film studies

“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.”

marty and clara

 

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.

Domestic Terrorism: Feminized Violence in Misery (1990, dir. Rob Reiner)

BitchFlicks’ theme week for October 2015 is Violent Women, including an article I wrote on Misery, which features Kathy Bates’ breakout role as deranged nurse Annie Wilkes.  I’m happy to say that this is my third time being part of one of BitchFlicks’ theme weeks, and the subject is a complicated and fascinating one.  It probably goes without saying that I adore Kathy Bates, so I’m sure there will be more about her career on CPBS before long.

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Hangover Square (1945, dir. John Brahm) and the Tragedy of Laird Cregar

(CN dieting, death)

Art that foreshadows the death of its creator– especially the death of a younger artist– contains an emotional gravity that’s hard to put into words.  This is certainly true for artists who intentionally create art to communicate their pain and self-destructive tendencies, like Elliott Smith or Amy Winehouse, but for a film actor, a particularly significant last work can retrospectively take on an element of particularly poignant, even eerie, tragedy.  I have never seen this phenomenon unfold quite like Laird Cregar’s performance in Hangover Square, which I saw last night at the Noir City Film Festival.

Laid Cregar, in a publicity still for Rings on Her Fingers (1942)

Laird Cregar, in a 1942 publicity still.

Hangover Square is a haunting Victorian tale of George Bone (Cregar), a composer who suffers from stress-induced, murderous fugue states.  Despite his formidable, brooding physical presence, George is gentle and sensitive, vulnerable to the opinion of others by the very nature of his vocation.  His friendship with his pretty blonde neighbor Barbara (Faye Marlowe) would be romantic in any other film, but is chaste in this one.  George lives a life of solitude, obsessed with his art.  Although his life’s work is classical music and he is hard at work on a concerto commissioned by Barbara’s father Sir Henry (Alan Napier), he is distracted by femme fatale Netta (Linda Darnell), who manipulates him into composing popular songs for her to perform.  Netta leads him on for the sake of her own rising star, but has her eye on svelte theater producer Eddie (Glenn Langan) as a mate.

Hangover Square was Laird Cregar’s only starring role.  He had a successful career as a character actor, his 6’3″, 300 lb body contributing to effective portrayals of villains, his characters often significantly older than the twentysomething actor.  He performed with and has been compared to Vincent Price.  However, Cregar grew tired of being typecast.  He wanted to be a leading man, but saw his weight as a barrier, describing his character type as “a grotesque.”  Starting in 1942, he crash dieted and used amphetamines to lose over 100 lbs.  In 1944, he starred in The Lodger, a horror film about a man who may be Jack the Ripper, followed by his leading role in Hangover Square.  Not satisfied with the results of his diet, Cregar opted for weight loss surgery in late 1944.  The stress that the operation caused his body led to a fatal coronary a month later, two months before the release of Hangover Square.  He was 31.

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Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

As one might expect from a film whose protagonist kills people, Hangover Square doesn’t end well for George.  Trying to arrest him for Netta’s murder, Scotland Yard follows him to the debut of his concerto.  He starts a fire in an attempt to evade them, which rages out of control.  Everyone must evacuate the building before the performance is complete, despite his attempts to force the musicians to continue.  In desperation, he sits at the piano and continues from where the fleeing orchestra has left off.  The last image of the film is of George playing his masterwork as he is consumed by smoke and flames.

Cregar’s performance of George Bone serves as a grimly appropriate memorial, struggling with his mind that both created and destroyed, just as Cregar himself struggled with a career that allowed him to pursue his art but confined him in stock character roles due to his appearance.  The role he was slated for after Hangover Square went to Vincent Price.  We’ll never know if Cregar’s career could likely have been as fruitful and celebrated as his colleague’s.

See Also:

Virtual Virago: Heavy: the Life and Films of Laird Cregar

“It’s Sick, Being a Virgin:” Fat Girl (2001, dir. Catherine Breillat)

(CN: rape)

Given that the subjects of my last two posts are films about fat kids that take place in summer, I decided to use the dwindling time that remains before Labor Day to write about a third film that utilizes these subjects.  Fat Girl is a coming-of-age story about two sisters on summer vacation with their family: chubby 13-year-old Anais (Anais Deboux) and slender 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida).

A scene in the middle of the film serves as a cypher for the central paradox of the sisters’ relationship.  Elena and Anais stand cheek to cheek, regarding themselves in the mirror.  “It’s funny. We really have nothing in common,” Elena says. “Look at you.  You have small, hard eyes, while mine are hazy.  But when I Iook deep into your eyes, it makes me feel Iike I belong, as if they were my eyes.”  The core of Fat Girl is these two girls, who contrast each other in some very essential ways, but are inexorably bound together by shared experiences.  Both are adolescents grappling with the early throes of sexuality, but their divergent appearances and ages leave them in different positions socially, affecting their worldviews.  Their different experiences come up in the first conversation we hear between them: Anais claims that boys run from her sister once they see that she “[reeks] of loose morals,” while Elena counters that boys don’t come near Anais in the first place because she’s a “fat slob.”  

The ways in which Anais and Elena deviate from cultural standards of conduct are notably different.  The Criterion DVD of Fat Girl includes an interview with Breillat after the film’s debut at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, in which the director describes Anais’ fatness as her coping mechanism to deal with having her body and sexuality denied by those around her.  It would be liberatory if Anais’ body could exist without rationalization, but by now, reader, I think you and I have become used to a fat body paying the admission of meaning in order to be present in a film.  Anais is frequently shown eating in Fat Girl.  When Elena meets her summer love Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) at a cafe, their flirtation and first kiss is paralleled with Anais ordering and eating a banana split, “[her] favorite.”  The girls’ mother (Arsinee Khanjian) initially defends Anais when Elena criticizes her for eating “like a pig.”  At the end of the film, however, fed up with her daughters’ adolescent shenanigans, Mother snaps at her for opening a snack after they have a meal.  Anais’ transgression is explicitly evident on her body, making her an easy target of criticism by her family.  Elena’s sexual activity, however, is also transgressively excessive by cultural standards, especially considering her age.  She is waiting to have PiV sex with someone special, but has been sexually active with casual partners.  Elena is able to have her metaphorical cake and eat it too, satisfying her desire for sex without the effects of those desires physically manifesting on her body that would open her up to criticism and judgment, the kind of which she lavishes on Anais.  

Breillat’s BIFF interview delves more directly into her philosophy of the two sisters:  “Since [Anais’] body makes her unlovable, since she isn’t looked at and desired, she’s more intelligent about the world.  She can create herself and be herself, with a kind of rebellion, certainly, which is painful, but all the same, she exists.  While her sister, to her internal devastation, isn’t able to exist.”  Her analysis reduces the characters to what they experience based on their looks, but it is certainly an applicable factor to understanding not only the girls of Fat Girl, but the majority of female film characters.  Anais desires sex without romanticizing it, whereas Elena denies her desire for sex because she romanticizes it.  Anais wants her own sexual debut to be with a casual partner who won’t have the ability to brag about deflowering her, whereas Elena seeks a partner whose love will validate her decision.  Fernando is able to coax a reluctant Elena into sex acts through hollow declarations of love.  Anais, on the other hand, playacts being a manipulative lover, pretending two ladders in their swimming pool are different sex partners of hers.  She swims back and forth between each, whispering cliche lies and practicing kissing.  “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know,” she tells her pretend-partner, “they don’t wear away.  On the contrary, each lover brings them more.”

Anais’ sexual frustration means she observes and contemplates the sex lives of others, namely Elena’s.  Her observations are cynical, but more attuned to the film’s reality.  The audience may be accustomed to thinking of shots of Anais eating as grotesque or pitiable, but would a similar reaction be expected to the very long scene during which Fernando hounds Elena until she consents to anal sex?  Elena is too emotionally involved in the scene to see it for what it is, but Anais, who watches from across the room, is not.  The sex scenes in the film are shot from far away, putting Elena and Fernando on a stage of sorts.  We aren’t used to sex scenes looking like this; we usually see closeups of hands and faces– how Anais is shot as she tosses and turns in bed, awkwardly watching and trying to ignore the couple.  The audience is invited to empathize with her over Elena and Fernando.

Despite all the talk between Anais and Elena about sex, the act causes a rift in their relationship.  When Elena shows Anais the engagement ring that Fernando gave her as a proof of his love, Anais immediately smells a rat and begs Elena not to trust him.  While Elena and Fernando “go all the way,” we see Anais in her bed in the foreground, quietly crying.  Later, Fernando’s mother (Laura Betti)– a tacky woman who is the only other fat character– explains that Fernando stole her ring.  The girls’ mother asks Anais where Elena is, to which the girl impertinently replies that she is “not her keeper.”  Enraged, their mother ends the family vacation early.  On the way home, Anais attempts to comfort her sister.  “It’s sick that people think it’s their business. It’s sick, being a virgin,” she tells Elena, who is worried about their father’s reaction and can’t get over Fernando.

The film’s climax further parallels and separates the sisters.  Asleep at a highway rest stop, a trucker murders Elena and their mother, chases Anais into the woods, and rapes her.  Once again, the introduction of a male character demanding sex disrupts the relationships between the female characters.  And, as with Elena’s experience with Fernando, the rape is a desecration of the sex that she wants to have.  However, Anais’ reaction is to assert agency within the horrible situation.  She puts her arms around her assailant.  When the police find her in the morning, one tells another, “She says he didn’t rape her,” to which she defiantly adds, “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”  It’s a troubling ending; what first sprang to my mind when I saw it was how fat rape survivors are often met with disbelief or derision.  Breillat is a feminist, it would be difficult to believe that she would be dismissive of young girl being raped.  The film doesn’t excuse the attacker’s actions, but it does disturb the notion of Anais as a passive victim.  Elena’s experience was a subversion of her idealized notion of having sex (by her own definition) for the first time with someone she loved; once it became obvious that Fernando had duped her, she felt sadness and shame.  But according to Anais, “the first time should be with nobody.”  What happens to her at the end of the film should never happen to anyone, ever, but given that she refuses to describe it as a rape to the police, it seems she interpreted the trucker’s attack as a removal of the vulnerability she feared from a sexual debut with a future boyfriend.  She certainly does not want to be seen as vulnerable by the uniformed men surrounding her and her dead mother and sister.  Elena, whose appearance and ideas about sexuality conform to patriarchal values, has been destroyed by the events of the film.  But the outsider, Anais, defiantly survives.

I do agree with Breillat that being an outsider allows a critical vantage point; my own adolescent experience of feeling ostracized due to my weight was a major catalyst of my journey to become the faux-academic, buzzword-dropping, far-left feminist you’ve all come to know and tolerate.  On the other hand, Anais verges on being a didactic mouthpiece at times, and it’s undeniably problematic to suggest that her value system is so outside of the mainstream that she would be okay with being violently raped.  Fat Girl provides an effective critique of patriarchal sexual values, but beyond that, only a bleak non-alternative.

See Also:

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.

The Fat Person as Community Member: True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)

True Stories is a visit to Virgil, a small town in Texas where characters and situations are based on tabloid stories David Byrne collected while on tour and interwoven with songs like “Wild Wild Life” and “Puzzlin’ Evidence.”  This movie features John Goodman in one of his earliest roles, playing country bachelor Louis Fyne with a finely tuned balance of vulnerability and amiability.

Louis makes his size part of his identity, through the lens of bearishness.  At the night club, he refers to himself as “Louis the Dancing Bear;” this self-appointed nickname is reflected on his date with the Cute Woman (Alix Elias).  He describes his body, in a phrase you may have heard before, as “a very consistent, panda bear shape.”  There isn’t shame or self-hatred in this label; rather, Louis seems to use it to describe his size in relation to masculinity and vigor (as evidenced in the nightclub scene).  There isn’t an overt connection to the bear identity used in gay male subculture, but the sentiment is not dissimilar.

Similar to Maurice from Secrets and Lies, Louis is largely defined by emotions and creativity.  He is a snappy dresser, a singer/songwriter, and “just [wants] to be loved.”  He is preoccupied with finding a wife and settling down; we see him on dates with several mismatches throughout the movie.  We don’t see his size as a detraction from his potential as a husband; these connections don’t last due to personality or lifestyle differences.  There is one scene that depicts Louis’ relationship with a yogini, but since the movie was filmed in the 80s before yoga had become normalized the way it is today, I’m assuming that the humor in the scene is more based on his girlfriend being a hippy weirdo than on his inability to do yoga (likewise I assume that someone struggling with a yoga position was still a fresh joke at the time).  His quest for a bride goes to extremes: he makes a television commercial advertising himself as an eligible bachelor and enlists the spiritual help of a Vodou practicioner (Pops Staples) to help him find love.

(Quick sidenote about the aforementioned scene:  There are certainly many more insensitive and inaccurate portrayals of Vodou in American cinema, but its inclusion feels shoehorned in to make use of the song “Papa Legba.”  I don’t know enough about Vodou to talk about how authentic the ritual scene is, but considering that Papa Legba is associated with crossroads, travel, and communication, I’m skeptical.  To its merit, it does, along with the “Puzzlin’ Evidence” preacher, undermine assumptions about the homogeneity of religion in small town America that viewers would likely otherwise make about the film’s setting.)

Louis is a character of excess, but instead of making him an outlier or moral lesson, this trait fits him in perfectly with the other characters in the movie.  Swoozie Kurtz plays a woman who is so lazy she elects to spend her life in bed watching tv.  In one scene, the Narrator (David Byrne) has dinner with the Culvers, a well-to-do married couple who have not spoken directly to each other in years.  Slothfulness and social maladjustment are usually attributes of fat characters, turning them into buffoons and isolating them from the thin characters around them, but none of these characters are fat.  Virgil is a community that is united in its paradoxically banal weirdness.

This unity is further evidenced in the group lip-sync that is kicked off by an energetic fat woman in a fierce yellow jumpsuit, and the fashion show that seamlessly includes fat people who model everything from business suits to powder blue formal wear to vegetation.  These scenes also incorporate age and racial diversity in a low-key way; this just happens to be a small town where different people come together to share their love of modeling grass suits and pretending to sing.

True Stories is about a community, but if one had to choose a protagonist, Louis is the most likely candidate.  The Narrator joins the audience in outsider status, learning about Virgil’s inhabitants through the course of the movie, but the detached quality of Byrne’s performance and details such as the self-aware fakeness of his driving scenes render him as an abstraction, a lens through which we can gaze at the town.  Louis, on the other end of the spectrum, is more human than the other characters.  In a movie that embraces performance and artifice, the most grounded moment comes at the end of Louis’ date with the Cute Woman, where they put aside their small-town geniality and admit that they aren’t making a love connection:

Goodman’s performance and Louis’ character relative to the other citizens of Virgil make True Stories stand in contrast to many films where fat people are depicted with the intent of rendering them as less relatable or sympathetic to the audience than their thin counterparts.

A few things I’m still pondering:  to what extent is Louis an embodiment of Virgil?  Is his size connected with perceptions of Virgil as a cookie-cutter small town USA, the ugly American stereotype that often comes packaged in a big body?

Emotional Intelligence and Fatness: Secrets and Lies (1996; dir. Mike Leigh)

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a middle-class black optometrist, seeks out and connects with her birth mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white factory worker and general hot mess, inadvertently inheriting the rest of her biological family at the same time.  Secrets and Lies received critical acclaim upon its release, including the Palm d’Or and several Oscar nominations, largely for its talented cast and nuanced characters.  This includes Maurice, Cynthia’s financially better-off brother who is trying to keep his cooling marriage alive, played by Timothy Spall (or, as nerds might know him better, Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew).

In Fat Boys: a Slim Book, Sander L. Gilman analyzes different ways fat male bodies are used in Western cultural narratives to signify values and beliefs about human nature.  One of the archetypes he discusses is the fat detective, largely citing British characters such as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald on the BBC series Cracker, as portrayed by Robbie Coltrane (if this blog takes off, I’m apparently going to have to do at least one post about Harry Potter).

“His oversized body invokes… his mode of inquiry… Such an obese body seems more feminine, but certainly not female; it is expressive of the nature of the way the detective seems to ‘think.’  His thought processes strike us as intuitive and emotional rather than analytic and objective.  In other words, the fat detective’s body is read as feminine.”  (Gilman, 154, 155)

Maurice isn’t a detective, but like the fat detectives Gilman describes, he does rely on intuitive and emotional skills to navigate both his personal and professional lives.  He often becomes a paternal figure in both of these spheres.  However, instead of being cold or autocratic (or absent, like every biological father in the film) his approach to fatherly tasks is gentle and nurturing.

When we see him in his role as a portrait photographer, he is interacting in a warm manner with a diverse array of people in varying situations, from a nervous bride to a bitter plaintiff, trying to make a connection and get them to smile.  While his detached offscreen voice and constant insistence on drawing his subjects’ attentions to his camera give him an air of authority, what comes across more strongly in these scenes is a sense that Maurice can see beauty and humanity in everyone in front of his lens.  These traits also apply to his role as a businessman.

Stuart (Ron Cook), the former owner of his photography studio, pays an unexpected visit, drunk and on the verge of aggression. Maurice patiently listens to him rant about his string of bad luck, but also sets firm boundaries around Stuart’s claim to his business and the stay of his visit, while his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) and his assistant Jane (Elizabeth Berrington) wait nervously in the next room, expecting a conflict to erupt.

Maurice is in a paternal position in his family, although given that his and Cynthia’s father is long dead and Cynthia won’t even disclose who sired her own daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), this is his place by default.  He is a provider for his sister, niece, and wife, whose reliance on him and volatile relationships with each other are reaching a breaking point.  He describes his own situation best: “I’ve spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the three people I love the most in the world hate each others’ guts, I’m in the middle, I can’t take it anymore!”  When the film opens, he hasn’t seen Cynthia in two years; backstory that makes him seem cold at first is quickly understood by the audience during their reunion scene, where her neediness for his affection uncomfortably borders on incestuous.  (She also jiggles his belly and makes a comment about how well-off he is, connecting his fatness to a bourgeois lifestyle that separates him from Cynthia and his working class roots).  His interactions with his wife Monica are similarly nurturing but off-kilter, despite his good intentions.  In an early scene in the movie, he comes home to find her frustrated over something she won’t talk about.  He tries to take her mind off whatever it is by offering to pour her a glass of wine and make small talk; however, his indirect approach backfires and leads to her storming out of the house.

During the climactic birthday party scene, kicked into high gear by Cynthia’s ill-timed confession that Hortense is her daughter, Maurice becomes an active force for repairing communication and relationships in his family.  “We’re all in pain,” he implores his loved ones, “Why can’t we share our pain?” He tells his family that Monica is infertile when she can’t bring herself to do so.  When Hortense is nearly paralyzed by her discomfort and isolation, he praises her bravery for seeking the truth and welcomes her to the family.  His ability to wrangle the mistruths and resentment that have built up for years with honesty and love are deeply moving to Jane:  “Oh Maurice, I wish I’d had a dad like you.  You’re lovely.”  He reaches across the table to take her hand as she breaks down crying.

Gilman’s analysis of the fat detective archetype includes another trait besides emotional sagacity: feminization.  Despite the masculine attributes discussed above, Maurice could not be described as a paragon of masculinity, especially the masculinity that is often celebrated in Western cinema.   His photography relies on empathy, intuition, and patience, and often has him as witness to familial scenarios.  His caretaker role in his own family is feminized as well, such as in scenes where he cares for Monica when she is bedridden (he would probably be described as “henpecked”).  The responsibility for his and Monica’s childlessness is placed on her body, but the lack of children also detracts from his virility.  Directly after the birthday party scene, we see Maurice and Monica spooning in bed together (a setting where previously we had only seen him taking care of her).  His plea to his family for greater communication has brought them closer together, but the sexuality between man and wife is only suggested: his bare chest, her nightie, the intimacy of the closeup shot.  Compare this to the more frankly sexual scene between Roxanne and her boyfriend.  Maurice stands in even greater contrast to his sister, who is firmly ensconced in roles and character traits that are “appropriate” to her gender.  Cynthia’s history and own sense of worth is strongly tied to her attractiveness to men (her “feminine charms”), her relationships to the people in her life, and her sexuality.

Fat bodies are degendered to a certain degree in Western culture, often detracting from the fat person being characterized fully within masculine power or feminine beauty.  Even the rare image of androgyny (that isn’t played for laughs) is usually conveyed with a slender body, such as Tilda Swinton’s.  In Maurice’s case, however, the softening of masculinity and embracing of traditionally feminine characteristics put him in a position to bring about family healing, and give the emotionally fraught story of Secrets and Lies a happy ending.

Teaching and Holding Back: Strictly Ballroom (1992, dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Strictly Ballroom is Luhrmann’s directorial debut, a romantic comedy about Scott, an impatient and talented competitive ballroom dancer who gains an unlikely partner in awkward amateur Fran mere weeks before the Big Competition he’s been working towards (and groomed for) his entire life.  The story is well-trod territory: part underdog sports story, part Pygmalion, with some rage against the machine thrown in for good measure, but the film charms with its energy, sweetness, and colorful mise en scene.  Plus I’m a sucker for films that are ensconced in insular subcultures, making characters’ goals simultaneously low stakes and very, very high stakes.  I didn’t watch this movie with the intent of writing about it, but you find fat characters in the darndest places.

I would describe three of the characters in the movie as fat: Les, Barry, and Ya Ya (Fran’s grandmother).  Their fatness isn’t explicitly part of how any of them are characterized; the movie doesn’t draw attention to the size of their bodies, nor are they coded as markedly different from the thinner characters.  All three characters are of the previous generation, those who have raised the protagonists.  Their influence is that of authority, albeit in different ways.

Barry, as the president of the ballroom association and competition judge, is the most direct authority figure.  He has the power to designate who the champion is, and his rulings influence “the future of dancesport” itself.  He also cleverly manipulates the politics of the Australian competitive ballroom world.  Strictly Ballroom values veracity in artistic expression, and as self-styled puppet master of a world of sequined costumes and heavy eyeshadow, Barry is the master of the artificial.  He’s even shown to be wearing a wig, the perfect accessory for a blustering, red-faced judge who is wrapped up in the antiquated status quo and his own self-importance.

Les, although still a member of the ballroom old guard, is more balanced than Barry.  A self-described “experienced professional,” he is Scott’s teacher who encourages him to win by sticking to traditional ballroom dance moves and finding an acceptable partner for him to compete with.  While still a part of the world of ballroom artifice, he ultimately prioritizes the integrity of the competition over Barry’s machinations.

At the other end of the spectrum from Barry, we have Ya Ya, Fran’s grandmother, who embodies the veracity of dance.  She dresses plainly with no makeup or hair styling, and imparts the two central pieces of wisdom Strictly Ballroom has to offer, teaching Fran that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived” and teaching Scott that the rhythm is in his heart.  (Seriously, Scott, you’ve been dancing since you were 6 and you’ve never had a mentor or a book or another movie about a dancer teach you that?  At least it gave Ya Ya an excuse to touch his chest.)  Her approach to dance is more soulful than that of Barry or Les, but she’s also reinforcing norms. She teaches the paso doble that has the veracity of tradition behind it, a dance that is more “real” than Scott’s ballroom version.  She, along with Fran and Rico, rein in Scott’s headstrong individualism, helping him learn humility and cooperation as he corrals his flamboyantly athletic style into one (admittedly sweet) slide onto the dancefloor during the film’s climax.

So we have three fat characters who represent the authority of age and the different forms that can take.  However, their positions as elders makes their fat somewhat more acceptable, and none of them are remarkable outliers in terms of size (Barry would probably be described as “paunchy”).  If anything, the actors chosen to embody these characters are stout as part of showing their age, and perhaps as a visual counterbalance to thinner partners who represent the same point of view (Les and Shirley; Ya Ya and Rico; Barry and his blonde co-judge consort) and in contrast to the slim, young protagonists who receive their teachings.

In fact, there are plenty of movies that feature older people whose bodies are “stout” or “matronly” or “paunchy”; I’m sure that if I were to write about every one I saw, this blog would be full of those reviews, and likely say very similar things.  Barry, Les, and Ya Ya are all elders, keepers of tradition. Their fatness is somewhat incidental, something that we recognize as a common marker of age and being past one’s prime.  These three want to see the prime of their own youth repeated by their progeny and their slimmer, more relevant bodies, despite the different ways they have of achieving their goals.

II.

It took me until the day after viewing to think about the fat characters in Strictly Ballroom, because the first representation of fatness that caught my eye was a bit player.  At the beginning of the movie, Fran is at the peak of her ugly duckingness (ducklingitude?).  Not only is she insecure and unpolished (the standard trifecta of no makeup, frizzy hair, and glasses),  she is a “beginner” dancer: not only beneath the serious attentions of Scott, Les, and Shirley, but– as she repeats a few times at the beginning of the film– without a partner.

This isn’t technically true, however:  while Fran is awkwardly by herself for a few numbers during the opening scene at the dance studio, she is paired with another woman, specifically the only fat student there.  In the third act, Scott is spurred into reconciling and reuniting with Fran in part by the pity-inducing sight of her dancing at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix in the beginner’s category, with the same fat partner.  Fran is marginalized and diminished by the characters in power and the hierarchy of merit that they uphold, those who don’t recognize her as an able or appropriate dance partner for Scott.  She is placed in categories in the dance world that are wrong for her given her place in the narrative: she is  the beginner’s dance category, despite having authentic knowledge of dance that she is able to share with Scott, and she is made to dance the man’s role, despite fulfilling a very classically feminine role in a romantic story.

Strictly Ballroom: Fran and the Fat Dancer at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix

Her fat partner is a physical manifestation of this humiliation and ostracization.  Even after her skin clears up and her frizzy hair turns into curls, even after her need for eyeglasses has faded into memory, the painful relapse into being a nobody beginner is the presence of the fat dancer.  The fat dancer is a non-person, not even considered a partner by the person she’s dancing with.  She is a competent dancer (at least, to my untrained eye), but because of her body size (as in the dance studio, she is the only fat person on the Pan Pacific dance floor), she is even less a part of the world of acceptability than Fran.  Her presence is unwelcome, presenting a pathetic and humorous contrast to dreamy Scott.  The fat dancer accessorizes and amplifies Fran’s humiliation.  As we see here and in other movies– Justin Long’s cheerleader tryout scene in Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story springs to mind– slender characters are vulnerable to mocking and humiliation just through pairing with a fat person for an activity.  Straight-sized readers: consider this your warning.