international

Roundup: the 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival

It sucks that film criticism is a dwindling profession (and that I didn’t make life choices to result in it being my career), because I could live at film festivals.  I don’t do conventions, but I imagine that I like film fests for the same reason– it’s comforting to be in a space where everyone is excited for the same dorky reason that, in the harsh wilderness of the outside world, you feel relief if someone from the general population even knows what the heck you’re talking about.  And when there’s the opportunity to be in that space for two solid weeks?

20161010_130657

Well, that hasn’t been my experience yet, partially because I haven’t had the vacation time or the money for tickets, and partially because the first weekend of the Chicago International Film Festival (ChiFilmFest) is always the same weekend as the Music Box of Horrors.  But this year, finally, I had the opportunity to spend two solid days and then some at ChiFilmFest.  I skipped over the high profile entries that are going to be in theaters soon anyway (although I am looking forward to MoonlightLa La Land, The Handmaiden, and Arrival) and instead went for stuff that I’m not sure I’ll be able to see a second time, let alone in a theater: locally made indies, foreign films, shorts.  I don’t think I caught the breakout film of next year; the movies I saw ranged from underwhelming to pretty damn good.  I caught some interesting director Q&As, was part of the first audience in the US to see Andrzej Wajda’s final film, and got an obscene amount of free refills from the soda fountain at the concession stand.  The list of all the films I saw at ChiFilmFest are here.

The characters I saw were in wide variety, from an irrepressible Tibetan goatherd in Soul on a String to a closeted Quebecois track runner in 1:54.  There weren’t many instances where I was specifically impressed with representation of historically marginalized groups– notable exceptions were Pushing Dead‘s depiction of a person living with HIV/AIDS; the nuanced meditation on a young woman’s sexual agency in The View from Tall (cn: sexual harassment); and the rediscovery of black country blues artists during the 60s folk revival and its parallel to the civil rights movement in Two Trains Runnin’. And while there were some fat characters included in the 13 films I saw, none really stood out as anything different than the kind of representation I’ve grown accustomed to, unfortunately.  Here’s a quick rundown of them.

(CN: discussion of sexual assault)

“Superbia” (dir. Luca Toth)

An animated short that could be most simplistically described as a surreal world made up of two warring societies of men and women.  I’m not going to pretend that I understood what the film is trying to say, but it was cool to see characters drawn in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Night of 1000 Hours (dir. Virgil Widrich)

A magical realist murder mystery and allegory about historical responsibility, in which one Austrian family’s entire history comes to visit on the same night.  A notable fat character is a blowhard World War I-era police chief who is more concerned with maintaining rule of law than he is with bringing about justice.

Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda)

A biopic of the final years in the life of Polish abstract painter Władysław Strzemiński and his losing struggle against the government-mandated rise of socialist realism in art in post-WWII Poland. There was another line-towing fat police officer, a relatively small part.

Imperfections (dir. David Singer)

Cute, funny heist movie that, not unlike a Coen Brothers film, has a lot of quirky bit parts embodied by fat people, including an obnoxious department store manager, a mob heavy who asks the guy he’s trying to intimidate if he can use his bathroom, and a socially awkward guy who just wants to buy some drugs.

Middle Man (dir. Ned Crowley)

A black comedy that reminded me a bit of last year’s submission Entertainment, this film stars Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Recreation) as an overly-optimistic square headed to Las Vegas to fulfill his dreams of being a standup comic, but gets waylaid when he makes a bloody pact with a mysterious stranger.  (O’Heir joked during the Q&A afterwords that he would have been off the project if they were able to cast Jonah Hill.)  He’s the only fat character on the screen, but another fat historical figure is invoked.  And as temptation is a big theme in this movie, I want to tell you how I avoided what could have been the most obnoxious “well, actually” moment of my life thus far:

At the screening, writer/director Ned Crowley and Jim O’Heir were in attendance to do a q&a. There’s a scene in the film where a character has a speech that uses a historical anecdote to illustrate a point. The anecdote in question was the story of Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman at a party with a champagne bottle so severely that she died from the resulting injuries.

Now, I don’t have a time machine, but I do know that contemporary film historians largely agree that Fatty Arbuckle was not guilty of this crime and unjustly crucified by the media and resulting moral panic. And one of the reasons I know this is because I’ve read the essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness” by Neda Ulaby, which is included in the essay collection Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco), which I happened to have brought with me to the theater to read in between films. Plus I was sitting in the front section of the theater, so I both literally and figuratively could have thrown the book at the screenwriter. But I’m too classy (or is it spineless?) to do such a thing.

Advertisements

Fat men and thin women and a few thoughts about The Lobster (2016, dir, Yorgos Lanthimos)

I’ve been looking forward to The Lobster for quite some time.  I haven’t seen Lanthimos’ breakthrough Dogtooth (I know, I know), but I am a sucker for an unusual premise, and “a hotel where people are transformed into animals if they don’t fall in love” is just that.  The initial buzz has been good, but what caught my eye was AV Club’s review* that lingered on the description of Colin Farrell’s “doughy” body.

The Lobster takes place in an absurd distopia that is childlike in its rigidity, directness, and simplistic logic. A law that requires adults to be in a romantic relationship drives the entire film, as newly-dumped David (Farrell) finds himself at a hotel where he has 45 days to make a love connection lest he be turned into an animal, or choose to live in the wilderness with the hermitic Loners.  It’s a darkly funny critique of the idealization of romantic relationships, the belief that everyone is capable and desiring of a lifelong, monogamous relationship free of complicating factors.  This is a world where bisexuality has been phased out, where the basis of a “good match” means sharing a common characteristic like frequent nosebleeds.  The film criticizes conventional wisdom about falling in love, and casting an actor known for roles in action films and his good looks as a middle-aged milquetoast with a potbelly– and including ample scenes of him in states of undress– is made part of the film’s subversive tone as much as the sterile mise en scene and alienating dialogue.  Weight is added to Farrell’s body with the intention of depriving the audience of a (conventionally) handsome romantic hero.  His friends at the hotel are similarly characterized by physical traits that are meant to detract from them being ideal mates: a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw).

colin farrell lobster

If having Farrell gain weight to play David is intended to suggest that the search for romance is bound to end eventually in disappointingly ordinariness, the visual language does not extend in the same way to his female costars.  Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia and Jessica Barden all play characters whose words and actions embody the awkward absurdity of the film’s world, but visually, they retain more of the physical idealized qualities.  And as members of the Loner group, Weisz and Seydoux spend most of their screen time swathed in plastic ponchos with “no” makeup and messy hair, but all of these women are conventionally attractive and thin, as compared to not only a heavier Farrell, but also actors like Reilly and Michael Smiley who, unlike Weisz and Seydoux, probably aren’t landing any modelling gigs.

Overall, The Lobster is great.  It strikes a marvelous balance between being accessible and surreal, entertaining and thought-provoking.  I’d much rather see a film of its caliber that doesn’t use the cultural baggage attached to fat bodies (and bodies with disabilities) as easy visual language to convey its thesis, but then again, it would be foolish of me to come out of seeing The Lobster with the expectation of having my dreams come true.

 

*I’ve used AV Club before for examples of how fat characters and actors are talked about in pop culture discourse, and just for the record, I don’t mean to pick on AV Club.  They just happen to be a website that I frequent for film reviews, news, etc.,they do a fine job on the whole, and I don’t find them to be particularly toxic.

Pathologized Bodies, Pathologized Minds: Mary and Max (2009, dir. Adam Elliott)

(CW: mental illness, weight loss, ableism)

Mary and Max is one of those films that Netflix has been incessantly recommending to me for years and I kept putting off.  I recently ended up watching it (instead of, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) because I noticed that the two titular characters are described as “a chubby 8-year-old Australian girl” and “an obese, adult New Yorker.”  The description of Max’s body stood out.  Other films on Netflix with fat protagonists that I’d come across tended to be more euphemistic.  Paradise: Hope is summarized as being about a girl sent to a “diet camp;”  the heroine of The Hairdresser is described as having a “plump figure;” and in tv series Drop Dead Diva, she’s “plus-sized.”  This could be influenced by gender; Max is a man, and the examples I was able to think of and find on Watch Instantly are about women.  However, when I searched “obesity,” the seven “titles related to obesity” that I got as results were all documentaries related to health and medicine, like The Waiting Room and Forks Over Knives.  As a claymation drama about friendship, Mary and Max seems to have more in common with the aforementioned female-lead narrative films, where fat characters must navigate a world that ostracizes them.  For Max, that ostracization often manifests as pathologization.

Deviating from my previous observation that films rarely tell us characters’ height and weight, Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) informs Mary (Bethany Whitmore, later Toni Collette) that he is 6 feet tall and weighs 352 lbs.  Max is described as obese in the text of the film, as one of several labels used by institutions to describe him as in need of fixing.  These labels mostly hinder him, but also help: Max was called for jury duty (a position he holds in high esteem) but was dismissed because he had been institutionalized, but later in the film criminal charges brought against him are dismissed because the court deems him “mentally deficient.”  Likewise, he is able to restore balance to his life through help from his psychiatrist and being institutionalized, but the medical system also limits him by describing him as disabled and in need of curing due to Asperger’s syndrome (as well as diagnosing him with obesity).  Max dissents.  He feels that living with Asperger’s (or being an “Aspie,” his preferred term) is as much a part of his identity as the color of his eyes.  He is an outsider, but he maintains the integrity and independence to see a world he doesn’t fit into as nonsensical because it doesn’t make allowances for him, instead of giving in to how the world has labeled him.  Max’s self-loyalty extends to his dietary habits.  He attends Overeaters Anonymous at the advice of his psychiatrist, but doesn’t seem to have any personal motivation for losing weight.  Rather, he takes pleasure in eating chocolate and creates new dishes that are more driven by taste than nutritional value.  Chocolate is important to both Max and Mary as a shared passion, and their correspondences include sending new types of chocolate to each other along with their letters.

Although the film situated Max in a world where he is labeled and ostracized by medical conditions, the film itself does not assign moral judgment to how Max functions or perceives the world.  Max’s eccentricities are occasionally a source of humor, such as his invisible friend Mr. Ravioli.  His fat body is not romanticized, as we often hear his heavy breathing (especially after he gains a significant amount of weight) and see the repeated image of his plumber’s crack when he sits at his typewriter.  But in a departure from how films often depict fat characters’ bodies as grotesque in comparison to thin characters’, the whole cast of Mary and Max is comparably rabelaisian.  I’ve never heard so much incidental farting in a film.  If nothing else, casting the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman to voice Max is a strong indication that the creators of the film intend for the audience to respect Max, as fat outsiders portrayed with warmth and humanity comprise Hoffman’s career.

Neurotypical Mary is better equipped to function in society than Max, but is a ultimately a less-fulfilled person than he.  She too is an outsider, but her sense of fulfillment is more subject to outside approval than her friend’s.  Her body even seems to be a concentration of her homogeneic suburban environment, which is filmed in sepia tint.  (Max’s New York is shown in black and white, perhaps a visual pun on how the Asperger’s mind tends to work.)  The first lines of the film’s narration describe Mary’s body in unappealing terms that highlight her brown-ness: “Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles.  She had a birthmark the color of poo.”  She too is fat, but fatness is more of a problem for her as garnering social disapproval than pathologization.  “I’m sad to hear you’re fat,” she writes to Max in one of their early exchanges, “I’m fat too, and mum says I’m growing up to be a heffer.”  When we see her as an adult, she is slimmer.  This physical transformation comes at the same time in her life as voluntary surgery to remove her birthmark and a makeover.  Unfortunately, when her crush Damian (Eric Bana) sees the “new and improved” Mary for the first time, he only comments on the dog shit stuck to her shoe.  Surface physical changes are not enough to free Mary from her indifferent, brown environment, nor from her reliance on Damian’s approval to fuel her self-confidence.  She writes to Max that she wasted her savings, and should have used them to fund a trip to New York.

Although adult Mary’s normative body and ability to navigate institutions like university successfully give her a certain amount of privilege over Max, he subverts the trope of fat best friend who exists to support the maturation of a thinner protagonist.  In their initial correspondence, the two interact as peers, seeking advice and information from each other.  The power dynamic shifts when Mary goes to university and studies psychology.  This is hinted at when she is shown on campus reading a book by Oliver Sachs, a neurologist who has been criticized for exploiting his clients in the interest of his literary career.  Mary finds a way of succeeding in the world that had previously rejected her, and through assimilating into that world, she adopts its pathologizing view of her friend.  When Mary publishes a book about Asperger’s using Max as her case study without his permission, telling him that she hopes to find a “cure,” he reacts in anger.  Instead of one of his typical wordy letters, he sends her the M typebar from his typewriter, dramatically cutting her off from receiving any further communication from him.  This shifts the power dynamic in their relationship a third time.  Max gains power over Mary, as his withdrawal prompts her to pulp every copy of her book before it can be sold and sends her spiralling into depression.   She begs his forgiveness by mailing him the last can of her childhood comfort food, sweetened condensed milk, in her pantry.  But even if this power dynamic contradicts the expected course of their relationship, it isn’t healthy for either of them.  Mary falls deeper into depression and reliance on alcohol, while Max becomes bitter and angry.  When Max learns how to forgive, both of them are redeemed.  Max separates himself from the supportive outsider archetype not only through his expression of anger and withdrawal of support, but by developing as a character alongside his thinner, neurotypical friend.

A third important factor that suggests the film wants us to empathize with Max instead of pathologize him is how he subverts the easy symbolism of his size.  Max is a fat character, but his size is not a physical indicator of greed or insatiability: he is able to achieve satisfaction.  He has three life goals, all of which are acquisitions of things outside of himself:  he wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, a complete collection of Noblet figurines, and a friend.  These goals seem to have foundation in Max’s concrete way of thinking, as opposed to avarice.  In fact, when Max is able to achieve the first two goals when he wins the lottery, he gives the rest of the money to his neighbor.  Max might not even see his death at the end of the film as tragic.  Mary finds him with a contented smile on his face as he gazes at her letters while The Noblets, their shared ideal of friendship, plays on TV.  For Max, their long-distance relationship was fulfilling without them ever being in the same room.

Mary and Max presents us with flawed, eccentric characters who struggle to exist in communities that don’t accommodate them.  However, by focusing on their inner lives and their own means of communicating their feelings and experiences, the film invites the viewer to empathize with the protagonists instead of agreeing with the labels and judgments they are forced to live with.  Despite being lumps of clay, Mary and Max are considerably more human than many of the flesh-and-blood fat characters given to us by cinema.

Fat at a Movie Marathon

[CW: discussions of violence and sexual assault]

There are a fair amount of spoilers in this post; if that’s a concern, click on the provided link to see what films I’ll be talking about.

This weekend I attended [most of] the 10th annual Music Box of Horrors, a 24-hour marathon of horror films from across the world and history of film.  It’s only my second time attending, and it’s been great fun both times.  Instead of doing a separate post for each movie– which would take a long time and I am so very, very tired– I’m opting to give a brief rundown of fat representation in this year’s lineup, to document my experience as a fat audience member.  For extra fun, I’ll include my favorite moments of misandry, as I was pleased to note that a good number of the movies in this year’s lineup had interesting and kickass female characters.

The Phantom Carriage (1921, dir. Victor Sjöström): no fat characters.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, dir. Nick Grinde): we skipped all but the last 15 minutes in the interest of getting lunch, but no fat people in the part I did see.

Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) no fat characters.
Misandry Moment: slimy psychiatrist refuses to stay friendzoned by his patient (ick), she turns into a panther and mauls the crap out of him.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, dir. Terence Fischer) Leon, the main character, has a fat best friend.  Jose is his cheerful, hedonistic coworker; he suggests that the two of them spend their wages at a brothel.  Unfortunately, Leon turns into a werewolf and mauls the crap out of him.

The Borrower (1991, dir. John McNaughton) in a group of potentially victimizable young people:  a heavy metal (I guess) band is shown filming a music video of a song about how they want to kill their parents.  The fat lead singer is an egomaniacal bully; when they hear the neighbor’s dog barking, he goes out to the backyard and sprays it down with the garden hose, laughing all the while.  However, the neighbor’s dog is actually the titular serial killer alien, who kills the fat lead singer.  (This was a weird one.)  His bandmates survive unharmed, while…
Misandry Moment: …the young person who has their shit together enough to load a gun and blast a hole in the baddie is the band’s camerawoman.  Also at least three scenes of a female cop shooting and beating up a rapist.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, dir. Werner Herzog) no fat people.
Misandry Moment: this film follows the classic Dracula story, except that Lucy is the one who is solely responsible for killing the vampire, while Dr. Van Helsing is a skeptical milquetoast.

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014, dir. Tommy Wirkola) no fat people.
Misandry Moment: a professional zombie killing team that is two-thirds women, raising the film’s undead Nazi body count with shovels, shears, and homemade fertilizer bombs.

I went home for a few hours’s sleep, but stalwart Patrick stayed the whole night.  His not-entirely-awake testimony is as follows:

Nightmare, aka Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981, dir. Romano Scavolini) no fat people.

Shakma (1990, dir. Tom Logan) no fat people.

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973, dir. S.F. Brownrigg) Takes place in a psychiatric hospital; some of the patients are fat.

The marathon also plays shorter pieces in between the features; a short at one point overnight there was a screening of “Space Werewolf”, which features a fat protagonist.

I returned for the last two features:

Just Before Dawn (1981, dir. Jeff Lieberman)  My cup runneth over.  The bad guys are fat psycho hillbilly twins, terrorizing and murdering a group of sexy young campers.  The sexy young campers are given harbingers in the form of a large-bodied park ranger (George Kennedy) who eventually comes to their rescue, and a hillbilly family comprised of a friendly but shy waif daughter, a hostile old dad, and a fat mom in an ill-fitting dress who isn’t given much to do except remind the audience that hillbillies are grotesque, I guess?  The first killer twin to die is shot by Ranger Kennedy and falls on top of the Final Girl who he is attacking, leading some of the audience to vocalize disgust.  It’s pretty gross to have a bloody corpse fall on you, but I feel like the disgust factor was heightened by the fact that the corpse in question is a fat man who looks like he hasn’t bathed in a while.
Misandry Moment: the Final Girl rams her fist down the second killer twin’s throat and chokes him to death while her traumatized boyfriend cowers in the background.  One of the campers is murdered after he mansplains a rope bridge in the forest to the girl who lives in the forest and has presumably had her entire life to figure out the rope bridge.

Audition (1999, dir. Takashi Miike)  no fat people.
Misandry Moment: it’s Audition.

There weren’t any surprises as far as representation of fat people goes.  While nothing was grossly fatphobic, most of the films didn’t incorporate fat characters, and the fat characters that did appear were pretty typical, and in small supporting roles.  Hopefully I’ll end up seeing a horror film with a meatier (ha) role for a fat person that I can write about before Halloween; if I have to resort to writing about Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, one of my favorite horror films, so be it.

Fat Fuck: Nymphomaniac (2014, dir. Lars von Trier) and Concussion (2013, dir. Stacie Passon)

[CW diet talk, discussion of consensual sex]

Two recent films, Nymphomaniac and Concussion, spend ample time exploring the marginalized sexualities of their (thin) female protagonists. Joe (Charlotte Gainsboug/Stacy Martin), the titular character of von Trier’s epic, labels herself as a nymphomaniac and constructs her life around her insatiable libido; Abby (Robin Weigert), the heroine of Passon’s directorial debut, is a lesbian who subverts her life as a mainstream upper middle-class homemaker by involving herself in sex work. Both women have fat sex partners over the course of their respective stories, neither of whom function as a source of comedy or disgust.

A common observation of fat characters is that they possess an inappropriate sexuality relative to thin characters in the same film, either lacking in sexual desire or experience (based on the assumption that nobody wants to have sex with fat people) or being too assertive or indulgent with regards to their sexuality (based on the assumption that fat people desire more and control themselves less than thin people). Fat people in movies are often treated as de facto repugnant or pathetic, but even more so when they are seen as sexual beings. A portrayal of fat people experiencing lust the same as thin people, even being accepted as a thin person’s lover, is enough to make these movies stand out as unusually fair-minded with regards to body diversity. However, both F and Woman #1 are portrayed as less exciting than their thin counterparts, and evoke a sense of family and domesticity, elements which the protagonists of both films are trying to avoid or escape.

Nymphomaniac presents a series of flashbacks, where Joe relates her story Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard), an asexual bookworm who compares the details of her life to his various intellectual pursuits. As the title suggests, a large portion of these flashbacks deal with Joe’s sex life. Nearing the end of Volume 1, almost 2 hours in, I found myself getting bored with scene after scene of Joe having rather vanilla sex with male partners, mostly young and thin. F’s arrival was perfectly timed. Joe describes a time when her sex life was a perfect balance of harmonizing elements, like a polyphonic organ piece, with F (Nicolas Bro) as the bass voice. If memory serves, this is the first time we see someone go down on Joe, shown in extreme closeup. F focuses on Joe and her satisfaction. “Without words, he knew exactly what I wanted, where he should touch me and what he should do. The most sacred goal for F was my orgasm.” Because he is so trustworthy and stable, Joe privileges him with activities she does not her other sexual partners. While she explains this in voice over, we see him gently washing her in a bathtub.

nicolas bro, nymphomaniac, stacy martin

The entire time we see Joe and F together, he is clothed and she is naked, heightening the contrast between their ages and body sizes. F is not Joe’s only extragenerational partner, but he is certainly the most paternal. Immediately after seeing them have sex, we cut to an image of Joe sitting on F’s lap, giggling as he tells her a fairytale. F’s arrival in Joe’s story immediately follows the death of her father (Christian Slater); perhaps it is not coincidental that she would so fondly remember a lover who would be “reassuring” and a “foundation,” while so strongly feeling the absence in her life of her dad, who provided her with a sense of security and consistency. F also contrasts with H, a previous lover of Joe’s who leaves his wife and children– his role as a father– to be with her. We have no information of who F is outside of his relationship with Joe, but if he is a father (or some other form of caregiver), he manages to merge the elements of that identity with being Joe’s lover.

F is accepting of Joe’s multiple partners and is actively in deference to her lifestyle, as he often arrives early and patiently waits for her in his car (which was bought used, she points out) with a bouquet of flowers, or in Joe’s living room while she has sex with someone else in the bedroom. F’s patience an example of one of Nymphomaniac‘s strong points: the refreshingly personal and straightforward portrayal of deviations (so to speak) from normative sexuality: monogamous, possessive, not extractable from idealized romantic love. However, F seems emasculated and powerless when Joe compares him to the other members of Joe’s sexual polyphony– and this comparison is explicitly illustrated, in split screen. G (Christian Gade Bjerrum), designated the second voice, is “the only one [Joe] had to and wanted to wait for.” Instead of arriving early, G stands on her threshold when she invites him in, entering as he pleases. Joe finds this exciting because it takes away her control of the situation; she compares G to a predatory wild cat. The sex that she has with G is rough and feral, polarized from F’s “predictable” lovemaking. The two create a spectrum of sexual experience that is beyond limited descriptions of a binary of straight/gay (sometimes expanding to dominant/submissive). As we see an image of a leopard killing a deer, representing G, we also see F waiting in his car for Joe to see him. In between these two is the cantus firmus, Jerome, the closest character to a typical One True Love a viewer might expect to see in a film that focuses on a woman’s love life. These series of images also show Joe’s face while she has sex with them. With G she is wantonly excited; with Jerome she seems transported by the intimacy and soulfulness of their lovemaking; but with F she appears placid and peaceful.

nymphomaniac, lars von trier, stacy martin, shia la boeuf, nicolas bro

Joe describes F as essential to her happiness, but ultimately unsatisfying on his own; Jerome, however, she entreats to “fill all [her] holes,” to complete her, and the fate of the film brings them back together again and again. Even if F displays generosity beyond her other lovers and is seemingly supernatural in his ability to anticipate her desires, what he offers is ultimately incomplete on its own.

Concussion‘s opening sequence is composed of voice overs of women talking about maintaining their aging bodies and images of a gym, showing a spin class of fit women in slow motion, sneaking competitive glances at each other. The film is about a lot of things– queer assimilation, aging– but the body is a prominent and recurring theme. Abby’s dissatisfaction with her life as a stay-at-home is brought to a head by a concussion she suffers accidentally at the hands of her son; there is an early scene of her running on a treadmill until she vomits. She deals with the dissatisfaction by going back to work in New York City, then patronizing sex workers, then finally becoming a sex worker herself, seeing women clients at the condo she is renovating. Like her protagonist, director Stacie Passon is a lesbian, and Concussion does step away from the normative male gaze in some significant ways, including showing sex between women who do not have all the characteristics required to be a woman with a sex life by most films. Some of the women Abby has sex with are older, some have extensive tattoos, one client has a mastectomy scar, and– in case you haven’t guessed where I’m going with this– another is fat.

Abby’s fat client (Daria Rae Feneis) is only known as Woman #1, all clients of Abby’s only being referred to by numbers. It would be easy to see someone patronizing a sex worker as a sign of their inability to attract a partner without the exchange of money, and that sex workers will do anything (or anyone) as long as they’re paid. However, the film makes clear that Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1. Abby is very particular about her clients: she is not willing to go to their homes, and she insists on having coffee with them first, even though The Girl (Emily Kinney), her manager, screens them. Abby even rejects her first potential client for doing homework while she waits for their rendezvous. Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1 as an individual, not solely because she wants (or needs) the money.

daria feneis, concussion

Woman #1 embodies some characteristics often seen in fat film characters. She initiates the conversation awkwardly, talking about a Women’s Studies class she is taking where she has to draw her vulva and talk about her drawing in every class. She even brings a folder of these drawings to show Abby, who politely declines, recreating a common dynamic in films where a fat person’s social inappropriateness is highlighted or regulated by a thinner person. (Slight tangent: as someone who has taken over a dozen Women’s and Gender Studies courses– none at NYU, granted– this class exercise strikes me as absurd.) Women #1 describes drawing her vulva as having a force field around it, because she is 23 and has never had sex or even been kissed. The character comes across as shy and awkward (although she is very pretty), and her lack of experience is never explicitly linked to her weight, but given the setting and sexual/relational experience of the other characters, her late-bloomer status sticks out like a sore thumb. Women #1’s appointment with Abby– a first time for both of them– is quietly drawn out with tension and tenderness. Abby reassures her that she doesn’t have to do anything, can stop at any time, and Abby will do things that she wants to do. Woman #1 is still awkward, however; she neglects to take off her backpack, and after their kiss, she remarks that Abby “smells like oranges.”

During a subsequent visit, Abby finds the ingredients for a Master Cleanse in Woman #1’s bag, which her mother has given her to “start [her] off.” Abby assumes a maternal role in this scene, overriding Woman #1’s mother’s influence by giving her three books to read: Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex (“the Bible”), a book on vegetarianism, and a collection of Gandhi’s writings, which Abby describes as “an excellent book for weight loss.” (Another slight tangent. Overall I liked this movie, but the script rubbed me the wrong way at times, this line possibly being the worst example. I trust, reader, that I don’t have to go in-depth as to why it’s hugely problematic for rich white Americans to appropriate aspects of anti-colonial resistance to support their own assimilation into a beauty standard. I confess I’ve never read Gandhi’s writings, what about them makes them excellent for weight loss? Is Woman #1 supposed to fast? Because that slows your metabolism down. Is she supposed to use white guilt as an inspiration to be self-denying in her food choices? Does Gandhi talk about tips for cutting carbs at some point?) She then encourages Woman #1 to throw away her cleanse materials, “because that shit will kill you.” Woman #1 glows as she looks at Abby, who is treating her as a human being whose health needs to be prioritized, not a fatty problem to be eradicated using any means possible. I’m guessing that she experiences the latter attitude from the other people in her life more frequently than the former. We never find out if she herself wants to lose weight, though.

The third and final session we see between Abby and Woman #1 shows a progress in both of their explorations of sexuality. Their attitude with each other is relaxed and intimate; the camera is closer to them than ever. Woman #1 says that she read the books Abby loaned her, but didn’t lose any weight. This scene subverts the expected story beats that Woman #1 would have lost weight, or that a dramatic moment would occur between them (Abby giving some inspirational speech, Woman #1 revealing a dark secret), as the two laugh over this fact and move on with their conversation, as Abby strokes her hair affectionately. Woman #1 also says that she wants to move on from their arrangement and “try something new, like, maybe a guy.” The other woman who Abby loses to a man is Sam (Maggie Siff), another mom from her social group who shares a passionate liason with Abby, and understands her dissatisfaction, but ultimately decides to stay with her husband. Sam, like Woman #1, ties Abby to her inescapable role as a mother.

daria feneis, concussion

Losing her client is paralleled with scenes of Abby’s children waiting for her to pick them up at school, her failing to be a mother. As Abby has chosen to be unfaithful by having sex with women other than her wife, Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), she is also unfaithful to her role in her family in that she is mothering someone who is not one of her children, neglecting them in the process.

As so much of the energy and rhetoric of the needs of LGBT folks is channeled into marriage equality, and the “we’re just like you” message, there is a dearth of questioning the merits of a white picket house in the suburbs as a desirable goal. Marriage equality and liberal social values allow Abby and Kate to have their American dream in an affluent suburb, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Abby would find that dream ultimately as hollow as Lester does in American Beauty. (Considering this film is about college-educated white folks, the attainability of that goal unfortunately doesn’t figure in to its critique.) Concussion‘s main story raises some radical questions about values and stories that we take for granted. This spirit is extended to Woman #1 to an extent– Abby finds her desirable, she isn’t punished for not losing weight– but some toxic presumptions remains intact: the inherent awkwardness of fat people; the inherent struggle to not be fat, even when failing to meet that goal comes as no surprise.

Concussion is a bit unrefined and Nymphomaniac a bit arduous, but ultimately it was a pleasure to watch both them. Even in their failings, it’s always refreshing to consider a film’s drawbacks through a feminist lens that called for more consideration and nuance than “hey, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.” Both have interesting things to say about women’s sexuality, and what it means for a woman to search for happiness and fulfillment. The combination of these ideas puts both protagonists at odds with domesticity. However, even in searching for personal evolution through sex, the characters find themselves in dynamics that parallel their roles as members of their respective families, both with fat lovers. Despite the radical portrayal of fat people as desirable, the films ultimately don’t go far enough, and saddle these characters with drawbacks that can neither offer liberation or stand up when compared with more normatively attractive partners.

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

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

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

image from moviestillsdb.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

image from flickersintime.com

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

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

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

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

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