comedy

“You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout epic about the golden era of porn, Boogie Nights, flirts with the culturally subversive potential of the community on which it focuses.  When I recently rewatched the film (having first seen it over a decade ago), the inversion of the male gaze jumped out at me.  We do see female bodies in states of undress, meant to arouse, but Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)– or to be more specific, Dirk’s 13 inch penis– is the sun at the center of Boogie Nights’ universe.  Although the audience must wait until the very end of the 2 ½ hour film for the full frontal reveal, Dirk’s penis is very much a presence in the rest of the film.  When he whips it out, the camera focuses on the character who is doing the gazing.  The audience’s thrill and titillation is vicarious; we are invited to empathize with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and others as they marvel at Dirk’s cock, instead of to consume depersonalized images of Dirk’s body.  Similarly, during Dirk’s debut scene, the sight of him and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) fucking is distanced from the audience as Jack’s camera is literally put between us and them.  The more clearly framed images are those of the cast as they watch Dirk’s performance; Scotty J’s (the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) near-painful desire for Dirk, combined with the discomfort of holding up the boom mike, is of particular note. (More on him in a bit.)

phillip seymour hoffman, boogie nights, scotty j

Another aspect of the potential subversiveness of Boogie Nights is the characters’ sexual relationships.  The main characters form a family of sorts, headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber. Treating each other with support and affection, the members of this family both mimic and exist outside the boundaries of the heterosexual nuclear family. While we don’t see them engaging in kink or sex between characters of the same gender, making sex into an art and a profession is queering, to a degree.  Their lifestyles and sexual choices are used as reasons to marginalize them:  Buck (Don Cheadle) is denied a business loan, Amber loses custody of her child, and Dirk is queer-bashed while hustling.  (One of his attackers calls him “donkey dick,” turning the attribute that made him special in his community into an oddity.)  Whereas sex in movies is usually burdened with emotional weight, a cause of strife and jealousy, most of the characters in Boogie Nights are effervescently casual about it. However, we are given a few subplots where characters divert from the free-love culture promoted by Jack and his crew.  One is Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) blatant cuckolding by his wife (Nina Hartley), which culminates with him carrying out a murder-suicide; the other is Buck and Jessie (Melora Walters), who are pushed together as wallflowers at Jack’s Christmas party, marry, have a baby, and start a small business, executing so perfectly in line with the American dream that Buck’s commercial for his stereo store is dripping in red, white, and blue.  The trajectory of both couples in the film ultimately comes down to the husbands’ agency; both of whom take themselves and their wives out of the industry because they don’t fit in.  Little Bill and his wife apparently aren’t able to successfully navigate their relationship through her desire to have sex with other men– the film does not confirm whether or not she performs in Jack’s films, but casting real-life porn legend Nina Hartley in the role certainly implies she does.  The implication that Buck is out of place comes through his clothing; he dresses like a cowboy, which customers at his part-time salesman job find off-putting and his co-star Becky (Nicole Ari Parker) tells him is no longer fashionable.  When Jessie and Buck meet, he is dressed in a flamboyant new outfit with a braided wig, which he laughingly takes off as they warm up to each other, suggesting that he has been pretending to be someone else as part of Jack’s group, but has finally found someone he can be himself with.

The fat characters in Boogie Nights don’t make the choice to leave the community in the same way that Little Bill and Buck do, but neither do they have access to the inner circle, the ability to become true members of the family.  Kurt (Ricky Jay), the Colonel, and Scotty J reflect the subversive aspects of the porn community, but in a less romanticized way than the thin, conventionally beautiful characters.  Kurt, the director of photography, shows the same commitment to well-made porn that Jack does, but does not have the same emotional connection with his coworkers.  In an early scene, he badgers Little Bill about the lighting for the next day’s shoot, oblivious to how distraught Little Bill is over finding his wife having sex in Jack’s driveway amid a circle of spectators.  After Little Bill walks off, Kurt goes to join the spectators, placing his voyeuristic interests over the wellbeing of his colleague.  The Colonel, who funds Jack’s films, initially comes off as avuncular and powerful, similar to Jack.  However, this changes abruptly in 1980, as the new decade turns the harsh house lights on the party of the 1970s.  He is arrested for child pornography, representing a corruption of Jack’s idealized porn goals.  His pathetic rationalization, “I just want to watch,” is a creepy parallel of the self-conscious performance of Dirk and Amber’s sex scene in the first half of the film.  This revelation is too much for the otherwise warm and indulgent Jack, who turns his back on his old friend.  And then, there is the aforementioned Scotty J.

scotty j gif

Scotty J is the only character who is meant to be read as queer, as his arc in the film is his crush on Dirk.  Scotty enters the film through the side gate of Jack’s house during a pool party as two men carry an overdosing woman out the same way; the side portal into Jack’s world for the aspects of it that are not given much focus.  “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate starts playing as Scotty sighs.  Serving as his point of view, the camera pans across the the conventionally beautiful party-goers who might as well be a different species.  Scotty’s skin is pale, hair is messy, and his clothing ill-fitting; his belly sticks out from under his tank top.  His very posture is gauche; he tends to stand with his head tilted in a manner that suggests an awkward teenager.  Once he zeroes in on Dirk, lounging in a beach chair, he approaches and forces an introduction with awkward small talk (“Nice to meet you.” “Me too.”).  He fawns over Dirk, accompanying him from his dressing room to the set like an acolyte (as he chews on a pen in suggestion of where his mind is).  His hero worship of Dirk contrasts with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who treats Dirk as a competitor but is positioned in the film as his right-hand man, where Scotty is merely flitting around in the background.  In a scene of the three men buying matching outfits, Scotty can’t quite button his pants, and looks awkward and out of place next to the other two.  This brief moment in Dirk’s upward career trajectory is a moment of relatable awkwardness and ostracization for many fat viewers who have been part of a social clothes shopping expedition with thinner friends.

The turning point of the film is the 1979 New Years Eve party, the last night of the idyllic 70s before the downturn into the 80s. Scotty transgresses the boundaries of his relationship with Dirk, first by revealing that he’s bought an identical Corvette, and then by trying to kiss him.  Dirk shoves him away, and Scotty automatically apologizes, explaining “You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.”  Scotty wants to know if he can be accepted as the desired object of Dirk’s gaze.  Reflecting the emotional support and sexual open-mindedness shown by the family, Dirk is shocked but tries to be kind to Scotty as he but turns him down and returns to the rest of the party as quickly as he can.  Boogie Nights is full of characters regretting choices that have separated them from their loved ones, but no moment is so visceral, uncomfortable, or intimate than the lingering closeup of Scotty J sitting in his ‘Vette, sobbing his heart out and repeating “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over.

scotty j car

After that turning point in the film, Scotty is swept along with the course of the other characters’ stories, assigned to watching them.  He squirms uncomfortably in the background as Dirk starts his downward spiral of drugs and poor decision making.  When the characters find second chances at the end of the film, he films the birth of Buck and Jessie’s baby.  (During this montage, we also see the Colonel in prison, being abused by his cellmate.)  Scotty is not ejected from his group of friends the way the Colonel is, but after being rejected by Dirk, is not given his own chance at growth or redemption.  True to his personality, Scotty embodies an awkward position in Boogie Nights.  He is a stand-in for the audience.  Like Scotty, we able to gaze all we want at the porn actors who arouse our desire, but we are never able to touch them, to be with them. The feelings they invoke in us are ultimately fantasy.  However, this is where Scotty’s story ends.  The other characters grow and move on to other pursuits, just like we are able to move on to other experiences and aspects of our lives once we are through with our role as audience member, but Scotty remains mired in the role of unfulfilled gazer, an object of our pity (or derision).  This too, is a flirtation with subversion that is ultimately fantasy: Scotty J is a disempowered gazer relative to the object of his gaze (Dirk), but given that he is fat and queer, the film is attempting to change the power relationship using someone who is already marginalized.

Link: This is the exact moment that Jack Black became a movie star

In ongoing AV Club feature Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo analyzes the importance of specific film scenes.  His most recent article, he makes an argument for High Fidelity as Jack Black’s star-making vehicle, specifically his character Barry’s introduction to the film.

High Fidelity was my favorite film in late high school/early college.  These days, the shittier aspects of Rob’s (John Cusack) personality are more glaring and the endless ending is harder to tolerate, but I still have a great affection for it.  (Especially now that I live in Chicago!  I’ve been to the intersection of Milwaukee and Honore!  [It’s super gentrified!]  I read the Reader!)  Jack Black’s performance remains one of the film’s strongest aspects, and my affection for him as an actor has the same staying power that the film does, even though my film snobbery prevents me from seeing a fair chunk of his oeuvre.  I can’t get enough of his boundless energy and masterful ability to put some stank on a scene.  His work in Bernie is probably my favorite because those impulses are reined in enough to convincingly portray someone as gentle as Bernie Tiede, but emerge organically through his character’s love of music and theater.  (This scene is an excellent example, both because he’s being so dang adorable and because the bit player he’s singing to can’t keep a straight face.)  However, High Fidelity is probably the filmic apex of that Black magic.  Not only is Barry well-written, but given that he’s a pretty one-dimensional character, Black has the freedom to take him to the sublime heights of ridiculousness without losing the audience.

High-Fidelity-Mixtape-2

For all the side-eye I give fat character tropes on this blog, I do love when fat characters are vivacious agents of chaos.  It’s both a subversion of fat = slow/lazy and an outright denial of respectability politics, a grab at hyper-visibility and confrontation that provides a vicarious thrill for a fat introvert like yours truly.  Even if the institution doesn’t actually change once including someone like Jack Black or Rebel Wilson on the A-list, it feels good to see them win widespread recognition for playing a character who challenges everyone around them.

Roundup: July 2015

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

Chef (2014, dir. John Favreau)

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

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

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

Withnail & I (1987, dir. Bruce Robinson)

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

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

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

Tangerine (2015, dir. Sean Baker)

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

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

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

The Relationship Between Fitness and Self-Respect: Heavyweights (1995, dir. Steven Brill)

(CN: disordered eating and exercise)

I wasn’t a summer camp kid– my one experience was a week at Girl Scout camp between 7th and 8th grade–  but I can see why it’s such a popular setting for movies.  Camp is removed from civilization, but not to the point where survival is in question.  The characters find themselves in a setting outside their normal context (no parents! no bullies!), but still have to function within their temporary community.  There are rules, but those rules exist to facilitate having fun; there are authority figures, but they’re often lackadaisical, or at least easily avoided.  This anarchic context can be the site of recreation or re-creation, usually some of both.  It’s especially potent for adolescents, when summer comes with the hope that some alchemical process will occur over the long, hot days and you will return to school in the fall a better version of yourself.  You will have sex.  You will grow taller.  Your breasts will develop.  You will go on adventures.  And, of course, you will lose weight.

Heavyweights opens with Gerry (Aaron Schwartz) leaving school on the last day before summer vacation.  (The sequence is set to “Closer to Free” by the BoDeans, in case there was any doubt that this film came out in 1995.)  He is characterized as a typical sad sack fat kid: he misses his bus and has to walk home; he can’t throw a baseball over a fence; he stops at a lemonade stand and chugs an entire pitcher.  Upon arriving home, his parents tell him that he is being sent to Camp Hope.  The promotional video sucks him in with the promise of go-karts and the Blob, but he reacts indignantly when he learns that he’s being sent to a fat camp to take care of his ”problem,” as his dad calls it. “I’m not going to camp with a bunch of fat loads!” he protests, separating himself from his peers.

On the plane to camp, Gerry meets Roy (Keenan Thompson), who approaches and asks if he’s going to fat camp.  When Gerry defensively retorts that Roy is also fat, assuming that he is being insulted, Roy readily agrees with him.  Roy is the first self-accepting fat person we meet.  Roy becomes Gerry’s guide to Camp Hope, telling him that it’s a paradise because “nobody picks on you because you’re the fat kid, everybody’s the fat kid.”  (Roy is the only black kid in the movie, and becomes an emotionally supportive sidekick for Gerry, not unlike Al is for McClane in Die Hard.) An excited group of campers, including Gerry and Roy, are chaperoned from the airport to Camp Hope by Pat (Tom McGowan), an adult counselor who has spent every summer at Camp Hope since he was 10 years old.

heavyweights, the blob

Although ostensibly a place to lose weight, Camp Hope is obviously more of a safe space for fat kids.  Tim (Paul Feig), another counselor, “used to be one of us, but then he lost weight,” according to the campers.  They tease him about his “chicken legs,” which he responds to with good humor.  When Gerry arrives at Chipmunk Cabin, he confesses to slick wiseguy Josh (Shaun Weiss) that he snuck in some Oreos, which prompts his cabin mates to reveal their own contraband, kept in a communal supply under the cabin floorboards.  This is followed by a scene of the campers and Pat playing on the Blob.  Set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” and filmed in slow motion, the scene both suggests an idyllic transcendence from Gerry’s point of view, and is a reference to the scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey, where the story moves forward from the prehistoric era to the Space Age.  Similarly, Gerry finds himself millions of years removed from the brutality of being the picked-on fat kid, and achieves temporary weightlessness playing on the Blob with his new friends.  Although Camp Hope is a place where Gerry and his peers don’t have to worry about judgment and ridicule, it’s also not a place where they can push their personal boundaries.  Pat, a lifetime member of Camp Hope, is popular with the campers but isn’t confident enough to talk to Julie, the pretty camp nurse (Leah Lail).

The good times end abruptly, however, when the camp owners announce that they have declared bankruptcy and sold Camp Hope to Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller).  Tony is a fitness-obsessed motivational speaker who is “looking forward to interacting with children for the first time.”  He tells the campers he weighed 319 pounds when he was 12 years old, and had no self-esteem or self-respect.  He brings in a new staff of equally athletic, uniformed counselors and tells the campers their summer will be filmed for an infomercial to promote his weight loss regimen, Perkisize.  Pat is re-assigned to maintenance duties and replaced by the strict, generically European Lars (Tom Hodges).

Tony creates a strict and overly simplistic binary between healthy and unhealthy, paralleling good and bad.  “Anyone who brings candy into camp is not your friend,” he tells Gerry while searching Chipmunk Cabin for contraband snacks, “He is a destroyer.”  Perkisize consists of grueling exercise and unsafe levels of food restriction (Tony cancels lunch one day “due to lack of hustle”).  He and his staff are in charge because they are athletic, and therefore good, not because they know how to care for children.  Their lack of attention to what exercise is appropriate and feasible for their fat, preteen wards creates an immediate threat.  Julie says that, as a medical professional, she considers Perkicize dangerous.  Lars proves to be a negligent lifeguard with no understanding of how the buddy system works, and Tony punishes campers for gaining weight by taking them on a 20 mile “cleansing” (i.e. without food) hike up a mountain.  Pat tries to stop him, fearing for the campers’ safety, but is ignored and ridiculed because of his size. “The fat man is going to tell me what’s healthy!” Tony sneers. “Nobody really cares what you have to say.”

tony perkis, heavyweights, ben stiller, glide, slide

Tony’s binary view puts fat people squarely in the unhealthy/bad category.  His regime as camp director begins with Evaluation Day.  “The key word is ‘value,’” he explains over the camp loudspeaker.  “Do you have any? Not yet! But by the end of the summer this camp is going to be filled with skinny winners!”  (“Skinny weiners?” Roy jokes, showing the lack of enthusiasm he has for Tony’s plan.)  The kids cling to the old Camp Hope mentality, cheering for Simms when it is announced he is the heaviest boy at camp, but Tony works to break their spirit.  Tony expels Josh from camp for talking back to him.  He invites “jock camp” Camp MVP to play baseball against Camp Hope.  When Tim protests that getting their asses handed to them  won’t teach the kids anything about baseball, Tony retorts that it’s meant to teach them about “life.”  He doesn’t even stick around to see Camp MVP taunt his campers, nor does he seem to care when Camp MVP vandalizes their dock.  Later, he organizes a dance between Camp Hope and the unnamed “girl’s camp,” with the rationalization that making them feel insecure in front of a group of girls (who, of course, would never want to dance with them) will motivate them to lose weight.  It takes a lot of time and motivating from Pat, Tim, and Julie, but both sides eventually start dancing enthusiastically.  Before long, Tony breaks up the dance mid-song and tells the girls to leave, thanking them for their “efforts” and saying “[he knows] this hasn’t been easy,” despite them having as good a time as the boys– including one young couple sharing a kiss before separating.  He wants to instill in them his opinion that they are worthless because they are fat and need to achieve “value” through compliance to the Perkisize program.  There is a capitalist motivation behind this, as Tony wants to make his program into a successful business venture by convincing his future fat tv audience that they need his program in order to achieve value for themselves, but it also comes from a place of hatred for fat people.  Tony’s “motivation” is psychological abuse.

(Returning to the dance for a moment:  it’s worth noting that the presence of female characters in the film is one of Heavyweights’ missteps.  Of the few female characters in the film, none are fat.  Julie is conventionally attractive, and while she supports the campers by trying to get Child Protective Services to investigate Tony and contributing to the expose video, she largely functions in the film as an object for Pat’s affections, a goal for him to obtain as his self-confidence increases with his ability to stand up to Tony.  The girl campers are all thin and conventionally attractive as well.  When one of the girl campers asks her friends, “Why don’t they just lose weight?” another girl snaps back, “Why don’t you teach them to throw up after every meal like you do?”  The joke makes a point about subverting the notion that thin people are automatically experts on healthy behaviors over fat people.  However, I think the more important takeaway is that having zero visibility for girls and women who aren’t thin, and then shaming girls and women for trying to obtain or maintain thinness, is a vicious cycle of sexist bullshit.)

Tony’s treatment of the campers is villainous, but it’s not an unusual attitude towards fat bodies.  Consider the martial language employed to advertise diet and exercise products (e.g. fat blasting), motivational workout sayings that portray pain as a desirable outcome, the success of The Biggest Loser.  The driving thought that unifies them is that a person’s body must undergo extreme means to meet a certain standard of fitness (although this usually means a certain weight and shape) in order to deserve respect, to have value.  Tony believes that by continually punishing the campers– even going so far as to remove the Blob from the lake, despite it being an incentive for them to go swimming– he can get them to lose weight and become people who he deems worthy of respect.

After Tony tells the campers their 20 mile hike has been “extended indefinitely” until they are in good enough shape to beat Camp MVP in a relay race and provide a happy ending for the infomercial, they rebel.  They outsmart and imprison Tony and liberate the camp with a bacchanalia of their favorite foods.  Even Tim joins in the celebration, ripping his shirt off and covering himself with s’mores.  As with the Blob scene earlier in the film, this scene is also slow motion and set to classical music, this time the overture from La Gazza Ladra, which is also featured in scenes of gang violence in A Clockwork Orange.  The reference to the droogs’ self-destructive nature is appropriate, as the campers’ unbridled hedonism proves to be almost as painful as Tony’s punishing workouts.  The next day the campers are covered in gunk and nursing hangovers.  Pat takes the opportunity to present a more moderate course of action.

heavyweights, la gazza ladra

Although the movie focuses more on the campers’ experience, Pat has been experiencing his fair share of character development, as we see through his interactions with Gerry.  Sitting together on the decommissioned go-kart track, Gerry tells Pat that he wants to “go fast” for once in his life, to which Pat responds by playfully pushing him around the track in the go-kart.  Later, Pat tells Gerry about his fantasy of being athletic like Camp MVP, and that he’s “tired of being the fat guy.”  Gerry tells Pat that he’s “cool, everybody knows that,” but asks him, “When are we gonna start sticking up for ourselves?”  Seeing that, although they have defeated Tony and his crew, the kids haven’t learned anything, Pat sees the opportunity for them to start making their wishes into reality.

Pat’s leadership of Camp Hope is different from both Tony’s and the campers’.  He talks about restraint and self-respect.  He never mentions weight loss in his speech, and speaks about these goals in terms of “we” and “us,” not stationing himself above the campers as Tony did.  We see scenes of Julie teaching a nutrition class, and the staff and campers exercising together as a group: some of them are walking briskly, others are running, but everyone is having a good time.  When Gerry’s parents come to visit for Parents Day, his father disappointedly remarks that he doesn’t look any different, but Gerry quickly responds that he “feels good,” which his mother admits is “important.”

Having defeated Tony, the remaining challenge for Camp Hope is their annual competition with Camp MVP, the Apache Relay.  (As is traditional with many summer camps in the USA, Camp Hope is not above a little tacky cultural appropriation, and the campers are dressed in American Indian costumes for the race.)  Camp Hope is used to losing every year, but the self-confidence and teamwork they have learned over the course of the summer pays off.  They cheer each other on and use their individual skills to stay in the competition.  Gerry is able to “go fast” in the go-kart race and is even able to use his fatness to his advantage, as Pat coaches him to “use [his] weight on the curves.”

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, fat characters often embody lack of moderation.  Heavyweights does use this stereotype to a certain extent, such as a scene in which a pack of underfed campers hungrily chase a cow around a field.  Heavyweights breaks this mold, though, by making Tony the ultimate figure of excess, culminating in an epic meltdown in front of the campers’ parents in which he tries to prove his physical superiority by walking barefoot on broken glass.  The ideal situation through which the campers find their happy ending is in line with real-life wellness philosophies like harm reduction and Health at Every Size: using self-respect as motivation, not a goal.  In the end, the campers don’t even place value having won a competition against rival Camp MVP, and Pat throws the Apache Relay trophy in the lake.  The campers become different people over the summer, but instead of achieving the change that Tony envisions for them, becoming “skinny weiners” like the Camp MVP kids, they find the ability to stand up for themselves and find confidence in their individual skills and interests.  It’s not the happy ending one would expect for fat characters, but it’s arguably the best one for fat kids to have as a cultural reference.

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

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

Tell us about Most Likely.  Who is your character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is your favorite fat movie character?

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

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

“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)

When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy.  Not deliriously happy, mind you.  I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality.  But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge.  (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.)  I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit.  I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value.  What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).

The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love.  Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.

the birdcage, nathan lane, albert

Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor.  Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family.  But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place.  The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world.  Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble.  In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends.  Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?

The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth.  Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values.  Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family.  Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al.  Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America.  Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.

For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”).  Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave.  He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down.  “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.”  The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife.  Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.

the birdcage, nathan lane

Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures).  Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight.  “Look at your pinky!  Look at your posture!”  He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses.  Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her:  “Of course!  There’s no need to get hysterical.  All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.”  But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own.  Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity.  Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.”  Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.

The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession.  Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin.  Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric.  One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong.  Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance.  The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”

As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust.  It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect.  Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one.  As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me.  I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.”  She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family.  The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.

This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out.  They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy).  Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding.  Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy.  Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution.  However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust.  It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman.  Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara.  The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own.  Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.

Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized.  It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.

*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns.  There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article.  Apologies if this is confusing.

** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination.  Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).

Roundup: June 2015

Although it’s my intention for most of the posts on CPBS to be less about analyses of targeted fat characters and more about my experience as a viewer randomly coming across these characters as I watch films in a more organic fashion, I end up seeing a lot more fat people in film than those I write about here.  In what will hopefully be an ongoing monthly feature, here’s a summary of films I saw over the past month that feature fat characters I didn’t write about.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)

There are a few fat people in this landmark horror film.  Franklin (Paul A. Partain), one of the main characters, is fat and in a wheelchair.  Although not the most nuanced character or performance in the history of film, he is given more screen time, dialogue, and personality than the other members of his group.  Once scene follows him as he struggles to navigate his chair through an abandoned house, while his friends’ laughter can be heard from the second floor.  I was impressed by this, considering that characterization in slasher films is usually pretty sparse, and that fat and disabled characters are usually not shown in a light that leads the audience to empathize with them.  Leatherface is arguably fat as well, especially when compared to his family members; his size adds to his menace, and he is able to keep up with Sally (Marilyn Burns) pretty well during the chase scene, especially considering that he is carrying a chainsaw.  In a minor part, a fat man of color driving a semi in the last scene runs over the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) before he can kill Sally and helps her escape.

The Set-Up (1949, dir. Robert Wise)

This film centers on a boxing match: one of the competitors (Robert Ryan), who is unwilling to accept that he’s past his prime, has been instructed to take a fall.  Unfolding in real time, we see the fight from the differing perspectives of a large cast, including several anonymous spectators.  One of these spectators is a fat man (Dwight Martin) who is shot from a low angle, emphasizing his girth.  He laughs at the violence taking place in the ring, although his schadenfreude is not outstanding relative to other characters in the audience.  He shown eating every time he’s on screen, going through several different food items over the course of the competition.  I saw this film at a theater; by the last half of the film, a good chunk of the audience was laughing whenever the fat man was shown with a new food item.

Blue Velvet (1986, dir. David Lynch)

Set on terrorizing Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) as revenge for having sex with Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini), Frank (Dennis Hopper) forces the two of them to come on a joyride with his crew to a brothel run by his associate Ben (Dean Stockwell).  The scene is consummate Lynch, a tense and menacing tableau that incorporates elements of mid-century American bourgeois culture.  Part of this tableau are three fat women.  Dressed in a conservative manner, they don’t have names or speak, except for one who Ben refers to as “darling” and requests that she fetch glasses for their guests.  Their function is to give Ben’s house an uncomfortable tone.

Martin & Orloff (2002, dir. Lawrence Blume)

A comedy about Martin (Ian Roberts), a man who attempts suicide, and the unorthodox psychiatrist Dr. Orloff (Matt Walsh) who forces him on a bizarre journey of self-discovery, strongly influenced by improv and sketch comedy and featuring a dream team cast of improv actors and comedians (Amy Poelher, Tina Fey, H. Jon Benjamin, Andy Richter, the list goes on).  When Patty (Amy Poehler) falls in love with Martin, her boyfriend Jimbo (Sal Graziano) falls into a jealous rage.  Jimbo is a large, fat man with an absurdly large penis who spends most of his screentime threatening to beat up Martin, often squatting like a sumo wrestler and charging.  Through Dr. Orloff’s incidental help, Jimbo connects his anger to his thwarted football career, and decides to ally with Martin.

When Marnie Was There (2015, dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

Anna, a 12-year-old struggling with asthma and her sense of self-worth, is sent to live in the country with her foster mother’s relatives for the summer to improve her health.  One of her temporary guardians, Mrs. Oiwa, is a fat woman.  She is a laid-back maternal figure who treats Anna with kindness and respect, even if she doesn’t always have a bead on the girl’s emotional needs.  She is often shown in relation to food (snacking, cooking, and tending her vegetable garden), and connects with Anna over the latter two activities.  Another fat character in Marnie is Nobuko, a girl who lives in Mrs. Oiwa’s neighborhood.  Mrs. Oiwa tries to encourage a connection between her and Anna, but Nobuko’s extroverted personality makes Marnie uncomfortable.  When Nobuko asks Anna some overly personal questions, the quiet girl becomes overwhelmed and calls her a “fat pig.”  Nobuko retaliates with some insults of her own before suggesting they drop the matter, but Anna runs away in embarrassment.  Before she returns to her home in the city, Anna apologizes to Nobuko, who accepts her apology by forcefully insisting that Anna join the neighborhood trash pickup next summer.

Unfinished Business (2015, dir. Ken Scott)

Dan (Vince Vaughn) is the founder of a startup sales firm and has the poor work-life balance of every white collar American dad in every comedy ever.  One of the family problems he doesn’t have time to pay attention to is that his teenage son Paul (Britton Sear) doesn’t have any friends and is being cyber-bullied by his classmates because he’s fat.  That plotline resolves with Vince Vaughn giving him a pep talk about being himself.  Another notable fat character is Bill (Nick Frost), one of Dan’s clients. He is revealed to be a gay man in the leather scene who, because of his commitment to his job, has stopped working out and doesn’t get attention from men anymore.  If you’re not at work, here’s some evidence of how there are no gay men in the world who think Nick Frost is a total babe. No siree.  He also is spineless when dealing with his boss (James Marsden), but Dan inspires him to go behind his boss’ back (so he can help Dan out).

The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

In the beginning of the film, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is directionless and animalistic.  Drunk at his job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he harasses a fat client (W. Earl Brown) to the point that the man engages him in fisticuffs.  He then meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fat man who is the charismatic leader of a pseudo-scientific religion.  Dodd, called the Master, preaches that humans are above animals, and have forgotten their true elevated nature.  He makes Freddie’s redemption his pet project; this relationship makes up the bulk of the film.

The Blind (Drunk) Leading the Blind (Drunk): Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz; The World’s End (2004, 2007, 2013; dir. Edgar Wright)

My article The Blind (Drunk) Leading the Blind (Drunk): Masculinities and Friendship in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is up on BitchFlicks as part of their theme week on masculinity.  The Cornetto Trilogy are three of my favorite films, and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) in The World’s End is one of my favorite fat characters, a topic I hope to explore more in depth on here in the future. I had a lot of fun writing it.  Please check it out, as well as the other articles about masculinities in film and television.

Comparing Spy (2015, dir. Paul Feig) with Tammy (2014, dir. Ben Falcone)

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.

melissa mccarthy, spy, spy 2015, paul feig, susan cooper

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.

melissa mccarthy, susan sarandon, tammy, ben falcone

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.

The Story of Self-Improvement: Results (2015, dir. Andrew Bujalski) and Welcome to Me (2015, dir. Shira Piven)

Fatphobia is a complicated beast both in terms of genesis and expression, but in the USA, it is often partnered with the cultural preoccupation with self-improvement.  This country has a history that pushes to the forefront stories of people who better their lot in life through willpower, gumption, and a maverick spirit: wilderness pioneers, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs, social visionaries.  As inspiring as it can be, this idea of self-improvement often intersects with problematic ideas, such as the belief that buying the right product will be life-transforming, or improvements that tacitly require groups who have been fucked over by the aforementioned pioneers and entrepreneurs (and who the visionaries died trying to liberate) to assimilate into hegemonic standards.

As self-improvement focuses on an individual, its narrative is often written onto bodies.  Consider the popular and long-lived meme of “before’ and “after” photos in weight loss product advertising.  #notyourbeforephoto has been used by fat activists to rebel against this meme that positions our bodies as in need of fixing.  On the flipside, this article by a woman recovering from anorexia talks about the troubling co-option of photos of thin people living with eating disorders as “after” photos, deconstructing the idea that thinness equals health and happiness.

The diet ad meme is often pathetic in its transparency, ensuring that the subject is more neatly dressed, in better lighting, and wearing a happier expression in the “after.”  Despite the impassioned personal testimonies from activists and cheesy commercials that border on self-satire, the idea that the shape and size of one’s body equates to one’s mental and emotional well-being persists in popular media.  Two indie dramedies currently in theaters serve as criticism of the idea that a thin, athletic body is a sign of emotional and mental wellbeing.

results, colbie smulders, kevin corrigan

Results focuses on gym owner Trevor (Guy Pearce) and personal trainer Kat (Colbie Smulders), a mismatched pair who try to help client Danny (Kevin Corrigan) with his fitness goals.  At first blush, it seems like Trevor and Kat have their lives more together than Danny does.  Trevor is looking to grow his business and bring his fitness philosophy to the world; Kat is his star trainer and isn’t afraid to remind her boss of that fact.  Danny, meanwhile, is a schlemiel dealing with life-changing events that have left him single, alone in a new city, and a millionaire.  He describes himself as “pudgy;” his average body shape and below average grooming habits are more noticeable when compared to the athletic, clean cut gym bunnies who he constantly, if inadvertently, confuses.  Despite joining Trevor’s gym with the stated goal of wanting to be able to take a punch, we quickly discover that Danny’s life is largely empty and directionless.  He is socially awkward and uses his newfound wealth as a blunt tool to fix his problems, like making Craigslist posts offering hundreds of dollars in compensation for people willing to procure a cat for him and show him how to use his new tv.  However, as the film progresses, Trevor and Kat show cracks in their own well-toned walls.  Trevor, too goal-oriented for much self-reflection, makes a long trip to meet his fitness idol Grigory (Anthony Michael Hall), who criticizes his fitness philosophy and has no respect for him.  Kat’s caustic streak widens into near-chaos as she scrambles to figure out the next step in her own life.  Ultimately, none of them are in control of their own lives, and Kat and Trevor’s inability to untangle their feelings for each other shows their internal lives to be as messy as Danny’s.  To Danny’s credit, he is direct and honest, even if he struggles to express himself appropriately.

Welcome to Me follows Alice (Kristin Wiig), a woman who filters her struggles with mental illness through fad diets and the gospel of Oprah.  After winning $86 million in the lottery, she decides to go off her meds in favor of a high-protein diet, move into a casino, and fund her own talk show on an infomercial network.  Alice’s show, entitled Welcome to Me, is an expression of how she sees her world, and her role in it; she is both the brave survivor whose life stories are material for segments and the self-actualized host who dispenses wisdom and motivation.  The segments include dramatized re-enactments.  Some serve as a form of catharsis for Alice, giving her a chance to confront conflicts from her past in an environment that she controls, but others illustrate her belief that she is a role model to her friends and family, much like Oprah is for her.  One scene re-enacts her and her best friend Gina (Linda Cardinelli) shopping for bathing suits.  The actress Alice has cast to depict Gina is significantly larger than real-life Gina, and the scripted conversation filtered through Alice’s memory revolves around Alice coaching Gina to find the self-confidence to wear a two-piece.  This depiction offends Gina, who tells an uncaring Alice that she is comfortable with her body and simply prefers one-piece bathing suits.  The friend’s roles are reversed in their real lives, with Gina having been a steadfast support and guide for Alice since their childhood.  Late in the film, Gina delivers an impassioned monologue to Alice, telling her that her self-absorption and lack of empathy makes her a terrible friend.  Deciding to leave Alice, Gina cries in frustration,  “Fuck you for making me fat on your show!”  On the last episode of Welcome to Me, Alice apologizes to Gina and acknowledges how much she values her as a friend.  The episode includes a re-enactment of Gina being a source of emotional support for Alice during a difficult time in her life; this time, the actress depicting Gina is slender and petite.

welcome to me, alice klieg, kristen wiig

Both Results and Welcome to Me reach ambiguous conclusions: the protagonists grow as people, but still have long ways to go in their quests for happiness. There is a sense of contentment with this ambiguity, however, as the films show the inherent problems with the idea that self-actualization is easily and automatically obtained through a fitness philosophy or a high protein diet.  We’re all struggling, and nobody has a magic bullet to fix that, no matter how low their body fat percentage.