Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beginner's Luck and the Fat Girl: A More Academic (?) View

Beginner's Luck: a movie James Callis co-wrote and co-directed. It's a very indie film and isn't really available anywhere offline. If you wish to see it, contact me or purchase it as They have it for very cheap (that's where I got mine).

I wrote a pretty anguished post about this scene about a year ago and have since removed and retconned it. But I feel like I've given this so much thought that I'll just go ahead and post a more academic discussion of the fat girl scene and how it could be read. I can think of two possible readings, one which is positive to the fat girl and one which is negative. By posting my thoughts, I hope to do the film justice. My readings are just one way (well, two ways) of looking at the scenes, and it may not be what the filmmakers intended. If you're uninterested in feminist/fat acceptant film readings, please skip to the next post. I try to keep my political views separate of this tribute blog, but this is one case where I have made an exception, so I'll continue to do so.

My Reactions

Let me start this off by saying that I can't truly make any assumptions about James Callis' attitude on women, fat people, or fat women based on this film. He may love us, hate us or think nothing in particular about us, and there's nothing the film can really tell me about that. Because it is just a work of art, there were lots of people involved in making it, and I don't even know how to read the scene. Making any kind of judgement one way or the other would be silly. But that's what I did when I first saw the film.

My initial reading - that James wanted to diss fat girls - was based on my own personal issues with body shaming, bullying and being rejected. I feel bad that I thought the worst off the bat, but weirdly, that's kind of how fan disappointments work. The fan lifts the idol on a pedestal, and on some level, you're always worried that you'll be proven wrong and your image is completely in your head. When you encounter a disappointment, you immediately think this is the REAL person behind your image, and he's horrible. So ironically, the fan mindset serves to create two opposing extreme images: the ideal idol and the evil idol. Neither of these images is real, and while people tend to accuse fans of being too naïve, I think the opposite is also true. Fans make some of the harshest judgements.

Something in my positive James image is probably real - he does act in a way that lends itself to that interpretation (he shows people kindness, says thought-out and intelligent things, etc.). Some of my image is projection of the qualities I most admire in a person (or even in myself). The opposite image of a rude, sexist asshole who secretly loathes fat women is probably all fictional - nothing in James' behavior suggests that and indeed even the film isn't that bad.

If I'm to go too far in either direction, I'd best lean for the "James is sooo kind and good" line of thinking. Because it's always best to think well of people and expect the best, rather than the worst. Nobody's fully good but nobody's fully bad either, and assuming things about someone's inner thoughts based on a movie scene is not realism, it's still just fangirling in the opposite direction.

And this may just be wishful thinking, but the more I write about this, the more positive things I find about the depiction of the fat girl. It may be a flawed depiction with a strong chance of negative reading - but it's not blatantly hateful or stereotypical. There is something positive there that suggests the fat girl in the film isn't just a fat girl.

The Scene(s)

James plays Mark Feinman, a young director wannabe who randomly decides to start a theatre group that would perform Shakespeare's The Tempest. He has no money, no experience and no resources, and it's all generally a big disaster. The group's first gig is booked at a seedy strip club. The owner, played by Steven Berkoff, is a crass and scary guy who wants them to take on his niece, or else.

His niece is a fat girl named Charlotte, who is shown standing awkwardly in front of the others in her first scene. Mark welcomes her with a rather desperate smile, and it's clear that she isn't wanted in the group.

In a later scene, the one I took offense with, Charlotte is supposed to be kissing Jason, another actor, for the play. Neither of them wants to do it, and Mark yells at them that he's the director and he wants them to kiss. Charlotte threatens him with "Uncle Bob". Mark then decides to show Jason how to do it - only he seems to have trouble doing it, and has to really force himself to bend down and kiss her with intensity, tho not much passion. He seems rather dizzy afterwards. (I must admit that if it weren't for the nature of the scene, I would have laughed, because James' body language here was hilarious.)

After this, Charlotte is shown rehearsing with the group, looking rather skeptical about the whole thing. In her final scene, she leaves Mark a message from a pay phone, informing him that she's leaving the group. "It's nothing personal - I just think you're hopeless," she says with tears running down her face. Before Mark has a chance to pick up, she's already stepped into a taxi. We don't see her again.

The Readings

So let me put on my academic glasses and try to parse the scenes in a rather more intellectual manner. I'll admit to my biased status as James' fan and I probably won't be able to be completely objective, but then no one ever is.

This time, I won't say anything about author intention. We were taught at the uni about "death of the author": never trust the author, always trust the tale, don't look for interpretations in the author's life events, and so forth. So I am looking at the tale and its possible readings. Anything in these scenes may have been negotiated between James Callis, Nick Cohen (the co-writer/director) and Debbie Chazen who plays Charlotte. I see a lot of negative but also a lot of positive. But this is just a work of art, not a personal statement from James Callis. I'm trying to keep that in mind.

The anti-fat reading

The fat girl is unwanted, like fat girls in films often are. She's awkward, big and clumsy, and dressed in clothes that aren't very flattering; even in her first scene, the audience is signalled by these things to find her unattractive and laughable. The uncle forcing her into the group is a bit like a scary uncle forcing you to go on a date with his ugly daughter - another movie trope - where you're forced to be polite despite your distaste for her. (When I say "you", I mean an assumed male viewer who finds slim women attractive. Which seems to be the only type of viewer who would enjoy this kind of scene.)

The kissing scene is a replay of an old stereotype: kissing the fat ugly girl. Mark tries his best, but simulating attraction to Charlotte is an impossible task and he proves it by being so repelled by her that he can barely touch her lips at all. We're supposed to side with Mark and Jason, find Charlotte unattractive and sympathize with guys who have to pretend to kiss her. There are also other instances in the film where Mark finds a girl unattractive and favors another, this being only the most obvious one.

Perhaps it's also a joke on the guy: Jason is skinny and has glasses, and a girl wouldn't be expected to find him attractive. So the joke is on both of them, but mostly on Charlotte.

The fat girl is the epitome of the unwanted loser. When even she leaves and tells Mark he's hopeless, that pretty much shows us what a sad nobody Mark truly is, and how ridiculous his ambitions with this play. As the actual story of the film unfolds, we're ready to discard the fat girl and focus on the actual characters. The viewers aren't expected to sympathize with or care about the fat girl, so it's best to not have her in the scenes for any longer than necessary.

Kissing the fat girl is a throwaway joke, a typical (especially British) film trope. The underlying idea - which may or may not have been acknowledged by the filmmakers - is that a woman's most important quality is her attractiveness. Julie Delpy's eteric blonde beauty compared to Charlotte's clumsiness or Alex and Chloe's (the other "ugly girls" in the film) tomboyish appearances serves to strengthen beauty ideals. Nothing revolutionary about this indie film.

The pro-fat reading

Charlotte knows she is unwanted. She enters as a kind of victim of her (clearly sexist and scary) uncle. Who knows if she even wanted to be in this? Maybe her uncle forced her to come into the group. Or maybe she has ambitions she hasn't been able to realize, perhaps due to size discrimination. She's pretty daring to come at all, considering that the other members of the group clearly don't want her, and she looks scared but defiant.

In the kissing scene, Charlotte refuses to be kissed. The tables are turned: rather than being the unwanted ugly girl, she rejects the possibility to be kissed. Realizing there is no sexual chemistry, she tries to let Mark know that she's not willing to be humiliated like this. Mark makes a fool of himself by forcing it, and Charlotte is deeply offended by this.

Mark's distaste for kissing her could be about his sexual taste -not everyone likes fat women, and nothing offensive about that - or the fact that he's currently mad at her and is doing this to prove a point. The important part is her reaction: her defiance, her voice, her being hurt. Mark is generally shown to be a sexist idiot who doesn't know how to behave with the girls in the group, and the girls' hurt feelings are always displayed. We are not meant to sympathize with Mark.

Possibly the smartest member of the group, Charlotte realizes she should be leaving rather than staying on a sinking ship. Moreover, she's tired of being the unwanted fat girl in the group, and she knows this will not change. She may cry at the offense and humiliation, but she's not a passive victim. By leaving alone in a taxi, she takes her destiny in her own hands and breaks away from her oppressive uncle and the sexist guys in the group. She doesn't wait for Mark's response on the phone, because she's made up her mind. Mark tries to plead her to come back, but she's already left. She could have stayed on until the end of the film, being ridiculed for her weight, having more and more humiliating situations, but she wasn't. She cried and she left. This is a nice twist.

Charlotte is played by a fat woman, not a skinny girl in a fat suit. She is never shown eating - not even in the end when she's crying - and is generally as much of a character as any of the slim girls. Her weight is never referred to explicitly by anyone in the film, she has a name, and she has a voice. She is a strong fat female character, and this bodes well for the film's view of women. (In general, the women in the film are spunky and have a voice.)


Um, conclusion. I don't really have one. Well, I've written this out of my system. I'm not sure how to read all of this, but I see I had a lot more to say in terms of the positive reading, and maybe that means something. If you've seen the film and want to weigh in, please leave a comment. I'd be curious to hear other views.

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