comedy

Roundup: March 2016

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).

waltz_5

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.

fokkens

Roundup: February 2016

A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.

This is Spinal Tap (1984, dir. Rob Reiner)

Reiner inserts himself in this classic mockumentary as documentarian Marty diBergi, both a dorky outsider to the world of rock and the frequent reminder of the real world outside the band’s bubble where they aren’t the hallowed rock gods they position themselves as.  Other fat characters include the band’s creepy keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff).

Groundhog Day (1993, dir. Harold Ramis)

Buster Green (Brian Doyle Murray) is the master of ceremonies for the Groundhog Day ceremony who becomes part of Phil’s time loop routine when he chokes on a piece of steak and must be saved via the Heimlich maneuver (presumably many, many times).  Gus (Rick Ducommun) is a blue collar townie with whom Phil gets drunk (also, presumably many, many times).

Hail, Caesar! (2016, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A fair number of fat characters are in this sprawling cast, from a beleaguered bartender in the sailor dance number “No Dames!”(E.E. Bell) to a nefarious extra (Wayne Knight) to professional person Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill).

Toy Story 2 (1999, dir. John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Ash Brannon)

Al (Wayne Knight) is the main antagonist of the film.  Although he owns a toy store, he hates children, is greedy (stealing Woody from the yard sale even after Andy’s mom insists he isn’t for sale), lazy (complaining about having to drive to work that is literally across the street from his building), and represents a misguided approach to toys (wanting to preserve them in pristine condition instead of loving and playing with them).  The Prospector/Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar) is also an antagonist, wanting to go along with Al’s plan to sell the toys to a museum in Japan because he’s never been taken out of the box.  Keeping toys in the box is positioned as wrong or sad in the film, but for the Prospector, it’s the best option.

Al_McWhiggin_Sleeping.png

Drag Me to Hell (2009, dir. Sam Raimi)

Christine (Alison Lohman) is the typical thin, blonde protagonist of a horror film. Although the plot focuses on her struggling against a demon summoned to stalk her by a curse, her defining character trait is attempting to reinvent herself and run from her past as a fat girl who grew up on a farm in the South.

On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)

This classic film follows the struggle of dock workers under the thumb of a mobbed-up union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), one of whose thugs is a fat man.

Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)

Fat characters include Carl (S.Z. Sakall), a good-natured waiter at Rick’s cafe, and Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), who runs the black market in Casablanca and has access to highly desirable exit visas.

 

carl casablanca

 

I feel like I win when I lose: Muriel’s Wedding (1994, dir. PJ Hogan)

Acceptability is a theme that comes up time and time again as I overthink the films I see.  Achieving and maintaining acceptability is often essential to navigating the social sphere, yet also so fraught with paradoxical traps and narrowly-struck balances, it might as well be obtained by switching it with a bag of sand from a booby-trapped pedestal.  Consider marriage.  Weddings are often part of a happy ending, the culmination of a character arc about a couple who meet or whose relationship deepens due to the events of the movie.  We expect the romantic love that our overwhelmingly heterosexual casts of characters experience to lead to marriage, just as we expect marriage to be a milestone in every person’s life.  But be warned:  despite the expectation to get married being a given, the desire to get married– especially if it’s a general goal– is a hallmark of the immature and the unstable (and usually female characters, what a coincidence).  If you don’t get married by a certain age (especially you, ladies), you’re weird.  But just, you know, be cool about it.

Muriel’s Wedding features a fat protagonist who is caught up in this paradox.  The titular role was a breakout performance for Toni Collette, and it is often noted that she gained 40 pounds for the part.  Muriel Heslop lives with her family in a small Australian tourist town full of small-minded people.  She talks repeatedly about being a success, being someone, which is synonymous with her getting married.  Carrying out traditionally feminine roles, especially marriage, is a major focus of the women in her life.  The opening scene is frenemy Tania’s (Sophie Lee) wedding reception, as the tossed bridal bouquet plummets like a missile in slow motion from a cloudless sky, an image that repeats to break the film into three chapters (the first titled “The Bouquet”).  When Muriel catches it from among a gaggle of single women, the others act as though catching the bride’s bouquet is tantamount to a law, instead of a superstitious ritual.  Her friends tell her that she’s being “selfish” for catching it.  “What’s the use of you having it, Muriel?,” her “friend” Janine (Belinda Jarrett) asks, “You’re never going to get married.  You’ve never even had a boyfriend.”  Even after Tania finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, she insists that she loves him, and as a bride, she’s “supposed to be euphoric.”  Muriel’s friends decide to accompany Tania on her honeymoon trip and dump Muriel because she doesn’t fit their “mad” party image, explaining that she doesn’t wear the right clothing, listen to the right music, and– of course– is fat.   

Muriel’s parents, Bill (Bill Hunter) and Betty (Jeanie Drynan), also fat characters, are the only married couple in the film.  Betty especially is absorbed in her role as wife and mother.  A quiet, absent-minded woman, she is obedient to her husband to the point of repeating him word for word when he tells her to do something and actively ignoring his poorly-concealed affair with thinner, glamorous cosmetics salesperson Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson).  Bill is a city councilman who is obsessed with his image as a powerful man with powerful connections, constantly frustrated by his unemployed, “useless” children, whom he complains about and berates in front of his business associates.

Despite her flawed home life, Muriel longs to get married, which she equates with success and making something of herself.  She lives in a dreamworld, covering her bedroom wall with photos of brides, listening obsessively to ABBA, and compulsively lying and shoplifting.  In the context of her friends and family, however, the audience is apt to show more compassion for her idealistic escapism.  Not until Muriel reconnects with her former classmate Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths) does she have an alternative to longing for a wedding day.  Rhonda is a vivacious, chain-smoking troublemaker.  “Stick with me because I’m wicked too,” she tells Muriel, assuming that her new-found friend is stepping out on a nonexistent fiancee. Rhonda admires Muriel for coming out of her shell and cheerfully informs Tania that her husband is sleeping with Nicole (Pippa Grandison), one of her sycophants.  Rhonda and Muriel cement their bond through a lipsynced performance of “Waterloo” at a talent show, while Tania and Nicole brawl in the audience.  Unwilling to return home and face her dad, from whom she’s stolen thousands of dollars, Muriel runs away to Sydney to live with Rhonda.

The repeated image of the bridal bouquet heralds in the second act, entitled “Sydney: City of Brides.”  Formerly preoccupied with the fantasy of becoming someone else, Muriel makes it happen in Sydney.  She changes her name to Mariel (“marry-el”).  She gets a job at a video store, where she obsessively watches a tape of Diana and Charles’ royal wedding.  She changes her look, forgoing a wavy ponytail and leopard print in an attempt to look like Tania for a straightened bob and leather pants, more akin to Rhonda’s style.  When Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, Mariel takes care of her.  When Rhonda protests that she’s a burden, Mariel explains what their friendship has meant to her:

“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I’d just stay in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. Sometimes I’d stay in there all day. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. It’s because now my life’s as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”

Mariel’s life with Rhonda fulfills the emotional needs previously met by listening to ABBA.  Instead of music that prioritizes the harmonizing of two female voices, Muriel has a life centered around her friendship with another woman, where she has the power to reinvent herself.  Although Mariel’s family still insists on calling her Muriel, Rhonda honors her friend’s new name without hesitation.  Despite the external changes, though, Mariel is still connected to her past as Muriel Heslop of Porpoise Spit.  Her family feels the repercussions of her stealing, and her father is brought up on charges of accepting bribes, which he claims he was forced to do after Muriel cleaned out his bank account.  Also, she still longs to be a bride, and makes a hobby out of trying on wedding gowns at every boutique in Sydney.  She sees marriage as the ultimate step in her transformation, being able to leave behind the perception the folks back home have of her once and for all:  

“If I can get married it means I’ve changed, I’m a new person… Because who would want to marry me… I’m not her anymore, I’m me… Muriel Heslop! Stupid, fat, and useless! I hate her! I’m not going back to being her again.”

This obsession drives a wedge between her and Rhonda.  The two women face their individual situations in very different ways.  Rhonda is transformed involuntarily, as a life-saving surgery takes her ability to walk.  She survives by clinging to who she knows herself to be, continuing to smoke, wear combat boots, and tell people off when they condescend to her for being in a wheelchair.  Mariel runs from her loneliness and painful past through self-transformation and lies.  Her quest for a husband further separates her from Rhonda.  She meets David Van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine), a South African swimmer who is looking for a marriage of convenience so he can compete in the Olympics on the Australian team.  Mariel leaves her friend without help and unable to pay the rent, giving Rhonda no choice but to move back to Porpoise Spit with her mother.  

The third act is entitled “Mariel’s Wedding:” at first glance a culmination of the story, but slightly off in some significant ways.  Tania and the other girls from Porpoise Spit are her bridesmaids, while a neglected Rhonda sits off to the side.  A giddy Mariel marches down the aisle to “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” apparently needing ABBA in her life again.  The congregants don’t look happy for her, but rather stare at her as if she is a spectacle.  Her groom is reluctant and stunned.  Although Bill walks her down the aisle, Betty is not present, arriving late and sitting in the back.  Deirdre takes her place as mother of the bride and Mariel marches past her without acknowledging her.  On their wedding night, David asks Mariel what kind of person would marry someone they don’t even know.  When she points out that he has done the same thing, he insists defensively, “I want to win.  All my life, I’ve wanted to win.”  “Me too,” she responds.  Mariel has achieved her goal, her transformation is supposedly complete, but Rhonda confronts her after the ceremony and tries to give her friend a reality check:  “Mariel Van Arckle stinks.  She’s not half the person Muriel Heslop was.”  

muriels wedding betty.png

The mother of the bride, at the back of the church.

Mariel seems content to sit in her living room and watch her wedding video over and over, but the fantasy ends with the news of her mother’s death.  After accidentally shoplifting a pair of sandals and needing Bill to bail her out (he tells the cops that she’s “not quite right”), he decides to leave her for Deirdre once and for all, making her feel as useless as he tells his children they are:  “They say I wasn’t elected to the state government that time because my family wasn’t up to scratch… I never had a bloody chance.”  Even in her death, Bill tries to force Betty into the role of diffident mother.  Deirdre makes an off-key attempt at comforting Mariel by telling her that Betty’s death was a “sacrifice” that will convince the judge to go easy on Bill at his trial.  “She’ll  be glad in the end her life amounted to something,” she says, before making passive-aggressive digs at Betty’s housekeeping skills.  Joanie (Gabby Millgate), Muriel’s fat sister who has largely spent the film smirking at her older sister, tearfully reveals that Betty committed suicide, but that Bill got rid of the pills she used to cover it up.  However, Betty’s anger and hurt can’t be totally erased: Muriel’s little brother tells her that their mother set the backyard on fire because their brother wouldn’t mow it.

The breaking point for Mariel is Betty’s funeral, where Bill is preoccupied with his ability to get a faxed message of condolence from a former prime minister, and Betty’s eulogy states that Mariel’s wedding was the happiest day of her life.  Mariel runs out of the church, where David is waiting for her.  She breaks up with him, finally accepting that their marriage is a lie and can’t continue:  “I tell so many lies, one day I won’t know I’m doing it.”  (Of course, she does this after they sleep together.)  She also restores use of the name she was given at birth.

 

muriels wedding david.jpg

Not that you can blame her.

In breaking up with David, Muriel embarks on a new, honest chapter in her life, but also leaves behind the world that her father, and by extension the rest of Porpoise Spit, in which success means building an attractive, happy personal image, at the expense of relationships with others.  Bill is relentless in talking about himself as an influential man, the savior of Porpoise Spit who brings in resorts and high rises, the father who dumps his devoted wife for a glitzy businesswoman uninterested in caring for his children.  Tania is hellbent on riding the wave of high school popularity as long as she can, maintaining her beautiful party girl image and forcing herself to be happy in her marriage, even though neither her nor her husband have much stake in commitment (“But Rose Biggs sucked your husband’s cock!” “I know.  I sucked her husband’s cock, and it made me realize, we all make mistakes.”)  Even the town of Porpoise Spit is built on tourism, relying on an image of happiness and fun in order to survive.  Her entire world is founded in deception, but only Muriel seems to be characterized as a liar and cheat, excessive fat girl Muriel who is arrested for shoplifting during her friend’s wedding and dumped by her so-called friends for her inability to cultivate a specific image as successfully as they.  It’s telling that Muriel doesn’t lose any weight over the events of the film; her look changes, but becomes more low key and is not remarked on.  The film shows her becoming a more authentic, honest person, something that doesn’t require weight loss or a makeover.

Throughout the movie, Rhonda is the only one interested in rooting for Muriel as she really is.  She actively chooses to befriend dorky Muriel over Tania and her friends, she inspires Muriel to leave Porpoise Spit.  She even overlooks Muriel’s lies about being engaged, and is only angry when Muriel abandons her in her time of need.  Rhonda’s friendship is the natural source of redemption for Muriel.  Muriel breaks up with her family, giving her dad a portion of the money she stole from him and telling him that he has to take responsibility for her siblings “and tell them they’re not useless.”  Free of Bill’s influence, Muriel then rescues Rhonda, who is living with her overbearing mother and tortured by social calls from Tania and company.  Rhonda forgives Muriel, calls Tania and her friends a bunch of cocksuckers, and immediately leaves for Sydney with her friend.  Outraged (despite having copped to sucking someone’s cock a minute earlier), Tania chases them to the taxi, screaming defensively, “Who do you think you are to call me [a cocksucker]?  I’m married! I’m beautiful!”  Neither Muriel (for whom Tania feels contempt) nor Rhonda (for whom Tania feels pity) are “on her level,” so it’s unthinkable that they should have the last word.  

Even though Muriel and Rhonda don’t have a romantic relationship, their love for each other is as redemptive and optimistic a happy ending as one would expect to find in a typical romantic comedy.  Riding to the airport together, the two friends leave behind them a suffocating community and reliance on their naysaying families, finding something more important than acceptability in each other: a relationship where they can make mistakes and need help, without shame or rejection.  Rhonda and Muriel shout their goodbyes to Porpoise Spit, and “Dancing Queen” plays, as Muriel’s happiness has once more become lived instead of listened to.

See Also:

You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Muriel’s Wedding and the Promise of Bridal Transformation

The Irrepressible Body: In & Out (1997, dir. Frank Oz)

Roundup: January 2016

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

 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)

A classic story of a purehearted little guy versus the corrupt juggernaut of American politics, where the little guy wins because that’s totally a thing that happens.  Jimmy Stewart’s breakout role as Jefferson Smith, the purehearted little guy.  A fair number of the characters representative of political corruption are fat guys, including the easily manipulated governor (Guy Kibbee) and his boss, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold).

msgtw8

The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994)

A dark Christmas comedy about Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur, a couple on the verge of divorce (Kevin Spacey and Judi Davis) who are taken hostage by Gus (Dennis Leary), a thief.  The police force in their bougie little town is largely unprepared to deal with apprehending a career criminal, but one of the pair who actually show up to the Chasseur’s home while Gus is hiding out is fat (John Scurti).

 

That’s about it for fat characters in the films I watched over the past month, but if I’m being honest, there is another fat character who I’ve been obsessing over recently, whose lack of dialogue and repetitive actions– seemingly devoid of the agency afforded their peers– speak to an implicit acceptance of the hegemonic ideas of the physical embodiment of character traits that I write about so often on this blog:

 

tubbs.jpg

Dammit, Tubbs!

 

 

How Fat Characters Function as Part of the Gang in Pixar Films: A Bug’s Life (1997, dir. John Lasseter), Up (2009, dir. Pete Docter), Inside Out (2015, dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie DelCarmen)

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:

 

bugs life heimlich

Oh boy.

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: 

inside-out-image-joy-sadness

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.

Inside-Out-Riley-parents-hugging

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.  

up garden hose

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.”

up badge

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.

 

See Also:

Does Inside Out Get Sadness Wrong? (with link to a more comprehensive NY Times article)

The Psychology of Inside Out

 

Rank Incompetence: Beauty as a Social Construct and The Firemen’s Ball (1967, dir. Milos Forman)

As I said in my previous post, 2015 was a great year for films with female protagonists.  We saw a whole range of diverse characters and situations, from The Assassin to Tangerine, Girlhood to Iris.  I also didn’t realize until I looked back at my blog posts from the past year that it was also the year of the female character right here on CPBS.  Starting the year out with Ma Rainey in The Ox-Bow Incident, the majority of the films I wrote about had fat female characters worth talking about. It shouldn’t be surprising that the role of body size in beauty standards was a recurring theme in many of these films.  Fatness is a complicated topic, but attractiveness is undeniably a factor in how it is considered.  Many fat characters, especially women, are contrasted against a conventional idea of feminine beauty.  That beauty can manifest as another character, perhaps the most explicit example being The DUFF, or the contrast between Anais and her sister in Fat Girl.  Often, a character is being measured against an ideal (eg. Emily in In and Out, who is hellbent on achieving her fantasy of being a skinny bride) or expectation (eg. Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, who subverts the presumption that the acapella group she is part of is made up solely of “twig bitches”).  Even settings where a seemingly foundational social norm is rebelled against usually keep other hegemonic ideals intact, such as the gay community and household in The Birdcage where Albert feels devalued and ostracized both because of her size and gender expression.  The unifying factor is a standard that has transcended agreement to become common “knowledge,” a fabricated rule that causes bona fide unhappiness when characters are deprecated in this way, which can even impede their ability to achieve their goals.  Consider Susan’s outlandishly frumpy secret identities in Spy, which both make it difficult to blend in and communicate the lack of respect her coworkers have for her.  In all of these cases, fat women characters face difficulties due to their bodies’ lack of social value.  They are all deemed less valuable than their peers based on their bodies. As these characters embrace and/or prove their personal worth over the course of the film, the social fabrication of these standards and adherence to them are shown to be mutable and hollow, more of a hindrance than a motivation or guide.

Recently, I saw a film that illustrated this same idea, but rather than providing a fat character to root for, the focus is on the ridiculousness of the figures making these judgments.  Milos Forman’s 1967 farce The Firemen’s Ball skewers the inept bureaucracy of communist Czechoslovakia.  Despite this specific intention, its observations can be mapped onto structures of control in other contexts where authority is suspect.  The film’s humor is derived from the ineptitude of a company of firefighters organizing a ball for their community:  the cursory reasoning that informs their decision-making, their selfishness and pettiness, their expectations juxtaposed with their hapless inability to control the unfolding and increasingly chaotic events of the evening.    

tumblr_nol6jl1K1z1sfmrpuo1_540

As the ball begins, the Entertainment Committee (it should be noted that all the firefighters in the film are middle-aged men) is in a room separate from the festivities, crowded around a magazine photo of contestants in an international beauty pageant.  They make up a typical boys’ club, crowded together with pints of beer and cigarettes, arguing about the logistics of the beauty pageant they intend to run during the ball.  They “sensibly” arrive to only allowing the eight “most beautiful” young women at the ball to participate; the one crowned beauty queen will have the honor of presenting a gift to the elderly former chairman of the fire department.  This subplot puts the male gaze in front of the camera, under the guise of carrying out an official ranking of beauty as entertainment.  The results are hilariously uncomfortable.  Subsequent scenes feature three committee members approaching young women with the dubious honor of having been selected as pageant contestants as they carry out their self-appointed duty with an undercurrent of embarrassed self-awareness at how boorishly they are acting with the most paper-thin of excuses.  They argue about how to judge which women are the most attractive: by their breasts, faces, or legs.  They skulk around the edges of the dance floor and peer at women from the balcony.  The women they approach largely react with confusion, and the committee awkwardly tries to filter out undesirables who are nominated by proud parents or foolishly assume that a means of entertainment at an event would be open to anyone interested.  

The squeamish licentiousness of the beauty pageant takes place in a room separated from the ball, where many more firefighters than the entertainment committee are gathered behind a table to inspect the contestants as they rehearse.  Even if the “judges” of the pageant tell themselves that they are acting for the good of the event, the reactions of the young women’s parents suggest that they aren’t fooling anyone.  A mother of one of the young women escorts her into the room and cheerfully insists on staying to “find out what it’s all about,” to the dismay of the firemen (who eventually get her to leave by electing one of their ranks to ask her for a dance).  One man begs the committee to include his daughter Ruzena, a larger-bodied girl than the other contestants.  Her father tries to poke his head in the door every time it opens, despite having begged them to make her a part of the pageant.  A second father bursts in and drags his daughter from the room, telling the entertainment committee that they are “dirty old geezers.”  This illustrates the paradox of being considered a beautiful woman in a patriarchal system: the desire to be attractive paired with the anxiety over attraction leading to trouble.

the-firemens-ball

The artificial nature of the beauty pageant was, in my experience, made further obvious by a lack of context.  Forman probably wasn’t taking the reception of his film 50 years down the line into consideration, but as a Millennial raised on Hollywood, it was difficult to determine how I was expected to judge these women’s looks.  Against expectation, the events leading up to the beauty pageant rehearsal do nothing to clue the audience into which of the women is supposed the be the belle of the ball.  The entertainment committee approaches several girls in the beginning of the movie who aren’t part of the final eight; one appears very drunk, another very disinterested.  A young woman (whom I found attractive) is randomly grabbed from the dance floor and recruited; she complains that she wasn’t actually chosen.  What we really have to go off is the reactions of the firefighters.  For instance, I thought Ruzena was rather pretty (she looks a bit like Molly Ringwald), but after she enters the rehearsal room, one fireman assures another, “Don’t worry, they’ll improve.”  His opinion is also complicated by an earlier scene where Ruzena has sex with her dance partner; even if the committee doesn’t find her attractive, she is desired.  As a viewer, I was relying on the literal male gaze to understand the dynamics of the scene, who I was supposed to see as attractive and who wasn’t desirable.  This gaze is, unsurprisingly, reflected by the camera, with shots that follow the leers of the entertainment committee and focus on eroticized body parts while they assess the female ball attendees.

The commencement of the pageant serves is an effective tonic for the underlying creepiness of the rehearsal scene.  The entertainment committee’s authority over the beauty pageant– indeed, the structure of the beauty pageant itself– quickly erodes.  The contestants are reluctant to parade up to the stage; first one, then all of them, run off the dance floor and seek sanctuary together in the ladies’ room.  Once they begin to run off, chaos breaks out.  The audience, chanting “we want the queen,” carry laughing women from the crowd to the stage.  The entertainment committee gathers outside the women’s restroom, begging the contestants to come out, as the audience cheers for a fat, middle-aged woman who stands on the stage, wearing the crown intended for the winner and waving to the crowd.  The former chairman, the original intended beneficiary of the pageant, sits alone and neglected in the crowd.  Eventually, the firemen are distracted from trying to salvage the beauty pageant by the sound of a siren: cut to a community member’s farmhouse, burning to the ground.

The genesis of this chaos is trying to be and create something one isn’t and can’t: a group of firemen from a small Czech town attempting a replication of an international beauty pageant with themselves as the judges, with only a magazine and their own imaginations as blueprints.  While under the pretense of benefiting the community– they are, after all, the entertainment committee for this large gathering– they shift the focus away from what the partygoers might want and towards their own desire to be in control, to be the ones surrounding themselves with beautiful women at the mercy of their judgment.  The firemen are engaged in the pageant, but the audience is indifferent and the contestants are apathetic, then uncooperative.  While focused on trying to maintain control and conform to a specific prefabricated fantasy, the firemen forgo their true responsibility to the community, neglecting to respond to a fire alarm until a fire is out of control.  It’s a story that we see replicated time and time again in various institutions:  adherence to precedent and retention of power trumps purpose and critical thought.  Consider how recently, for instance, the Academy Awards nominations for 2016 yet again pass over innovative, critically acclaimed films and work done by people of color in favor of nominees who adhere more closely to conventional, traditional tastes and expectations.  Likewise, most of the films we see feature characters who exist within audience expectations and stereotypes.  Some films like The Firemen’s Ball make this dynamic part of their focus, but all films are influenced by it in their creation, distribution, and reception.

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

people places things

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:

star wars poe

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

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

 

Greg+Grunberg+0UkxSxwnEAtm

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!”

02-experimenter.w750.h560.2x

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.

fat amy crushed it.gif

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.

cynthia rose

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.  

stranger-by-the-lake02

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.

nedrygoo

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.

“Anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time:” The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (1991 and 1993, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)

At first I was ambivalent about Uncle Fester, but it didn’t take much research to convince me that he is a fat character.  On his Wikipedia page, there is a quote from creator Charles Addams describing him as “fat with pudgy little hands and feet.”  Although his body is obscured under his black robe, he has usually been portrayed by larger-bodied actors, such as Jackie Coogan on the 1960s television series and Kevin Chamberlin in the original Broadway cast of the 2010 musical.  But as this is a film blog, the focus will be narrowed on the first two films and entertainment pillars of my childhood, the Addams Family and Addams Family Values, with Christopher Lloyd wearing a fat suit to play Uncle Fester.

I have yet to address fat suits on CPBS.  The only role I’ve looked at that utilized a fat suit is John Travolta’s in the Hairspray remake, which I didn’t talk about in the article.*  The reasons for putting an actor in a fat suit vary based on the film, but there are similarities between Travolta wearing one in Hairspray and Lloyd in the Addams Family movies, which is the spectacle of celebrity.  In either film, a fat actor could easily have been cast, but both Lloyd and Travolta are well-known names to mainstream audiences.  On top of this, putting both of these actors in a fat suit creates a spectacle based on their public personas that serves as a draw for the film.  Travolta’s abrupt left turn from his usual roles as a handsome leading man was one of the main sources of buzz around Hairspray, and Lloyd’s portrayal of Fester fits in with his reputation for playing characters whose offbeat looks indicate an offbeat personality.  I’m hard pressed to think of a fat actor for either movie who would have been suited to the role and at a comparable level of fame.  (My initial thought for a recast of Fester would be Pruitt Taylor Vince, master of creepy weirdos, but even today he is at the “hey it’s that guy” level of fame.)  Of course, this creates a vicious cycle in which a studio wants to hire someone at a certain level of fame, but there is a dearth of fat actors as well known as they want, so a thinner actor is put in a fat suit, preventing fat actors from reaching greater levels of notability.  Of course, fat actors are far from the only marginalized group to experience this vicious cycle, as disabled actors, actors of color, and queer/trans actors are often overlooked in favor of performers from more privileged groups who go on to give “brave” performances as marginalized characters– or whose characters are (re)written to have that privilege.

fester 1

Fester as a character has changed through the years and various media incarnations of the Addams Family (although his ability to light a lightbulb by holding it in his mouth has been consistent).  In the films, Fester has brutish tendencies and is as gleefully morbid as the rest of his kin, but he is ultimately someone who is gullible, tender-hearted, and lonely.  In both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Fester’s story revolves around finding a connection with his family in spite of being duped by a manipulative woman.  When introduced in The Addams Family, he has been convinced that he is Gordon Craven, son of overbearing loan shark and con woman Abigail Craven (Elisabeth Wilson).  He and his mother “pretend” that he is long-lost Uncle Fester as a means of stealing the Addams fortune. Fester-as-Gordon-pretending-to-be-Fester is often perplexed, in way over his head in the Addams’ world and doing a poor job of convincing them that he is Gomez’s (Raul Julia) long-lost brother.  Despite believing he is only pretending to be Fester, the relationship he fosters with Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) raises a sense of belonging with the Addamses.  As introverted, lurking Fester is a foil to debonair, zealous Gomez, chubby Pugsley is a foil to his svelter sister.  Wednesday is intense, dour and sadistic, where her brother is easygoing and (like his uncle) gullible, always playing the victim to Wednesday’s torturer in their games. Fester’s love for the family as a whole grows to the point where he is able to stand up to his villainous faux mother in their defense.  A flash of insight strikes (literally, in the form of a bolt of lightning and Fester’s head) and the prodigal uncle’s true identity is restored.  His redeemed status in the family is illustrated in the film’s final scene set on Halloween, with Pugsley having opted to dress up as his uncle.

fester and pugsley

In Addams Family Values, Fester begins the film with his identity intact.  He is gleefully ghoulish, not unlike his family members, but as he is no longer bumbling through a con, we see that he is genuinely awkward, shy, and oblivious.  In the first film, Gomez waxes nostalgic about what a ladies’ man Fester used to be (while they watch a home movie in which young Fester sticks his finger in his date’s ear), but in the second film, he can barely look at object of his affection Debbie (Joan Cusack, arguably doing her finest work), let alone talk to her. Like Abigail, Debbie is a criminal who survives on deceit and wants to use Fester to get her hands on the Addams fortune. She is a “black widow” who marries, then kills, rich bachelors.  No longer reacting to the Addams’ world out of ignorance, Fester is purely unintelligent, to the point of being childlike.  While seducing him, Debbie confesses that she is a virgin; he doesn’t know what that means.  This doesn’t logically match up with the rest of the family, making Fester look particularly idiotic. In an earlier scene, Wednesday tells a less-informed peer that she has a new baby brother because her parents had sex; this is played for laughs, but apparently Gomez and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) don’t shy away from candid biological discussions.  Plus, considering that Morticia and her mother both practice some dark form of magic, you’d think they would have vials of virgin blood or something like that lying around the mansion.  When Debbie tells him what a virgin is, he confesses that he is one as well, again highlighting his naivete.  Fester’s role as vulnerable outsider is used primarily for laughs (as in this scene) and conflict, where the rest of the family must save him from Debbie, who attempts to turn him into a “normal” person, more to her liking, before bumping him off.  Compare this to a thinner outsider with a goth aesthetic in a comedic modern-day fantasy released a few years earlier: the titular character of Edward Scissorhands.  Edward (Johnny Depp) is also socially awkward, vulnerable, and longing for love.  However, unlike Fester, his loneliness and vulnerability are romanticized.  Despite having dangerous blades for hands, Edward is an artist who doesn’t want to harm anyone.  Fester is sweet and caring, but also delights in mayhem and grotesquerie. Edward’s love for Kim is pure and chivalric,  as opposed to Fester’s love for Debbie, which is misguided and dangerous.  Edward is a source of creativity and wonder for the mundane community he tries to live in, while Fester is merely an oddity.  

In a subplot, Fester’s young proteges find themselves in a similar dilemma.  Thanks to Debbie’s influence, Wednesday and Pugsley are also removed from their home and threatened with assimilation into normalcy at Camp Chippewa, a summer camp “for privileged young people.”  Camp Chippewa is a microcosm of the mundane world that the Addams are normally apart from, where people with non-normative bodies and identities are marginalized and attractive, athletic WASPs rule.  Wednesday and Pugsley befriend Joel (David Krumholtz), a nebbishy kid with multiple allergies.  The privileged-privileged campers, led by ultra-snob Amanda (Mercedes McNab) and enabled by chipper camp directors Becky (Christine Baranski) and Gary (Peter MacNicol), torture the outsiders with condescending mock-concern.   According to Becky, the WASPy campers “are going to set an example to show that anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time!,”  while completely disregarding the needs and preferences of the marginalized campers. When the annual summer camp pageant is announced as a tribute to Thanksgiving, Wednesday is cast as Pocohontas, the leader of the Indians (played by the other outsider kids), and Pugsley as a fat-suit wearing turkey whose part includes a song begging the audience to kill and eat him.  And of course, as the Internet reminds us every Thanksgiving, Wednesday leads the other misfits in a spectacular rebellion

pugsley turkey

The Addams family is a subversion of American values, delighting in death and misery where most people would rather not think about such topics.  The family and their ilk include not only a Gothic aesthetic and diabolical values (Morticia laments that, as a busy wife and mother, she doesn’t have enough time to “seek out the dark forces and join their hellish crusade”), but an embracing of non-normative bodies.  In The Addams Family, Fester is re-introduced to Flora and Fauna, a ravishing pair of conjoined twins whom he courted as a young man.  Extras in scenes of the extended Addams family and friends include little people.  While this isn’t exactly liberatory, as little people are often present in films as little more than “weird” set dressing, it reinforces the idea that the Addams’ world embraces difference, along with death and destruction.  Although the inverting of social expectations fuels much of the humor in the film, perceptive audience members may wonder what the films are saying that these are also characters who passionately pursue their interests, are proud of their family history, care deeply about each other, and don’t exclude anyone based on ability or appearance.  

 

* …but I will talk about now.  John Travolta in a fat suit reflects my overall opinion of the Hairspray remake, namely that its admirable attempt to be more empathetic to the marginalized characters it portrays is undermined by its move towards wider mainstream acceptance as a movie.  One would expect to see a name as big as Travolta’s attached to the role of Edna, but John Travolta, a straight A-list celebrity who is an open and enthusiastic member of a religion that decries homosexuality, is a far cry from originator Divine a fat drag queen whose name was synonymous with trashiness.  In the remake, Edna is given more emotional depth in the form of being unwilling to leave the house until she loses weight (or, as actually happens, until she is empowered by Tracy to do so), but the casting choice was not to give this role– a potentially valuable career opportunity for a less famous actor– to someone who would have experienced the anxiety of being in a public space where they are reviled for what they look like.  Rather, the role went to someone whose reason to feel anxiety about appearing in public would likely be his immense popularity.