The Paranoia of Being a Fat Audience Member: Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-Ho, 2014); Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962)

…and a few thoughts on why I started writing this blog.

Snowpiercer is a high concept sci-fi movie whose opening scenes are densely packed with exposition.  Humanity has fucked with the environment one final, glorious time, a handful of survivors have been circling the globe for the past 17 years via train in a self-sustaining and strictly hierarchal ecosystem.  We begin in the back of the train with our underclass protagonists.  Their existence is claustrophobic, dirty, meager, strictly regimented by cleaner passengers with uniforms and guns.  But the tipping point of their oppression comes when two of their children are taken for an unspecified purpose by Claude, the woman in yellow (Emma Levie):

image from moviestillsdb.com

It is a shocking scene: both for the sickening sense of doom that builds while she wordlessly measures the children’s height and arm length, and the dazzling nature of her appearance.  Claude’s appearance is the first time in the movie that we have seen the color yellow, the first time we have seen clean, glistening hair, the first time we have seen someone wearing eyeliner.  She glides through a jungle of filthy rags and dull uniforms with restraint, a beautiful, venomous creature.

Despite the allegorical nature of Snowpiercer, this isn’t a crude political cartoon where sides are drawn based on waistline.  Slim Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) is a distillation of repressive politicians everywhere; Tanya (Octavia Spencer), mother to one of the kidnapped, is a determined fighter who convinces Curtis (Chris Evans) to make her part of the resistance team because her fat body is stronger than that of the skinny men helping him.  And yet we have a plump woman as the final straw before revolt, the spectacle of feminized wealth among drab poverty, the consumer of children.

It’s not like a larger body is Emma Levie’s only attribute; she’s effective at portraying the ice-cold Claude.  Snowpiercer is her second film; her debut was the titular role of Lena (2011), where she portrays an adolescent struggling with her weight.  I haven’t seen Lena, but the character’s struggle with body image is mentioned in every description of the film I’ve read, and it is the only professional baggage she brings to this role.

Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent epic about T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British army officer, and his role in the Arab Revolt of World War I.  The film combines the macro-level war and sweeping views of the desert landscape with the micro-level of Lawrence’s navigation of identity between his British roots and love of the Arab people, conveyed through O’Toole’s passionate, charismatic performance.  He speaks about his sense of himself as an outsider in British society early in the film with his Bedouin guide:

LAWRENCE: [I am] from Oxfordshire.
TAFAS: Is that a desert country?
LAWRENCE: No; a fat country; fat people.
TAFAS: You are not fat?
LAWRENCE:  No. I’m different.

With this monosyllabic word, Lawrence could be, and probably is, referring to a number of dichotomies he perceives between himself and his fellow countrymen.  He is physically slimmer than his superior officers, but he is also portrayed in contrast to them as empathetic to the Arabic people, an unconventional thinker, and restless in his sense of himself and the world.  However, the “fatness” of Oxforshire, which we only see a glimpse of in the beginning sequence, also stands in contrast to Arabia: verdant and peaceful, as opposed to harsh and troubled.  A more forgiving and abundant land, whose residents presumably don’t have to resort to the extreme measures that Lawrence does, such as killing his close companions for the survival of the group he is leading.

image from flickersintime.com

Lawrence doesn’t position himself with Tafas and his people; just as “different” from the other British people, who are largely portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia as stuffy, bureaucratic colonizers. Is that the people who Lawrence is different from, the stout officers who make secret deals with the French to split up the land and resources of brown people?  Or is it a Britain that we don’t see, but stands in contrast to the ruthless, desperate shell of a man that Lawrence becomes in the second half of the film?

Snowpiercer and Lawrence of Arabia have a few elements in common, but the reason that I chose to write about them in the same post is because I saw them within a day of each other (and both at the Music Box Theatre, check it out if you’re in Chicago), and the two moments in each that I discussed provoked similar responses in me.  How specific were these choices? I wondered.  Is fatness an intentional symbol on the part of the filmmaker, and if so, what is it representing?

I thought that I could write a blog about fat characters where the role of fatness would be more explicit, like Shallow Hal.  I didn’t give enough consideration to how ambiguous that role can be.

This is the insidiousness that comes with being different, with not belonging to your group, and how, like Lawrence, that feeling can provoke and corrode you.  You have something that marks you as an outsider, something you can’t leave at home when you walk out the door, and you don’t often have explicit knowledge of how it factors into how you’re seen.  One of the reasons I chose to write about fat people in movies because these are the images and connected values that are consumed by virtually everyone I interact with every day.  Not having a good read on a movie’s fat semiotics can leave me nonplussed in a way similar to wondering if my appearance was a factor on why I was passed over for a job.

I’m committed to continuing this project, but only a few entries in, this blog is already starting to feel like trying to make sense of a house of mirrors.  And like a house of mirrors, when the viewer sees themself everywhere, from every angle, they tend to become disoriented and lose trust in what is seen.

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