Just like it is in Glassons, being fat in film is a sin.
One of the things that has been ricocheting off the mirrored echo chambered walls of the internet recently has been the ongoing discourse around Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. It started with the several-minute-long Twitter clips of all the standing ovations it received at its festival premieres, followed by the cyber-dissection of the film’s inherent fatphobia, quickly smothered by Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor win at the Oscars—for the overall digital footprint of the film to be talk of his triumph. When you search up the movie these days, it seems that the only purpose it served was to deliver Fraser back to the public eye, it’s only merit that it gave him accolades. Fraser is a hard person to dislike, and his success is absolutely the only good thing to come out of this film existing. But, having previously refused to ever watch it, his likeability was enough to get me to, but not enough for me to enjoy it, and certainly not enough to make me forget it any time soon.
Charlie, who is fat, is going to die at the end of the week. The audience and almost every character knows this from the start. Events happen in the two hours between Monday and Friday, set entirely in Charlie’s squalid apartment. Scenes definitely occurred, lines were certainly read, there were some camera shots in there. But ultimately the last ten minutes of the film play out exactly how we are told they are going to in the first ten minutes—Charlie learns his obesity has caused congestive heart failure that will kill him, and then it kills him.
The technical elements? Amazing, but only in the sense that they did their job well to enhance Charlie as a pitiful and disgusting character. The framing is more vertical than horizontal, shot in 1:33:1 aspect ratio, cutting off most of Charlie’s body in favour of showing others looking down on him. There’s almost no soundtrack except for diegetic eating and wheezing noises, turned up almost comically loud. It’s all washed with grain and brown filters, cramped and grotesque.
The film is named for the Great American Novel Moby Dick, which was originally titled The Whale when it was first published back in the day. If you’re wondering about the depth and complexity of the connections between these two pieces of media, it pretty much ends there. Charlie is fat, ya know, like the big evil whale in the book. His estranged daughter wrote an essay about Moby Dick in high school which he reads often as a reminder of her. There are wave sounds over the credits. You could, like I did, spend a lot more time searching for the deeper meaning, the reason that this just had to exist. But with only one set and four characters you’re not gonna find much. At the end of it all, I felt most connected to Ishmael—capable only of impenetrable ramblings about nothing for several hundred too many pages (sorry to the Herman Melville stans out there). This film is pointless, frustrating trauma porn for skinny people to cry and shudder and gag at.
Much of the film’s press has been eclipsed by the appeal of Brendon Fraser’s nice-white-middle-aged-once-popular-makes-unexpected-comeback-and-is-very-gracious-so-we-all-root-for-the-underdog-guy persona. It was an interesting parallel with the success and public warmth towards Ke Huy Quan’s re-comeuppance on the same Oscars stage—Fraser’s last blockbuster being The Mummy in 1999, Quan’s exactly ten years earlier with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Both personable family-men, slightly wide-eyed and breathy on the red carpet at all the attention, tears in acceptance speeches. What cleaves the trajectories of these two men apart is the stories they told, and how they told them. Everything Everywhere All At Once was, at all levels, made by people whose voices were the ones speaking in the film. Charlie’s self-depreciation never lands, because it’s a thin script spoken through a thin mouthpiece dressed up as fat self-awareness with practical effects. I didn’t hear any tired excuses of practicalities or slim pickings of big actors to choose from this time round. After all, all the fat actors in Hollywood have already been billed as comedic relief side characters, they’re not faces that fit the role! It was far easier to reach into obscurity and pull out a 90s hunky heartthrob for the job. Maybe this can be attributed to the source material, the play the film was adapted from. The theatrical crux of the show is the actor, trapped in a fat-suit, struggles through the movements of the play in real time, exactly as an actual fat person would. Fun fact, Shuler Hensley who played Charlie in the stage show, has almost exclusively played villains in his career—including but not limited to Frankenstein’s Monster and the big evil ape in Tarzan. Yup. Maybe in a way Aronofsky was attempting a perverse subversion of the fat funny friend? But I really question the intentions and abilities of a director who before now has solely produced gross psychological horror films to tell an authentic story of the lived experiences of fat people.
It is telling when Charlie reveals himself to the world, how the world responds. He makes a living teaching creative writing courses online, but keeps his camera off out of shame. On his final day alive he turns his webcam on, showing his moulding and collapsing body in full. He calls himself a hypocrite, asking his class to be open and honest in their essay writing when he has been hiding himself from them. The camera pulls out from his square on the screen to his students surrounding him—laughing, mouths wide open in shock, taking screenshots or filming him on their phones.
It is telling how neutrally this is presented in the story. The way characters treat Charlie (and the way we as an audience are expected to feel towards him) is because of their/our knowledge of his trauma, the reasons behind his fatness, his excuses for being the way that he is. These things allow humanity and empathy for bodies like his to exist, that these things are only allowed for the fat bodies that skinny people deem worthy, the ones with justification and regret attached.
Are fat people the White Whale, vicious and evil? Are they Ahab, maniacal and bitter? Are they Starbuck, searching for reason in a divine but unrealised purpose for why they were made the way they were? The Whale seems to think all these things, minus any meaningful links to Moby Dick. The only form of happy ending that could possibly be taken from the film is that Charlie seemingly ends up in Heaven? That he’s in a better place now since the world hated him so much, and the world is better off without him? It is difficult to critically engage with a piece of media that wants you dead. Whose plot is moved by your death both as an inevitability, and a resolution.
I used to get in trouble a lot at school because of my relationship with cross country. I would hide in trees, fake asthma attacks, walk the course until it went out of school grounds and then just keep walking all the way home. My parents—both extremely dedicated, competitive athletes—never came to watch me. I used to dream of stepping out of my skin at the start line, moving like quicksilver as the gun went off, an underdog like me on the podium. That was my fat girl fantasy. That was a story I wanted told. Not humiliation in the name of being healthy. To this day I’m met with surprise when I say I’m going for a run. It makes me think about Brendan’s long days in the makeup chair on set, getting fat glued onto his stomach and prosthetic chins adhered to his face. How freeing it must have been to step out of the heat and claustrophobia of that suit, the standing ovations rippling across film festivals, an underdog like him on the podium.