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.
“I can’t wait for people to see you, really see you:” Mad Men Season 5 (2012)
At the beginning of September, I saw Queen of Earth in theaters. “Elisabeth Moss is such an incredible actress,” I thought to myself. “I wish I could see her in more movies.
Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”
I’m abominable at keeping up with series. Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite television shows, but I had stopped watching at the end of season 5. It’s been taunting me every time I get on Netflix, I want to watch it through the end myself instead of hearing spoilers for season 7, and, like I said, Elisabeth Moss. Anyway, thereby hangs the tale of how I’ve been spending my viewing time this month. I started with “Out of Town” (season 3, episode 1) to refresh my memory, and, as of writing this post, I’ve seen up through “Time Zones” (season 7, episode 1).
It goes without saying, but one of the core themes of Mad Men is exploring the social change the US went through in the Sixties. Its setting is a perfect lens for this conflict; not only is it largely set in the cultural vanguard of New York City, but it focuses on advertising, a profession helmed by the old guard who are tasked with staying current, producing media that is, at its self-professed best, orthodoxy in revolution’s clothing. Consider Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-school mentality in a space-age office, a man who experiments with LSD and hallucinates being at the 1919 World Series.
Most of the main characters are very privileged, but because of this ubiquitous dynamic, the lack of diversity often presents opportunities to comment on itself. It can reveal how out of touch they are, such as Freddy Rumsen’s (Joel Murray) myopic opinions of women, or Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) petty complaints that today would come with #FirstWorldProblems attached. We see the limits that the characters who are of marginalized identities face in ways that effectively circumvent devices such as on-the-nose dramatic speeches, such as Don’s (Jon Hamm) unwillingness to believe that Sal (Bryan Batt) as a gay man could be the target of unwanted sexual advances, or an accounts wunderkind whose career is declared over after a disabling accident that would not prevent him from carrying out his essential job functions. Characters who face discrimination, even in smaller roles, are usually treated with empathy and given dimensions beyond the politics they symbolize. We are privy to glimpses into Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) personal lives, and we are spared no discomfort when characters we’ve known since the first episode mistreat them.
Given this tendency of Mad Men to open its characters and story up to historical meta-commentary, the way in which fat people are present on the show is somewhat disappointing. Most of the fat characters on the show are small roles, but embody stereotypes about fat people. Many of these roles are steeped in class, big-bodied folk tending to be Don’s plodding clients from less glamorous cities and industries, or blue collar bit roles. The larger roles tend to be people who embody stereotypical fat character traits. The most glaring example is Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), who shows up in season 5 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is courting the Jaguar account. New Jersey and nouveau-riche, Herb is a vulgar contrast to the posh, British Jaguar bigwigs. He shamelessly uses his company’s account as leverage to get Joan (Christina Hendricks) to have sex with him. Usually, sex scenes on Mad Men are preceded by wordless, implicit seduction, or pithy statements of desire. The line Herb uses on Joan? “Lemme see ’em.” The pathos of the affront to Joan’s dignity and exploitation of her sexuality is heightened by the disgust implicated in her having sex with a fat man. Frustrated with Herb’s bossiness and unable to move past the idea that Joan exchanged sex with him for business, Don impulsively drops Jaguar. Breaking the news to the partners, he asks Joan if she doesn’t feel “300 pounds lighter.”
But you’ve seen the show. You know that I’m writing this article to talk about the fifth season story arc of one Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt Francis (January Jones), shorthanded on the Internet as “Fat Betty.” Having divorced Don, married Henry, and moved her family into a mansion over the last two seasons, the next chapter in Betty’s adventure is noticeable weight gain, attributed to her boring life as a housewife. (On a practical level, the writers were working around January Jones’ pregnancy.) Having been a sophisticated, graceful presence for the past four seasons, we now have a Betty who sits on the couch with her hand in a box of Bugles like a common schlub. “Tea Leaves,” the episode where we see her physical change for the first time, is treated as spectacle. Betty is shown getting out of the tub as if to prove to the audience that yes, she really has gotten fat.
And really, the change isn’t that dramatic. Her body doesn’t seem to be that much larger than Joan’s, who is not read as fat.
The drama merely comes from the fact that her formerly slim body has become larger than it is supposed to be.
Broadly speaking (ha), this was a time when the mainstream American beauty ideal was not as extremely focused on thinness as today, but it was also a time when the expectation of women to adhere to a set of aesthetic norms was not met with resistance. The women of Mad Men are all significantly impacted by their looks. A fourth season focus group for Pond’s cold cream where the secretaries discuss their beauty routines quickly turns into a somber discussion of their fears of being alone and ignored because they aren’t beautiful enough. The sentiment resonates throughout the show, particularly with Betty. She has done well, based on what she’s expected to as a middle class woman, largely in thanks to her charm and beauty. Her life, however, is also the most empty. She finds little joy in being a wife or a mother. Betty in a nutshell is best illustrated in season 3 episode “The Fog.” Under anesthesia during Baby Gene’s birth, she has a dream in which her recently departed father tells her, “You are a house cat. You are very important and have very little to do.” Nothing and nobody in her life inspires her to try and be anything outside of a beautiful wife and mother. (Considering how often characters read popular books of the day, I’m a little surprised we don’t see her thumbing through The Feminine Mystique.) When she gains weight, she is pressured to restore the image she maintained as Don’s wife. Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) tells Betty to ask her doctor for diet pills, since she is still of an age where her looks need to be pleasing to men. Ironically, Henry doesn’t care about her weight gain: “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but I don’t see it.” “I know,” Betty snaps back, “Your mother’s obese.” In her mind, it isn’t possible that Henry genuinely finds her beautiful; his view has been distorted by his fat, overbearing mother.
Betty’s story arc largely overlaps with her experience of dis-ease. Her doctor, giving her an exam before prescribing diet pills, finds a lump on her thyroid. She worries that she is dying, especially after a chance meeting with a friend in an advanced stage of cancer. However, once she is told that the tumor is benign, the immediately describes herself as “just fat.” Her fatness is attributed by the show to mental dis-ease. In order to “reduce,” she goes to Weight Watchers meetings, which function as a support group with discussions about healthy ways to deal with troubling emotions and stressful situations (assuming that the participants are the weight they are due to over-use of food as a coping mechanism).
As I’ve previously discussed, fat film characters aren’t determined by specific physical measurements, but rather by their bodies in relation to the bodies (and attached expectations) of the other characters. Her own husband claims not to see a difference, or at least doesn’t care. However, Betty is fat because of who she’s being compared to. Not only is she fat compared to what her body looked like in the past (she was a model when she met Don) and what Mad Men’s audience expects to see, but she is fat compared to Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré). Betty’s first appearance in season 5, “Tea Leaves,” is of her struggling to squeeze her larger body into a dress, then declining to go to the event she was preparing for because of her inability to close the zipper. Her larger body is a shocking spectacle, as we have grown accustomed to a specific image of Betty. This sequence is immediately followed by slender Megan in her underwear– no shapewear for her!– effortlessly slipping into her own dress on the way to a client dinner with Don. In a later episode, “Dark Shadows,” Betty glimpses Megan’s body, thin like hers once was, in a state of undress. Their following exchange immediately has an acidic edge to it; cut to Betty going to the fridge as soon as she gets home and spraying Reddi-Whip into her mouth before thinking better of it and spitting it into the sink, standing alone in her dark kitchen. As with the dresses, this crass image of Betty stands in contrast to an idealized one of Megan: in the previous episode “Lady Lazarus,” Megan performs as a chipper housewife for a Cool Whip commercial pitch that charms everyone except Peggy.
At first, Betty’s spite may come across as baseless. Betty chose to end her and Don’s marriage after she had already fallen in love with Henry, with whom she is much happier. Despite Don’s numerous infidelities during their marriage, he didn’t get involved with Megan until after they had divorced and Betty remarried. It’s not like she’s still in love with her ex-husband, for and about whom she barely has a civil word. But still Betty treats Megan with a petty acrimony that is similar to the relationship Don has with employees of rival firms. The sense of competition Betty feels between herself and Megan has less to do with Don than it does with how she sees herself. Her weight gain means that she’s failed as a woman and wife– as Pauline tells her, one of her essential functions is being attractive, which is impossible above a certain weight (Henry’s opinion notwithstanding). Thus Betty’s reactions to Megan focus on subverting her legitimacy as a woman and wife. After seeing Megan’s slim body, Betty finds a note from Don praising his current wife’s loveliness on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings. (The drawing of a harpooned whale would be an accurate illustrations of how Betty feels about herself.) Her jealousy leads her to reveal to Sally that Don had been married to someone else before he and Betty had met, and encourages her to ask Megan about the details. The suggestion associating Megan with Don’s deceit leads the volatile teenager to call her stepmother a “phony.” Unable to change her negative perception of herself, or the pathetic cultural trope of “sad, fat housewife” she’s found herself in, Betty lashes out at Megan, someone vulnerable to the same pain she is experiencing.
Betty is also seen relative to Pauline, her mother-in-law. Betty describes her as “obese,” assuming that Henry is unable to be disgusted by her weight gain because his mother has wrongly desensitized him. As a younger, childless woman and new bride, Megan’s position in life is Betty’s past, unable to be regained. Pauline, a grandmother with grown children, is her future. But it seems a bleak one; not only is Pauline fat, but she gets her way by being bossy and unpleasant. She takes care of the children when Betty and Henry are away, and somehow manages to be a worse influence on Sally than Betty, speaking with fondness of her emotionally abusive father and telling her young granddaughter the details of the Richard Speck murders in a manner that ghoulishly verges on fetishistic. Betty is caught between Megan and Pauline, unable to retain her equivalence to the former and terrified of becoming the latter.
Ultimately, Betty is not a fat character. Fatness is a phase for her, an expression of her internal struggle that fades as we move into season 6. The cause of her weight loss, we are led to assume, is due to adherence to Weight Watchers, but also comes with a return to her roles as wife and mother. In the second to last episode of season 5, “Commissions and Fees,” Sally is visiting Megan and Don in the city, but gets her first period. Scared, she takes a taxi back to Rye to be with Betty, who feels validated by being relied on for comfort and wisdom. As Betty smugly tells Megan on the phone, “she just needed her mother.” In season 6, Henry tells Betty that he has decided to run for office, and that he can’t wait for people to “really see [her]”. Whether due to the pressure of being highly visible or finding fulfillment in a role she enjoyed enacting when married to Don, by “The Better Half,” the eighth episode of the season, Betty is once more the slender blonde we’ve come to know and have ambivalent feelings towards. The episode hammers home that her attractiveness has been restored. We initially see her in a gown at a political fundraiser, being propositioned by a strange man. Confessing this to Henry on the drive home leads to the couple making out. Later in the episode, Don ogles a beautiful woman at a gas station. The camera pans up a pair of bare legs to reveal they belong to Betty. Appropriate to its protagonist, Mad Men has a brief liaison with exploring how complex, relatable characters are affected by fat stigma, but ultimately can’t commit.
The Story of Self-Improvement: Results (2015, dir. Andrew Bujalski) and Welcome to Me (2015, dir. Shira Piven)
Fatphobia is a complicated beast both in terms of genesis and expression, but in the USA, it is often partnered with the cultural preoccupation with self-improvement. This country has a history that pushes to the forefront stories of people who better their lot in life through willpower, gumption, and a maverick spirit: wilderness pioneers, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs, social visionaries. As inspiring as it can be, this idea of self-improvement often intersects with problematic ideas, such as the belief that buying the right product will be life-transforming, or improvements that tacitly require groups who have been fucked over by the aforementioned pioneers and entrepreneurs (and who the visionaries died trying to liberate) to assimilate into hegemonic standards.
As self-improvement focuses on an individual, its narrative is often written onto bodies. Consider the popular and long-lived meme of “before’ and “after” photos in weight loss product advertising. #notyourbeforephoto has been used by fat activists to rebel against this meme that positions our bodies as in need of fixing. On the flipside, this article by a woman recovering from anorexia talks about the troubling co-option of photos of thin people living with eating disorders as “after” photos, deconstructing the idea that thinness equals health and happiness.
The diet ad meme is often pathetic in its transparency, ensuring that the subject is more neatly dressed, in better lighting, and wearing a happier expression in the “after.” Despite the impassioned personal testimonies from activists and cheesy commercials that border on self-satire, the idea that the shape and size of one’s body equates to one’s mental and emotional well-being persists in popular media. Two indie dramedies currently in theaters serve as criticism of the idea that a thin, athletic body is a sign of emotional and mental wellbeing.
Results focuses on gym owner Trevor (Guy Pearce) and personal trainer Kat (Colbie Smulders), a mismatched pair who try to help client Danny (Kevin Corrigan) with his fitness goals. At first blush, it seems like Trevor and Kat have their lives more together than Danny does. Trevor is looking to grow his business and bring his fitness philosophy to the world; Kat is his star trainer and isn’t afraid to remind her boss of that fact. Danny, meanwhile, is a schlemiel dealing with life-changing events that have left him single, alone in a new city, and a millionaire. He describes himself as “pudgy;” his average body shape and below average grooming habits are more noticeable when compared to the athletic, clean cut gym bunnies who he constantly, if inadvertently, confuses. Despite joining Trevor’s gym with the stated goal of wanting to be able to take a punch, we quickly discover that Danny’s life is largely empty and directionless. He is socially awkward and uses his newfound wealth as a blunt tool to fix his problems, like making Craigslist posts offering hundreds of dollars in compensation for people willing to procure a cat for him and show him how to use his new tv. However, as the film progresses, Trevor and Kat show cracks in their own well-toned walls. Trevor, too goal-oriented for much self-reflection, makes a long trip to meet his fitness idol Grigory (Anthony Michael Hall), who criticizes his fitness philosophy and has no respect for him. Kat’s caustic streak widens into near-chaos as she scrambles to figure out the next step in her own life. Ultimately, none of them are in control of their own lives, and Kat and Trevor’s inability to untangle their feelings for each other shows their internal lives to be as messy as Danny’s. To Danny’s credit, he is direct and honest, even if he struggles to express himself appropriately.
Welcome to Me follows Alice (Kristin Wiig), a woman who filters her struggles with mental illness through fad diets and the gospel of Oprah. After winning $86 million in the lottery, she decides to go off her meds in favor of a high-protein diet, move into a casino, and fund her own talk show on an infomercial network. Alice’s show, entitled Welcome to Me, is an expression of how she sees her world, and her role in it; she is both the brave survivor whose life stories are material for segments and the self-actualized host who dispenses wisdom and motivation. The segments include dramatized re-enactments. Some serve as a form of catharsis for Alice, giving her a chance to confront conflicts from her past in an environment that she controls, but others illustrate her belief that she is a role model to her friends and family, much like Oprah is for her. One scene re-enacts her and her best friend Gina (Linda Cardinelli) shopping for bathing suits. The actress Alice has cast to depict Gina is significantly larger than real-life Gina, and the scripted conversation filtered through Alice’s memory revolves around Alice coaching Gina to find the self-confidence to wear a two-piece. This depiction offends Gina, who tells an uncaring Alice that she is comfortable with her body and simply prefers one-piece bathing suits. The friend’s roles are reversed in their real lives, with Gina having been a steadfast support and guide for Alice since their childhood. Late in the film, Gina delivers an impassioned monologue to Alice, telling her that her self-absorption and lack of empathy makes her a terrible friend. Deciding to leave Alice, Gina cries in frustration, “Fuck you for making me fat on your show!” On the last episode of Welcome to Me, Alice apologizes to Gina and acknowledges how much she values her as a friend. The episode includes a re-enactment of Gina being a source of emotional support for Alice during a difficult time in her life; this time, the actress depicting Gina is slender and petite.
Both Results and Welcome to Me reach ambiguous conclusions: the protagonists grow as people, but still have long ways to go in their quests for happiness. There is a sense of contentment with this ambiguity, however, as the films show the inherent problems with the idea that self-actualization is easily and automatically obtained through a fitness philosophy or a high protein diet. We’re all struggling, and nobody has a magic bullet to fix that, no matter how low their body fat percentage.
Link: Director’s Club Podcast Bonus Episode: Cape Fear & Shutter Island
Director’s Club Podcast is going on hiatus, but not before putting out a series of bonus episodes over the next few months. The topics are requests from listeners who donated $50 or more to the production of Most Likely by Bang! Films, an independent romantic comedy featuring the acting talents of my bff Jess Conger. (You can’t fight synergy, Lemon. It’s bigger than us all.)
I was a guest commentator on the first of this series of bonus episodes, in which Patrick and I talk about Martin Scorcese’s divisive thrillers Cape Fear (1991) and Shutter Island (2010).
Listen to the episode here, or download it from the iTunes store.
Pathologized Bodies, Pathologized Minds: Mary and Max (2009, dir. Adam Elliott)
(CW: mental illness, weight loss, ableism)
Mary and Max is one of those films that Netflix has been incessantly recommending to me for years and I kept putting off. I recently ended up watching it (instead of, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) because I noticed that the two titular characters are described as “a chubby 8-year-old Australian girl” and “an obese, adult New Yorker.” The description of Max’s body stood out. Other films on Netflix with fat protagonists that I’d come across tended to be more euphemistic. Paradise: Hope is summarized as being about a girl sent to a “diet camp;” the heroine of The Hairdresser is described as having a “plump figure;” and in tv series Drop Dead Diva, she’s “plus-sized.” This could be influenced by gender; Max is a man, and the examples I was able to think of and find on Watch Instantly are about women. However, when I searched “obesity,” the seven “titles related to obesity” that I got as results were all documentaries related to health and medicine, like The Waiting Room and Forks Over Knives. As a claymation drama about friendship, Mary and Max seems to have more in common with the aforementioned female-lead narrative films, where fat characters must navigate a world that ostracizes them. For Max, that ostracization often manifests as pathologization.
Deviating from my previous observation that films rarely tell us characters’ height and weight, Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) informs Mary (Bethany Whitmore, later Toni Collette) that he is 6 feet tall and weighs 352 lbs. Max is described as obese in the text of the film, as one of several labels used by institutions to describe him as in need of fixing. These labels mostly hinder him, but also help: Max was called for jury duty (a position he holds in high esteem) but was dismissed because he had been institutionalized, but later in the film criminal charges brought against him are dismissed because the court deems him “mentally deficient.” Likewise, he is able to restore balance to his life through help from his psychiatrist and being institutionalized, but the medical system also limits him by describing him as disabled and in need of curing due to Asperger’s syndrome (as well as diagnosing him with obesity). Max dissents. He feels that living with Asperger’s (or being an “Aspie,” his preferred term) is as much a part of his identity as the color of his eyes. He is an outsider, but he maintains the integrity and independence to see a world he doesn’t fit into as nonsensical because it doesn’t make allowances for him, instead of giving in to how the world has labeled him. Max’s self-loyalty extends to his dietary habits. He attends Overeaters Anonymous at the advice of his psychiatrist, but doesn’t seem to have any personal motivation for losing weight. Rather, he takes pleasure in eating chocolate and creates new dishes that are more driven by taste than nutritional value. Chocolate is important to both Max and Mary as a shared passion, and their correspondences include sending new types of chocolate to each other along with their letters.
Although the film situated Max in a world where he is labeled and ostracized by medical conditions, the film itself does not assign moral judgment to how Max functions or perceives the world. Max’s eccentricities are occasionally a source of humor, such as his invisible friend Mr. Ravioli. His fat body is not romanticized, as we often hear his heavy breathing (especially after he gains a significant amount of weight) and see the repeated image of his plumber’s crack when he sits at his typewriter. But in a departure from how films often depict fat characters’ bodies as grotesque in comparison to thin characters’, the whole cast of Mary and Max is comparably rabelaisian. I’ve never heard so much incidental farting in a film. If nothing else, casting the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman to voice Max is a strong indication that the creators of the film intend for the audience to respect Max, as fat outsiders portrayed with warmth and humanity comprise Hoffman’s career.
Neurotypical Mary is better equipped to function in society than Max, but is a ultimately a less-fulfilled person than he. She too is an outsider, but her sense of fulfillment is more subject to outside approval than her friend’s. Her body even seems to be a concentration of her homogeneic suburban environment, which is filmed in sepia tint. (Max’s New York is shown in black and white, perhaps a visual pun on how the Asperger’s mind tends to work.) The first lines of the film’s narration describe Mary’s body in unappealing terms that highlight her brown-ness: “Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. She had a birthmark the color of poo.” She too is fat, but fatness is more of a problem for her as garnering social disapproval than pathologization. “I’m sad to hear you’re fat,” she writes to Max in one of their early exchanges, “I’m fat too, and mum says I’m growing up to be a heffer.” When we see her as an adult, she is slimmer. This physical transformation comes at the same time in her life as voluntary surgery to remove her birthmark and a makeover. Unfortunately, when her crush Damian (Eric Bana) sees the “new and improved” Mary for the first time, he only comments on the dog shit stuck to her shoe. Surface physical changes are not enough to free Mary from her indifferent, brown environment, nor from her reliance on Damian’s approval to fuel her self-confidence. She writes to Max that she wasted her savings, and should have used them to fund a trip to New York.
Although adult Mary’s normative body and ability to navigate institutions like university successfully give her a certain amount of privilege over Max, he subverts the trope of fat best friend who exists to support the maturation of a thinner protagonist. In their initial correspondence, the two interact as peers, seeking advice and information from each other. The power dynamic shifts when Mary goes to university and studies psychology. This is hinted at when she is shown on campus reading a book by Oliver Sachs, a neurologist who has been criticized for exploiting his clients in the interest of his literary career. Mary finds a way of succeeding in the world that had previously rejected her, and through assimilating into that world, she adopts its pathologizing view of her friend. When Mary publishes a book about Asperger’s using Max as her case study without his permission, telling him that she hopes to find a “cure,” he reacts in anger. Instead of one of his typical wordy letters, he sends her the M typebar from his typewriter, dramatically cutting her off from receiving any further communication from him. This shifts the power dynamic in their relationship a third time. Max gains power over Mary, as his withdrawal prompts her to pulp every copy of her book before it can be sold and sends her spiralling into depression. She begs his forgiveness by mailing him the last can of her childhood comfort food, sweetened condensed milk, in her pantry. But even if this power dynamic contradicts the expected course of their relationship, it isn’t healthy for either of them. Mary falls deeper into depression and reliance on alcohol, while Max becomes bitter and angry. When Max learns how to forgive, both of them are redeemed. Max separates himself from the supportive outsider archetype not only through his expression of anger and withdrawal of support, but by developing as a character alongside his thinner, neurotypical friend.
A third important factor that suggests the film wants us to empathize with Max instead of pathologize him is how he subverts the easy symbolism of his size. Max is a fat character, but his size is not a physical indicator of greed or insatiability: he is able to achieve satisfaction. He has three life goals, all of which are acquisitions of things outside of himself: he wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, a complete collection of Noblet figurines, and a friend. These goals seem to have foundation in Max’s concrete way of thinking, as opposed to avarice. In fact, when Max is able to achieve the first two goals when he wins the lottery, he gives the rest of the money to his neighbor. Max might not even see his death at the end of the film as tragic. Mary finds him with a contented smile on his face as he gazes at her letters while The Noblets, their shared ideal of friendship, plays on TV. For Max, their long-distance relationship was fulfilling without them ever being in the same room.
Mary and Max presents us with flawed, eccentric characters who struggle to exist in communities that don’t accommodate them. However, by focusing on their inner lives and their own means of communicating their feelings and experiences, the film invites the viewer to empathize with the protagonists instead of agreeing with the labels and judgments they are forced to live with. Despite being lumps of clay, Mary and Max are considerably more human than many of the flesh-and-blood fat characters given to us by cinema.
The Grotesque: Shock Corridor (1962, dir. Samuel Fuller)
Go on stage, while I’m nearly delirious?
I don’t know what I’m saying or what I’m doing!
— “Vesti la giubba,” Pagliacci, Ruggero Leoncavallo
[CW: mental illness, ableism]
An Icarus myth for the post-Freudian era, Shock Corridor follows Johnny (Peter Breck), a ruthless journalist who goes undercover at a psych ward to solve a murder and write a Pulitzer-winning article, but suffers damage to his own mind in the process. The murder mystery plays out with all the complexity of a videogame fetch quest, but the the film has cult status due to its evocative exploration of the protagonist’s downfall. Exploitation excitement is applied liberally, including how the plot kicks off: Johnny gains admittance to the mental hospital by pretending that he has an overwhelming sexual attraction to his sister– played by his exotic dancer girlfriend Carol (Constance Towers)– which manifests in part as a fetish for long hair.
Once inside, he meets a number of astonishing characters among his fellow patients, who can be roughly separated into two categories. The first category is patient-characters, those with a tragic backstory steeped in social conflict that causes delusions of a false identity; of note is Trent (Hari Rhodes, whose performance blazes), a young black man whose sanity crumpled under the racist backlash of being the first black student at a segregated college, and now believes himself to be a white supremacist and founder of the KKK. The second is patient-caricatures, bit players who crudely cater to the conflation of mental illness with freakishness, such as the predacious pack of nymphomaniacs who assault Johnny, or the catatonic schizophrenics furnishing the ward hallway where much of the action takes place.
Among the inmates of the hospital that Johnny meets is Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), a fat man who is mentally immersed in opera. Pagliacci occupies a space in between these two kinds of inmate. He isn’t a patient-caricature: he has a name, a personality, an ongoing relationship with Johnny. He is more like the patient-characters, those patients whom the audience are shown to be something apart from their mental illness. The veracity of these personal details are open to question, however; Johnny’s voiceover, serving as an objective narrator, gives us information about the patient-characters’ lives before they talk about themselves. Pagliacci is not afforded this confirmation. Similarly, the three patient-characters have lucid moments where they monologue about their personal histories, explicitly detailing how contemporary issues intersected with their personal struggles (a signature of Samuel Fuller films), whereas Pagliacci is never given a monologue that connects him to a macro-level conflict.
The entire film can be read as grotesque, but its most vivid embodiment is Pagliacci. I use this term not as an aesthetic or value judgment on his body, but in reference to the grotesque as an artistic concept, “a hesitation between horror and comedy… often rooted heavily in the physical…the inside becomes the outside, and the outside becomes the inside.” He manifests the grotesque through a presence that speaks to the threat of potential disorder, through his defiance of easy categorization, and through his subversion of expectations set up by the other characters.
Pagliacci delivers the chaos and abnormality that the audience expects from a film set in an asylum. When the audience is still being introduced to the hospital as the movie’s main setting, he starts a melee in the cafeteria. This facet of the character is arguably the one most blatantly symbolized the most by actor Larry Tucker’s body. Pagliacci is not husky or chubby: he is markedly fatter than most film characters, even most people than the “typical” audience member would know in real life. His body differentiates him from the other characters, and likely alienates him from viewers, making him more of a spectacle than a sympathetic character. The patient-characters all have some external display of their psychological conflict– Stuart wears a Civil War-era hat, Trent obsessively makes Klan hoods out of pillowcases, Boden sits on the floor like a child and draws with his crayons– but Pagliacci’s difference is intrinsic to his body, a body unlike any other on the screen. He also has longer hair than any of the other male patients and is the only one with a beard, adding to the physical manifestation of his abnormality. However, his mental state and personal history is hidden behind a veil of music, the external event that brought him to the hospital forever a mystery– the Samuel Fuller School of Psychology teaches us that mental illness is triggered by stressful life events– unlike the other patient-characters, whose histories are richly communicated to the audience.
The fat body is often used as a warning to straight-sized people: this could be you, if you fail to regulate your own body according to social norms. Pagliacci is a portent of Johnny’s loss of control, and the last scene shows a catatonic Johnny who has indeed lost control of his body. But Shock Corridor’s horror is fueled by losing control over one’s brain. Johnny has dangerously neglected to regulate his mind by entering into the world of the mental hospital, and the film tracks the downfall that is due to that choice. Pagliacci also provides foreshadowing for Johnny’s fate through the script: “When we’re asleep, no one can tell a sane man from an insane man.” Late in the film, Johnny’s breakdown begins when he hallucinates an indoor rainstorm. “I like the rain,” Pagliacci comments peacefully, validating his friend’s psychosis. Now that Johnny is also insane, Pagliacci has shifted from the childish kookiness he displays at the beginning of the film to placidity. Johnny screams in fear and agony, causing Pagliacci to chuckle. “That was such a sour note, John. You were way off key.”
Pagliacci conducts himself socially in a way that is markedly different from the other patients. He is the first patient Johnny interacts with, and is the only one to initiate interaction (except for the nymphomaniacs). After Johnny has been shown his room, Pagliacci welcomes him, grabbing his hair and putting his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. He rouses him from sleep several times. His transgression of social boundaries, coupled with his annoying habits and erratic behaviors, fulfill the audience’s expectations of him based on both his size and his insanity. Fat movie characters often act in socially inappropriate ways, tied closely to the idea that fat people are stupid and lack control, while at the same time providing comic relief or plot-driving villainy. This overlaps with how mentally ill people are often portrayed, acting in outlandish ways to signify their lack of control and provide a spectacle for the audience, usually making us fear for the protagonist’s safety. And between comic and horrific lies the grotesque.
Like the patient-characters and Johnny, we are given insight into Pagliacci’s mind. However, unlike the memories of life on the outside shared by the patient-characters or Johnny’s increasingly frantic scheming, Pagliacci’s thoughts are music, specifically “Largo al Factotum” from Giacomo Rossinni’s opera The Barber of Seville (aka “Figaro Figaro Figaro”). This is the song that Pagliacci sings constantly, creating a repetitive, off-key soundtrack that quickly becomes annoying. What is most likely is that the opera references in Shock Corridor are chosen for their recognizability. However, intentional or not, they create an interesting paradox: a character whose mind is apparently looping an aria from a comedy about a clever jack-of-all-trades who helps two people fall in love, but whose namesake is a tragedy about an actor who murders his unfaithful wife. After singing “Largo al Factotum” while he mimes stabbing Johnny, paralleling how Canio stabs his wife and her lover at Pagliacci’s climax, he recites its final line “La commedia è finita!” (Pagliacci is Italian for “clowns,” referring to the main characters’ travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. Canio is the protagonist’s name, the character on whom the image of the sad operatic clown is based.) Once again, Pagliacci is situated between categories.
Pagliacci subverts Johnny’s expectations of his fellow patients. Johnny’s motivation in going undercover at the mental hospital is to solve a murder, and his motivation for solving the murder is to win the Pulitzer Prize as a reward for his stunt. Even in solving the murder, he has no interest in raising concerns about the safety and fair treatment of the hospital patients (in contrast to Nellie Bly’s investigative journalism, presumably a historical inspiration for the film). Johnny treats his fellow patients as means to an end, treating the murder witnesses with empathy and understanding until they have lucid moments of reality. When this seeming miracle occurs, they want to talk about their lives and their trauma, but Johnny only wants to ask them about Sloane’s murder. Even when speaking to the final witness, who reveals that the murderer is an orderly who rapes patients, Johnny can only focus on getting the final piece of information needed to solve the murder. In a sense, the way Johnny treats the patient-characters is a microcosm of the way Fuller treats them, avoiding the temptation to create well-rounded characters who are living with mental illness in favor of human megaphones for his opinions on controversial issues and puzzles for his protagonist to solve. Pagliacci, however, is not a passive font of information waiting for Johnny to open him up. He does confirm that Sloane was killed in the kitchen with a knife, and demonstrates to Johnny that the hospital patients are capable of lucidity (what a revelation). But he reveals these things to Johnny on his own initiative. He pushes himself on Johnny. This serves to both protect the protagonist, such as encouraging him to chew gum to help him fall asleep, and to terrorize him, reminding the audience of the potential danger Johnny is in.
Pagliacci tells Johnny that he “died of a heart attack caused by overweight [sic],” and claims that many people came to his funeral because “they wanted to make sure [he] was dead.” In claiming a fatal heart attack and funeral as part of his history, Pagliacci presents himself as a living dead man, another paradox. This is a small but curious moment in the film, one that unsurprisingly lingered in my mind. Pagliacci subverts the pathologization of his body, a “morbidly obese” body that is prescriptively assigned an early heart attack and death, a fate that he claims but obviously has not come to pass. Perhaps he shares more in common with the other patient-characters than at first glance. Perhaps, in accordance with Shock Corridor’s logic, Pagliacci’s mental illness stems from being told so often that his heart would give out that his mind finally accepted the role of a dead man as the only acceptable way to exist in a culture that assigns fat people an early death, similarly to how Trent’s mind assumed the role of a white supremacist to exist in a culture that maintains racism as the status quo. This moment speaks to a mind uncontrolled by psychiatry, materialized in a physique uncontrolled by medicine.
He then tells Johnny that he killed his wife: “I despite butchery! I didn’t want my wife to die like Sloane, so I gently sang her to sleep.” Obviously Pagliacci is alive, so this statement throws a shadow of doubt over the rest of his words. Is Johnny sleeping next to a murderer? Or is Pagliacci conflating his own history with his namesake’s plot? Disorienting the truth of Shock Corridor also undermines what the audience expects from Pagliacci. Is he the dangerous person we expect from a mentally ill character? Or is he guilty of the crime of passion we expect from the climax of a dramatic opera? Is he the degenerate we expect fat men to be?
The grotesque unsettles us, presents us with something outside our ordinary experience that provokes simultaneous, divergent reactions. The paradoxes in Pagliacci’s identity put us as audience members at this crossroads. Is he the dead man to be pitied, the zany buffoon to be laughed at, or the unstable murderer to be feared? We don’t have one simple reaction to Pagliacci, but all three options are common ways the audience is led to react to fat characters, and none of the possibilities lead to empathy.