Although it’s my intention for most of the posts on CPBS to be less about analyses of targeted fat characters and more about my experience as a viewer randomly coming across these characters as I watch films in a more organic fashion, I end up seeing a lot more fat people in film than those I write about here. In what will hopefully be an ongoing monthly feature, here’s a summary of films I saw over the past month that feature fat characters I didn’t write about.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)
There are a few fat people in this landmark horror film. Franklin (Paul A. Partain), one of the main characters, is fat and in a wheelchair. Although not the most nuanced character or performance in the history of film, he is given more screen time, dialogue, and personality than the other members of his group. Once scene follows him as he struggles to navigate his chair through an abandoned house, while his friends’ laughter can be heard from the second floor. I was impressed by this, considering that characterization in slasher films is usually pretty sparse, and that fat and disabled characters are usually not shown in a light that leads the audience to empathize with them. Leatherface is arguably fat as well, especially when compared to his family members; his size adds to his menace, and he is able to keep up with Sally (Marilyn Burns) pretty well during the chase scene, especially considering that he is carrying a chainsaw. In a minor part, a fat man of color driving a semi in the last scene runs over the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) before he can kill Sally and helps her escape.
The Set-Up (1949, dir. Robert Wise)
This film centers on a boxing match: one of the competitors (Robert Ryan), who is unwilling to accept that he’s past his prime, has been instructed to take a fall. Unfolding in real time, we see the fight from the differing perspectives of a large cast, including several anonymous spectators. One of these spectators is a fat man (Dwight Martin) who is shot from a low angle, emphasizing his girth. He laughs at the violence taking place in the ring, although his schadenfreude is not outstanding relative to other characters in the audience. He shown eating every time he’s on screen, going through several different food items over the course of the competition. I saw this film at a theater; by the last half of the film, a good chunk of the audience was laughing whenever the fat man was shown with a new food item.
Blue Velvet (1986, dir. David Lynch)
Set on terrorizing Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) as revenge for having sex with Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini), Frank (Dennis Hopper) forces the two of them to come on a joyride with his crew to a brothel run by his associate Ben (Dean Stockwell). The scene is consummate Lynch, a tense and menacing tableau that incorporates elements of mid-century American bourgeois culture. Part of this tableau are three fat women. Dressed in a conservative manner, they don’t have names or speak, except for one who Ben refers to as “darling” and requests that she fetch glasses for their guests. Their function is to give Ben’s house an uncomfortable tone.
Martin & Orloff (2002, dir. Lawrence Blume)
A comedy about Martin (Ian Roberts), a man who attempts suicide, and the unorthodox psychiatrist Dr. Orloff (Matt Walsh) who forces him on a bizarre journey of self-discovery, strongly influenced by improv and sketch comedy and featuring a dream team cast of improv actors and comedians (Amy Poelher, Tina Fey, H. Jon Benjamin, Andy Richter, the list goes on). When Patty (Amy Poehler) falls in love with Martin, her boyfriend Jimbo (Sal Graziano) falls into a jealous rage. Jimbo is a large, fat man with an absurdly large penis who spends most of his screentime threatening to beat up Martin, often squatting like a sumo wrestler and charging. Through Dr. Orloff’s incidental help, Jimbo connects his anger to his thwarted football career, and decides to ally with Martin.
When Marnie Was There (2015, dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Anna, a 12-year-old struggling with asthma and her sense of self-worth, is sent to live in the country with her foster mother’s relatives for the summer to improve her health. One of her temporary guardians, Mrs. Oiwa, is a fat woman. She is a laid-back maternal figure who treats Anna with kindness and respect, even if she doesn’t always have a bead on the girl’s emotional needs. She is often shown in relation to food (snacking, cooking, and tending her vegetable garden), and connects with Anna over the latter two activities. Another fat character in Marnie is Nobuko, a girl who lives in Mrs. Oiwa’s neighborhood. Mrs. Oiwa tries to encourage a connection between her and Anna, but Nobuko’s extroverted personality makes Marnie uncomfortable. When Nobuko asks Anna some overly personal questions, the quiet girl becomes overwhelmed and calls her a “fat pig.” Nobuko retaliates with some insults of her own before suggesting they drop the matter, but Anna runs away in embarrassment. Before she returns to her home in the city, Anna apologizes to Nobuko, who accepts her apology by forcefully insisting that Anna join the neighborhood trash pickup next summer.
Unfinished Business (2015, dir. Ken Scott)
Dan (Vince Vaughn) is the founder of a startup sales firm and has the poor work-life balance of every white collar American dad in every comedy ever. One of the family problems he doesn’t have time to pay attention to is that his teenage son Paul (Britton Sear) doesn’t have any friends and is being cyber-bullied by his classmates because he’s fat. That plotline resolves with Vince Vaughn giving him a pep talk about being himself. Another notable fat character is Bill (Nick Frost), one of Dan’s clients. He is revealed to be a gay man in the leather scene who, because of his commitment to his job, has stopped working out and doesn’t get attention from men anymore. If you’re not at work, here’s some evidence of how there are no gay men in the world who think Nick Frost is a total babe. No siree. He also is spineless when dealing with his boss (James Marsden), but Dan inspires him to go behind his boss’ back (so he can help Dan out).
The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
In the beginning of the film, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is directionless and animalistic. Drunk at his job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he harasses a fat client (W. Earl Brown) to the point that the man engages him in fisticuffs. He then meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fat man who is the charismatic leader of a pseudo-scientific religion. Dodd, called the Master, preaches that humans are above animals, and have forgotten their true elevated nature. He makes Freddie’s redemption his pet project; this relationship makes up the bulk of the film.