which one picks a team to follow, to root for, to love; clearly, none of these departed faced such doubts. With its first-person Interrotron interviews and Philip Glass-esque score, Team Spirit feels of a piece with the rest of the Morris canon, a body of work that has over and over again found the thoroughly human currents in subcultures that seemed unreachably out on the fringe.