the gaze

Gazing at Males: Magic Mike (2012, dir. Stephen Soderbergh), Magic Mike XXL (2015, dir. Gregory Jacobs), and the Fat Female Audience

Embarrassing confession time:  I have been picking away at this article for way too long.  Patrick had suggested Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL a while ago, and they are chock full of great discussion material, especially regarding the shifts between the original and the sequel. I was fascinated by a mainstream Hollywood movie that plays fast and loose with the gender roles of its straight male protagonists; then, there’s also the obvious topic of the noticeably more inclusive casting of audience members in XXL.  But how did they connect?  Though initially struggling to form a cohesive argument, I finally relied on this one weird trick:  I re-read the most famous essay in feminist film theory.  And amazingly, it was very helpful.  

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the genesis of the term “male gaze.”  Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to describe a common dynamic in classic Hollywood film, in which the audience derives a dual and seemingly contradictory pleasure in the voyeurism of watching the people on screen (separating the audience and the character), but also seeing the characters as idealized versions of ourselves (bringing audience and character together).  And as the films utilizing this dynamic are produced in a patriarchal society (i.e. prioritizing the wants and experiences of men), female characters are on display for the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure, while male characters are powerful protagonists with whom the audience identifies. Often, these two dynamics synthesize in the romantic union of the male and female characters, creating the fantasy of being a powerful person who possesses the object of desire.  Magic Mike, especially XXL, disrupts these dynamics that Mulvey describes.   

True, none of the main characters in either film are fat.  Most of the fat characters I write about on CPBS aren’t protagonists.  While there are exceptions, as evidenced by most of the films in last year’s series on fat men and thin women, fat characters are usually minor supporting roles in a handful of scenes; this is especially obvious if you look at the writeups I’ve done of film festivals, etc.  It would be overly glib to say that there’s one reason why, but stemming from Mulvey’s theory of the audience seeking pleasure through identification with a protagonist, the common assumption is that audiences can’t/won’t empathise with a character who doesn’t embody certain social privileges.  Mulvey focuses on gender; but of course this struggle encompasses many identities.  At the writing of this article, whitewashing is again a popular topic of discussion, as the remake of Ghost in the Shell starring ScarJo just hit theaters.  But, as always, body size and composition is the spectrum we’ll be focusing on here.  And the fat characters of particular interest in Magic Mike and XXL are the fat women in Mike’s (Channing Tatum) audience.  

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I didn’t find or make screencaps of the fat audience members, please accept my apology in the form of Joe Manganiello in a sexy firefighter costume

Magic Mike starts with a flipping of the male gaze’s gender dynamic by establishing the relationship between female audience and male performer. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) titillates the audience by playfully reminding them that it is against the law to touch the dancers’ bodies (but then observes “a lot of law-breakers” in the audience); the women sitting in the dark respond with excited cheers.  This mirrors a common paradox that attractive female characters must embody of being on display for the audience’s visual consumption but not too actively sexual as to land on the wrong side of social judgment (or break the fantasy of being controllable).  Mike deals with this very judgment from the two main female characters, Brooke (Cody Horn) and Joanna (Olivia Munn).  Through their relationships with Mike, we see his need to move on from his current profession.  Joanna is willing to have casual sex with Mike and join him in orchestrating three-ways, but she isn’t willing to talk about her personal life with him and unceremoniously abandons him by revealing that she is engaged, which coincides with the completion of her PhD.  Brooke is consistently judgmental of Mike’s profession throughout the movie; although he accuses her of reducing him to his job, eventually both his bff Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and his boss Dallas screw him over, proving that her disapproval is merited.  Mike abruptly leaves the Kings, as Joanna left him, and shows up on Brooke’s doorstep.  His happy ending is the approval of the “normal”  character. His arc isn’t too different from the pattern I saw in films featuring fat men paired with thin women; Mike’s maturation make him attractive despite his excess (here his decadent profession, as opposed to his body), his reward is the love of a good (thin) woman.  This is a neat gender inversion of the story arc that Mulvey describes, wherein a female character “falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her… show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.”  

As opposed to typical scenes featuring female dancers, where the male audience is a source of some menace (I haven’t seen the whole of Striptease, but two of the dance scenes on YouTube include Demi Moore being grabbed inappropriately by audience members, as well as Burt Reynolds sitting in the corner and making creepy comments about how she’s an “angel”), the relationship between male dancers and female audience in the Magic Mike movies is free of tension.  The pleasure the audience receives from direct attention from the male entertainers is pure, even sheepish at times, as select VIPs allow the dancers to pick them up, lie them on the floor, tie them in sex slings, etc. without any attempts to go too far.  The exotic dancing is described as a service in both films, either embodying the fantasy of a one night stand, as per Dallas, or helping a woman find her “smile,” as per Mike.  If anything, Adam is the only character to really transgress professional boundaries, as he kisses an audience member during his debut dance and give a tab of ecstasy to a sorority sister during a house call.  

Magic Mike is focused on people struggling to realize their professional goals (or just make ends meet) in an unforgiving economic structure.  The stripping, while surely an entertaining spectacle for at least some of the audience, is almost incidental to the film’s themes.  As Magic Mike centers on Mike’s struggle to be a successful entrepreneur, the audience’s shrieks of delight and dollar bills symbolize the tyrannical demands of the market, showering him with money when he dances, while an apologetic bank employee (Betsy Brandt) withholds it when he tries to secure a loan to start his furniture business.  And although the women themselves have no nefarious motives, they provide the money and attention that draws Adam into the life of a debauched party boy.  XXL, on the other hand, focuses on Mike reconnecting with his friends, helping them move onto the next steps of their lives after Dallas abandons them, and coping with the stress of his new job and newly single status.  He does all these things by rediscovering the joy of stripping, namely, helping his audience find their “smile.”  Where the first film finds Mike concerned that Brooke only sees him as a “30 year old male stripper,” XXL states explicitly (ha) that Mike and the other Kings can use stripping to explore and assert themselves as individuals.  Mike strives to impress the female characters in XXL, but unlike the judgment of his profession that he meets in Magic Mike, he instead interacts with women who are mostly involved in exotic dance in one way or another along his journey to Myrtle Beach, and has to charm them into providing assistance to get him and the Kings there.  The political pathos is removed from Mike’s relationship with stripping in XXL, giving the viewer license to find pure erotic enjoyment in his performances.  And yet, XXL breaks even further away from the “show-girl” trope Mulvey described, in which “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined.”  Both films invert the roles that each gender plays in the dynamic, but in XXL, Mike’s friends assign personal meaning to male entertainment that gives more depth to their characters than they had in Magic Mike.  The sequel gives us more of the personalities of the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa and allows them to wax philosophical about the male entertainment industry, which is celebrated as an opportunity for all women deserve to have their fantasies indulged and to be “queens,” as opposed to the first film, which presents a glittery sandpit that is controlled by deceitful owners like Dallas and eats naive young men like Adam for breakfast.  

A few different scenes in XXL explore the Kings’ relationship to their work, including one in which Ken (Matt Bomer) bonds with Andre (Donald Glover) over the meaning they find in male entertainment.  “These girls have to deal with men in their lives every day who don’t listen to them,” Andre observes.  “They don’t even ask them what they want.  All we gotta do is ask them what they want.  When they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.  We’re like healers or something.”  A subsequent scene shows this philosophy in action when Ken meets an older woman (Jane McNeill) who confesses her husband won’t have sex with the lights on; he responds by telling her how beautiful she is, how she deserves to be happy, and sings her the song that she and her husband would listen to when they were first falling in love.  The moment is bittersweet (“I don’t think Hank can do that!” she tells him when his performance ends), but shows more depth to what the audience seeks from the performers than the “free fling of a fuck” Dallas describes in Magic Mike.  The Kings want to be the most effective entertainers possible; while the film plays out with the intent that the film audience see ourselves more as an extension of the Kings’ audience, there is joy in seeing the exhibition of their creativity and the gradual reveal of their personalities as much as there is of their oiled-up bits.  The culmination of XXL finds Mike and his friends (now calling themselves “Res-erection”) fully in their element and fully belonging to the audience; as emcee Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) describes them, “a special kind of beast that can bring all the beauty out in you.”

Even if the dancers aren’t normatively gendered in how they function in the films narrative, they are in physical presentation.  The implication is, of course, that the man capable of “fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies” is relegated to one body type.  And commonly, when men in movies are depicted as irresistable, the women chasing them are normatively attractive.  The fantasy is specifically that of a man’s wanting to have numerous beautiful women chasing after him.  However, the world of Magic Mike flips that to focus on the fantasy of a fun night of oogling hunks (without the drink minimum) by including a range of women in the audience.  The first movie falls short.  Notably, there are some audience members who are older women, but all are feminine and white.  The only fat woman in Magic Mike is chosen for VIP treatment by Richie (Joe Manganiello), but he “humorously” hurts his back when picking her up and has to stop his routine, leaving her standing awkwardly by herself on the stage.  XXL does an admirable job of diversifying the audience.  Not only do several scenes include fat women getting individual attention from the male entertainers, but there is a specific focus on black women.  We meet Rome, who addresses her black clientele as “queens” and repeatedly tells them that they are beautiful and deserving of attention from her sexy staff.  We see many fat women in the audience, including an extended scene with a fat black woman receiving attention from a male entertainer who picks her up with ease (and is played by former pro football player Michael Strahan).

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Rome, the queen in her castle, and Magic Mike (fka “White Chocolate”)

A pivotal moment in XXL hinges on an audience comprised of one fat woman:  Richie’s dance in the convenience store.  Richie (rolling on molly) wants to bring his wedding fantasy routine to fruition, but is insecure about his skills as a dancer.  Mike (also rolling on molly), in an attempt to make his friend understand that their work is less about impressive dance moves and more about making women happy, dares him to walk into a convenience store and make the bored-looking cashier (Lindsey Moser) smile.  Richie balks, not because the young woman is fat, but because she “looks like she’s never fucking smiled a fucking day in her entire life.”  And, because it is that kind of movie, Richie’s beloved Backstreet Boys start playing on the store speakers the minute he walks into the store.  Unlike the women who make up his intentional audience– and unlike the common stereotype of fat women as desperate for sex– the cashier doesn’t immediately notice him (much to his pouty disappointment).  He has to dramatically tear open a bag of Cheetos just to get her attention, and she doesn’t even smile until the end of his routine, when he cracks a joke.  Richie goes on a minor character development arc over the course of the scene, where he has to get in touch with his confidence and sense of presence to prove to himself that he doesn’t need Dallas’ direction to be a successful male entertainer.  And the sign of his success is the approval of a fat, female audience, as well of that of his friends (all of whom are rolling on molly).  

The other fat presence in the films must be mentioned, even if he doesn’t quite fit in with the discussion:  Tobias, the DJ (Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias).  He is a corrupting influence for Adam in the first film, giving him his first taste of GHB (or, as he calls it, “hey juice”) and supplying him MDMA to sell once he’s established himself as a dancer at Dallas’ club.  Adam foolishly loses $10,000 worth of pills that he and Tobias were supposed to sell.  This leads to two thugs trashing Mike’s apartment looking for restitution, while Tobias helplessly watches.  However, to the more mature Kings who are presumably a bit wiser in their choices, he is more of a helpful support.  In Magic Mike XXL, he drives the food truck to take them on their road trip to Myrtle Beach with the intention of being their emcee at the stripper convention–until he drives off the road while rolling and suffers a concussion.  In both films, Tobias is vaguely coded as queer. In Magic Mike, we are introduced to him using stereotypically gay mannerisms to make a joke.  In XXL, Tobias gets on stage dressed like Carmen Miranda at a voguing contest at a gay club; and considering that he wins the $400 prize after the Kings upstage the club’s regulars, he had better fucking be queer because that is the only way that such an incredibly cringe-worthy scene could be salvaged.  At the afterparty following the scene at the gay club, he sits at a campfire with the club’s fat drag queen emcee (Vicky Vox), while the other Kings are paired with thin, (presumably) cis women.  (This sequence includes a scene in which Mike meets Zoe [Amber Heard] and they bond over having “inner drag queens;” ick ick ick.)

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Dallas and Tobias watch the boys do their thing

The aspect of XXL that is quite unlike any mainstream film I’ve seen in recent memory is not only the focus on the importance of pleasure (both giving and receiving) to a fulfilled life, but that pursuit is reinforced as egalitarian.  And combined with Mulvey’s theory about the gaze, you get something pretty amazing.  Instead of women performing as erotic spectacle for a male audience, you have men performing for an audience comprised not only of women, but of older women, fat women, and women of color.  So the entity in the film that we, XXL’s audience, identify with is those people:  older women, fat women, women of color.  And it’s not for the purpose of learning something or becoming aware of an issue or struggle;  it’s just to have some fun and feel sexy for a bit.  It’s a subtle part of the movie, but it’s normalizing of these groups of marginalized women in a way that we rarely get to see.  Even if XXL doesn’t answer Mulvey’s call to break down the “cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures” that enable the male gaze, it’s a noteworthy bending of that system.

See Also:

Fluffy on being cast and performing in Magic Mike

AV Club:  Offscreen dialogue is key to one of Magic Mike XXL‘s most revealing scenes

Parabasis:  On Magic Mike XXL: Entertainment, Art, Fulfillment, and Big Dicks

A scene from Magic Mike where Channing Tatum dances to Ginuwine’s song “Pony”

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Drawing the Divine: Depictions of Fatness and Race in Moana (2016, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements)

“Thou sayest thou didst see the god clearly; what was he like?”
“What his fancy chose; I was not there to order this.”

–Euripides, The Bacchae

Something I’ve always struggled with as the sole writer of this blog is the best way to include discussions of people of color.  Similarly to how Laura Mulvey famously observed that films are largely produced for an assumed (straight, cis) male audience, the US film industry largely also operates under the assumption of a white audience.  Often protagonists or other empathetic characters are white (traditionally of the WASP variety), while characters of other races or ethnicities are distanced from the audience.  As a white person, I am able to analyse and criticize what a film tells me about the people of color it depicts.  On the other hand, what I have to say is less vital to conversations about race in media than people speaking about how they see themselves. The lack of intersectionality in film often means little space for fat people of color, but when they are characters in film, they need to be included in the conversations I try to have on this blog– not with the intention of speaking over people of color talking about their own experiences and opinions, but rather to ensure that this blog is as inclusive as possible when looking at fat film characters.

That being said, last night I watched Moana for the first time.  Considering that Disney is, well, Disney, the amount of care they took in representing Polynesian cultures is notable, including an almost-all-Polynesian cast (I believe Alan Tudyk, who voices HeiHei the chicken, is the sole exception) and seeking approval from cultural experts before finalizing designs.  Plus, the titlular character (Auli’i Cravalho) is a courageous leader of her people whose adventure isn’t sidetracked by a compulsory romantic subplot.  As “Polynesian” is an umbrella term for many cultures and nationalities, the film’s world is a pastiche, with Moana being a character created by Disney and hailing from the fictional island of Motunui.  

The other principal character, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), is a figure in legends across Polynesian cultures.  He’s also the reason I’m writing this post:  Moana’s Maui is a big dude.  Before the film’s theatrical release, there was pushback against his character designed from New Zealand Parliament Member Jenny Salesa, Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, and others, that “the depiction perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight,” as noted in this NY Times article about the development of Maui’s look for the film.  A similar article from The Guardian, focusing specifically on the controversy, quotes Will Ilolahia of the Pacific Island Media Association stating that a fat Maui is “typical American stereotyping,” contrasted with Maui’s depiction in his culture’s stories as “a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature.”

The articles quote other Polynesian folks who saw Maui’s size as an indicator of strength.  The Guardian article includes a YouTube video by self-described “obese Polynesian” Isoa Kavakimotu who defends Maui’s body as “all about function, not aesthetics.”  (The video is worth watching, but be aware that it has a lot of flickering images.)  Samoan artist Michael Mulipola interpreted Maui’s physique as that of a traditional animated sidekick, noting that Maui’s “thick solid build represents power and strength,” and is “reminiscent of old school power lifters.”  David Derrick, an artist who worked on Moana and is of Samoan descent, made an insightful observation in the NY Times article: “I think a lot of those things come from people being very nervous and scared that a big company is portraying this beloved cultural character.”  Given Disney’s history– hell, given the history of big companies using cultural objects to create a product for mass consumption– that’s pretty fair.

Derrick’s comment called to mind the depiction of Dionysos/Bacchus in the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Disney’s Fantasia.  (The Bacchanal starts at 11:05 in the linked clip.) I’m much more familiar with Greco-Roman legend than I am Polynesian, and therefore am more confident in calling out Fantasia as an example of a cultural object being distorted for mass consumption.  The NY Times article points out that Maui is traditionally represented as a slender young man; the same is true of Dionysos in ancient Greek art.  Although always the god of wine, to the ancient Greeks, he was much more: a personification of the wild, the invoker of divine frenzy.  His ceremonies honoring him served as a ritualized transgression of social order. In many traditional stories, including Euripides’ drama The Bacchae, he calls women to join him in ecstatic revelry in the forest, away from their roles as wives and mothers.  In the Fantasia sequence, outside the context of his culture and de-fanged for a modern Christian audience, he is a stereotypical drunk.  The satyr and centaurs who revel with him are in contrast both in their slender bodies and their behavior.  Their dancing is neatly choreographed; they manage to keep Bacchus as on-track as possible.  The female centaurs flirt with him but never allow him to get too close.  They remain in control of themselves and the situation, a Homeric social guidance film.  Bacchus is not effeminate, as Dionysos is described in Greek stories to suggest that he occupies a space outside social categories;  rather he is emasculated, his wildness stripped of its divine power.  He’s merely “let himself go,” his fat body a symbol of excess that is tolerated for a joke but never fully embraced by those surrounding him.  Does Maui suffer the indignity of a similar process at the hands of Disney studios, 66 years later?  Even if he isn’t the protagonist, Maui does retain his heroic status in the film– he’s strong, brave, clever, and embarks on a heroic adventure to save the world.  Does the fact that he has a fat body, as opposed to previous artistic depictions, detract from his other characteristics?

Searching online for a source to unpack the stereotype of fat Polynesians is proving difficult– I’m just turning up a lot of articles on reactions to Maui’s character design.  (Interesting sidenote: the titles of many of these articles describe Disney as “fat-shaming” or “body-shaming” Maui… drawing a character with a fat body is not “shaming” them, but no worries, it’s not like you’re being paid to use words accurately or anything.)   The pushback that I’ve seen is specifically focused on Maui’s size, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of an explanation beyond that, suggesting that fatness is objectively and simply a bad thing.  Why is that the case, at least in the context of this discussion?  Assumptions about health is a likely suspect. The Guardian article mentions the high obesity rates in several Polynesian countries, as reported by the World Health Organization. Ilolahia’s statement suggests a connection between size, health, and colonialism. Even in Kavakimotu’s video defending Maui, he conflates fatness with unhealthiness, concluding that Maui isn’t fat/obese because of his physical prowess.  This is where we venture once more into the murky, mutable definition of what it means to be fat.  The reactions to Maui that I’ve seen thus far buy into the oversimplified narrative of fatness and health having an inversely proportional relationship.  It feels a bit cheap to point out that Maui is a cartoon character and a magical one at that, so questions of his health are somewhat moot to begin with.  But in the real world, athleticism and body size are more complicated than what’s being suggested.  While watching Moana, I asked myself if the desire to see Polynesian representation in film wouldn’t be better fulfilled by rewatching Whale Rider (to be honest, there was a lot about Moana that I found underwhelming).  And that thought came up again when reading about this controversy, considering that in Whale Rider, protagonist Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is trained to fight with the taiaha by her fat uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa).

Undoubtedly, the history of colonialism and racism continues to impact the quality of life of communities across the globe, including Polynesian folks.  And by not looking critically at what is implied when we talk about fatness leaves a lot unspoken about what kind of hurtful attributes get assigned to certain communities, and why.  But what is accomplished by suggesting that a fat character who comes from a marginalized community doesn’t belong in a heroic position, or even belong at all in a story about that community?  In fact, Maui is the biggest (human) character in the movie; does having a range of body types depicted still result in the promotion of a stereotype?  And considering that Maui’s character development redeems him as a hero in the eyes of his people, what the criticism of his body ultimately leads me to wonder is: where is the line between calling out stereotypes and playing into respectability politics?

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.

Roundup: March 2016

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

Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)

This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby).  I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).

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Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)

A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs).  Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero).  But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes:  the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone).  The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).

The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A remake of a  1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks).  In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).

The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)

One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities.  Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed.  Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.

Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)

I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance.  That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth).  Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby.  The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.

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“I’m not going to let her be a joke:” What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, dir. Lasse Halström)

I’ve written previously on CPBS about trying to pin down the parameters of fatness.  My approach to selecting films and characters to write about is to see fat (and, implicitly, average/thin) as a contextual label that tacitly includes socially ascribed values, un/acceptability almost always being one of them.  This open definition has room for a range of body sizes and shapes, and thereby, a range of challenges.  Most characters, by virtue of being in widely distributed films, tend to be “Hollywood fat.”  The conflict attached to their size of their bodies is the inability to be accepted into systems that are usually criticized for being shallow and elitist.  Often the impact of their fatness on their character arc stays on that level.  Muriel Heslop may be ostracized by her peers for being fat, but she is able to walk into literally every bridal boutique in Sydney and try on dresses that they have in stock.  

It goes without saying that being demeaned based on narrow standards of physical acceptability is a real, common, and painful phenomenon, but leaving the fat person’s experience in the realm of “The jerks don’t think they’re beautiful but then they have some transformative life experiences and learn that they really are” is a vast oversimplification.  I believe that challenging viewers to empathize with people and situations they had prejudged or overlooked is one of the most powerful effects that cinema can have, and fat characters are usually in a relatively comfortable place for most viewers– which is why What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an essential addition to this blog.  Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), aka Momma, is a fat woman whose weight and size impede her mobility; the impact this has on her children is a significant part of the plot.  She isn’t treated as a joke or a horror story.

Although the previous sentence isn’t something that can often be said of people of Darlene Cates’ size when they appear on a screen, make no mistake: the film doesn’t idealize or center Momma.  As with many marginalized and supporting characters, Momma functions as a symbol.  Similar to Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Momma can be equated with domestic stagnation.  She was “the prettiest girl around these parts” (the evidence of which is a photo of a younger, slender Momma on the family fridge) until her husband’s suicide.  Her weight is attributed to her prolonged bereavement, ensuring that she is “wedged” in the house that he built for his family.  “We don’t really move.  I mean we’d like to, but my mom is sort of attached to the house,” Gilbert (Johnny Depp) explains to manic pixie dream girl Becky (Juliette Lewis) with a wry half-smile, referring both to Momma’s limited mobility and her emotional constraints on leaving the house.  He continues describing his mother to Becky in terms that refer to both her size and her inability to move forward with her life:  “Did you ever see a beached whale on television? …that’s her.  That’s my mom.”  Hardly a compassionate description.  Compare her to Arnie (Leonardo diCaprio).  Gilbert is also responsible for his brother’s well-being, but highly mobile Arnie isn’t a barrier to Gilbert’s wanderlust, and is able to travel off into the sunset alongside him.  

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Momma comforts Arnie after one of his multiple attempts to climb the town’s water tower.

Momma’s stagnation also seems to affect her younger son in particular.  She cradles Arnie when he’s upset and refers to him with pet names like “my sunshine.”  Her infantilizing treatment of him contrasts with his impending 18th birthday, as well as the stress that Arnie’s siblings go through trying to rein in his childlike antics (such as climbing the town’s water tower), occasionally exploding in frustrated violence.  The film takes place roughly over the course of a week, during which time Arnie’s nose is bloodied both by his brother and younger sister.  

The house itself, symbolic of the Grape family and their baggage, is not in good condition. Gilbert’s handyman friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) observes that it has “a serious foundation problem.”   The house’s disrepair is attributed to the strain of bearing Momma’s weight; the few times we see her moving through the house are accompanied by the creaking and groaning of the floorboards under her feet; in one scene, her journey from the bathroom to the couch where she spends most of her time is intercut with shots of Tucker in the basement, observing the floorboards bending and showering dust from the impact of her footsteps.  As with other tensions that remain undiscussed, her children keep the house repairs a secret from her, sneaking boards into the basement to secure the floor that shakes under her feet.  The image recalls the cartoonish cliche of a fat person’s footsteps causing the ground to shake.

Momma’s inability/unwillingness to leave the house and reliance on her children to care for her tethers Gilbert to the house, stifling his dreams, which in practice comes across as his constant brooding.  The town is depicted as sapping Gilbert’s will to live.  Arnie’s comments lack a filter but usually skewer a situation’s truth.  “You’re getting smaller!” he crows at his brother during the film’s opening scene.  “You’re shrinking! Shrinking! Shrinking!”  But any dreams Gilbert has beyond getting out of his hometown are nebulous and largely unspoken, which Becky attributes to him always thinking about other people. Despite being a caretaker for both his mother and brother, his selflessness has definite limits. He has an affair with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), makes insulting comments about his mother to Tucker and Becky, and gets angry and sullen with Becky when she talks about leaving town, even though she is literally travelling through in a camper.  If anyone in the family deserves to be characterized as always thinking of others, it’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who is constantly in service of others onscreen, cooking for the family or helping her mother ambulate.  Amy’s happy ending is relegated to Gilbert’s narration, where he tells the audience that she gets a job managing a bakery in Des Moines, and that younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is looking forward to “switching schools,” presumably under her sister’s care.

Momma also functions as a source of shame for Gilbert.  Their relationship is understandably complicated.  She holds him responsible for Arnie’s safety and he often fails her; she can’t move past her husband’s death, which results in additional burdens on Gilbert and his siblings.  However, his frustrations with her are ciphered as disgust at her size.  Gilbert’s desires, which Becky categorizes as selfless, include wanting Momma “to take aerobics classes,” prioritizing her unacceptable weight over her grief or her social isolation.  When Tucker asks Gilbert how Momma is doing, he replies “She’s fat.”  His friend defends her by saying, “She’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen.”  

Inextricable from Gilbert’s sense of shame is how Momma is treated as a spectacle, an experience not unfamiliar to many people of Momma’s size.  Momma was Darlene Cates’ first acting job; she was discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges as a guest on Sally Jesse Raphael, talking about life at her size.  During the interview, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall… and sit there, and not have anyone notice me.”  Fat characters, especially those who are Momma’s size, are often included in films as spectacle.  Whether for eliciting laughter or disgust (often both), they often solely exist for the purpose of the emotional reaction of the audience looking at their bodies.  Many of the townspeople making Momma into a spectacle are children, suggesting that the impulse to stare at her is immature.  In the beginning of the film, Gilbert is willing to help a neighborhood child peek into the living room window to get a glimpse of her, but doesn’t want to bring Becky home, as is an expected step in their blossoming romance.  He wants to stay outside the house, making snide comments to his friends and being safe in the crowd of spectators; being seen inside the house, as part of the family unit containing his unacceptably fat mother, is too much for him.  

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The Endora community, from Momma’s point of view.

Although Gilbert eventually brings Becky into the house, Momma herself shows more courage than he does.  After climbing the town water tower one too many times, the cops put Arnie in jail.  Momma responds by leaving the house for the first time in over seven years to get her son.  She tells her children to get her coat for her, but ends up going into town with a blanket thrown around her shoulders, a coat able to accommodate her likely being a difficult item to find.  She marches into the sheriff’s office, to the surprise of everyone present, and demands Arnie’s release without having to go through any procedures that the sheriff tries to insist are necessary.  Momma’ trip back to the car, assisted by Amy, is a gamut of children laughing at her and adults giving disgusted sidelong glances.  One man even snaps a photograph.  This scene is centrally composed of closeups of Momma and Amy, isolating them in the frame and focusing on their determination to get to the car in a dignified manner.  The gawkers are seen in longer shots; we see them in groups, how they outnumber the Grapes, their feelings of disgust nearly overwhelming.  The family is uncharacteristically quiet on the drive back home; during dinner, Ellen breaks a pane of glass throwing something at a group of children trying to sneak a peek at Momma.  Although the act of going to the town square is objectively small, it is the essence of one of the main reasons Momma doesn’t leave the house:  she is made to feel shame for who she is by nearly every passerby.  Her lack of hesitation to confront that in order to save Arnie from a scary situation makes the blanket around her shoulders look more like a hero’s cape than an ad hoc coat. In the next scene, Becky tells Gilbert that Momma’s actions were “so brave… you know that, right?”  He doesn’t respond, staring at the map of places to where Becky has traveled.

Arnie has his 18th birthday, typically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence.  Perhaps still feeling the shame placed on her by the town from her trip to the sheriff’s office, Momma watches the festivities from a discreet window.  She and Gilbert have a heartfelt conversation in which she apologizes to him for being “this way” and he denies being ashamed of her.  In a gesture to both atone for the shame he has felt around Momma and to bring Becky more fully into his life, Gilbert asks Momma to allow him to bring Becky inside and meet her.  Momma, understandably, is initially resistant, but Gilbert persists:  “This is different.  Nobody’s gonna laugh.  I’m not gonna hurt you any more, Momma.”  She relents, and is introduced to Becky, who is young and pretty and slender, who embodies the person Momma was and the person Momma is compelled to measure herself against.  Momma’s impulse, literally right after the two of them shake hands, is to apologize for herself:  “I haven’t always been like this.”  “I haven’t always been like this,” Becky responds, neutralizing the expectation of shame or regret around Momma’s body, normalizing their differences.  Momma laughs, the tension in the room dissipates.

After the events of the day, Momma complies with a repeated request Amy makes of her in the beginning of the film and Gilbert’s unexpressed desire:  she moves.  Without fanfare, she ascends the stairs to a bedroom on the second floor.   The scene appears to unfold in real time and focuses both on her children’s reactions and the effort it takes for her to get up the stairs.  The soundtrack is largely her heavy breathing and the creaking of the staircase under her feet; her face shines with sweat once she reaches the second floor, and her children have to help her get into bed and rest.  Finally at peace in her relationship with Gilbert, she calls him her “knight in shimmering armor… you shimmer and you glow.”  Presumably because her body was not able to handle the strain, Momma dies while the family cleans up the remains of Arnie’s party.  As is the case with many heroes, Momma sacrifices herself for the sake of her loved ones.  

The family’s grief is compounded by a horrifying thought:  the police may have to call in extra manpower to remove Momma’s body from the house.  Ellen panics: “There’s gonna be a crowd.”  “She’s no joke… I’m not going to let her be a joke,” Gilbert vows.  Tragically, he finally returns to seeing his mother as someone worthy of dignity only after her personal agency has been eradicated.  Instead of trying to ignore or accept the stares of the townspeople, or try to fight against them, the family makes a radical decision to liberate Momma from them altogether.  The only way for Momma and her children to be freed from shame is to remove her body from the equation entirely, for her funeral to be the project of her family alone.  They remove their belongings from the house and light it on fire, with Momma’s body inside.  She is not the only one liberated by this act; freed of the dual constraints of Momma and the house their father built, Gilbert and Arnie are free to ride off into the sunset with Becky and the magical convoy of campers that roll through their town every summer.

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Because the film focuses on Gilbert’s personal conflict and growth, Momma’s depiction is mostly limited to her experiences as a fat person, and how her size affects her relationships with her family and her community.  Although this is a notable limitation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is landmark for how it asks the audience to look at the story.  While Momma’s relationship with her family is complicated, especially with Gilbert, we are invited to empathize with her, and see the cruelty and negative effects of the judgmental gaze that is so often turned onto people of Momma’s size.  Considering that virtually all other pieces of media depicting people like Momma invite the audience to embody that judgmental gaze, the subverted viewpoint of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes it essential, despite its flaws.
See Also:

No Small Parts episode #8: Darlene Cates  A webseries dedicated to the lives and careers of character actors presents a heartfelt tribute to both Momma and Cates, who lives in Texas with her husband of 40+ years.  As a self-identified fat actor himself, webseries creator Brandon Hardesty makes a poignant comparison between his own career and Cates’:  “If I turned down every role where my weight is used as a one-off joke or a sight gag, I’d probably never work again.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not such a dog as you think you are:” Marty (1955, dir. Delbert Mann)

I hadn’t heard of Marty until my partner recommended it for the blog, which was a little embarrassing when I found out how well-received it was in its day.  A low budget film version of a tv production, Marty won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was a career highlight for star Ernest Borgnine, who until that point had been best known for his role as a villainous staff sergeant in From Here to Eternity. The trailer for The Catered Affair, Borgnine’s next film, perfectly illustrates the impact of Borgnine’s work in Marty.  Borgnine isn’t the star of The Catered Affair, nor is he the most glamorous star in the cast, but the studio used him as the spokesperson based on Marty’s warm reception by audiences.

The premise of Marty is modest and relatable, set in the present-day Bronx and following 24 hours in the life of Marty Piletti  (Borgnine).  We are introduced to Marty behind the counter of the neighborhood butcher shop where he works.  He helps two customers in a row who inquire about his little brother’s wedding, and as “what’s wrong” with Marty that he is a bachelor at 34.  Everyone in Marty’s life feels entitled to comment on his lack of a wife, a status to which he feels resigned.  His bachelorhood is not pathetic in and of itself, rather the pathos comes from the relationship-shaped hole in his life.  He doesn’t have much else going on besides his job (though he does have ambitions of buying the shop from his boss).  A conversation with his best friend Angie is largely a repetition of “What do you feel like doing tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you feel like doing?.”  At Angie’s suggestion, he phones a woman he had met a month prior– “the big girl,” as Angie describes her– to ask for a date.  We only see Marty’s half of the conversation, the camera slowly pushing in on his face as he is rejected (“the big girl” presumably being someone who ought to struggle with finding a date for Saturday night as well), highlighting his loneliness and vulnerability.  Marty is shy and socially awkward, but he explicitly attributes his bachelorhood to his size and physical appearance.  “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother (Esther Minciotti) when she tries to convince him to spend his Saturday night at the dancehall where Marty’s cousin met his wife.  When she persists, his facade of resignation slips to reveal a raw, frustrated pain.  “I’m just a fat little man, a fat ugly man… you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache, a big night of heartache.”  

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Marty and Angie go to the dance hall.  Angie quickly finds someone to dance with him, but after getting a quick once-over, the woman Marty asked for a dance turns him down.  As Marty is standing by himself, Clara (Betsy Blair) enters the film.  Paralleling Marty’s introduction, she is at the receiving end of someone’s disapproval:  her blind date is disappointed that he has to waste his Saturday night with someone as plain-looking as she.  He offers Marty $5 to take Clara off his hands; Marty refuses, and watches as Clara gets ditched regardless.  Marty becomes her knight in shining armor.  In a subsequent scene, the camera glides through the crowded dance floor to find Marty and Clara dancing together, commiserating over their unlucky social lives and finding refuge in each other.  “I’m really enjoying myself… you’re not such a dog as you think you are,” he tells her.  “Maybe I’m not such a dog as I think I am,” he adds after she tells him that she’s also having a good time.

As they get to know each other over the course of the night, we see that Clara and Marty are both kind, sensitive, optimistic people.  The romantic scenes in Marty are humble.  They lack the glamour of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach in From Here to Eternity, the Best Picture winner two years prior.  Despite being average-looking people walking down a city street and getting coffee in a diner, the vulnerability that Clara and Marty share is more heartrending than the most exquisite locale or best-sculpted cheekbones could ever be.  They admit to each other that they both cry easily, with a relief that borders on excitement in having found someone that relates to their experience.  Later on, Marty tells Clara about how depressed and directionless he felt after returning home from World War II, and reveals that he thought about ending his own life.  “I know,” is her gentle response that tells us everything we need to know about her own relationship with suicidal thoughts.  What would be their first kiss in any other romantic movie is discontinued by Clara’s discomfort; where any other romantic lead would react with force or indifference, Marty crumbles into frustration and self-loathing.  Instead, Clara expresses her affection for him through her words: “I know when you take me home I’m just going to lie in my bed and think about you.”

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The pain their loneliness causes is very real, but seems to be largely due to the opinions of others.  Clara is criticized for not being pretty, Marty is criticized for being bachelor.  The film does not portray marriage or a family life as intrinsically providing more happiness.  Marty’s mother and Aunt Katarina (Augusta Ciolli) lament the life of a widow; his cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) squabble with each other over the wails of their newborn.  Marty’s friends focus on women who are “money in the bank” and fill their free time with drinking and trashy novels.  However, everyone focuses their pity on Marty, the fat “dog” who is 34 and unmarried, then ridicules him for spending the night with a woman who is too old and unattractive to be considered a worthy mate.  Clara’s introduction into Marty’s life reveals that his friends and family rely on him to stay in the state they they ostensibly pity.  Although these days it isn’t unusual for someone to be unmarried or even living with family in their 30s (I’m sure this is more true in New York City, considering the high cost of living), the implication for audiences of the time was that Marty is in a state of arrested development.  Borgnine plays him with an openness and vulnerability that borders on childlike.  I was impressed by the emotional maturity with which Mrs. Piletti was written, expecting her to be a two-dimensional Italian mama, but an early scene of her serving Marty his dinner, surrounding him with serving dishes, suggests that he is smothered by her, and that her smothering is the cause of his fatness.

The film ends on a hopeful, but uncertain note.  Initially, Marty gives in to the opinions of his friends and family, and avoids calling Clara.  We see the two lovers in their respective spheres, completely miserable.  Marty stands amidst a group of his friends outside their neighborhood bar, listening to the same “What do you feel like doing,” “I don’t know” conversation that has apparently reached Pinky and the Brain levels of repetitiveness.  The camera slowly zooms in on him, gradually edging his friends out of the scene as they suggest going to the movies or– if my interpretation of the euphemisms of the day is correct– soliciting sex workers.  Marty veritably explodes from frustration, breaking away from his friends and rushing to the payphone:

“You don’t like her, my mother don’t like her, she’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I’m gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad!”

Marty dials the phone.  As it rings, he sarcastically picks on Angie for being a bachelor, repeating the criticisms his customers threw at him in the opening scene.  Closing the phone booth door between himself and his loutish friend, we hear Marty saying, “Hello, Clara?” as the film fades to black.  Contrasting with other romantic films of the day like From Here to Eternity, which ends in dramatic heartbreak for Lancaster and Kerr’s characters, the ending of Marty is modest, but that’s what makes it so special.  We don’t know if Marty and Clara make a good couple in the long run, but the impact she has on him is enough for him to make two difficult choices in defiance of what he’s being told.  He stands up for her worthiness despite being told that she’s a “dog,” and he stands up for his choice to pursue love with her, despite implications that as a “fat, ugly man,” he isn’t capable of finding it.

“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.