I didn’t watch as many films as I usually do this past month, as I’ve spent a lot of my leisure time, um, seeing if there are any fat characters in Skyrim. But a few fat characters did crop up in the films I did see. The films are from different countries and 40 years apart, but both characters are coincidentally minor antagonists:
Zero Motivation (2015, Tayla Lavie)
Think MASH meets Broad City. A comedy focusing on two slacker soldiers Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) who work in an administrative office on an isolated Israeli Army base. Their supervisor Rama (Shani Klein) is bigger-bodied than the other female soldiers; while her frustrations evoke some sympathy, she is positioned as the somewhat-incompetent minor bureaucrat unsuccessfully trying to suck the fun out of the protagonists’ lives.
Yojimbo (1961, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
This classic about a clever samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) who manipulates two warring gangs features some truly bizarre characters, including a fat, dim-witted gang lieutenant (read: syncophant) named Inokichi (Daisuke Kato), “The Wild Pig.”
A monthly rundown of the fat characters in films I saw this past month, but haven’t written articles about.
The Conjuring (2013, dir. James Wan)
Based on a true story, a family seeks the help of America’s foremost ghost-hunting couple when they discover their house is– spoiler alert– haunted. One of the ghosts is a little boy who befriends the youngest daughter in the family, it is discovered that his mother was possessed by an evil presence and murdered him. Clairvoyant Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) has a vision of the boy’s mother, a fat woman, holding his corpse.
Inside Man (2006, dir. Spike Lee)
This intricate and engaging police procedural/bank heist/hostage situation movie has the enormous, diverse cast befitting a story that takes place in NYC. My eye was caught by Ashlie Atkinson, a fat character actress I like, as Mobile Command Officer Berk. She was smart and professional, and fit in well with the rest of her team.
Best in Show (2000, dir. Christopher Guest)
One of my all-time favorite comedies. Everyone in the cast is an idiot in their own special way, among them Harlan’s friend (Will Sasso), who can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Harlan (Christopher Guest) and his bloodhound Hubert aren’t doing any fishing at the dog show.
The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
This classic film looks at the range of human reactions when faced with the prospect of our own mortality, especially in times of crisis like the Black Plague. Most famous, of course, is the knight Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) to buy himself some time. A scene in an inn features a fat merchant (Benkt-Åke Benktsson)sitting with some friends, who conclude that the best way to confront the idea that they’re living in the end times is to “eat, drink, and be merry.”
A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.
Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)
This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).
Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)
A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs). Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero). But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes: the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone). The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).
The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
A remake of a 1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks). In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).
The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)
One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities. Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed. Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.
Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)
I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance. That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth). Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby. The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.
Over the past 20 years, Pixar, it goes without saying but I need a way to start this post so bear with me, has become a name synonymous with quality animation and heartfelt stories. While an element of the fantastic is an essential part of every Pixar film, the best ones are also relatable, sensitive observations of near-universal emotional struggles. The films often deal with themes of loss and maturation, either through the change of the status quo or being separated from a loved one. While life tends to hit us with these kinds of experiences over and over again, they are particularly poignant for young people; grownups watching these films get the double whammy of relating to the characters’ experiences and seeing them through the lens of nostalgia, remembering what it was like being a kid and struggling with sharing the spotlight, or rebelling against parental expectations. When a film is emotionally impactful on such a deep level, it’s because it gives us characters who are relatable and realistic, even if they are robots or talking fish. Perhaps because they are aimed at children, these films tend to rely on classic structures of storytelling, including their interpersonal dynamics: often these films are driven by a motley crew of colorful characters and/or a mismatched pair. Since the ideal balance to strike is an initially accessible film that invites the young audience to a more challenging level of observation, the challenge (as I see it) is to move past easy generalizations and stereotypes that could exist as the individual characters within these more easily understood relationships and stories. With regards to fat characters who are part of these commonly seen social structures*, three Pixar films show varying degrees of success at thoughtful, nuanced portrayals.
A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second feature-length film; while visually it is a great leap forward from the animation in Toy Story, it never reaches the emotional heights of its predecessor. In an ant colony whose survival depends on teamwork, bumbling inventor Flik (Dave Foley) is a liability. After accidentally destroying the offering of food that a gang of grasshoppers extorts from the colony in return for “protection,” Flik is exiled under the pretense of being sent to find “warrior bugs” to help the ants defy the grasshoppers. Stumbling across a circus troupe, he mistakenly assumes them to be warriors; the troupe, in turn, mistakenly assumes Flik is hiring them for a performance. The motley crew circus troupe is a marked contrast to the mass conformity of the ant colony, but besides having neat tricks and personal quirks, they aren’t fleshed out. Unsurprising, considering that the plot is basically Seven Samurai in less than half the runtime, and there are eight characters in the troupe (nine, if you don’t count Tuck and Roll as a combined entity). The troupe includes Frances, a snarky ladybug with a chip on his shoulder from being misgendered one too many times (Dennis Leary), Manny, a mystical praying mantis magician (Jonathan Harris), and this guy:
Heimlich (Joe Ranft) is an actor in the troupe, performing sketches with Slim the Walkingstick (David Hyde Pierce) and Frances. He speaks with a German accent, reminiscent of fat German gourmands like Augustus Gloop. Heimlich is just as brave (or not) and just as competent a performer (or not) as the rest of his troupe, but fat stereotypes are largely what differentiate him as an individual from his friends. He is shown eating much more frequently than the other characters– compare this to the grasshoppers, who are greedy enough to exploit the ants for exorbitant amounts of food, are not portrayed as fat, with the possible exception of dimwitted toadie Molt (Richard Kind), who is smaller and broader than his ringleader brother Hopper (Kevin Spacey, chewing the vocal scenery). Heimlich’s hunger is shown as inappropriate; he stops a performance to ask an audience member to share their candy corn wit him. Even his name suggests inappropriate eating. There are jokes and story beats based on the size of his body, such as getting wedged in tight spaces and other characters struggling to pick him up. Heimlich’s prodigious consumption, while being a defining character trait, also serves a practical purpose in that he is preparing to transform into a butterfly (perhaps a nod to The Very Hungry Caterpillar). He looks forward to the day when he will be a “beautiful butterfly;” when he finally emerges from his chrysalis, he looks like the same character with slightly different markings and tiny wings that aren’t capable of lifting him. He is, however, overjoyed at his “beautiful wings” and doesn’t acknowledge that he can’t fly with them, suggesting that his happiness in his appearance is tied to a lack of awareness of his own body.
Last year’s Inside Out met with near-universal rave reviews for its innovative concept. The story is simple: an 11-year-old girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has trouble adjusting when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. The majority of the film plays out in Riley’s mind, a spacey environment ruled by her anthropomorphized emotions: Joy (Amy Poelher), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Riley is a happy kid with a secure life, so Joy is her ruling emotion. During the substantial exposition, Joy explains how the seemingly negative emotions of Anger, Fear, and Disgust help Riley stay safe, but talks about Sadness as a nonessential. Starting out as a motley crew of these five emotions, the film quickly shifts to become about a mismatched pair trying to work together, as Joy and Sadness are flung to the recesses of Riley’s long-term memory banks in a moment of panic. On top of being opposite emotions, Joy and Sadness have contrasting looks:
Sadness is fat. Her outfit of a shapeless sweater and glasses is gauche. She slouches and hides behind her hair and speaks in a soft voice. She is the visual opposite of Joy, who has a slim body, boundless energy, a pixie cut and a feminine, form-fitting dress, who skates gracefully along with Riley and literally glows. Sadness’ introduction in the film is accompanied by the strains of a tuba. Her movements are sluggish; she is droops uncertainly over the control panel. At one point, she is “too sad to walk;” Joy literally drags her around by the foot. (Of note: when Sadness collapses, the sound effect used is practically the same as the one in A Bug’s Life when Heimlich collapses. I described it in my notes as “blurpy.”)
After its theatrical release, several articles and thinkpieces were published about Sadness being a fat character (none of which particularly resonated with me, to be honest, but they aren’t hard to Google if you’re curious). Slender Joy (Amy Poehler) is the character who children are more conditioned by other media to like. She looks like Tinkerbell and acts like Woody. She’s also the protagonist, the emotion who takes the lead in Riley’s mind and narrates the story. As Riley is learning to express grief in the external world, Joy is learning to accept Sadness’ importance in Riley’s life, and that memories can have a complex mix of emotions attached to them. Along with Riley and Joy’s character growth, Sadness also learns that she plays an important role in Riley’s life and that there are times where it’s appropriate for her to be at the helm. In fact, Sadness’ initial contribution to her and Joy’s journey, being able to navigate the maze of Long Term Memory, is due to Joy’s lack of faith in her, as Joy directed her to read their procedural manuals in Headquarters to keep her out of “trouble.” Notwithstanding, her self-doubt seems to be learned from Joy’s constant attempts to prevent her from doing anything (and, externally, Riley dealing with the expectation to be her parents’ “happy girl”). The thin character’s opinion of the fat character is largely what validates her existence. It is worthy of note that, during glimpses into other characters’ minds, Sadness is always a fat character, but the leader emotion changes. Sadness is in control of Riley’s mother’s mind, but is more thoughtful and measured than Riley’s Sadness.
Riley receives the support she needs once she acknowledges Sadness.
Even if the character designers were not consciously saying to themselves “fat people are sad, therefore let’s make this character fat,” their intent was to portray a character whom others do not want to be around, whose presence is a detraction, a character who is only accepted after others undergo growth and maturation. And they made that character look like a fat woman. The sticking point when it comes to representations of characters from oft-stereotyped groups, like fat people, is the impossibility of seeing even a well-meaning depiction independent of those numerous experiences of a character being fat for a Reason, to communicate something about their personality or present their body as symbolic of something. You know, the reason for this blog being a thing. Maybe it would be different if there were more fat characters whose body size was incidental, in addition to having as complex a portrayal as characters of other shapes and sizes.
In other words, it would be great to see more characters in the vein of Russell from Up. Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a tenacious, talkative Wilderness Explorer scout who is hellbent on earning a badge for assisting the elderly (“I’ve got to help you cross something!” he tells Carl when they first meet). In his attempt to assist grieving widower Carl (Ed Asner), he is pulled along on an adventure to Paradise Falls, a remote spot in South America that Carl’s departed wife Ellie dreamed of visiting. Carl and Russell initially seem to have nothing in common, but eventually it’s revealed that they are on very common missions, avoiding grief by clinging to symbolic material possessions. Carl conflates the house that he and Ellie shared with his lost love, talking to the house as though it was her and attaching it to helium balloons to he can float it to her dream spot to live out the rest of his days alone/with “her.” Russell’s dedication to being a Wilderness Explorer and earning his badge is an attempt to bring his estranged father back into his life, hoping that his father will participate in the badge pinning ceremony.
Russell is far from an idealized character, but his imperfections aren’t mapped onto the size of his body. He is socially unaware, but this is more due to being an excitable 8-year-old who’s been given an opportunity to geek out about his hobby. His limitations are not completely conflated with the size of his body. He fails at assembling a tent, which is a near-requisite joke about camping. He struggles to climb the garden hose tether leading from the ground to the house– related to a lack of athleticism, but when it means saving his friends, he is able to climb it with no problem. He brings a supply of chocolate bars with him, a pretty typical fat kid trait, but once he sees that Kevin the bird likes chocolate, he becomes more interested in using it as a tool of strengthening their relationship than eating it himself.
Although he loses his GPS device almost immediately, Russell serves as Carl’s guide in a few important ways. Russell has knowledge of the natural world and camping that help on their adventure, such as identifying dangerous stormclouds and bandaging Kevin’s leg after she is attacked. More importantly, though, both characters have to learn to let go of their original goals and the items they make important, a move which is spearheaded by Russell. After Carl chooses to save his house over Kevin the bird, Russell throws his Wilderness Explorer sash to the ground in disgust, giving up “assisting the elderly” in order to assist Kevin, whose life is at stake. After this gesture, Carl flies the house after Russell, but has to discard the furniture and other mementos of his life with Ellie out to make it light enough to get airborne. Although Carl is the elder, he follows Russell’s example. At Russell’s pinning ceremony, Carl awards him the soda cap pin Ellie gave him when they were children which he wears on his lapel throughout the film, “for performing above and beyond the call of duty.”
im not crying youre crying
Although Pixar films have certain shared traits that serve as brand DNA, the varying creators attached to different projects and the apparent market demand for sequels and spinoffs (which often mean a decrease in quality) mean that not every film they produce lives up to their reputation of superior family entertainment, nor does an exceptional concept or visual achievement say anything about the consideration of what it means to be an outsider beyond the context of said film’s immediate story.
*Not fat societies, mind you. WALL-E to be discussed at a later date.
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 personalautobiographical accounts.
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:
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron in Star Wars: the Force Awakens.
No, not him, the other dashing X-Wing pilot:
Portraying X-Wing pilot Snap Wexley, JJ Abrams’ lifelong friend and hunk Greg Grunberg.
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!”
Experimenter: No comedians were harmed in the making of this film.
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.
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.
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.
I was skeptical of at first, due to Melissa McCarthy’s last few films receiving mediocre ratings, but I’m happy to report that Spy gloriously exceeded my expectations. Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a smart, capable CIA agent who has spent her career at a computer, doing support work for her suave partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who goes around the world on glamorous field assignments. After she sees villainous Raina (Rose Byrne) kill Bradley and brag that she knows the identity of all of the CIA’s active spies, Susan goes undercover to avenge her fallen partner and prevent Raina from selling a nuclear weapon to terrorists.
Spy is a great summer film. I saw it this afternoon, and my throat is still sore from laughing so hard at the panoply of hilarious performances, with McCarthy as the leader of the pack. I was notably delighted by Miranda Hart as Susanne’s gawky wingwoman Nancy, and Peter Serafinowicz, whom I recognized from his antagonistic straight man roles in Edgar Wright’s Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, as a relentlessly sleazy Italian agent. The action scenes are thrilling without being overblown, and the two hour run-time flows by easily with spirited energy.
Spy is a highly entertaining action comedy that knows its limits, but does more than enough within them. This factor alone makes it a notable improvement over Tammy, last summer’s comedy offering starring McCarthy. Tammy has plenty of funny moments and empathizes with its fat, ill-mannered, working class protagonist as much as it throws obstacles in her path, but doesn’t do a very graceful job of balancing its goofy, vulgar humor with the more serious aspects of the story, such as Pearl’s (Susan Sarandon) self-destructive behavior, and the moments of emotional honesty and vulnerability do more bogging down than adding depth. Which sucks, because there is an inherent transgressive joy to see two characters who would be pushed to the sidelines in most films leaving their stagnant lives behind in search of adventure.
By virtue of being an action film, as opposed to a road trip film, Spy doesn’t have the expectation of character development or emotionally laden moments. Even so, Spy doesn’t shy away from the pathos Susan experiences as a fat misfit. Despite being a multi-talented agent, Susan experiences multiple microaggressions related to her fatness that impact her confidence. Bradley uses his advantageous position, as her mentor and her crush, to convince her that she isn’t suited for field work. He treats her with condescension, gifting her a cartoonish cupcake pendant to thank her for her help. There is no way a sophisticated globetrotter would think of something so tacky as an appropriate gift for someone he respected as a peer, whether or not he had romantic feelings for her. She is only inspired to volunteer for a field assignment when her boss (Allison Janney) says that they need an operative who is invisible. Susan is invisible, as she works in a world where anyone who matters, especially any woman who matters, is thin and chic. Insulting banter is a large chunk of the film’s humor, and there is a recurring theme of characters criticizing each others’ style choices. Even though Susan is never directly insulted for being fat, she is at an automatic vulnerability for the contempt of her peers and antagonists because her size prohibits her from dressing fashionably. In the beginning of the film, she puts Bradley on a pedestal, admiring his tailored suits. “This shirt doesn’t even have a label,” she says of her own blouse, in self-deprecating comparison. The false identities she is given speak to how her appearance deems her to have a boring, pedestrian life: a single woman with 10 cats, a divorced mom of 4. Even her fancy spy gadgets are stripped of any glamorous aspects that would accessorize her thinner colleagues, such as an all-purpose antidote disguised as a bottle of stool softeners.
Compared to Tammy, the audience has less of a challenge in sympathizing with Susan. Susan is impressive. She holds her own in a field that demands over-achievement: she is a skilled fighter, focused under pressure, and has incredible attention to detail and analytical ability. Tammy can’t haul herself over a low fast-food restaurant counter, has a hair-trigger temper, and doesn’t know who Mark Twain is. Like Susan, Tammy struggles with a lack of regard from other people, but this is shown to be partly due to her abrasiveness (which she readily admits). It would be easy to dismiss Tammy as a fat stereotype engineered for crude laughs, but we could just as easily criticize how Susan is written as overly idealized, as her flaws-that-aren’t-really-flaws (she doesn’t know how to act in a fancy restaurant, just like you in the audience! She struggles with a lack of confidence that she quickly finds via a sexy international espionage adventure!) pale in comparison to how kickass she is. However, both characters offer different ways of depicting how fat woman are marginalized. We witnesses that marginalization on-screen in Spy, as Susan is belittled even though she does everything right. However, when confronted with Tammy, we struggle with that marginalization in our own reactions to its titular protagonist.
(Just a reminder, all CPBS articles potentially contain spoilers.)
This afternoon, I had the pleasure of engaging in BitchFlicks‘ weekly Twitter discussion, the topic of which was Mad Max: Fury Road. Fury Road is a decent action film that makes up in style what it lacks in story and character detail, but it’s getting a lot of attention as a potentially feminist action film. I tend towards skepticism when regarding mainstream media attempts at true progressivism, as I’m more likely to dwell on the problematic stuff that remains a constant. A lot of the contributors to this afternoon’s discussion were more optimistic in their view of the film, which led me to concede that I was overlooking the positive aspects of Fury Road. It’s amazing to see a big budget action film that features women defending themselves, standing up to the bad guy, striking out into the unknown, and doing it all because they know they can rely on each other. Despite being the titular character, Max (Tom Hardy) plays more of a supporting role to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Over the course of their adventure, the two learn to trust each other and work together without resorting to a compulsory romance. Furiosa’s goal is to liberate the Wives, five women who are sex slaves to Immortan Joe (Hugh Kyes-Byrne), a tyrant who controls a large source of water, and return with them to her matriarchal homeland, the Green Place.
However, Fury Road is a mixed bag with regards to body diversity. Furiosa is an amputee, which is pretty huge, considering she’s the protagonist. However, there are other people in the film whose disabilities aren’t quite as cool (Furiosa gets a neat-looking robotic arm), and seem to be present as props to convey how harsh life is in this desert setting. Fat people are present in the film, but don’t fare very well. When Joe is introduced, we see him in a room full of fat naked women whose lactating breasts are being pumped by machines. These women are presumably his wives as well, or at least other women whose bodies are being exploited by him alongside the Wives. Physical exploitation is a recurring presence in Fury Road. Max is initially captured and held by Joe’s war boys so that his blood can be harvested. The Wives are being exploited by Joe for sexual and reproductive purposes; they graffiti the walls of their rooms for Joe to find when he discovers they have escaped, bearing messages that they are not objects, and refuse to give birth to future warlords. However, Max and the Wives escape from and confront their oppressors, while the nameless, voiceless fat women have no agency in this way. The fat women’s bodies are in sharp contrast to those of the Wives– all five actresses playing the Wives have careers as models, and they are clothed in gauzy, pure white fabric. The fat women do re-appear at the end of the film after Joe’s reign of terror has been overcome, giving the thirsty masses full access to Joe’s water reserves. Although they participate in the liberation of the Citadel, that role reflected their earlier state captivity a little too closely for me to feel that there was true redemption. They seemed to be stuck in an affliation with nourishing and abundance which made me uncomfortable, given the unsettling imagery of their captivity.
Another problematic fat figure is Joe’s ally, the People Eater (John Howard). Although not given much in the way of characterization beyond being a Mini Boss, the People Eater’s fatness is linked to a sense of sadomasochistic hedonism, which are intended to inspire disgust in the audience. The People Eater’s shirt has holes cut in it so that his nipples stick out; he wears clamps and chains on them that he has a habit of playing with. He also has a metal grating covering his nose, which I interpreted as suggesting syphilis, which can cause the flesh of the nose to rot in advanced stages. In the days before medical interventions, the decayed nose was a stigmatic mark of immorality. Apparently, everything old is new again. He also has exaggeratedly fat feet which eventually lead to his undoing, as Max forces his foot onto the gas pedal that leads him to crash.
There’s a lot about Fury Road that is refreshing in terms of representation, but the fat bodies present in the film get burdened with some tired tropes that detracted from my enjoyment of it. One of the main ideas that the film presents is that bodies aren’t objects; unfortunately, that message doesn’t extend in practice too far beyond the normatively attractive characters.
My last few posts have focused on male/masculine fat best friends. Thus far I haven’t sought out films specifically for their portrayals of fat people– or, to be more accurate, I’ve been heard to whine “But I don’t wanna rewatch Bridesmaids”– so it’s not surprising that most of the films default to having male protagonists with another man, somehow coded as less heroic, in a support role. I decided to lean into the trend and revisit the first two Die Hard films. I first saw Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder a few years ago; while I wasn’t actively looking at the role that body size plays in the character dynamics, I found the developing bromance between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to be one of the more intriguing parts of the film.
As we’ve seen in previous films, McClane and Powell form a contrasting duo; the differences between them go beyond body type and race. Both are archetypal cop characters, but from opposite ends of that spectrum. McClane is a fiercely independent male power fantasy. Explicitly identified with cowboys, he’s the rogue agent who breaks all the rules because his ideas are invariably more effective than the protocols set by those in power. Even his personal life finds him bristling against cooperation: he has become estranged from his family because of his reluctance to leave New York after his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) lands a great job in Los Angeles. There were several reasons that I prefer the original movie to the sequel, which isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the most unexpected reason was that I don’t find McClane nearly as interesting when he’s put in a situation that requires teamwork. It’s somewhat surprising that he outranks Powell by the second film.
McClane is defined by his profession, but specifically by being part of the NYPD. New York City as part of McClane’s identity is an expression of regionalism, but it also seems to be an inherent part of his stubbled, streetwise masculinity. He is out of place at the Nakatomi Christmas party, especially when another man greets him with a kiss on the cheek, and is practically a different species than Ellis (Hart Bochner), Holly’s smarmy, coke-snorting coworker. The film portrays association with LA as a symptom of a character being phony and weak: after moving to LA, Holly goes by her maiden name; McClane has a much harder time gaining respect with his LAPD badge in Die Hard 2. Even the local news team turns into a minor antagonist, as reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) forces himself into the McClane home for the sake of his scoop.
McClane’s likability and authenticity comes not only from Bruce Willis’ charisma, but from his alliances with average joes, especially black men. McClane is initially characterized as an unpretentious populist by making friends with his limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White)– naturally, he sits shotgun and puts his kids’ giant teddybear in the back seat where the LA phonies ride. In the sequel, McClane forms an alliance with nerdy director of communications Leslie Barnes (Art Evans). However, he is more brusque with other average joe characters: possibly due to the stress of having so many people standing between him and the bad guys, or a change in director and writing team, but it may be that LA is rubbing off on McClane. However, the role of Grounding Black Friend is fulfilled most strongly by Sgt. Powell, both in terms of the depth of their relationship and by balancing out the milieu of upper class white LA.
Powell is a by-the-book cop, representing the everyman who supports and roots for McClane. He isn’t as phony as the other LA-based characters, but he is an emasculated figure. His lack of power is visually manifested through fat stereotypes; in both Die Hard and Die Hard 2, he is introduced by an armful of Twinkies. In the first film, he tells a convenience store cashier that the Twinkies are for his pregnant wife, which is met with skepticism. McClane is also introduced while fulfilling a paternal role– wrangling a giant teddy bear for his children– but flirts with a pretty flight attendant in the process. Powell doesn’t have the skilled action hero control of McClane: he doesn’t realize that the Nakatomi Tower is overrun by bad guys until McClane throws one of them onto the hood of his cop car.
Powell is sensitive and emasculated when compared with McClane, but his sensitivity also serves as a strength, in line with the fat detective trope. Not only does Powell form a correct hunch that McClane is a cop, but he does so after one brief conversation. Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), Powell’s superior, arrives just as this conversation ends. His approach to the as-yet-unnamed McClane is cautious, but the audience is more attuned to the need for immediate action: his blowhard skepticism reads like a waste of precious time. Powell also proves himself to be a step ahead of Robinson when he correctly surmises that the terrorists are shooting at the cops’ floodlights, which Robinson loudly repeats as his own revelation once the lights are starting to shatter. However, Powell is a team player. While he directly disagrees with Robinson, he ultimately lacks McClane’s ability to undermine authority. At one point, Robinson interrupts Powell and McClane’s conversation, snatching the radio from Powell’s hand. Powell grimaces at the affront, but says nothing. McClane, on the other hand, responds to Robinson’s demand that the LAPD take over by calling him a “jerkoff” and demands that he give the radio back to Powell.
Powell’s fat detective sensitivity also facilitates the growth of his relationship with McClane. The initial conversation where Powell establishes that McClane is a cop is also enough for them to decide not only to trust each other, but to form an alliance; by their first sign-off, they are calling each other “partner.” The two partners provide each other with necessary information, but Powell also provides the moral support McClane needs, including making McClane laugh by reciting the ingredients of a Twinkie and telling him “I love you, and so do a lot of the other guys down here.”
It’s worth noting that the majority of Powell and McClane’s relationship takes place via radio; they are essentially two voices connecting with each other. In the context of a mainstream action film, McClane is white and athletic, aspects of a default representation of legitimacy. Not so for Powell, who is marginalized as a fat person and as a black person. However, on the radio, Powell is separated from the aspects of his corporeality that could otherwise detract from McClane viewing him as legitimate. We see the different ways McClane and Robinson treat Powell; we could chalk it up to McClane being a heroic everyman and Robinson being a blowhard boss, but it’s worth considering the fact that McClane is separated from the preconceived notions that are inexorably tied to Powell’s body.
The most obvious marker of Powell’s lack of (masculine) power is that he’s been put on desk duty because he has lost his ability to shoot his gun, following an incident where he accidentally shot and killed a kid. He triumphantly regains the ability to fill a human body with bullets at the end of the film, when it means defending McClane from the final bad guy. Even if the scene is a black cop killing a homicidal Aryan, in light of the recent publicized lack of accountability from police departments for police brutality, it’s very uncomfortable to consider that regaining the ability to kill is considered a happy resolution to Powell’s character arc.
Despite having his masculinity redeemed through his friendship with McClane at the end of Die Hard, Powell fills the same role of less masculine, more cooperative foil in his brief appearance in Die Hard 2. He faxes a criminal background check to McClane as he chews on a Twinkie, gently laughing at his friend’s refusal to “wake up and smell the 90s” and learn how to use the technology that has become a basic tool of his profession, untameable cowboy that he is. And again, Powell is more of a friend to McClane than the other law enforcement in the film, notably Captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the head of airport police who impedes McClane’s process every step of the way, along with his brother Sgt. Lorenzo (Robert Costanzo). Both of the Lorenzos are fat; McClane calls Captain Lorenzo a “fat ass” during their unending tennis match of insults. All three fat characters are shown as ineffectual cops when compared to McClane; the Lorenzos’ ineffectiveness comes from complacency and arrogance, treating McClane rudely while failing to see the big picture. Captain Lorenzo initially describes himself as a “big fish” in a “little pond,” but towards the end of the film, he is dismissed as a “bureaucrat.” He is unable to see reality; namely, that John McClane, Supercop is in his airport trying to foil an unfolding terrorist plot. Powell, on the other hand, realizes what’s going on, but isn’t able to garner the respect needed to convey it to those around him.
Captain Lorenzo and Powell are both fat men who are socially inappropriate. They have character arcs where the begin their film with problematic relationships to their profession that are ultimately corrected through their association with McClane. Powell is initially deferential and emasculated (relative to the world of male power fantasy), but finds the strength to argue with his superior in order to advocate for McClane, and then the ability to shoot his gun in order to defend McClane. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is rigid and arrogant, but is eventually humbled when McClane proves the worth of his disorderly methods. I see race as the more component of the difference in these fat characters’ trajectories. McClane spends Die Hard and Die Hard 2 clashing with power-hungry white men (whether military-trained terrorists or jagoff yuppies) and building alliances with salt-of-the-earth black men. We know that he will never become the former because of how he treats the latter, and the latter ultimately exist to accessorize McClane’s quests. The politics of fat in Die Hard cannot be separated from similar questions about the politics of race.