2010s

Roundup: December 2015

Happy New Year!  This past month was largely focused on catching up with 2015 releases for my end of year list. (Minus the first week of January grace period I’m affording myself on account of not having the time for and access to 2015 releases that a full-time professional film writer would, you’ll just have to wait a month for those.)

Mistress America (2015, dir. Noah Baumbach)

Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman and aspiring writer who is new to NYC, attempts to navigate her new surroundings by reaching out to her hipster-by-Auntie-Mame stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig).  One of the funniest films I’ve seen this year, due to the clever script and just-madcap-enough characters who bounce off each other delightfully.  Not least among these is Brooke’s former fiancee Dylan (Michael Chernus), a fat guy who lives in the affluent suburbs of southwest Connecticut and almost matches Brooke in terms of grandiloquence and fear of adulthood.

People, Places, Things (2015, James C. Strouse)

An indie dramedy that is pretty unremarkable, with the exception of Jermaine Clement’s performance.  Following the breakup between Will (Clement) and Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) that begins with Will walking in on Charlie having sex with Gary (apparent supporting role powerhouse Michael Chernus). Part of Will’s inability to move on over the course of the film deals with resentment towards Gary.  Despite both men being nerdy hipster Brooklynites, larger Gary is portrayed as the more milquetoast of the two.  Will is a graphic novelist, an art form that is characterized as under-appreciated and misunderstood, while Gary is a monologist, whose artistic pursuit exists in the film as material for insults. Another fat character is an unnamed student in Will’s graphic novel class, who does a piece for class about how he learned to masturbate.  His work is used as a punchline– how inappropriate!  like the rest of Will’s class, save Kat (Jessica Williams), this kid doesn’t get it!– but the joke comes across as misinformed.  It doesn’t take much scratching of the surface of establish underground comics to find confrontationally personal autobiographical accounts

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Michael Chernus and Stephanie Allynne hide their shame in People, Places, Things.

Spotlight (2015, dir. Tom McCarthy)

It’s more likely to see fat characters in films that strive for realism, like Spotlight.  However, as  Spotlight has a large cast, fast-paced, complex plot, and required quite a bit of emotional processing as someone who was raised Catholic, I’m sure that I wouldn’t be able to remember everyone.  Certainly none of the main characters are fat.  There are fat characters, but the only one who comes to mind at this point is a reporter from a rival newspaper with whom Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) trades snarky comments during his trip to Springfield.

Star Wars: the Force Awakens (2015, JJ Abrams)

Larger bodied characters tend to be aliens in small roles who are sketchy/dangerous or whose bodies are part of the exotic, otherworldly scenery, such as the hulking junk trader on Jakku (Simon Pegg) to whom Rey sells her scavenged findings, or wide, intimidating-looking aliens in Maz Kanata’s (Lupita N’yongo) hideout.  In addition to them, however, there is a rather dashing X-Wing pilot for the Resistance:

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Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron in Star Wars: the Force Awakens.

No, not him, the other dashing X-Wing pilot:

 

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Portraying X-Wing pilot Snap Wexley, JJ Abrams’ lifelong friend and hunk Greg Grunberg.

Yeeaaahhhhh.

Attack the Block (2011, dir. Joe Cornish)

Sci-fi/action/comedy about a group of inner-city London youth who fight monstrous invading aliens.  It’s a really smart depiction of a disaster where the only people who are working to contain the problem are the people who nobody trusts or listens to.  Frequently compared to Edgar Wright’s work, it unfortunately never manages to hit the humor or emotional notes that Wright can.  Case in point: Nick Frost’s role as Ron, a weed dealer.  Where the Cornetto Trilogy has Frost in dynamic, funny, endearing roles, Ron isn’t given much of anything to do in Attack the Block.  Shame.

Buzzard (2015, dir. Joel Potrykus)

Grungy, uncomfortable (in a good way) indie comedy about Marty (Josh Burges), a slacker who lives to game the system.  One of his cons includes “returning” stolen office supplies to a retail store for cash, which he is able to do through the grace of a fat cashier (Michael Cunningham) who takes a lax approach to store policy.

Experimenter (2015, dir. Michael Almeyreda)

A fourth-wall demolishing, imagined memoir of the work of experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, in my favorite leading man performance of 2015), starting with and always coming back to his controversial 1961 experiment on subjects’ willingness to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to another person.  Jim Gaffigan, whose standup includes bits on being fat, plays James McDonough, a man Milgram hired to be the “victim” of the experiment’s situation, pretending to receive the administered shocks and begging for the experiment to stop.  When not acting as a man in distress, McDonough is an affable goof.  65% of the experiment subjects complied with all orders to shock McDonough, despite hearing him say that he had a heart condition and even after he became unresponsive.  Most of the depictions of subject experiments show these compliant people, but two depictions are of subjects who refused to comply, including a fat man who tells the researcher saying he has no choice: “In Russia, maybe, but this is America!”

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Experimenter: No comedians were harmed in the making of this film.

 

Who else but Fat Amy? Pitch Perfect (2012, dir. Jason Moore), Pitch Perfect 2 (2015, dir. Elizabeth Banks)

One of the inspirations for this blog was an article I came across on AV Club:  Fat Monday: 16 realistic depictions of overweight people in pop culture. (The comforting tagline: “Eddie Murphy doesn’t appear once on this list.”)  I appreciated the intention, but it didn’t go far enough for my liking (obviously).  “Realistic” is a bit of a red herring:  the list is more characters who are shown in a benign, or at least thought provoking, light.  And, as is a pervasive problem in the listicle genre, the one-paragraph synopses of why a particular character fits in with the theme don’t approach the complexities of the works they are part of.  I’ve already written about a few of the characters in the article, and more are on my to-do list.  The reason I bring it up now, however, is because this post is about the article’s poster girl:  Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), from the Pitch Perfect series.

This was my first time watching Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2.  I had heard mostly positive things about Fat Amy as a fat character and, having seen both movies this weekend, there are a fair number of refreshing aspects to her representation, especially in the first movie.  She proves her competence as a singer in her introductory scene, impressing Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) with her voice despite their focus on finding women with “bikini-ready bodies” to audition for the Barden Bellas.  She is also the most confident, no-fuck-giving character in the movie by far.  The aforementioned scene is also where she famously explains that she calls herself Fat Amy “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.”  Her sense of humor is often outlandish, but her deadpan delivery suggests that she’s getting more out of confusing the other characters than of being perceived as funny.  The majority of comments characterizing Fat Amy as fat are self-referential but, surprisingly, not self-deprecating.  She casually remarks that she is surprised that her “sexy fat ass” was chosen to be part of the Bellas.  Fatness is part of how she sees herself, and isn’t a source of shame; rather, it’s a part of her identity that she modifies appropriately to her mood and context.  It felt oddly empowering as a fat viewer to hear her angrily threaten to “finish [someone] like a cheesecake.”  A small but extremely important detail is how Fat Amy isn’t afraid to call attention to her body.  She sprawls and flails.  She has a habit of nonchalantly slapping a rhythm on her belly, or cupping her breasts during a performance.  She inhabits her physical self and her space without apologizing or minimizing.

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Significantly, Pitch Perfect doesn’t put Fat Amy in a position where she is dragging the group down.  There is a requisite joke about her being lazier than the other Bellas (while the other singers jog, Aubrey finds Fat Amy lying down, or as she calls it, “horizontal running”), but both films focus on Beca (Anna Kendrick) as the character with a problematic lack of commitment. As a group, the Bellas have to deal with a change in their image from normatively attractive young women to one that includes singers who don’t meet stereotypical sorority girl standards; the classic rag-tag underdogs in a story focuses on competition.  “I wanted the hot Bellas,” complains a frat brother who books the group to perform at a mixer, when shutting them down mid-song, “not this barnyard explosion.”  Even the senior Bellas, “twig bitches” Aubrey and Chloe, have bodies that defy expectations of femininity.  It’s common to see fat female characters in comedies as the source of gross or bizarre body humor in their respective movie, but Pitch Perfect spreads it around.  Aubrey struggles with  stress-triggered projectile vomiting, and soprano Chloe gains the ability to sing deep bass notes after a surgery to remove nodes on her vocal cords.

Although Fat Amy isn’t presented as grotesque or cartoonish, Pitch Perfect doesn’t extend the favor to other Bellas who aren’t straight and white, as Fat Amy is.  The most glaring contrast is Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), a black butch lesbian (with an incredible set of pipes) who is also larger bodied than the average young woman seen in a mainstream comedy. We first meet her at acapella auditions, where she is immediately misgendered.  She doesn’t come out to her chorus mates until towards the end of the first movie, although we get “hints” to her sexuality via shots of her leering at or groping other women, or other characters (including Fat Amy) making snide comments about her sexual orientation.  Even in Pitch Perfect 2, Cynthia Rose doesn’t become a fully realized character and is just a source of more gay jokes.  The audition sequence where we meet Cynthia Rose also introduces Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who embodies the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl through a running gag where she says disturbing things in a soft voice that none of the other characters are able to hear.  In Pitch Perfect 2, Flo (Chrissie Fit) has joined the Bellas; where Cynthia Rose is a factory for jokes about lesbians creeping on straight girls, every line out of Flo’s mouth is a comment about how harsh and dangerous her life was in her unspecified Latin American home country.

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Ester Dean as Cynthia Rose, in promotional material for Pitch Perfect

The “fat positive” aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction aren’t just positioned against other characters who don’t share her privileged social identities.  Stacie’s (Alexis Knapp) function in the group as the humorously slutty Bella complicates the praise Pitch Perfect gets for showing Fat Amy’s active sex life.  Stacie’s sexuality is coded as excessive, a joke that becomes the majority of her screentime, whether Aubrey is trying to get her to tone down her dance moves or she’s referring to her vagina as a “hunter.”  However, we never see Stacie involved with anyone.  Fat Amy, on the other hand, is shown in the company of two hunks on her spring break and also makes comments about her own sexual prowess.  So why is the line drawn between Stacie and Fat Amy, where one’s sexuality is the butt of jokes and the other’s is an empowering aspect of who she is?  When we see Bumper (Adam DeVine) flirting with Fat Amy and getting shot down or hear Fat Amy talk about how she joined the Bellas because she needed to step back from her busy love life, we see her defying the expectations that we have for fat girls in movies, the assumption that nobody will want to have sex with her or that she won’t have the self-confidence to approach someone.  Stacie, however, is normatively attractive.  We expect that she has no shortage of willing sexual partners, and isn’t restraining herself in the way she is expected to; thus, she is deserving of ridicule.  The inconsistency between how the two characters are portrayed demeans Stacie and condescends to Fat Amy.

Unfortunately, the liberatory aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction in Pitch Perfect largely erode in the second film.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most telling, where Fat Amy experiences a costume malfunction at a high-profile performance and accidentally exposes her vulva to the tv cameras and the concert audience which includes the Obamas.  Typical to a comedy film, the audience reacts with disgust and terror, some even running away.  Although unintentional, her body is deemed excessive and the resulting outcry nearly destroys the Bellas.  A similar scene of disgust comes later in the film, where a romantic moment between Fat Amy and Bumper leads to them making out on the Treblemakers’ lawn, causing Bumper’s friends to run off to avoid looking at the couple.  The plotline of their relationship doesn’t meet the standards set for Fat Amy in the first film, where she brushes off his advances (though she raises the eyebrows of the other Bellas by having his number in her phone).  In Pitch Perfect 2, she and Bumper are hooking up.  He asks her to date him officially with a romantic dinner; she initially turns him down, saying that she’s a “free range pony who can’t be tamed,” but eventually realizes that she’s in love with him, winning him back with a rendition of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”  Pitch Perfect, the main conflict of which is between the characters’ respective acapella groups, set them up as well-balanced, confident, trash talking foils.  Fat Amy disdains Bumper’s advances and flirts with aforementioned hunks; Bumper quits school for an opportunity to be John Mayer’s personal assistant.  However, in the second film, former antagonist Bumper has been humbled, now working as a college security guard and desperately trying to hang on to his past glory days as a college acapella big shot.  It is at this point that he becomes a suitable partner for Fat Amy.

Unlike so many other films with fat female characters, Pitch Perfect presents Fat Amy as a character whose fatness is a part of her identity without being a point of dehumanization, even if the sequel makes some significant compromises.  Unfortunately, other characters with marginalized identities are left behind as two-dimensional stereotypes.  Perhaps apt to the story of a college acapella group, Pitch Perfect‘s approach to diverse representation is a welcome update, but it’s hardly a new song.

Roundup: November 2015

A rundown of fat characters in films I saw over the past month, but didn’t post about.

Stranger by the Lake (2014, dir. Alain Guiraudie)

A French thriller set at a remote cruising spot, following Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who witnesses his favorite hookup Michel (Christophe Paou) committing murder.  Almost all of the characters in the film are men who have sex with men.  They are also mostly young and fit, with the exception of Henri ( Patrick D’Assumçao), a middle aged man with a beer belly who sits by himself and says that he is never propositioned for sex.  Only Franck approaches him for conversation, and their relationship remains platonic.  

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Vanya on 42nd Street  (1994, dir. Louis Malle)

This incredible film documents a group of actors who gather in an abandoned Manhattan theater for informal rehearsals of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, under the direction of Andre Gregory.  Jerry Mayer plays Waffles, a sycophantic and persistently cheerful tenant of patriarch Serybryakov (George Gaynes).

Jurassic World (2015, dir. Colin Trevorrow)

I noticed two fat characters before Blu Ray took pity on us and malfunctioned.  Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who Doesn’t Understand the Dinosaurs, serves as a foil to Owen (Chris Pratt), who Understands the Dinosaurs.  His goal is to weaponize the raptors for military use.  When the Indominus rex breaks free of its enclosure, one of its first victims is a fat security guard, who is monitoring the enclosure but fails to notice that there is a problem.  His death is somewhat reminiscent of Gennaro’s in the first film: paralyzed with fear and hiding behind a Jeep, he remains motionless while the dinosaur destroys his cover and devours him.

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Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), a fat character from Jurassic Park. Also, a representation of what watching Jurassic World feels like.

ThanksKilling (2008, dir. Jordan Downey)

A low-budget horror comedy about a group of college kids terrorized by a cursed turkey over Thanksgiving break.  Billy (Aaron Carlson) is the group’s fool, to borrow a term from The Cabin in the Woods.  He is a loose cannon redneck who makes more inappropriate comments than the other characters (with the exception of the Turkey).  He is introduced ripping his undershirt over his excitement for Thanksgiving break, to which Johnny the jock comments that he doesn’t want to see his “tits.”  Billy is the one who suggests that the group gets drunk in the woods after their car breaks down, and a research montage later in the film includes a shot of nerd Darren teaching Billy how to read.  Billy dies when Turkey tricks him into swallowing him, then bursting out of his guts.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015, dir. Roy Andersson)

This film is a loosely connected series of static-shot vignettes that comment on mortality, morality, and human nature.  An opening sequence, “Three Brushes with Death,” feature two fat men who drop dead.  One dies in a ferry cafeteria; a second fat man takes his beer when the cashier points out that it’s been paid for and is up for grabs.  A fat dance instructor (Lotti Tornros) is inappropriately physical with a slender, younger male student (Oscar Salomonsson), running her hands over his body under the pretense of correcting his posture.  In a later scene, they are in the background having an intense conversation; he leaves her sitting at a restaurant table as she sobs inconsolably.  Another scene features a fat woman playing with a baby in a carriage.  Yet another is of a fat woman working in a laboratory, chatting on her cellphone while a confined monkey is tortured.  There is no narrative to speak of, but the most prominent characters are a pair of travelling novelty item salesman who are unsuccessful at their trade.  One of the salesman, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) is fat.  He is the more serious of the two and apparently the one in charge, describing his coworker as a “crybaby” and generally taking charge during their sales pitches.

Roundup: October 2015

October was a busy month for me, but I did manage to squeeze in some quality moviegoing experiences at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Music Box of Horrors.  Unsurprisingly, it was a month of fat villains and fat victims.

Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006, dir. Scott Glosserman)

This charmingly deconstructionist mockumentary features a group of journalism students who are following an up-and-coming slasher Leslie (Nathan Baesel) who aspires to follow in the footsteps of Freddie, Jason, and Michael. Once the stock character teens start to get murdered, though, interviewer Taylor (Angela Goethals) and her crew lose their professional objectivity and turn against their subject. One of Taylor’s goofball cameramen, Todd (Britain Spellings), nobly sacrifices himself by distracting Leslie.  He lures the killer away form the main group and across a field, presenting himself as an easy kill and taunting him to chase after the “dough-boy.”

Maniac (1980, dir. William Lustig)

Speaking of slasher films, Maniac is 90 minutes of grimy, minimalist violence.  The titular character is Frank (Joe Spinell, who co-wrote the script with C.A. Rosenberg), a fat man who murders women, dresses mannequins in their clothing, and uses their scalps as wigs.  As the film progresses, it is revealed that the source of Frank’s madness is his problematic relationship with his mother (either she was a sex worker or there’s an Oedipal complex going on?  I couldn’t tell, to be honest).  Maniac felt to me like a spiritual sibling of Misery, as Frank’s violence is, like Annie’s, about maintaining the stasis of his little fantasy world. I should have taken notes on that theory right after seeing this, but it was a movie marathon and there was alcohol, so CPBS was on the back burner.  C’est la vie.  Maniac was remade in 2012 with Elijah Wood in Spinell’s role.

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The Devil’s Candy (2015, dir. Sean Byrne)

A horror film that plunks likable characters into a story that practically throbs with foreboding.  The best way I can describe the tone of this film via text is to tell you that Sunn O))) provided the score.  A metalhead artist (Ethan Embry) and his family are stalked by the previous resident of their new house (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a large man who radiates sadness and vulnerability, but is also allegiant to Satan.

To Sleep with Anger (1990, dir. Charles Burnett)

Lovely, grounded character-driven drama about a black family in Los Angeles who carry on their rural Southern lifestyle.  A visitor from their past, Harry (Danny Glover) shows up unannounced and begins to cause trouble in the community.  His influence is as direct as inspiring other members of the community to drink and gamble, but also more mysterious, as the fat patriarch of the family, Gideon (Paul Butler) suddenly falls ill.

Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)

Can Suspiria be spoken about without using a phrase like “visually stunning”?  I think it’s a legal requirement.  Anyway, an American dance student Suzy (Jessica Harper) attends a German boarding school that is run by a coven of murderous witches.  Among the creepy and foreboding sights is a stout old woman, who seems eerily out of place among the young, slender dancers.

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“I can’t wait for people to see you, really see you:” Mad Men Season 5 (2012)

At the beginning of September, I saw Queen of Earth in theaters.  “Elisabeth Moss is such an incredible actress,” I thought to myself.  “I wish I could see her in more movies.

Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”

I’m abominable at keeping up with series.  Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite television shows, but I had stopped watching at the end of season 5.  It’s been taunting me every time I get on Netflix, I want to watch it through the end myself instead of hearing spoilers for season 7, and, like I said, Elisabeth Moss.  Anyway, thereby hangs the tale of how I’ve been spending my viewing time this month.  I started with “Out of Town” (season 3, episode 1) to refresh my memory, and, as of writing this post, I’ve seen up through “Time Zones” (season 7, episode 1).  

It goes without saying, but one of the core themes of Mad Men is exploring the social change the US went through in the Sixties.  Its setting is a perfect lens for this conflict; not only is it largely set in the cultural vanguard of New York City, but it focuses on advertising, a profession helmed by the old guard who are tasked with staying current, producing media that is, at its self-professed best, orthodoxy in revolution’s clothing.  Consider Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-school mentality in a space-age office, a man who experiments with LSD and hallucinates being at the 1919 World Series.   

Most of the main characters are very privileged, but because of this ubiquitous dynamic, the lack of diversity often presents opportunities to comment on itself.  It can reveal how out of touch they are, such as Freddy Rumsen’s (Joel Murray) myopic opinions of women, or Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) petty complaints that today would come with #FirstWorldProblems attached.  We see the limits that the characters who are of marginalized identities face in ways that effectively circumvent devices such as on-the-nose dramatic speeches, such as Don’s (Jon Hamm) unwillingness to believe that Sal (Bryan Batt) as a gay man could be the target of unwanted sexual advances, or an accounts wunderkind whose career is declared over after a disabling accident that would not prevent him from carrying out his essential job functions.  Characters who face discrimination, even in smaller roles, are usually treated with empathy and given dimensions beyond the politics they symbolize.  We are privy to glimpses into Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) personal lives, and we are spared no discomfort when characters we’ve known since the first episode mistreat them.  

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Given this tendency of Mad Men to open its characters and story up to historical meta-commentary, the way in which fat people are present on the show is somewhat disappointing.  Most of the fat characters on the show are small roles, but embody stereotypes about fat people.  Many of these roles are steeped in class, big-bodied folk tending to be Don’s plodding clients from less glamorous cities and industries, or blue collar bit roles.  The larger roles tend to be people who embody stereotypical fat character traits.  The most glaring example is Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), who shows up in season 5 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is courting the Jaguar account.  New Jersey and nouveau-riche, Herb is a vulgar contrast to the posh, British Jaguar bigwigs.  He shamelessly uses his company’s account as leverage to get Joan (Christina Hendricks) to have sex with him.  Usually, sex scenes on Mad Men are preceded by wordless, implicit seduction, or pithy statements of desire.  The line Herb uses on Joan?  “Lemme see ’em.”  The pathos of the affront to Joan’s dignity and exploitation of her sexuality is heightened by the disgust implicated in her having sex with a fat man.  Frustrated with Herb’s bossiness and unable to move past the idea that Joan exchanged sex with him for business, Don impulsively drops Jaguar.  Breaking the news to the partners, he asks Joan if she doesn’t feel “300 pounds lighter.”  

But you’ve seen the show.  You know that I’m writing this article to talk about the fifth season story arc of one Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt Francis (January Jones), shorthanded on the Internet as “Fat Betty.”  Having divorced Don, married Henry, and moved her family into a mansion over the last two seasons, the next chapter in Betty’s adventure is noticeable weight gain, attributed to her boring life as a housewife.  (On a practical level, the writers were working around January Jones’ pregnancy.)  Having been a sophisticated, graceful presence for the past four seasons, we now have a Betty who sits on the couch with her hand in a box of Bugles like a common schlub.  “Tea Leaves,” the episode where we see her physical change for the first time, is treated as spectacle.  Betty is shown getting out of the tub as if to prove to the audience that yes, she really has gotten fat.

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And really, the change isn’t that dramatic.  Her body doesn’t seem to be that much larger than Joan’s, who is not read as fat.  

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The drama merely comes from the fact that her formerly slim body has become larger than it is supposed to be.

Broadly speaking (ha), this was a time when the mainstream American beauty ideal was not as extremely focused on thinness as today, but it was also a time when the expectation of women to adhere to a set of aesthetic norms was not met with resistance.  The women of Mad Men are all significantly impacted by their looks.  A fourth season focus group for Pond’s cold cream where the secretaries discuss their beauty routines quickly turns into a somber discussion of their fears of being alone and ignored because they aren’t beautiful enough.  The sentiment resonates throughout the show, particularly with Betty. She has done well, based on what she’s expected to as a middle class woman, largely in thanks to her charm and beauty.  Her life, however, is also the most empty. She finds little joy in being a wife or a mother.  Betty in a nutshell is best illustrated in season 3 episode “The Fog.”  Under anesthesia during Baby Gene’s birth, she has a dream in which her recently departed father tells her, “You are a house cat.  You are very important and have very little to do.”  Nothing and nobody in her life inspires her to try and be anything outside of a beautiful wife and mother.  (Considering how often characters read popular books of the day, I’m a little surprised we don’t see her thumbing through The Feminine Mystique.)  When she gains weight, she is pressured to restore the image she maintained as Don’s wife.  Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) tells Betty to ask her doctor for diet pills, since she is still of an age where her looks need to be pleasing to men.  Ironically, Henry doesn’t care about her weight gain:  “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but I don’t see it.”  “I know,” Betty snaps back, “Your mother’s obese.”  In her mind, it isn’t possible that Henry genuinely finds her beautiful; his view has been distorted by his fat, overbearing mother.

Betty’s story arc largely overlaps with her experience of dis-ease.  Her doctor, giving her an exam before prescribing diet pills, finds a lump on her thyroid.  She worries that she is dying, especially after a chance meeting with a friend in an advanced stage of cancer.  However, once she is told that the tumor is benign, the immediately describes herself as “just fat.”  Her fatness is attributed by the show to mental dis-ease.  In order to “reduce,” she goes to Weight Watchers meetings, which function as a support group with discussions about healthy ways to deal with troubling emotions and stressful situations (assuming that the participants are the weight they are due to over-use of food as a coping mechanism). 

As I’ve previously discussed, fat film characters aren’t determined by specific physical measurements, but rather by their bodies in relation to the bodies (and attached expectations) of the other characters.  Her own husband claims not to see a difference, or at least doesn’t care.  However, Betty is fat because of who she’s being compared to.  Not only is she fat compared to what her body looked like in the past (she was a model when she met Don) and what Mad Men’s audience expects to see, but she is fat compared to Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré).  Betty’s first appearance in season 5, “Tea Leaves,” is of her struggling to squeeze her larger body into a dress, then declining to go to the event she was preparing for because of her inability to close the zipper.  Her larger body is a shocking spectacle, as we have grown accustomed to a specific image of Betty.  This sequence is immediately followed by slender Megan in her underwear– no shapewear for her!– effortlessly slipping into her own dress on the way to a client dinner with Don.  In a later episode, “Dark Shadows,” Betty glimpses Megan’s body, thin like hers once was, in a state of undress.  Their following exchange immediately has an acidic edge to it; cut to Betty going to the fridge as soon as she gets home and spraying Reddi-Whip into her mouth before thinking better of it and spitting it into the sink, standing alone in her dark kitchen.  As with the dresses, this crass image of Betty stands in contrast to an idealized one of Megan:  in the previous episode “Lady Lazarus,” Megan performs as a chipper housewife for a Cool Whip commercial pitch that charms everyone except Peggy.

At first, Betty’s spite may come across as baseless.  Betty chose to end her and Don’s marriage after she had already fallen in love with Henry, with whom she is much happier.  Despite Don’s numerous infidelities during their marriage, he didn’t get involved with Megan until after they had divorced and Betty remarried.  It’s not like she’s still in love with her ex-husband, for and about whom she barely has a civil word.  But still Betty treats Megan with a petty acrimony that is similar to the relationship Don has with employees of rival firms.  The sense of competition Betty feels between herself and Megan has less to do with Don than it does with how she sees herself.  Her weight gain means that she’s failed as a woman and wife– as Pauline tells her, one of her essential functions is being attractive, which is impossible above a certain weight (Henry’s opinion notwithstanding).  Thus Betty’s reactions to Megan focus on subverting her legitimacy as a woman and wife.  After seeing Megan’s slim body, Betty finds a note from Don praising his current wife’s loveliness on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings.  (The drawing of a harpooned whale would be an accurate illustrations of how Betty feels about herself.)  Her jealousy leads her to reveal to Sally that Don had been married to someone else before he and Betty had met, and encourages her to ask Megan about the details.  The suggestion associating Megan with Don’s deceit leads the volatile teenager to call her stepmother a “phony.”  Unable to change her negative perception of herself, or the pathetic cultural trope of “sad, fat housewife” she’s found herself in, Betty lashes out at Megan, someone vulnerable to the same pain she is experiencing.

mad men betty note

Betty is also seen relative to Pauline, her mother-in-law.  Betty describes her as “obese,” assuming that Henry is unable to be disgusted by her weight gain because his mother has wrongly desensitized him.  As a younger, childless woman and new bride, Megan’s position in life is Betty’s past, unable to be regained.  Pauline, a grandmother with grown children, is her future.  But it seems a bleak one; not only is Pauline fat, but she gets her way by being bossy and unpleasant.  She takes care of the children when Betty and Henry are away, and somehow manages to be a worse influence on Sally than Betty, speaking with fondness of her emotionally abusive father and telling her young granddaughter the details of the Richard Speck murders in a manner that ghoulishly verges on fetishistic.  Betty is caught between Megan and Pauline, unable to retain her equivalence to the former and terrified of becoming the latter.

Ultimately, Betty is not a fat character.  Fatness is a phase for her, an expression of her internal struggle that fades as we move into season 6.  The cause of her weight loss, we are led to assume, is due to adherence to Weight Watchers, but also comes with a return to her roles as wife and mother.  In the second to last episode of season 5, “Commissions and Fees,” Sally is visiting Megan and Don in the city, but gets her first period.  Scared, she takes a taxi back to Rye to be with Betty, who feels validated by being relied on for comfort and wisdom.  As Betty smugly tells Megan on the phone, “she just needed her mother.”  In season 6, Henry tells Betty that he has decided to run for office, and that he can’t wait for people to “really see [her]”.  Whether due to the pressure of being highly visible or finding fulfillment in a role she enjoyed enacting when married to Don, by “The Better Half,” the eighth episode of the season, Betty is once more the slender blonde we’ve come to know and have ambivalent feelings towards.  The episode hammers home that her attractiveness has been restored.  We initially see her in a gown at a political fundraiser, being propositioned by a strange man.  Confessing this to Henry on the drive home leads to the couple making out.  Later in the episode, Don ogles a beautiful woman at a gas station.  The camera pans up a pair of bare legs to reveal they belong to Betty.  Appropriate to its protagonist, Mad Men has a brief liaison with exploring how complex, relatable characters are affected by fat stigma, but ultimately can’t commit.

Roundup: August 2015

(CN sexual assault) A summary of films I saw over the past month with fat characters that I didn’t write about.

Super (2010, dir. James Gunn)

Mr. Range (Don Mac) is a powerful drug dealer who does business with Jacques (Kevin Bacon).  Jacques has procured several women to entertain Mr. Range during their transaction, but Range insists on being alone with Sarah (Liv Tyler), who is high.  Jacques allows Range to take Sarah into a bedroom.  After she tells him she doesn’t want to have sex, he attempts to rape her.  Frank (Rainn Wilson) kills Mr. Range.  During Frank and Jacques’ climactic showdown, Jacques refers to Range as “that fat n—–.”

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)

Ma Joad is portrayed by Jane Darwell, who was also in The Ox-Bow Incident. The neo-Biblical feel of Steinbeck’s story features characters who are drawn very simplistically.  Ma is a pretty typical matriarch of a rural family in a lot of ways, but she is portrayed with dignity, as the Joad family’s strength and emotional center.

Confidential Report/Mr. Arkadin (1955, dir. Orson Welles)

The great man himself as the titular Mr. Arkadin, a powerful, wealthy criminal who can’t remember his own past.  Fat bit players include an indignant chef and a cigar-smoking retired general.

mr. arkadin, orson welles

Mommy (2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)

The great thing about Mommy is how it centers and humanizes characters who are often written as obnoxious cartoons, namely Steven, a teenage boy with behavioral issues (Antoine Olivier-Pilon), and Diane, his foul mouthed, fading beauty mom (Anne Dorval).  However, most of the other characters in the 2+ hour film are roughly drawn, more aides or impediments to the main characters than characters in themselves.  One of these characters is a fat woman who has assumed her husband’s position as editor of a magazine where Diane works.  The woman takes sadistic pleasure in firing Diane, telling her that she has no talent as a columnist and was only hired because her husband found her attractive.

F for Fake (1973, dir. Orson Welles)

The last film Orson Welles ever directed was a frenetic documentary about forgery and deception, featuring Welles himself as the narrator and master of ceremonies.  Until this point I haven’t written about fat documentary subjects I’ve come across because their weight has been purely incidental, but Welles’ role in his film was intentional (even if it was in part due to his ego).  He appears as an erudite and mischievous dynamo in a fabulous black cloak and hat: performing magic tricks, spinning glorious tales for the audience (both watching the film and situated around him at a fine restaurant and on a picnic) while at the same time reminding us that we can’t always trust what we see and hear.

PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985, dir. Tim Burton)

There are a handful of fat characters in this film, all of whom pose a threat or impediment to PeeWee (Paul Rubens) to some degree: Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), a snotty rich kid who pays to have PeeWee’s bike stolen; Large Marge (Alice Nunn), the ghostly trucker who gives PeeWee a ride and a scare; Andy (Jon Harris), a trucker who wants to hurt PeeWee because he’s jealous of his relationship with his girlfriend Simone (Diane Salinger); and some members of the biker gang who want to torture and kill PeeWee, until he wins them over with his dancing:

The Heart of a Champion: Chubby (2015, dir. Bruno Deville)

(CN: Eating disorders, suicide)

Fatness exists on a spectrum that is important to look at (but difficult to do in a way that isn’t objectifying or disrespectful).  Chubby’s protagonist, Kevin (David Thielemans), is on different place on this spectrum than many fat characters we’re used to seeing in film, especially fat children.  Gerry from Heavyweights is fat, but not to the same degree that Kevin is.  Both characters, roughly the same age, are weighed in their respective films; Kevin has 100 lbs on Gerry.  But it’s more than a number: after an opening shot of his doctor (Stefan Liberski) measuring him with a caliper and making a noise of disgust, the title card puts the word CHUBBY in bold letters over a closeup of his torso.  The outline of his nipples and bellybutton can frequently be seen through the fabric of his shirts.  A few scenes of him on a bicycle feature the sound of his heavy breathing.  Watching as someone from the United States, Kevin appears to have stepped out of a newsmagazine piece worrying over The Health of Our Children.  Kevin’s body is depicted in a confrontational manner.

A significant portion of the film is spent on the medical panic over Kevin’s body.  The opening scene of his physical exam culminates with his doctor telling him that his heart is like a vespa engine trying to power a truck, accompanied by the sound effect of a struggling motor over a closeup of Kevin’s chest.  This threat of cardiac trouble hangs over Kevin for the rest of the film and is fueled by other characters, like when his sister Océane (Themis Pauwels) says that he’s “committing suicide with creme brulee.”  His aquafit instructor (Francoise Bolliat) parallels his doctor, lecturing her class of overweight kids on the potential for overweight children to suffer heart attacks.  She also introduces an assistant instructor (Mehdi Douib), an amputee who is meant to “inspire” the children to lose weight by being athletic despite his disability.

bouboule1

Kevin doesn’t respond directly to these barbs; rather, we see their effect more dramatically on his aquafit classmate, Alice (Lisa Harder).  Although not as fat as Kevin, she seems to have absorbed more of the devaluing messages levied at her.  She shows Kevin how to self-induce vomiting after their class, revealing that her mother taught her how.  She also brings Kevin up to the top of a tall building and tries to convince him to jump off with her.  Kevin is resistant to both the purging and suicide, which Alice sees as ways to solve her problems.  She tells him that she wants to kill herself because she believes that the afterlife has to be an improvement over her life.  Alice wants out of her body.  Indeed, she disappears for a significant portion of the film, only to reappear late in the third act with bandages on her wrists, which she wordlessly displays for Kevin’s benefit.  Her self-destructive behavior does seem like an attempt to get a response from him, but given how her body has been culturally framed both as something that is destroying her and should be destroyed for her own benefit, it’s not surprising that she would use self-harm to broadcast her presence, to try to inspire feelings of care in others.  Although Kevin does not attempt to harm himself, he does absorb the view of his body as in danger of being destroyed, when he assumes that an episode of hyperventilation during a stressful event is a heart attack.

Kevin’s personal development over the course of Chubby occurs at the intersection of fatness and masculinity, at turns both liberatory and problematic.  Kevin’s size is initially shown both as emasculating– his aquafit class shows him surrounded by girls, two bullies make comments about his breasts– and as a symptom of emasculation.  His father is absent, he lives with his two sisters and mother (Julie Ferrier), who is characterized as overbearing, if well-meaning.  (Moms are the worst, aren’t they?  In, like, every film, book, and tv show ever?)  She calls him “my little chick” and– in one creepy moment that I sincerely hope is just an innocent cultural norm that didn’t translate well– gropes his breast while cuddling him.  His doctor straight up tells his mother than Kevin needs a male role model in his life.

Kevin finds this role model in Patrick (Swann Arlaud), a gruff security guard and military commando.  Patrick is humorless and intense, reminiscent of Dwight Schrute from the Office, and rigidly conforms to a hyper-masculine ideal.  His trained attack dog is named for porn star Rocco Siffredi, and his life revolves around living up to his military ideal.  Kevin reveres him, following him around and becoming similarly obsessed with the commando lifestyle.  He exercises more vigorously under Patrick’s training than in his doctor-mandated aquafit class (and, to the delight of his doctor, loses 4 kilos) and finds the confidence to stand up to his bullies.  Patrick introduces Kevin to the Chief (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), an older fat man who owns the security company Patrick works for.  Chief coaches Kevin on how to take pride in his fat body, telling him that fat men inspire a sense of comfort in other people and that he should never let anyone make fun of his breasts.  He tells Kevin to eat salmon, as the omega 3 will protect his heart.  He also shows Kevin some fighting tactics that rely on having a fat body.  It always makes me happy when a fat film character shows a competence or skill unique to the experience of having a fat body, but this feeling was subverted to a degree by the cartoonish nature of Chief’s moves, specifically when he sits on Patrick’s face and farts.

bouboule2

Although their example gives Kevin an identity to try on besides fat kid, neither Patrick nor Chief are well suited to being role models.  Kevin starts drinking beer and joins his two heroes in some petty burglary.  Late in the film, Chief shatters Kevin’s perception of Patrick by revealing that he was never in the military, citing his slight build and uneven legs as the reason why.  Indeed, Patrick visibly reacts whenever Chief makes a comment about his slight build.  Like Kevin, Patrick has been deemed inappropriate by a social institution because of his body.  He deals with that designation by clinging to military life and culture, and also by trying to assert his control over subjects more vulnerable to domination than himself.  Patrick doesn’t seem to like Kevin as much as he likes how Kevin idolizes him, and even seems jealous of the connection that Kevin and Chief share over being fat.  He tries to seduce Jennifer (Amelie Peterli), Kevin’s older sister, in an overly assertive manner, publicly giving her the third place medal that he and Rocco win in an obedience competition and asking her to “do the bitch.”  (That’s what the subtitles said.  I don’t know what “do the bitch” means, but it upsets Jennifer greatly.)  He recruits Kevin’s friend Mouk (Dodi Mbemba), a petite African kid whom Patrick refers to as a “terrorist,” into a training exercise for Rocco in which the dog is commanded to track and attack him.  Patrick’s treatment of Rocco is the most illustrative of his character, as he uses the dog as an accessory for his masculinity.  He doesn’t mistreat Rocco, but has no affection for him.  He trains the dog using German commands; for the first few scenes, both Kevin and I thought the dog’s name was “zurück,” the command Patrick uses to call Rocco to his side.  Patrick uses Rocco to show his own power, his ability to hurt and dominate someone else through his control of a potentially dangerous animal.  When Patrick needs to leave town or face arrest, he plans to sell Rocco to fund his escape.

Kevin’s heart, chest, and breasts are a recurring image in Chubby, symbolic of his physical health, but also his emotional wellbeing.  He spends much of the film believing that his heart is sick, and likewise idolizing Patrick, who suppresses his emotions and focuses on his ability to be a dominant masculine figure.  A more balanced paternal figure is conspicuously absent, as Kevin’s mother and father are newly separated.  Although he learns to be assertive and finds power in his fat body from his time with Patrick and Chief, the spiritual change doesn’t come for Kevin until the two men suddenly leave his life.  Passing out due to what he thinks is a heart attack, Kevin has a dream in which the doctors safe him via a transplant of Rocco’s heart, “a champion’s heart,” into his chest.  He wakes to find his father (Jean-Benoit Ugeux) by his bedside, a gentler (if flawed) paternal figure better suited for his needs a child.  His father gently corrects his assumptions about having a heart attack, telling his son that he has “the heart of a champion.”  After spending the film being impassive and making selfish choices, Kevin shows an emotional side, more oriented towards the needs of others.  He breaks down crying at the thought of Rocco being left to fend for himself.  He begs Mouk to forgive him.  He finds and adopts Rocco.  The final scene, like the beginning, finds Kevin sitting shirtless, but accompanied by Rocco and Alice instead of his doctor and mother, the sound of a human heart beating instead of an engine.  He is neither the failing vehicle his doctor describes, nor the heartless commando Patrick longs to be.  He is a human being, both capable and deserving of love.

Roundup: July 2015

Content note: self-harm.  A summary of films I saw over the past month featuring fat characters that I didn’t write about.

Chef (2014, dir. John Favreau)

A dramedy focused on a middle-aged man who is stagnating in his professional life and distanced from his family, with the most tantalizing cooking scenes I’ve seen since Eat Drink Man Woman.  Ramsey (Oliver Platt), a food blogger, criticizes Chef Carl’s (Jon Favreau) cooking, speculating that he has gained a lot of weight over his career because he “must be eating all the food that gets sent back to the kitchen.”  Despite the public dig at his size, everyone agrees that he’s a genius chef, and the front of house manager (Scarlett Johansson) has the hots for him.  When it is revealed that his critic is also fat, the dig seems somewhat hypocritical, and is followed by Carl lambasting him for making a living off of being mean.  Carl’s former father-in-law also subtly picks on him, remarking that he’s gained weight since they last saw each other.  Although there is an implication that Carl’s weight is a symptom of his professional stagnation and unhappy family life, there is no indication that he loses weight as he improves his relationship with his son and goes into business for himself.

Beauty and the Beast (1991, dir. Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise)

Several fat supporting characters: Belle’s proto-nerd father Maurice, who is considered an oddball by their community and needs to be saved twice; Lefou (literally “the fool” or “the madman”), Gaston’s toadie who worships him despite constant physical abuse and has a more grotesque character design than the other human characters; Cogsworth, the stuffy majordomo; and Mrs. Potts, the motherly cook. Perhaps of note, Disney is producing a live-action reboot, to be released in 2017, with three of these four characters portrayed by thinner actors.  Ian McKellen is playing Cogsworth, Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline is Maurice.  Lefou, the one villainous character of this group, will be portrayed by Josh Gad.

Withnail & I (1987, dir. Bruce Robinson)

A character study of two struggling London actors who scrape by on alcohol and bullshit.  Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) escape their dismal flat for a trip to the country, staying at a cottage owned by Withnail’s fat uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths).  Monty is wealthy and effete, a retired actor whose homosexuality is a defining characteristic (in his introductory scene, he discusses his love of gardening: “There is, you’ll agree, a certain je nais sans quoi, oh so very special, about a firm, young carrot.”)  His generosity and kindness are a godsend to the two destitute protagonists, and to an extent, he is an inversion of the trope of the fat incompetent, having his life more in order than the younger men, who can’t manage to clear out their kitchen sink for fear of what lives in it.  However, he is also the middle-class fuddy-duddy foil to their edgy, youthful rebel lifestyle, never questioning the lies they feed him.  Partially due to a comedy of errors and partially to Withnail’s dishonesty, Monty believes that Marwood is also gay and attempts to seduce him, to the younger man’s abject terror.  Monty is overly persistent, forcing his way into Marwood’s bedroom wearing a silk robe and eyeshadow.  He tries to force himself on Marwood, although he also pleads with him to not be ashamed of his sexuality, and only stops when Marwood tells him that he and Withnail are a couple, and that he doesn’t want to be untrue.  Monty backs off and leaves the cottage before they wake up in the morning, having left a note of apology.

The Tales of Hoffman (1951, dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)

As with Beauty and the Beast, there are a handful of fat flunkies in this film that features several stories within stories.  Most of the fat characters are thin actors with big prosthetic bellies, including a few villains’ servants and, in one sequence, an ugly clown whose love for a ballerina is unrequited.  The one fat character portrayed by a fat actor is Andes (Philip Leaver), who is the servant of Stella (Moira Shearer).  Count Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) bribes Andres into allowing him to intercept a message from Stella to Hoffman (Robert Rounseville), which ultimately allows the Count to separate the lovers from each other.

Tangerine (2015, dir. Sean Baker)

There are a few minor fat characters in this film, the most prominent of whom is Jillian (Chelcie Lynn, who is a big deal on Vine), the madam of a “party room” at a sleazy motel that Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) breaks into looking for Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the girl who’s been sleeping with her boyfriend.  It’s not a glamorous role, but none of the roles in this film are.  The protagonists aren’t fat, although a few girls make critical comments about Alexandra (Mya Taylor) for not having a flat stomach, but as transgender women of color, they are definitely marginalized based on their physical characteristics.  Tangerine is the most vivacious and humanizing portrayal of trans women of color in a film that I’ve seen since Paris Is Burning, and I can’t recommend it enough.

ABCs of Death, “W is for WTF?,” “X is for XXL” (2012, dir. John Schnepp; Xavier Gens)

I didn’t see the whole anthology, so there might be other fat people in the chapters I missed.  “W is for WTF?” features two fat men (John Schnepp and someone whose name I couldn’t find on IMDb) as members of a film production team who are struggling with a looming deadline to produce a W segment for ABCs of Death and can only come up with lazy ideas featuring beautiful women in skimpy outfits before the world descends into utter chaos.  “X is for XXL” follows a fat woman (actor unknown) who never speaks.  She is harassed in public several times due to her weight, and seems to be stalked by an ad campaign for a cereal that claims to have slimming properties.  Upon arriving home, she binges on food in a manner that verges on cartoonish (I believe she drinks olive oil straight from the bottle at one point).  She then goes into her bathroom with a knife and carves off her flesh, which intersperses with shots of the slim spokesmodel in the cereal commercial.

Interview: Jessica Conger, actor, Most Likely (2015, dir. Andrew Bemis)

Jessica Conger is a full-time waitress and part-time actor in the Boston area.  She performs regularly with the Post Meridian Radio Players of Somerville and is a film producer with Bang! Films production company.  When not serving food, acting, or attending school, Jess like to read mysteries and brew cider and beer. She and I first met in September 1998, when a mutual friend dragged me over to where she was sitting in the cafeteria before homeroom and said, “This is Jess.  She likes The X-Files too.”  Since that fateful morning, she’s been one of my best friends.  Last week, Jess and I sat down at our respective computers to discuss her on-screen work in Bang! Films’ upcoming feature length film, Most Likely.  (The link leads to the teaser video on Vimeo, which is NSFW.)

Tell us about Most Likely.  Who is your character?

I play Beth, an uptight woman who travels with her stoner roommate Phil, played by Kevin Sandberg, to her high school friend’s wedding in a remote area of New Hampshire.  Beth hasn’t seen anyone who is going to be at the wedding in years and is very anxious about it.  She feels lost in her life.  The movie takes place at the wedding over a weekend.  The bride, Chloe, played by Alex Fandel, has set up a weekend for her old friends and new ones to meet and join one of the happiest days of her life.  She probably did not expect it to go how it goes.

The Kickstarter for Most Likely mentions a naked yoga scene.  What was preparing for and shooting that scene like?

So, when Andrew Bemis was writing the script, he said that when he was stuck on something, he just thought about how to make me uncomfortable.  That’s how that scene got written.  We filmed that scene in the evening, in April, in New Hampshire.  It was seriously cold, about 40 degrees from what I remember.  There were crew members off to the sides with blankets for Rory and Alex between takes.  I felt so bad for them, at least I got to wear layers!  They did have some standard protective pieces on, lest we get a good shot of balls, but they were pretty naked.  For filming we usually ran through the scenes a few times with and without scripts and then did a wide shot, some closeups, and reverses. Shooting each scene takes several hours, usually. For this, because it was so cold, we ran through it once or twice and just sort of ran with it.  Rory was unsure of yoga moves and I and Kate Zarnay, a friend who visited the set that day, tried to give him a few tips on the best ones to perform naked.  I think downward dog got brought up a lot.  It was hard for me to get through takes without giggling because Rory is so fucking funny.

most likely, jessica conger, bang! films, andrew bemis

How do you deal with the negative cultural attitudes around fat women in movies and television? Have you ever felt discouraged from acting because of your size?

I drink a lot.  Really, I try to recognize that while Hollywood is the fucking worst, the way to get better roles for people of all representations is to make art yourself.  I can’t tell you the number of auditions I didn’t make the cut for because I wasn’t “the right look,” or the number of casting calls I didn’t even bother with because of the descriptions of the roles for women.  If every part requires 25-35 year old female actors who are of “lean build,” that cuts out so many talented actors.  I really believe that the Alien approach is perfect for so many roles which could be played by anyone:  write the script, go through the auditions, and cast the best people.  But I know that’s a pipe dream for anything mainstream.  So, I mostly stick to radio plays and acting in parts written for me.

A few months ago on Twitter, you self-identified as a fat actress and said that you like roles where your appearance isn’t part of your character’s story (e.g. nobody second-guesses your character as someone’s love interest because of her size).  In your opinion, are these characters fat characters because a fat actress is portraying them, or does being a fat character depend on fatness being an explicit part of the character’s story?

I think these characters are fat because a fat person is playing them.  In Most Likely, Beth could have been cast with a smaller actor– I am the largest woman in the cast– and it wouldn’t have changed the character a bit.  I do think that size can be an explicit part of a character, but if that is the character’s entire motivation, yawn, I’m not going to be interested.  I’m really interested in playing interesting, complex people.  I think most actors are.  If you think about it, how many mainstream movies would change if the lead actress had 20 or more pounds on her?  Maybe Bridget Jones’ outside would accurately reflect her diary woes, but it really wouldn’t change much.  What if Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig swapped roles in Bridesmaids?  The lead would be a lovable fuck-up fat woman trying to do her best, and the weirdo with heart would be the conventionally attractive thin woman.  Where would that change the plot?

Who is your favorite fat movie character?

This is such a difficult question.  Farva from Super Troopers or Ursula from The Little Mermaid.  Or Ken from In Bruges. Or Don Corleone from The Godfather.  Or Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane.  I like Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect, but that’s just because Rebel Wilson is a 10. I’m sure as soon as I hit send I’ll think of like 30 more.

You can contact Jess on Twitter @allybaster or via email at allybaster (at) gmail (dot) com.  Check out Most Likely‘s Kickstarter for updates on its progress.

Link: Every Single Word

A project best summed up by its subtitle:  Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in [Mainstream Film Title].  Creator Dylan Marron (whom you probably know as Carlos on Welcome to Night Vale) creates videos that stitch together all of the speaking screentime that people of color have in well known films.  Even including intro titles and credits at the end, there has yet to be a video that runs over 1 minute.

His curation of films is a stroke of genius.  Of the 12 videos he’s posted so far, the oldest is from 2005, making this issue the problem of the generation who is most likely to come across ESW.  They are also largely films that tend to be favorites of those of us who fancy ourselves as smart people with good taste, neatly skewering the classist perceptions we often cling to about who is racist and who is “beyond” that.  Black Swan.  Her.  Frances Ha.  One of my personal favorites, Moonrise Kingdom, clocks in at 11 seconds.

Marron’s project doesn’t explicitly have anything to do with fat people, but his mission of exploring filmic representation (or lack thereof) of a marginalized group parallels that of CPBS.  If anything, I’d say his approach is more impactful (but my blog is still great you love it please don’t stop reading it).  He doesn’t include commentary or analysis, he just lets the facts about these films stand as testament to how people of color are largely absent from many American films and who they are when they are on screen (spoiler alert: a lot of people working service jobs).

Every Single Word can be found on tumblr.