self-reflexive blogging

Moving through difficult times and a manifesto-in-progress

This time last month, I was chiding people on Twitter to not become politically complacent just because we’ll have a woman president.  Funny how your expectations can be pulled out from under you, isn’t it?  Not really funny ha-ha in this case, more funny sob-sob.  I can only imagine a lot of folks reading right now have been having similar reactions to the election of DJT, processing a lot of difficult emotions and wondering how to move forward as individuals, families, and communities.  

This time last month, I was trying to figure out how I want to wrap up the trope deep dive on fat man/thin woman romance storylines, but for the past two weeks or so, I’ve felt locked up.  Not only have I felt overwhelmed and struggling to prioritize, but I had a bit of an existential crisis over this blog.  (I’ve been having crises over lots of things, but I’m a gold-medal compartmentalizer and will focus on CPBS.)  If I’m being completely honest, this has been coming for a while.  I feel like I’m just hitting the same points over and over.  I’m not sure why I’m still at it.  Given that I’m feeling lost, for multiple reasons, I thought this would be a good chance to pause, step back. and think about my underlying reasons for continuing to write this blog, especially at this particular historical moment.  A Four of Swords post, if you’ll indulge a Tarot metaphor. (and if you are a fat-positive cinephile who reads Tarot: can we be friends please?)

Given the breadth and depth of issues that we as a country have to come to terms with, it felt/feels like cinematic representation of fat people is a topic that’s overly niche.  Thankfully, I received a jolt of inspiration from this thread on twitter from Ariel of Bad Fat Broads:

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I couldn’t have said it better myself, and definitely not in a handful of tweets.  The treatment of fat people connects to the treatment of other marginalized groups, and the fictional worlds that we see in films connect to how we understand the world we live in.  CPBS is inherently political.  My writing style tends to downplay that fact, I think, as I try to balance my critiques with giving you, the reader, space for your own reactions and analyses.  This is also the reason that I rarely linger on connections to my personal life.  But maybe that underlying premise gets lost.  

Problematic cinema doesn’t have the dire nature of situations like the Dakota Access Pipeline or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  However, even if art and entertainment don’t sustain us as organisms, they do sustain us as human beings.  How does it make you feel when you see a character in a movie that you relate to in a very specific and personal way, maybe an aspect of yourself that you don’t often think about or something you’ve never seen addressed before on film?  How does it feel when something very personal to you manifests on screen in an ignorant or cruel way?  And when that seems to be the only way you’re allowed to see it?  

And like any other institution in a kyriarchy, the film industry replicates the oppressive power dynamics in which it operates, leading to situations such as studios covering up sexual assault, racist casting practices, or workplace safety violations that lead to injury and death.  As with Ariel’s allusion to the concern about removal of access to health insurance, these dynamics play out in similar fashions across institutions.  Rape culture, racism, and worker exploitation are not solely found in the film industry, and neither is the marginalization of fat people.

These examples come from the act of making movies, but of course, this CPBS focuses on the movies themselves, specifically fictional narrative works.  As with all popular art, the politics of movies exist in a cycle with no easily defined beginning (if there is a beginning at all).  Specific ideas inform how films are produced, the films give audiences specific stories and images that normalize these ideas, some of those audience members make new films.  This cycle isn’t always a bad thing; my guess is you had your heart warmed this past Halloween at least once by a little girl in a Rey or Ghostbusters costume. Fictional movies can even be influential in changing how a society operates, such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, which influenced the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.  CPBS is concerned with cinema as the outcome of established ideas about how people can be categorized, especially based on their physical attributes, especially especially who on the screen has the most adipose tissue.  If you didn’t know already.

But even if we don’t have cinema, in most situations, we have stories.  The stories that we tell speak to who we are.  There are explicit examples, of course, like stories containing moral lessons or commemorating historical events, but no story, and certainly no film, exists in a cultural vaccum.  Our stories contain patterns, which often turn into tropes or cliches, the kind of thing we see so often that our minds jump to an expectation without a second thought.  An example of this that I love is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  In this unique blend of a longitudinal case study and hangout film, there are two scenes where protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is engaged in risky behavior– playing with circular saw blades, and texting while driving.  Although the almost-three-hour movie establishes from the start that Mason’s life does not contain extraordinary conflict, as an audience member, I found myself growing very tense during these moments.  Why?  Because from the educational shorts I was shown in grade school to the moody indie dramas I snootily absorb as an adult, I have been conditioned to expect the direst of consequences from poor decision-making.  Even if a more conventional story beat isn’t created explicitly to warn of the potential dangerous outcomes of a behavior, it does speak to the standard desire for situations in movies to be at the extremes of human experience.  This is also true for characters, mired in their own cycle of expectations around what the embodiments of various tropes look like.  We conflate personality with physical features.   Who is the hero?  With whom are we invited to empathise?  Who is in the position of receiving our scorn?  Our pity?  Our revulsion?  A lot of the time, we know who these characters are without having to be explicitly told.  CPBS is concerned with the audience expectations that exist when a fat person is in a movie, and how films satisfy or subvert those expectations.

I’ve spent my whole life in the USA, and I’ve only been spending it since the early 80s.  I don’t know what it’s like to live outside this cultural and political context.  While I am critical of it on many levels, I have trouble imagining what the alternatives would look like, especially when it comes to art.  But I don’t believe that a truly just society would normalize the commodification of bodies; relative to this blog is artists’ bodies being objectified by the demand for profitable entertainment, instead of purely being implemented as a medium for expression.  Athletes in contact sports put themselves at risk of fatal injuries, intensified by the pressure to be stronger, faster, more intense, while the institution minimizes knowledge of the risk.  Sex workers whose labor revolves around performance are frequently subject to requests or demands that transgress their professional boundaries.  Transgender women are often used as joke fodder on the screen and often subject to violence and discrimination in real life.  People who work in arts & entertainment are subject to harsh criticism of their bodies, demands for regulation, perfection.  One doesn’t have to look further than the magazine rack at the average supermarket checkout lane to see that sensationalized narratives get written onto bodies as famous people shockingly gain weight, lose weight, age, get sick, or get pregnant.  Bodies are measured, judged, categorized, for their entertainment value, which often eclipses being seen as an equal.  Performance has paradoxical powers of distancing us from the people we are watching and giving us an opportunity to know their experiences.  CPBS is concerned with discerning how and when films invite objectification of or empathy for fat characters.  One work can even do both, depending on the approach of the audience.  Take for example Hamilton, the Broadway sensation that I respect but don’t have much interest in.  Many people of color feel empowered by seeing themselves in the kind of historical narrative they’re often excluded from, in a performance space that they are similarly often excluded from.  On the other hand, consider this weekend’s backlash against the Broadway cast for politely confronting the VP elect when he was in the audience, a man who believes in policies that would cause direct harm to the people he sees fit to provide him with an evening’s entertainment.

The last point that I want to make about what I strive for in this film has already been alluded to, as far as parallels between struggles and keeping a realistic perspective on how cinema fits into a larger cultural landscape.  To refer again to Ariel’s tweets, people don’t exist as one identity, and bigoted mindsets aren’t usually contained to one specific group.  CPBS strives for an intersectional analysis, maintaining awareness of how other social categorizations exist in the films discussed, and how fatness exists in conjunction with these other categories.  Not only is this approach realistic to who people actually are, it helps to look at what it means to be a fat character.  For example, consider how fatness impacts gender, often counterbalancing traditional masculinity with the suggestion of domesticity and sensitivity, and subverting traditional femininity by prioritizing the pursuit of one’s own pleasure over self-restraint and adherence to standards.

Maintaining the progress that we and our forebears have made towards living free and dignified lives requires constant maintenance.  That includes being able to analyze the media that we consume, demanding that our culture recognizes us as fully human, and seeing others in that light as well.  It’s my hope that this blog will contribute to your engagement with those tasks in some way.

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The Ghosts of Roundups Past, Present, and Future

Hi folks, I know it’s been a while since my last article.  I’ve been stretched a bit thin lately, but I have managed to do a bit of film writing.  Check out my recent article for BitchFlicks on bisexuality in Jennifer’s Body.  I’ve also recorded a small audio essay that is going to be included on FilmJive‘s upcoming episode on music in horror films, also on Jennifer’s Body.  Why was I so invested in examining a film where Megan Fox makes out with a bespectacled geeky chick with messy hair?  The world may never know.

I also wanted to talk a bit about my Monthly Roundup feature.  I just started doing it last year without really explaining why.  At my most prolific (read: unemployed), I write two articles a month for this blog, usually tackling one or two films per article.   However, I see way more films than what I write about, usually at least two a week.  Not all of them have fat characters, not all have fat characters worth writing about, and not all of them can fit in the amount of time I devote to writing CPBS.  But while my articles take a close look at one or two films, I also want this blog to function as a reminder of the overall experience of what it’s like to be a fat person with a deep emotional investment in movies, how I see myself reflected in that respect on a macro level.  So if the Roundup articles seem like weird, arbitrary inventories, I ask that you think of them more like month-sized montages of my personal cinephilic journey as is chronicled here, a condensed onslaught of trite physical jokes, incompetent flunkies, ‘Murrikans, and characters who are coded as fat but who you probably wouldn’t think of as such if you saw them on the checkout line at Target.  (And if you’re at all interested in my hot takes on all of the movies that I see, you can check me out on Letterboxd).

This October, I’m very excited to have two spectacular movie binges on my schedule.  This upcoming weekend, I’ll be at the Music Box of Horrors with my partner Patrick, a 24-hour horror movie marathon hosted by Chicago’s own Music Box Theater.  In addition to my annual write-up of fat characters at the Music Box of Horrors, I’ll be doing the same for the selections I see at the Chicago International Film Festival the following weekend.  One film at the Music Box of Horror this year has already been featured on CPBS:  Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  As far as #ChiFilmFest, I’m mostly not sure what I’m getting into, but Middle Man does star Jim O’Heir, aka Jerry Gergich from Parks and Recreation.

That being said, I did see several films in September and August that featured fat characters:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, dir. Taika Waititi)

I saw this film at the Chicago Critics Film Fest earlier this year, and I liked it so damn much that I took advantage of its theatrical release coinciding with my birthday to see it on the big screen a second time.  Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a great fat character, and he deserves his own article.  Just watch the damn movie.

hunt for the wilderpeople.gif

Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)

A fictionalized account of Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) life and death in Vienna from the perspective of his rival Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).  Like any good period drama, the social scheming is as intricate as the music.  The court of powerful Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) includes the syncophantic, and fat, Kappelmeister (Patrick Hines).

Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir. Joel Coen)

While a more serious neo-noir from the Coen brothers about chaos breaking out between two organized crime syndicates over a sleazy bookie (John Tuturro), the film does of course include some outlandish supporting characters.  In this case, it’s Johnny Caspar (the late, great Joe Polito), a fat mob boss with a comparably fat wife (Jeanette Kontomitras) and bratty son (Louis Charles Mounicou III).

Burke & Hare (2010, dir. John Landis)

This dark comedy is loosely based on the careers of real-life Victorian grave robbers William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), who begin to murder people when their natural supply of corpses that they sell to medical schools runs low.  One murder includes the stalking of a fat man (Tom Urie) through the foggy night streets of Edinburgh.  Burke and Hare manage to frighten him into having a heart attack.  Shortly after, on an exam table in a medical school lecture hall, the professor grabs the man’s belly and dramatically declares his cause of death to be gluttony.

The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel Coen)

It feels downright patronizing to summarize The Big Lebowski on a blog aimed at film geeks.  But to summarize: Joe Polito has a small part as a private eye, the wealthy and short-tempered Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston) is also a fat character, as is potential car-thief Larry (Jesse Flanagan).  And, of course: Walter Sobchak.  John Goodman’s magnum opus?  Only history will tell.

walter-sobchak

 

 

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men with Thin Women

Romantic love is a fraught topic for this blog.  It’s an incredibly common motivation in film, but one that fat characters are so often disconnected from.  Frequently, they are assumed to be undesirable, unlucky in love (whether unable to attract a mate or part of an unhappy couple), non-sexual, or grotesquely hypersexualized.  Not including this post, I’ve written about fat characters in 112 movies that I’ve watched since starting this blog in June 2014.  Here’s the breakdown of romantic relationships including fat people that start during and last through the ends of those films, by size and gender (both of which are, of course, rigid binaries):

Fat man, thin woman: 6
Fat woman, thin man: 4
Fat man, fat woman: 2
Fat woman, thin woman: 1

Although not a large or representative sampling of film as a whole, fat romance is present in a little over 10%.  In addition, notice the most frequent pairing:  when fat characters have storylines where they and another character fall in love, it’s commonly a fat man paired with a thin woman, who is commonly conventionally attractive.  

I wanted to look at this trope, but was struggling to pick a title or two.  I have the excellent fortune to have a partner who works at a brick-and-mortar video store, and thus access to thousands of titles.  I called him at work.

“Do you have Only the Lonely?”
“No.”
“Do you have King Ralph?”
“No.”

Apparently, my fortune has its limits when crossing paths with my thing for 90s rom coms.  I explained to Patrick that I was looking for a movie in which a fat man and a thin, conventionally attractive woman fall in love, and are still together at the end of the film. I had called during a slow night; when I arrived at the store an hour later, this pile was waiting for me:

 

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And he had only gone through the comedy section and pulled films based on his personal knowledge of the plots.

It’s not like this phenomenon is shrouded in mystery.  In a culture where most filmmakers are straight men, and art has traditionally catered to the straight male gaze, there is more leeway for a male character to be a relatable Joe Six Pack (or lack thereof) and less for a female character to deviate from widely accepted beauty standards.  On top of this, most widely-distributed films get made with box office numbers in mind.  The result:  something “refreshing” or “progressive” usually takes a baby step or two away from convention, fearful of alienating audiences (and operating under the assumption that the audience isn’t already alienated).  However, because the change in convention is so often discrete, it’s easier to isolate and inspect what it means to have fatness as an element in an otherwise normative film romance.  Does fatness have an effect on how love and desire are portrayed?  Gender?  Does having a fat lover reify the expectation that a female character conform to beauty standards, or does it provide opportunity to subvert those expectations?  Is there a film out there that meets the aforementioned criteria and includes people of color besides The Nutty Professor?

Since this dynamic crops up time and time again in the pool of films that are appropriate topics for CPBS, I intend to take a closer look at it through a series of articles. Do you remember last year, when I said I was going to do a series of articles about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career and then I didn’t?  This will be kind of like that, except this time, it will actually exist.  I’m starting with two films that I have easy access to: Superbad and Knocked Up.

The DUFF, or: What Makes a Character Fat?

In wide release as of last week, The DUFF is about Bianca (Mae Whitman), a senior in high school who is told that she is a Designated Ugly Fat Friend, someone whose social value lies in making her friends look more attractive by comparison.  This premise has not gone without critique.  From Genevieve Koski’s review on the Dissolve:

The idea of a “DUFF”—a “designated ugly fat friend,” or the less-attractive person hot people keep around to make them seem more desirable and approachable—is hideous, offensive, and shallow. And to its credit, The DUFF treats it as such. The idea of Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman, a just barely unconventionally attractive, objectively not-fat actor being a DUFF is even more hideous, offensive, and shallow. And to its detriment, The DUFF doesn’t do enough to undermine that idea.

When an actress who is straight-sized (if not willowy) is cast as someone who is devalued because of the size of her body, does that representation highlight the unobtainable exclusivity of  beauty standards, or uphold them by eclipsing the potential for featuring an actress whose body deviates even further from those standards?  According to its defenders, The DUFF concludes that it’s best to embrace who you are, but is that necessarily synonymous with critiquing culturally established beauty standards?  Frankly, I don’t want to schlep downtown in the cold and pay $11 to find out for myself, but the DUFF kerfuffle did bring to light something I’ve been wondering for a while:  what establishes a character as fat?

Spot the ugly fat person, win a prize!

In our day-to-day lives, we have indicators from various institutions as to whether or not we are fat.  The body mass index (BMI) is a commonly used, if flawed, tool in the medical field.  Mass-produced goods like clothing give us indication about what bodies are supposed to look like.  However, it’s unusual for a film to explicitly state a character’s height and weight, or their clothing size.  Of the films that I’ve reviewed on this blog so far, the closest that we’ve come to information about a character’s height/weight or clothing size is In & Out, where Emily reveals that she used to be 75 pounds heavier.

“Fat” as a descriptor goes beyond quantifiable data.  Mae Whitman obviously isn’t fat by clothing size or BMI standards, but she was cast as a “fat” character.  Even if she can buy clothing in the same store as her peers and her doctor doesn’t tell her to lose weight, Whitman’s body is further than co-star Bella Thorne’s from the established Hollywood ideal.  The measurement that The DUFF uses to consider someone beautiful and thin is objectionable, but it is hardly unprecedented, even in Whitman’s own career.  Her previous roles include characters whose function in the story is to be undesirable in comparison to someone else.  These roles include Mary Elizabeth in Perks of Being a Wallflower, who is less desirable as a girlfriend than Sam (Emma Watson); Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where her relationship with Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is dismissed as a “bicurious” phase;  and her arguably best-known role as as Ann Veal in Arrested Development.  Ann has many qualities that make the Bluths question her suitability as a girlfriend for George Michael (Michael Cera), such as her far-right Christian beliefs and her predilection for mayoneggs, but her appearance is an undeniable factor. His father Michael’s (Jason Bateman) numerous Freudian slips when referring to her include “Ann-Hog,” and when George Michael points her out to Uncle Gob (Will Arnett), he puzzledly responds, “What, is she funny or something?”  Ann is the butt of these jokes, but so are the Bluths themselves, as the series’ humor is often driven by characterizing them as shallow California elitists.  So no, the common person on the street would probably not characterize Mae Whitman as fat or ugly, but that’s the point: the viewpoint that’s being presented is not the common person’s, it’s a viewpoint coming from the apex of cultural power and privilege.

Even if it’s positioned in different places based on the context, there exists a boundary that divides bodies with an acceptable amount of fat tissue and bodies with an excessive amount.  Fat bodies.  Marilyn Wann offers a thought-provoking meta-description of fat, saying that it “functions as a floating signifier, attaching to individuals based on a power relationship, not a physical measurement.”  (“Forward,” The Fat Studies Reader)

One of the reasons that fat has become one of my main intellectual preoccupations is because of my own disorienting experiences being a fat character in other people’s lives.  According to the BMI, I am obese.  Most clothing lines don’t make clothes in my size.  However, my body is usually accommodated in public spaces (e.g. I’ve not yet had to pay for a second seat on an airplane), and I don’t suffer a tenth of the harassment that some of my larger friends do.  So while I’m fat, I occupy a weird in-between social space where thin(ner) people have no qualms about saying horrible things about Fat People to me, or express disgust at how fat they themselves are.  At least once, the average-height adult making the latter observation weighed half as much as I did.  I don’t think someone larger than me has ever complained to me about their weight in that way. “Ugh, I’m so fat, I’m so disgusting.”  And what, I wonder, does that make me?  Hearing virulent rants about Fat People is equally confusing for me.  Am I the Ambassador of Fat, tasked with the diplomatic mission of returning to my people with the message to stop ruining society and being so gross?

I’ve never had the nerve to ask a thinner person to tease out the meaning behind their statement, or even why they felt it appropriate to say.  There have been a handful of times when these comments have felt like a passive-aggressive attempt to shame or scold me, but I can extrapolate from 30 years of being around humans that the majority aren’t intentionally including me, even if they inherently are.  People often describe themselves as “fat” as shorthand for feeling unattractive or unhealthy.  Applying Wann’s quote, “fat” is used in this context to express how someone feels their own body devalued– disempowered– in comparison to the thin ideal.  I’ve been on friendly terms with most of the people who have made disparaging comments to me about Fat People, the disempowered Other who should be ashamed of themselves for not being Us, without realising that I can’t/won’t detach myself from that Other.

But let’s return to the original question: what makes a film character fat?  When choosing characters to discuss for CPBS, the most obvious guideline I use is whether the movie explicitly labels them as fat.  Some characters conveniently describe their own bodies as fat, like Louis in True Stories or Pagliacci in Shock Corridor.  Some are labeled fat through another character’s observation, like Bianca in The DUFF. But a fair number of characters aren’t explicitly assessed in these terms.  Stereotypes can draw attention to a character’s fatness, like Sgt. Powell’s Twinkie habit in Die Hard, or Dale’s lack of confidence in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.  But as I talked about with regards to Emma Levie’s role in Snowpiercerit can be impossible to discern if a fat actor is in a role because they were the best person for the job regardless, or if their body is intended to symbolize a concept or visually reinforce a character trait or interpersonal dynamic (e.g. that timeless dramatic pairing, hottie/DUFF).

The former situation even raises further considerations about a character who is written as fat versus a character who is played by a fat person.  Would The DUFF be given more credit for exploring its subject matter if Sharon Rooney had been cast as Bianca?  No offense to Mae Whitman, but that would make me more willing to see it in theaters.  It would be a more sincere approach to feature an actress who could realistically be the fattest person in the room outside of a casting call for a Hollywood-made teen movie.  As with In & Out, if a film wants to make a point about fat people accepting their bodies, the actor in that role should be someone whose body actively challenges the audience’s expectations about what acceptable bodies look like.  But of course, not every fat character in a film is intended to carry a message about self-acceptance.  Individual films vary greatly in their agendas, cultural milieus, and viewpoints.

After 1400 words of thinkpiecing, I find myself no closer to universally applicable guidelines for who a fat character is, but I feel like ambiguity is the only thing that could accurately reflect the mutable nature of socially constructed power dynamics.  Leaving that process of discernment (especially when looking for topics for this blog) should probably remain in the intuitive realm, because the one common thread that I have found in the characters that I’ve written about thus far is that I find myself able to compare and contrast them to my own real-life experiences of being a fat person.  From my perspective, that’s enough to make them a member of the club.

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.