2016 wrap up

And in such a timely manner, too.  As I said in my previous posts, I’m super busy this month with some theater projects, but I hope to get back on track with CPBS in February.  (This would be a great time for a guest post…. hmu with your pitch…)  In the meantime, I wanted to share my ranked list of 2016 films, as I have the past few years.

2016 was unique for me in that I took on (and completed!) the #52FilmsByWomen challenge.  You can check my final list out on Letterboxd.  I unfortunately didn’t get around to some of the feminist classics I was hoping to see (e.g. Cleo from 5 to 7, Jeanne Dielman…, and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I couldn’t make it all the way through Daisies or The Night Porter), but I did have some pleasant surprises in The Love WitchThe Diary of a Teenage Girl, Margaret Keller’s experimental films, Pariah, and The Fits.  Also, feminist film critic hot take:  Meshes of an Afternoon and Born in Flames are essential viewing.

I decided to keep the intentional diversity train rolling in 2017 by making it my goal to watch 52 films directed by people of color.  You can check out my list of films I’ve watched thus far, want to watch, and sub-challenges I’ve set for myself here.

Any way, on to my ranked films of 2016.  I didn’t get to see as many films as I did in 2015, so a lot of the Oscar frontrunners are conspicuously missing.  Overall I wasn’t blown away by 2016, but I am pleased with my top 10 and hope to make repeat viewings, especially with Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I also ended up watching more shorts than usual, most of which I didn’t include.  I’m not sure how to categorize them versus feature-length.

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Link: Nocturnal Animals and the Metaphor of Fat Women

If you don’t follow Your Fat Friend on Medium or Twitter, maybe you want to make that part of your New Year’s Resolution.  Her writing is insightful, emotionally resonant, and uncompromising.  Her most recent article is an open letter to director/fashion designer Tom Ford on his debut film Nocturnal Animals, specifically the use of fat women’s bodies as symbolic imagery and her own experience as part of a theater audience.

It was neither the first nor the last time an artist or intellectual I loved expressed their disdain for me. All because of the body I have. All because of the way I look.

I wonder if they ever imagined me reading or viewing their work. I wonder if they thought of lecturing me on the dangers of the body I have, or if they stop short, surmising that I might have heard that before.

I wonder if they know fat people, or if they’ve come to love any of us.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to let you know that I’m going to be busy with theater projects in January, so I won’t be able to update CPBS next month.  However, if you think you’d like to contribute a guest piece, please reach out to me with a pitch:  pandabearshape at gmail dot com.

I hope you have as safe and peaceful a holiday season as possible.

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Trope Deep Dive: Wrapping up Fat Men and Thin Women with Heavy (1995, dir. James Mangold)

I’d had Heavy in mind for the Trope Deep Dive from the start, and praises be to the movie gods, it went from “it’s a nice thought but I don’t know how I’ll get my hand on it” to “holy shit it’s on Netflix” over the course of working on this series.  Heavy was one of the first indie films I watched as a young person, partially due to my nascent interest in this subject and partially because it was largely filmed in the region where I grew up.  The film could be described as restrained; like its protagonist, Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), it’s very sparse and selective in what it has to say, focusing on a brief point in Vincent’s life where a beautiful young woman, Callie (Liv Tyler) takes a waitressing job at the restaurant he owns with his mother, Dolly (Shelly Winters).  Because it is such a simple story, it can be looked at in terms of the other films I’ve discussed over the past several months, as a means of highlighting shared qualities of the other twelve films I’ve discussed so far featuring romances between fat men and thin women.

Vincent is a middle-aged, single (presumably never-married) man living and sharing a family business with his mother that she had owned with his now-deceased father.  Vincent’s size is a source of insecurity which she glosses over.  In one particularly memorable scene, he skips breakfast and when she asks why, he gives “I’m fat” as the reason.  Her automatic response is to render his statement and the feelings behind it as invalid:  “You are not fat, you are not. Honey, you’re husky.  You’re well built.  You’re macho.”  “I am FAT, Ma,” he responds more forcefully, the only point in the film at which he confronts her.  Not uncommon to fat protagonists, Vincent’s size has to Mean Something, and we discover that his fatness is symptomatic of his arrested development.  Although he is characterized as a good cook, when he is at work we only see him making pizza, a food commonly associated with fatness.  When Callie suggests that he has the talent to be a chef if he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Dolly and Delores (Debbie Harry), a waitress who has been working at Pete and Dolly’s for over a decade, shut down the idea before Vincent can get a word in:  “They would just charge a lot of money to teach him what he already knows.”  Of course there are fat gourmet chefs, so it’s not the neatest of dichotomies, but Vincent’s body and the food he makes are fatty and pedestrian, in comparison to the finer alternative offered by Callie.  Dolly also reveals that her desire to keep Victor at home making pizzas is an expression of her inability to accept her husband’s death:  “when you began to… grow… it was almost like I had him back again.”  Victor is in a role that keeps his family’s life in stasis as much as possible: looking like his father, taking care of his mother, and working his father’s job in the restaurant that still bears his father’s name.  When Dolly dies, he shows a similar unwillingness to move on, and only tells Callie that she died once she’s in the ground.  Perhaps it’s worth noting that Dolly is one of the few fat women in the films I’ve included in the trope deep dive; the only other one I can recall off the top of my head is also a mom–Kathy Bates in Angus.

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Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), in domestic setting.

Stagnancy or need for maturation, especially when it means reliance on family in a manner deemed socially inappropriate to an eligible bachelor, is a common starting point for fat men who are romantic leads.  James in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Danny in Only the Lonely, and Jack in Jack Goes Boating are all grown men living with family members.  Angus, Terri, and the Motel are about minors who naturally live with family, but are all in caretaking roles (Angus and Terri of sick relatives, Ernest of his family’s business) that afford them less autonomy than their peers. Dex in The Tao of Steve and Ben in Knocked Up don’t live with family of origin, but rather with a tight-knit group of friends who enable each others’ adolescent habits.  Living with (and caring for) family suggests a body equipped for domesticity and comfort, the attributes that would be preferable for a long-haul relationship.  Living with similarly slackerish friends suggests an adolescent indolence that requires fixing through maturity (ie. in the direction of a productive job and nuclear family).  

This domesticity and/or arrested development also usually comes with another layer of outsiderness or contempt, often based on the character’s fatness.  In Heavy, Vincent is held back over and over again by language based on his weight.  When he tries to assert himself as restaurant manager to Dolores, he is confronted by regular Leo (Joe Grifasi) on her behalf:  “Just because your mommy’s sick doesn’t mean you can shit on people, you fat fuck.”  Even though Vincent makes a reasonable demand (that Dolores be more civil to Callie, her coworker), his size and closeness to his mother are easily invoked to discredit him.  Even when he and Callie are able to share some alone time together, she describes him as “more to love,” trying to be congenial but ending up patronizing, especially considering that Vincent desperately wants her to return his feelings.  

Status as a social outsider is common to the other fat male love interests.  All four of the school-age protagonists I’ve covered (in Superbad, the Motel, Angus, and Terri) are bullied.  The male love interests in Hitch, Knocked Up, Enough Said, and I Want Someone… are all coded as unattractive, at least in part due to their size.  I Want Someone… even focuses on how James’ weight impacts his work as an actor, when he can’t even get an audition for the remake of Marty because former teen pop idol Aaron Carter was cast as the lead.  Dex in The Tao of Steve is shown as being able to get laid despite being fat, and being unable to commit to a relationship in part due to his insecurity over his weight.  The female love interests, on the other hand, are thin and conventionally beautiful.  Additionally, in several cases, they have more social capital (or literal capital).  In Hitch, The Tao of Steve and Knocked Up, they have more money and/or more prestigious jobs than their male counterparts; in Superbad and Angus, they are more popular at school.  

Even if Callie is a waitress, ultimately she is an outsider to the world of the restaurant where Vincent feels stuck.  She is taking time off from college and aspires to be a photographer, which neither Dolores nor Dolly validate.   “Not everybody’s gotta go to college. Somebody’s gotta roll up their sleeves and do the work,” Dolly tells her during her interview.  There is a complimentary disdain between Callie and Dolly, even if Callie tries to put a friendly face on it.  Pete and Dolly’s is a temporary resting place for her while she figures things out, whereas it’s Dolly’s whole life.  Suggesting that Victor would want to go to school and work in a fancier establishment is an insult to Dolly, even if taking his feelings into consideration would be a more loving response than speaking on his behalf.  Callie’s separation from their world is embodied by her boyfriend Jeff (Evan Dando), a musician who refuses to step foot in the restaurant.  “I guess he thinks they’re all trash or something,” Callie tells her friends.  Victor finds an ambivalent place between the two, feeling separated from Callie but also wanting to expand his horizons.  After his mother dies, he takes a tour of the Culinary Institute of America.  His desire to free himself from stagnancy also comes in the form of trying to lose weight, a goal he starts pursuing when he sees Callie making out with Jeff.  The film’s hopeful ending includes a meetcute with the cashier at the grocery where he buys weight-loss shakes.

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I love how the posters have Liv Tyler’s image largest, suggesting that maybe she plays the protagonist, experiences some personal growth, reveals her inner world…? No, but she is the most normatively attractive of the main characters.

It’s not uncommon for movies with romantic narratives to include parallel self-improvement arcs for one or both of the characters falling in love.  However, Vincent’s weight-loss subplot in Heavy is an example of a pattern I’ve noticed across most of the films in the trope deep dive series: a fat man improving himself to become worthy of a thin woman’s love.  Heavy is similar to Superbad and Hitch, where a fat character changes himself and goes outside his comfort level to attract the attention of a thin love interest.  Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating, The Tao of Steve, and Only the Lonely all feature fat men who are able to start a relationship with a thin woman, but need to change something about themselves to prove their commitment to her.  Of the remaining films:  Terri and The Motel end with the male protagonists being rejected by the objects of their affections;  the protagonists of I Want Someone… and Angus change for their own benefit and end up impressing their love interests as a result; and The Lobster and Enough Said engage with the aforementioned trope of men improving themselves to gain the love of women by actively criticizing it.  Although Victor’s focus is on his weight (and he isn’t actually successful in changing it over the course of the movie), other films feature more significantly life-changing choices in the interest of pursuing romance, including overall life improvement (Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating), significantly changing a relationship dynamic with a parent (Only the Lonely), and dramatically quitting a job (Hitch).  This suggests that the romantic satisfaction in these films, for the female audience, is the idea of being a muse of sorts: her affection and approval are such valuable goals for him to achieve, she inspires him to become “better.”  The last lines of Jack Goes Boating illustrate this idea explicitly:  “I knew you’d be good.”  “I am, for you.”  The “for you” aspect of the sentiment connects neatly with the ideal of lifelong monogamy, where an individual person is unfulfilled without the one partner who sees them as beautiful and can unlock their hidden potential.  

Being able to love a fat outsider also speaks to a certain virtuous quality in the thin women characters.  It suggests a lack of elitism and an emotional integrity, the ability to see “real” beauty and find love without caving to social expectations.  When Callie and Vincent are alone, she tells him that he’s “cooler than someone would think.”  She’s also an aspiring photographer and finds him to be an interesting subject, bringing a lacking artistic sensibility to his world.  However, this willingness to look beyond convention doesn’t extend to the female characters themselves, who are all portrayed by actors who are popularly considered beautiful and/or coded within their film as desirable to other male characters besides their fat admirers.  Highlighting both the female characters’ desirability and the male characters’ capacity to care for her, often she is initially attracted to or in a relationship with a thin man who is not as good a fit for her as the fat romantic lead would be (The Tao of Steve, Hitch), doesn’t understand her the way that the fat romantic lead does (The Motel), or is an outright douchebag to her (Angus, Heavy).  

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to assume that audience members would identify with characters involved in a romantic plot based on a shared gender.  Personally, I’ve frequently felt a certain alienation from these kinds of female characters in films, which I could attribute to being both fat and nonbinary, while also not fully identifying with the fat male characters who are in love with them.  But  to a certain extent, we watch films for the vicarious pleasure of seeing how characters react to specific circumstances; consider the post-modern horror convention of smugly outlining a survival plan for a slasher attack or zombie apocalypse.  And this group of films give us an expansion of what a romantic male lead would look like, while the image of a romantic female lead is very much in its lane.  (Apparently to have the sensibilities to look beyond beauty conventions, one actually has to be a female romantic lead in one of these movies.)  The divide in audience identification with these respective characters seems to be “Would I be able to attract someone like her?” versus “Would I be able to look past initial judgments and see that he loves me?”  Or, to put it in terms of how most of the plots play out, “I’ve won the love of a beautiful woman” versus “I’ve realized that I’m loved by a devoted man.”  The way this dynamic plays out in Heavy— at least, in Vincent’s imagination– highlights its problematic nature.  Vincent has a recurring daydream in which he finds Callie floating in the river, takes her home and cares for her– in every scene of the sequence, she is wet and her skin is bluish, as if she were dead.  Vincent is characterized by his timidity and seeming lack of live experience, so his dream is innocent, in a sense: his affection is expressed by caregiving, never sexual activity.  However, it is disturbing that the way he imagines a relationship with Callie is having her lifeless and dependent on him.  But Callie has a life of her own, and the film ends with them moving in their own separate directions.  

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Callie (Liv Tyler) and Vincent

As opposed to the kind of romantic film that end with a woman swept off her feet by a man who is wealthier (Pride and Prejudice, Pretty Woman) or lives more deeply than she (Dirty Dancing, All That Heaven Allows), the films I’ve looked at over the past several months largely find their romantic ideal in a man who is willing to make a change for the sake of a relationship.  This kind of arc isn’t exclusive to romantic stories pairing fat men with thin women (Shaun of the Dead, High Fidelity), but looking back at this series, I’m struck by the frequency with which it popped up.  Even if these films present a different idea of what a male romantic lead looks like– and considering that 9 out of the 13 are indies, one would expect at least some deviation from mainstream film standards– they are still mired in sexist, heteronormative ideas of how to a romance is formulated.  To be explicit: men act and women react; men strike forth to earn what they desire, women wait passively (or unknowingly) for their emotions to be stirred.  This dynamic also does a disservice to its presumably subversive male lead.  The journey of self-improvement, even if it doesn’t include weight loss, implies that he has to prove his worthiness.  It functions as a compensation, gives her a reason to fall in love with him.  Even in Angus and I Want Someone…, where the male protagonists respectively make decisions to face a fear and move out of mom’s house for their own good, their love interests start to return their feelings as an outcome.  The only film that is a true exception to this dynamic is Enough Said, in which Eva tries to get Albert to change his ways, only to have it blow up in her face and realize that having a flawed Albert in her life is better than no Albert at all.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Enough Said is the only film of this series with a female protagonist.  Even though a fair number of these films don’t explicitly make the male romantic interest’s weight a potential reason that he wouldn’t be seen as a viable partner, the need to “be good” in order to win her love, paired with being fat, is enough to keep these stories at least partly mired in the typical idea that a fat person can’t be “good” enough to be a mate.

Moving through difficult times and a manifesto-in-progress

This time last month, I was chiding people on Twitter to not become politically complacent just because we’ll have a woman president.  Funny how your expectations can be pulled out from under you, isn’t it?  Not really funny ha-ha in this case, more funny sob-sob.  I can only imagine a lot of folks reading right now have been having similar reactions to the election of DJT, processing a lot of difficult emotions and wondering how to move forward as individuals, families, and communities.  

This time last month, I was trying to figure out how I want to wrap up the trope deep dive on fat man/thin woman romance storylines, but for the past two weeks or so, I’ve felt locked up.  Not only have I felt overwhelmed and struggling to prioritize, but I had a bit of an existential crisis over this blog.  (I’ve been having crises over lots of things, but I’m a gold-medal compartmentalizer and will focus on CPBS.)  If I’m being completely honest, this has been coming for a while.  I feel like I’m just hitting the same points over and over.  I’m not sure why I’m still at it.  Given that I’m feeling lost, for multiple reasons, I thought this would be a good chance to pause, step back. and think about my underlying reasons for continuing to write this blog, especially at this particular historical moment.  A Four of Swords post, if you’ll indulge a Tarot metaphor. (and if you are a fat-positive cinephile who reads Tarot: can we be friends please?)

Given the breadth and depth of issues that we as a country have to come to terms with, it felt/feels like cinematic representation of fat people is a topic that’s overly niche.  Thankfully, I received a jolt of inspiration from this thread on twitter from Ariel of Bad Fat Broads:

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I couldn’t have said it better myself, and definitely not in a handful of tweets.  The treatment of fat people connects to the treatment of other marginalized groups, and the fictional worlds that we see in films connect to how we understand the world we live in.  CPBS is inherently political.  My writing style tends to downplay that fact, I think, as I try to balance my critiques with giving you, the reader, space for your own reactions and analyses.  This is also the reason that I rarely linger on connections to my personal life.  But maybe that underlying premise gets lost.  

Problematic cinema doesn’t have the dire nature of situations like the Dakota Access Pipeline or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  However, even if art and entertainment don’t sustain us as organisms, they do sustain us as human beings.  How does it make you feel when you see a character in a movie that you relate to in a very specific and personal way, maybe an aspect of yourself that you don’t often think about or something you’ve never seen addressed before on film?  How does it feel when something very personal to you manifests on screen in an ignorant or cruel way?  And when that seems to be the only way you’re allowed to see it?  

And like any other institution in a kyriarchy, the film industry replicates the oppressive power dynamics in which it operates, leading to situations such as studios covering up sexual assault, racist casting practices, or workplace safety violations that lead to injury and death.  As with Ariel’s allusion to the concern about removal of access to health insurance, these dynamics play out in similar fashions across institutions.  Rape culture, racism, and worker exploitation are not solely found in the film industry, and neither is the marginalization of fat people.

These examples come from the act of making movies, but of course, this CPBS focuses on the movies themselves, specifically fictional narrative works.  As with all popular art, the politics of movies exist in a cycle with no easily defined beginning (if there is a beginning at all).  Specific ideas inform how films are produced, the films give audiences specific stories and images that normalize these ideas, some of those audience members make new films.  This cycle isn’t always a bad thing; my guess is you had your heart warmed this past Halloween at least once by a little girl in a Rey or Ghostbusters costume. Fictional movies can even be influential in changing how a society operates, such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, which influenced the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.  CPBS is concerned with cinema as the outcome of established ideas about how people can be categorized, especially based on their physical attributes, especially especially who on the screen has the most adipose tissue.  If you didn’t know already.

But even if we don’t have cinema, in most situations, we have stories.  The stories that we tell speak to who we are.  There are explicit examples, of course, like stories containing moral lessons or commemorating historical events, but no story, and certainly no film, exists in a cultural vaccum.  Our stories contain patterns, which often turn into tropes or cliches, the kind of thing we see so often that our minds jump to an expectation without a second thought.  An example of this that I love is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  In this unique blend of a longitudinal case study and hangout film, there are two scenes where protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is engaged in risky behavior– playing with circular saw blades, and texting while driving.  Although the almost-three-hour movie establishes from the start that Mason’s life does not contain extraordinary conflict, as an audience member, I found myself growing very tense during these moments.  Why?  Because from the educational shorts I was shown in grade school to the moody indie dramas I snootily absorb as an adult, I have been conditioned to expect the direst of consequences from poor decision-making.  Even if a more conventional story beat isn’t created explicitly to warn of the potential dangerous outcomes of a behavior, it does speak to the standard desire for situations in movies to be at the extremes of human experience.  This is also true for characters, mired in their own cycle of expectations around what the embodiments of various tropes look like.  We conflate personality with physical features.   Who is the hero?  With whom are we invited to empathise?  Who is in the position of receiving our scorn?  Our pity?  Our revulsion?  A lot of the time, we know who these characters are without having to be explicitly told.  CPBS is concerned with the audience expectations that exist when a fat person is in a movie, and how films satisfy or subvert those expectations.

I’ve spent my whole life in the USA, and I’ve only been spending it since the early 80s.  I don’t know what it’s like to live outside this cultural and political context.  While I am critical of it on many levels, I have trouble imagining what the alternatives would look like, especially when it comes to art.  But I don’t believe that a truly just society would normalize the commodification of bodies; relative to this blog is artists’ bodies being objectified by the demand for profitable entertainment, instead of purely being implemented as a medium for expression.  Athletes in contact sports put themselves at risk of fatal injuries, intensified by the pressure to be stronger, faster, more intense, while the institution minimizes knowledge of the risk.  Sex workers whose labor revolves around performance are frequently subject to requests or demands that transgress their professional boundaries.  Transgender women are often used as joke fodder on the screen and often subject to violence and discrimination in real life.  People who work in arts & entertainment are subject to harsh criticism of their bodies, demands for regulation, perfection.  One doesn’t have to look further than the magazine rack at the average supermarket checkout lane to see that sensationalized narratives get written onto bodies as famous people shockingly gain weight, lose weight, age, get sick, or get pregnant.  Bodies are measured, judged, categorized, for their entertainment value, which often eclipses being seen as an equal.  Performance has paradoxical powers of distancing us from the people we are watching and giving us an opportunity to know their experiences.  CPBS is concerned with discerning how and when films invite objectification of or empathy for fat characters.  One work can even do both, depending on the approach of the audience.  Take for example Hamilton, the Broadway sensation that I respect but don’t have much interest in.  Many people of color feel empowered by seeing themselves in the kind of historical narrative they’re often excluded from, in a performance space that they are similarly often excluded from.  On the other hand, consider this weekend’s backlash against the Broadway cast for politely confronting the VP elect when he was in the audience, a man who believes in policies that would cause direct harm to the people he sees fit to provide him with an evening’s entertainment.

The last point that I want to make about what I strive for in this film has already been alluded to, as far as parallels between struggles and keeping a realistic perspective on how cinema fits into a larger cultural landscape.  To refer again to Ariel’s tweets, people don’t exist as one identity, and bigoted mindsets aren’t usually contained to one specific group.  CPBS strives for an intersectional analysis, maintaining awareness of how other social categorizations exist in the films discussed, and how fatness exists in conjunction with these other categories.  Not only is this approach realistic to who people actually are, it helps to look at what it means to be a fat character.  For example, consider how fatness impacts gender, often counterbalancing traditional masculinity with the suggestion of domesticity and sensitivity, and subverting traditional femininity by prioritizing the pursuit of one’s own pleasure over self-restraint and adherence to standards.

Maintaining the progress that we and our forebears have made towards living free and dignified lives requires constant maintenance.  That includes being able to analyze the media that we consume, demanding that our culture recognizes us as fully human, and seeing others in that light as well.  It’s my hope that this blog will contribute to your engagement with those tasks in some way.

Roundup: the 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival

It sucks that film criticism is a dwindling profession (and that I didn’t make life choices to result in it being my career), because I could live at film festivals.  I don’t do conventions, but I imagine that I like film fests for the same reason– it’s comforting to be in a space where everyone is excited for the same dorky reason that, in the harsh wilderness of the outside world, you feel relief if someone from the general population even knows what the heck you’re talking about.  And when there’s the opportunity to be in that space for two solid weeks?

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Well, that hasn’t been my experience yet, partially because I haven’t had the vacation time or the money for tickets, and partially because the first weekend of the Chicago International Film Festival (ChiFilmFest) is always the same weekend as the Music Box of Horrors.  But this year, finally, I had the opportunity to spend two solid days and then some at ChiFilmFest.  I skipped over the high profile entries that are going to be in theaters soon anyway (although I am looking forward to MoonlightLa La Land, The Handmaiden, and Arrival) and instead went for stuff that I’m not sure I’ll be able to see a second time, let alone in a theater: locally made indies, foreign films, shorts.  I don’t think I caught the breakout film of next year; the movies I saw ranged from underwhelming to pretty damn good.  I caught some interesting director Q&As, was part of the first audience in the US to see Andrzej Wajda’s final film, and got an obscene amount of free refills from the soda fountain at the concession stand.  The list of all the films I saw at ChiFilmFest are here.

The characters I saw were in wide variety, from an irrepressible Tibetan goatherd in Soul on a String to a closeted Quebecois track runner in 1:54.  There weren’t many instances where I was specifically impressed with representation of historically marginalized groups– notable exceptions were Pushing Dead‘s depiction of a person living with HIV/AIDS; the nuanced meditation on a young woman’s sexual agency in The View from Tall (cn: sexual harassment); and the rediscovery of black country blues artists during the 60s folk revival and its parallel to the civil rights movement in Two Trains Runnin’. And while there were some fat characters included in the 13 films I saw, none really stood out as anything different than the kind of representation I’ve grown accustomed to, unfortunately.  Here’s a quick rundown of them.

(CN: discussion of sexual assault)

“Superbia” (dir. Luca Toth)

An animated short that could be most simplistically described as a surreal world made up of two warring societies of men and women.  I’m not going to pretend that I understood what the film is trying to say, but it was cool to see characters drawn in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Night of 1000 Hours (dir. Virgil Widrich)

A magical realist murder mystery and allegory about historical responsibility, in which one Austrian family’s entire history comes to visit on the same night.  A notable fat character is a blowhard World War I-era police chief who is more concerned with maintaining rule of law than he is with bringing about justice.

Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda)

A biopic of the final years in the life of Polish abstract painter Władysław Strzemiński and his losing struggle against the government-mandated rise of socialist realism in art in post-WWII Poland. There was another line-towing fat police officer, a relatively small part.

Imperfections (dir. David Singer)

Cute, funny heist movie that, not unlike a Coen Brothers film, has a lot of quirky bit parts embodied by fat people, including an obnoxious department store manager, a mob heavy who asks the guy he’s trying to intimidate if he can use his bathroom, and a socially awkward guy who just wants to buy some drugs.

Middle Man (dir. Ned Crowley)

A black comedy that reminded me a bit of last year’s submission Entertainment, this film stars Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Recreation) as an overly-optimistic square headed to Las Vegas to fulfill his dreams of being a standup comic, but gets waylaid when he makes a bloody pact with a mysterious stranger.  (O’Heir joked during the Q&A afterwords that he would have been off the project if they were able to cast Jonah Hill.)  He’s the only fat character on the screen, but another fat historical figure is invoked.  And as temptation is a big theme in this movie, I want to tell you how I avoided what could have been the most obnoxious “well, actually” moment of my life thus far:

At the screening, writer/director Ned Crowley and Jim O’Heir were in attendance to do a q&a. There’s a scene in the film where a character has a speech that uses a historical anecdote to illustrate a point. The anecdote in question was the story of Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman at a party with a champagne bottle so severely that she died from the resulting injuries.

Now, I don’t have a time machine, but I do know that contemporary film historians largely agree that Fatty Arbuckle was not guilty of this crime and unjustly crucified by the media and resulting moral panic. And one of the reasons I know this is because I’ve read the essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness” by Neda Ulaby, which is included in the essay collection Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco), which I happened to have brought with me to the theater to read in between films. Plus I was sitting in the front section of the theater, so I both literally and figuratively could have thrown the book at the screenwriter. But I’m too classy (or is it spineless?) to do such a thing.

Link: Spooky podcasts for your ears

October’s been a busy month for me, and that agenda has included being a guest on some fantastic podcasts you should check out to help get into that holiday spirit:

First off, we have Tracks of the Damned, a podcast of horror film commentary tracks hosted by Director’s Club alum Patrick Ripoll.  Patrick is making commentary tracks on the Scream series for the month of October, and you can hear me on the Scream 3 episode, which also includes a rambling discussion sparked by a listener’s question about women in horror.

I’m also featured on Film Jive’s Halloween special, Soundtrack of Terror Vol. 2, a compilation of mini audio essays on favorite music from horror film.  My contribution was on “Through the Trees” by Low Shoulder from Jennifer’s Body.  Thanks to Zach, Simone, and Andrew for inviting me back, after including my piece on Night of the Hunter on Soundtrack of Terror Vol. 1.

And last but certainly not least, I was happy to be back on Creepypodsta, the creepypasta podcast hosted by Jeff Kowalski.  Louisa Herron and I discuss the first episode of SyFy’s Channel Zero, based on Candle Cove, the creepypasta that the three of us discussed on the podcast’s very first episode.  The episode drops on November 3, so keep your eye on that space.  Jeff and Louisa also cohost the podcast Seeing Red(dit).

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

 

 

Roundup: The Music Box of Horrors 2016

The Music Box’s 24 hour horror movie marathon is always a delight.  There is something intoxicating about the temporary community that forms for one weekend every October. This is a place for the unabashed horror lover, and even if you normally wouldn’t consider yourself one, you will get swept up in the tsunami of a few hundred other audience members cheering when Christopher Lee appears for a cameo, or  groaning at a particularly gory death scene.

That being said, I unfortunately only stayed for the first half, but a handful of the movies I did get to see had fat characters:

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929, dir. Benjamin Christensen)

The link goes to a full version on YouTube, thanks public domain!  Jim (Creighton Hale) is a wealthy young man who wants to go on an expedition to Africa, but gets caught up trying to help his fiancee Eve (Thelma Todd) catch a thief… which leads them to a bizarre mansion filled with trap doors and sadistic Satan-worshipping cultists.  A few of the nefarious cultists are fat, but given the spectacle that this film makes of other kinds of transgressive bodies (including a little person and other actors some very grotesque special effects makeup), it seems merely incidental.  It just gets weirder as it goes along, definitely give it a shot.

Street Trash (1987, dir. J. Michael Munro)

Only caught the last half of this one, about a group of homeless people living in a junk yard who drink tainted booze that causes them to melt.  This one gets compared to/mistaken for Troma Studios’ work pretty often, in that it’s unapologetically trashy and cartoonishly vile.  In true “this offends everyone!” style, a lot of the jokes and characterizations are based on stereotypes, including two fat characters who are included for a grotesque factor.  While most of the victims of the killer liquor melt into colorful puddles, the fat bum who drinks it swells up and explodes, burping and farting the whole time.  The other fat character is the owner of the junkyard; maybe he has a nuanced plotline in the first half of the film that I missed, but in the second half he rapes a woman’s corpse. So there’s that.  Most of the exploding man can be seen in the trailer, here.  (As you might have guessed by now, it’s very cartoonishly gory.)

Another Evil (2016, dir. Carson D. Mell)

I was quite taken with this horror-comedy about a haunted house situation where things get even weirder once mild-mannered homeowner Dan (Steve Zissis) hires “ghost assassin” Os (Mark Proksch) to get rid of the ghosts.  The film becomes a bromance of sorts set within a horror film, and the film has a charming down-to-earthy quality that has a lot to do with the ghost hunters being two paunchy average Joes.

I didn’t stick around after that, but the last film of the festival this year was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which I wrote about two Halloweens ago.

 

 

 

 

The Ghosts of Roundups Past, Present, and Future

Hi folks, I know it’s been a while since my last article.  I’ve been stretched a bit thin lately, but I have managed to do a bit of film writing.  Check out my recent article for BitchFlicks on bisexuality in Jennifer’s Body.  I’ve also recorded a small audio essay that is going to be included on FilmJive‘s upcoming episode on music in horror films, also on Jennifer’s Body.  Why was I so invested in examining a film where Megan Fox makes out with a bespectacled geeky chick with messy hair?  The world may never know.

I also wanted to talk a bit about my Monthly Roundup feature.  I just started doing it last year without really explaining why.  At my most prolific (read: unemployed), I write two articles a month for this blog, usually tackling one or two films per article.   However, I see way more films than what I write about, usually at least two a week.  Not all of them have fat characters, not all have fat characters worth writing about, and not all of them can fit in the amount of time I devote to writing CPBS.  But while my articles take a close look at one or two films, I also want this blog to function as a reminder of the overall experience of what it’s like to be a fat person with a deep emotional investment in movies, how I see myself reflected in that respect on a macro level.  So if the Roundup articles seem like weird, arbitrary inventories, I ask that you think of them more like month-sized montages of my personal cinephilic journey as is chronicled here, a condensed onslaught of trite physical jokes, incompetent flunkies, ‘Murrikans, and characters who are coded as fat but who you probably wouldn’t think of as such if you saw them on the checkout line at Target.  (And if you’re at all interested in my hot takes on all of the movies that I see, you can check me out on Letterboxd).

This October, I’m very excited to have two spectacular movie binges on my schedule.  This upcoming weekend, I’ll be at the Music Box of Horrors with my partner Patrick, a 24-hour horror movie marathon hosted by Chicago’s own Music Box Theater.  In addition to my annual write-up of fat characters at the Music Box of Horrors, I’ll be doing the same for the selections I see at the Chicago International Film Festival the following weekend.  One film at the Music Box of Horror this year has already been featured on CPBS:  Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  As far as #ChiFilmFest, I’m mostly not sure what I’m getting into, but Middle Man does star Jim O’Heir, aka Jerry Gergich from Parks and Recreation.

That being said, I did see several films in September and August that featured fat characters:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, dir. Taika Waititi)

I saw this film at the Chicago Critics Film Fest earlier this year, and I liked it so damn much that I took advantage of its theatrical release coinciding with my birthday to see it on the big screen a second time.  Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a great fat character, and he deserves his own article.  Just watch the damn movie.

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Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)

A fictionalized account of Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) life and death in Vienna from the perspective of his rival Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).  Like any good period drama, the social scheming is as intricate as the music.  The court of powerful Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) includes the syncophantic, and fat, Kappelmeister (Patrick Hines).

Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir. Joel Coen)

While a more serious neo-noir from the Coen brothers about chaos breaking out between two organized crime syndicates over a sleazy bookie (John Tuturro), the film does of course include some outlandish supporting characters.  In this case, it’s Johnny Caspar (the late, great Joe Polito), a fat mob boss with a comparably fat wife (Jeanette Kontomitras) and bratty son (Louis Charles Mounicou III).

Burke & Hare (2010, dir. John Landis)

This dark comedy is loosely based on the careers of real-life Victorian grave robbers William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), who begin to murder people when their natural supply of corpses that they sell to medical schools runs low.  One murder includes the stalking of a fat man (Tom Urie) through the foggy night streets of Edinburgh.  Burke and Hare manage to frighten him into having a heart attack.  Shortly after, on an exam table in a medical school lecture hall, the professor grabs the man’s belly and dramatically declares his cause of death to be gluttony.

The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel Coen)

It feels downright patronizing to summarize The Big Lebowski on a blog aimed at film geeks.  But to summarize: Joe Polito has a small part as a private eye, the wealthy and short-tempered Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston) is also a fat character, as is potential car-thief Larry (Jesse Flanagan).  And, of course: Walter Sobchak.  John Goodman’s magnum opus?  Only history will tell.

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Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men Wooing Thin Women: Hitch (2005, dir. Andy Tennant), The Tao of Steve (2000, dir. Jenniphr Goodman)

I like to present myself as a savvy, even cynical, consumer of media, so it’s a little embarrassing for me to admit my predilection for romantic movies.  After participating in the recent #fav7films on Twitter, 3 of my 7 turned out to focus on romantic relationships (4 of 10, if I include my extended list).  Look at this current series of articles!  A big part of this has to do with the escapist aspect of entertainment, which romantic movies have in spades by their nature.  They focus on the segments of relationships where people are acting their best, hormones at their strongest.  Even more grounded romantic films like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy involves relatively privileged people in idyllic settings; Before Sunset, the second installment (and my favorite), takes place in Paris, in real time, during the magic hour.  Of course, the characters who fall in love with each other are also idealized: they’re usually affluent (if one is poor, the other is wealthy), occupied with interesting jobs or aspirations, barely concealing beautiful inner lives just waiting to be shared, good-hearted, charming, and physically attractive.  Even an average Joe who finds themself as the romantic lead will usually have an iconic speech in their back pocket.  And, as I hope I’ve managed to convey in earlier posts, fat characters are almost always positioned as a detracting trait, counter to a happily-ever-after image.  There’s usually some form of compensation, some element that seems to say, “Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but this fat person deserves a chance.”  This can be Albert and Eva’s extraordinary chemistry (which, to be fair, is a solid example of a romantic film lacking idealization if you want to argue against my thesis), Jack’s and Marty’s pure-heartedness, Angus’ exceptional integrity/athleticism/intellect, or even Danny’s near-supernatural ability to call in a favor (erotic cronyism: only in Chicago).  Before this series we even have Louis in True Stories, who finds a bride through a love spell.  However, we also have narratives like Hitch and The Tao of Steve, which don’t make exceptions for their fat characters through exceptional  character traits, and rather focus on the implementation of romantic strategies to explain why a fat/unattractive man could successfully woo a thin/attractive woman.  

The narratives of these films are based on some assumptions that are misguided at best.  First, we have the homogenization of attraction: it’s not possible that a fat character would be seen as attractive because there are objective, universal standards that are embedded deep in the hearts and minds of the other characters, and of course, the audience.  One of the reasons I started writing CPBS was, in addition to being fat myself, I’m attracted to other fat people, so I get very lost during scenes where it’s supposed to be hilariously icky that Jack Black is naked.  (On top of, you know, the alienation when reminded that the entertainment industry uses bodies like mine as visual shorthand for garbage.)  Second, both Hitch and The Tao of Steve rely on the regressive heteronormative positioning of man as active pursuer of passive trophy woman, who has the “real” power of being able to veto the relationship.  It needs to be said that the overlap of these assumptions function to completely cut fat women out of the picture.  The Tao of Steve goes so far as to have protagonist Dex (Donal Logue) declare that he doesn’t fuck fat women.  “I am a fat-ist, I admit it.  I’m the worst kind of fat-ist, I’m a fat fat-ist.” What a delightful character I resigned myself to spend another hour watching!  Considering how this statement occurs early in the film, I suppose it’s supposed to communicate the immaturity that Dex grows out of to win the love of Syd (Greer Goodman), who is coincidentally thin.  Yet, since no fat women exist in the film, there’s nobody on the receiving end of this statement, just the abstract phantom of an unfuckable fat woman.  Hitch doesn’t even acknowledge that fat women exist.  We often think of fat women existing in rom coms as the Less Attractive Best Friend; Casey (Julie Ann Emery) is thin and pretty, her apparent outsider status is due to being Southern (Hitch being of the subgenre of rom coms that take place in Manhattan).  Wealthy, beautiful Allegra (Amber Valletta), the object of Albert’s (Kevin James) affections, turns out to be clumsy and awkward, but these traits are only highlighted at the end of the film when she talks about them while sitting on her gigantic yacht.  Her transgressions from physical idealization are manifest on her body during the end credits wedding dance party sequence, once the “chase” is over.  The object of longing is characterized by physical restraint– thinness, gracefulness, aloofness– which is as true for the mandatorily thin women characters as it is for the fat male characters pursuing them.  As Dex says in The Tao of Steve: “we pursue that which retreats from us.”  For Dex and Albert, restraint is the foundation of their respective strategies for getting women interested in them.  Of course, both learn the art of seduction from thin, traditionally attractive men.  

In Hitch, stereotypical accountant Albert hires Hitch (Will Smith), the “date doctor,” to teach him how to get his heiress client Allegra to notice him.  Hitch’s philosophy of falling in love comes from a painful experience he had in college of his first girlfriend (Robinne Lee) leaving him because he came on too strong, a heartbreak that was apparently potent enough to transform Charmingly Dorky Will Smith into Charmingly Suave Will Smith.  His philosophy does not include outright lying– he tells us in the opening narration that women want to see “the real you”– but he does say that “with no guile and no game, there’s no girl.”  He isn’t above manipulating situations, creating meetcutes for his clients.  Hitch teaches Albert how to dress and groom himself, but more importantly, how to rein in his dorkiness, which largely manifests as flailing physical comedy bits.  Albert is confident that his flamboyant dance moves will impress Allegra, but Hitch orders him to keep it to a dull two-step.  Albert can’t maintain control during their date, however, and busts out his ridiculous moves when Allegra isn’t looking at him, his physical tendency towards excess irresistable, even leading him to cheat on his regimen of increased regulation.  Hitch too ends up having to deal with his own body betraying him in appropriate ways when on dates with Sara, as he ends up accidentally knocking her into the Hudson River and having an allergic reaction that causes his face to swell up.  While mirroring his fat client’s awkwardness, Hitch also mirrors his emotional sincerity, as he struggles with wanting to get more involved with Sara than is his usual comfort level.

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“Don’t ever do that again:” Hitch (Will Smith) offers Albert (Kevin James) constructive criticism on his dance moves

If the audience wasn’t already socially conditioned to view fat people as unworthy of love or desire, the opening sequence of The Tao of Steve makes this explicit, as three women Dex went to college with view his body with amused disgust and confess to each other that they all had sex with him back in the day.  Albert may be above average in optimism thinking he can win the heart of a millionaire, but Dex is damn near a curiosity.  Step up ladies and gents, marvel at the fat man who gets laid on a regular basis!  How does he do it?  Witty, intellectual Dex has hewn his seduction strategy from observing “the prototypical cool American male” in pop culture, specifically Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin, and Steve McQueen. “He never, ever tries to impress women but he always gets the girl.”  The Tao of Steve is Dex’s name for his three-part strategy for getting women to have sex with him: “eliminate your desire… be excellent in her presence.., retreat.” While Dex’s strategy appears to be based on respecting boundaries (wow), sharing interests (amazing), and socializing with women without any expectations of sex (gold star), his reasoning is pretty damn misogynist.  Dex says that, based on his looks, “technically [he] shouldn’t be getting laid” and thus women are confused and intrigued by his apparent lack of sexual interest in them, which causes them to assume that sleeping with him is a major achievement on their part, wherein reality he describes himself as being willing to have sex with any woman who has low enough standards (as long as she isn’t fat).  He justifies the Tao not working on Syd because she’s smarter than the women he usually is able to seduce.  However, the sex that he has is also largely meaningless as he doesn’t desire a connection beyond temporary pleasure with his sexual partners.  

Although initially acting under the belief that behaving in a stereotypically masculine way will attract the women they’re in love with, both Albert and Dex have to abandon this facade and be more sensitive and vulnerable to actually win Allegra’s and Syd’s hearts.  These traits are often associated with fat men as a way of showing their lack of masculinity, but here we have two very straight rom-coms where romancing a woman is successfully done by letting go of machismo.  In Hitch, Albert is contrasted with the thin male characters as the genuinely nice guy.  Hitch isn’t bad person, but he’s a player, emotionally distant and commitment-phobic.  Allegra’s ex-boyfriend, the prince of Sweden or something like that, is referred to in negative terms.  We’re also introduced to Vance (Jeffrey “Burn Notice” Donovan), a potential client who wants Hitch to teach him seduction skills in order to dump a woman after a one night stand.  Hitch thinks Albert is a lost cause and is only persuaded to take on his case when Albert reveals the selfless nature of his love:  “You know what it’s like getting up every day, feeling hopeless?  Feeling like the love of your life is waking up with the wrong man, but at the same time hoping that she finds happiness, even if it’s never gonna be with you?”  And sure, Hitch helps Albert gain confidence and talk to Allegra in the first place, but his genuine attributes win out in the end.  As mentioned before, Allegra reveals that she is attracted to Albert’s awkward, dorky ways because she sees those traits in herself and he makes her feel comfortable.  

As for Dex, being an unattached lothario comes much more naturally to him, but he’s only able to win Syd’s affections once he stops verbally sparring with her and allows himself to be vulnerable.  Casual sex with many different partners is Dex’s MO, but he feels genuine remorse when Syd reveals that he seduced her in college and is hurt that he doesn’t remember her.  He directly uses his fat body as evidence that he won’t hurt her again:  “Now I’m a fat fucking pig, and the guy that did that to you was a skinny, arrogant prick. Just give me one more chance.”  The logic behind this statement isn’t teased out, but it suggests that becoming fat has taught Dex something about humility.  From his actions over the course of the film, it seems more like he looks for temporary solace from the insecurity he feels over the changes in his body by seeking casual sex and hasn’t actually changed, especially considering that he lies to his date in order to blow her off and have this conversation with Syd.  She doesn’t buy it; however, he does keep making attempts to be a better person in order to win her affections.  As a means of apologizing, he repairs a motorcycle for her.  Where he was initially depending on Syd to drive him to and from work, his gift frees her from her obligation to him.  (Dex is constantly referencing philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the film.  When Syd shows up at his home to thank him for the motorcycle, he’s reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, a book that serves as the modern world’s reintroduction to Gnosticism, an early sect of Christianity that contradicted the patriarchal structures of Roman Catholicism by having gender-equitable roles within their organization and recognizing the feminine personhood of God.  Filmmaking!)  His striving to change himself continues as he goes camping with Syd and some friends despite his lack of outdoorsmanship, makes an attempt at dieting, and breaks up with the married woman he’d been sleeping with (Ayelet Kaznelson).  Getting punched out by his former lover’s husband (John Hines) is enough, and he and Syd have their second first kiss.  Even during sex with her, he drops the playboy facade and shows vulnerability and tenderness.  Unfortunately, that takes the form of being insecure about his body, as he requests that they turn the lights off.  

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Dex (Donal Logue) and Syd (Greer Goodman) in The Tao of Steve:  Maybe you can’t stand him now, but just wait until the third act…

Both Hitch and The Tao of Steve find romance in a man changing himself to prove himself worthy of a woman:  Albert sheds his timidity, Dex his aloofness.  Their respective strategies even work at first:  Syd warms up to Dex when she sees him “be excellent” with his kindergarten students, Albert gets Allegra to notice him when he stands up to his patronizing boss on her behalf.  But the real connections don’t form until they rid themselves of the structured restrain they had been relying on as seduction methods; one might say that they let themselves go.   And even though Dex and Albert embody fat stereotypes (slovenly nerd and slovenly stoner, respectively) that are usually positioned as worthy of ridicule, the films want us to root for and empathize with them.  They are posited as diamonds in the rough, willing to polish themselves for the women they love, suggesting that they would do anything to make Syd and Allegra happy.  The idea that Albert and Dex as fat men can be seen as viable partners is initially explained by their employing of seduction strategies, “tricking” their respective partners into finding them attractive.  The romance doesn’t come from them being conventionally attractive as much as it does them being improved by the grace of loving these women who passively wait to be seduced.  As with the dynamic we see in Superbad and Knocked Up, the female characters serve as inspiration for the male characters to grow as people.  The escapist element is the idea of a partner who will facilitate your self-improvement (if you’re a dude), or who will change themselves to impress you (if you’re a lady).  It’s the internal version of a makeover or training montage done for the sake of impressing a partner, not the basis for a healthy relationship.  I said in a previous article that I want to see fat characters involved in escapist, whirlwind romances, but not if there isn’t a happy medium between the fantasy of a budding romance and tropes that aren’t bad ideas in the real world.

See Also:

Your Fat Friend: “She’s Not Even That Fat!” But I Am.

Roundup: July 2016

A monthly rundown of the fat characters in films I saw this past month, but haven’t written articles about.

The Italian Job (2003, dir. F. Gary Gray)

Part of this heist caper includes the main gang of thieves getting detonation materials from a low-level crime boss ironically named Skinny Pete (Gawtti).  The transaction includes Left Ear (Mos Def) awkwardly trying not to stare at him.

Wiener-Dog (2016, dir. Todd Solondz)

Four short vignettes threaded together by one Dachshund.  One chapter focuses on a disconsolate film professor/screenwriter Dave (Danny DeVito) who is despised by his students and ignored by his agents.  One scene includes a visit to his (off-screen) doctor who orders him to lose weight and exercise, to which Dave repeatedly and forlornly insists, “I can’t.”

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Hudson Hawk (1991, dir. Michael Lehmann)

A caper that plays like a live action cartoon, starring Bruce Willis as the titular Hawk, a cat burglar who gets wrapped up in a scheme that defies explanation.  Hawk’s friend Five-Tone (Danny Aiello) is the butt of a few fat jokes over the course of the film, as are a few fat security guards that Hawk has to outsmart during his jobs.