Food For Thought: Oh Look! A Deli Meat* (A Lacanian Reading of Heavyweights)

Food For Thought: Oh Look! A Deli Meat* (A Lacanian Reading of Heavyweights)

Written by, Alex Danckwerth

The idea to do a Lacanian reading of Heavyweights came to fruition mostly
as a joke between a friend of mine and myself, but when I sat down to
review the film a couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that there were
indeed a number of aspects in it that I could identify as “Lacanian,” and
possibly even an overarching, primary way to decode the film (a la
Mulholland Dr and Oldboy being dreams.) The boiled-down version of the
plot is this: Gerry is a portly young boy on the verge of puberty. His
parents (more specifically his father, played by Jeffrey Tambor) view his
weight as a problem that must be dealt with, so Gerry is sent to fat
camp. At first everything seems great for Gerry, as it is really just a
summer camp with exclusively fat campers, not necessarily a weight loss
camp. But upon arriving, the founders and original owners of the camp
(played by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) announce they have sold the camp
to who can best by described as a “fitness-Nazi,” Tony Perkis (Ben
Stiller.) The majority of the film shows Tony Perkis terrorizing the
campers, acting extremely unreasonable, and exerting his power in comedic
ways until the campers (assisted by lovable and also portly counselor
Pat) ultimately imprison him and begin a more reasonable weight loss
program. Parent visiting day comes, and as the campers prepare to reveal
the evil nature of Tony to their parents he escapes his cell and makes a
fool of himself only to have his father, Tony Perkis Sr. (also played by
Ben Stiller) arrive and take the deed away from him. Order is restored,
Pat becomes the owner of the camp and the campers go on to win the annual
“decathlon” event against the rival camp across the lake, everyone lives
happily ever after, etc.
My first idea about the film is that it could be understood as a dream of
Gerry’s. I propose that from the moment his parents tell him about fat
camp, Gerry could technically be having a dream and working out issues he
has with his father. The splitting of his real father into Pat and Tony,
who become the Oedipal/symbolic father and the anal/imaginary father,
supports this notion. Gerry is shown in the opening credits as
emasculated in a certain way due to his weight problem, and its shown
there is clearly some tension about it between him and his father when
Gerry proclaims “why don’t you go to fat camp, you’re fatter than I am!”
Gerry’s “Oedipalization” is also something I struggled with while trying
to understand the film. Part of me wants to say that the film is showing
the process of his induction into the symbolic order, with fatness/love
of food taking the place of the “fantasy of power” one gives up in
exchange for all of the guarantees of functioning in the symbolic order.
If looked at this way, we would say that by the end of the film Gerry
understands his father is right about him needing to lose weight and that
his acceptance of this is akin to him entering the symbolic order.
Gerry’s father calls Gerry’s weight a problem to be “nipped in the bud”
in the beginning of the film, it is easy to read all of this as a father
issuing laws and rules for the son to fall in with the rest of society.
Gerry’s real father in the film is clearly the Oedipal father in this
way, but Pat takes on this role when Gerry goes to camp/enters the
fantasy of the camp. Pat is entirely powerless against Tony for the
majority of the film and would appear as not father-like (in a Law sense)
until Tony is incapacitated. As soon as Tony is out of power so to speak,
Pat jumps right in to maintain order, the same order Gerry’s real father
put in place. It’s almost as if after the terrifying encounter with the
anal father Gerry is finally ready to accept the Law his symbolic father
has put in place, whether it is enforced by Pat or his actual father. It
is also of note that after the campers incapacitate Tony, Pat meets with
him in the first (seemingly) equal terms of the whole film. While at
first Pat is sympathetic and extends a hand of help to Tony, Tony
immediately threatens Pat, specifically saying he will injure his
genitals to the point where he can “never have children.” That specific
threat seemed interesting to me, especially given that this is the one
real exchange between the symbolic and imaginary fathers. At the point
where the lawless father is contained by the same people he terrorized,
he threatens his good-guy double with castration. If we think in terms of
real-imaginary-symbolic, we could put forth the idea that Gerry (though
much, much older than a baby and clearly all mentally together) exists in
the imaginary, with his mother still the whole of his existence. In the
process of turning his desire for his mother into the Name-of-the-Father,
Gerry could see his father’s “skinniness” as the imaginary phallus (the
“cool” thing Mom likes about Dad,) work out the problem within the
dream/fantasy (the story of the film,) and accept the idea of the phallus
and enter the symbolic order through realization that weight loss is how
he will one day have his very own Mommy.
The position of food in the film is also a rather interesting one. I still
don’t know quite what to make of it. As I stated earlier, it could be the
fantasy of power the pre-symbolic person experiences before their
induction. It could also be seen as the objet petit a, I think, in that it
provides a temporary illusory escape from the oppressive laws of the
fathers. Food is taken in to make up for some kind of lack, but produces a
part of that lack at the same time, the blessing and the curse.
Consumption of food is the only thing that satisfies the lack, but the
dependence on the food creates the feeling of lack as well. In a couple of
scenes in particular, I feel as if food could be jouissance in a way, or a
vessel for jouissance to pass through. After the campers take down Tony
for the first time, there is a scene that I can best describe as a food
orgy. In fits of ecstasy, the campers devour Twinkies, pizzas, cookies,
and cakes of all sorts while decadent classical music accompanies the
visuals. There is a tribal element to the whole thing as well, many of the
campers have appropriated chocolate syrup and jelly to use as war paint
and some are adorned with headdresses and other festive accessories. The
campers seem not there in a sense, just their pure enjoyment. And if we
still think of the blessing/curse dynamic of the food as objet petit a, it
is clear how the food as jouissance is a destructive form of enjoyment, a
pleasure in one’s specific brand of pain.
Gerry is also at a very peculiar age, still pre-pubescent but right on the
verge of puberty (this will be of importance later when I discuss the
presence of women in the film.) He is clearly subjected to the “Law” of
his father at home but doesn’t seem to be actively chasing after girls as
evidenced by an awkward dance scene in the film. In a voiceover, Gerry
claims that Tony arranges the dance between the fat camp and a nearby
girl’s camp to “humiliate them into losing weight.” This scene is the one
I feel best exemplifies the extreme senseless sadism of Tony Perkis as the
anal father. The dance is going extremely awkwardly, with lots of gazing
between both sides of dancers (none of whom are actually dancing,) when
one of the counselors begins to dance wildly. This incites both the fat
male campers and the “normal” female campers to shed their insecurities
and enjoy the dance the best they can. After just a few short moments of
both sides having what appears to be a rather good time, the music
abruptly stops and Tony enters the auditorium declaring “the dance is
over, everybody go home.” No explanation is offered for the incident at
any point afterwards. It is clear to the viewer that the dance was only
organized to humiliate the boys, and this is Tony’s reason for cancelling
it. He simply wants them to be pained at every turn. Any reaction but
disgust from the female campers would have warranted the cancellation by
Tony.
Another interesting aspect of Tony’s reign as anal father is his
extremely forceful jouissance. Tony Perkis, as a character in film, is
the master of “enjoy this!” When he is first introduced he delivers a bit
of a speech on how, amongst other things, it is his first time ever
interacting with children in his life (a whole new level of weirdness to
the anal father) and that the campers will lose weight this summer. They
will enjoy it too. He quite literally details the pleasure the campers
will derive from his new weight loss program. From his introduction
onwards, Tony is an exemplary sadist of huge proportions. He wakes the
campers up on the first day over the PA system by saying “do you have
value? Not yet.” In another scene, Tony enters the campers cabin (where
the boys have precariously hid a wealth of snacks) and forcibly
penetrates their beds with a knife in search of the hidden treats. During
this process, he even states (in an extremely sadistic tone) that in
order for his system of fitness and weight loss to work, he must “remove
all temptation” from their lives. He then confronts Gerry and actually
says “I’m sure your father wouldn’t want to hear you’re a destroyer, now
would he?” The entire character of Tony Perkis just reeks of the anal
father beyond belief. If we still think of food in the film as possibly
being jouissance, this scene right here is “pere jouissance” himself,
coming to steal it from the campers. (*It is in this food-raiding scene
where Tony discovers a painfully phallic salami, and proclaims, “oh look,
a deli meat!) In a later scene, Tony literally says, “It’s amazing what a
little food deprivation can do to adjust your attitude!” As the film
progresses, both the campers and Tony himself begin referring to him as
“uncle” Tony, which in itself would seem to refer to his evil father-like
qualities (how many stories feature some kind of crooked uncle, and which
family member is most similar to the father figure?) Tony appears as a
sadomasochist type figure many times throughout the film, I think to aid
in his portrayal as the crazed power/pleasure/pain-hungry Uncle Tony. In
one shot he lays on a bed of nails as an assistant smashes a large block
of ice on his stomach; in the scene preceding his capture by the campers,
he performs acrobatics on an unstable branch overhanging a large cliff,
the whole time shouting in exuberance and excitement. This particular
occurrence is provoked by one camper saying, “We want to have some fun,”
to which Tony responds “let’s have some fun.” He clearly derives pleasure
from both his own pain and the pain of others; I’m not sure which one is
more pleasurable to him.
In a return to the idea of Gerry’s time at camp as a dream/fantasy, that
concept comes full circle at the end of the film when Tony makes his
“final stand” of sorts in front of all the parents. He babbles about his
life’s problems and talks of how he is “too strong,” and how Gerry
specifically is “too weak,” all the while stepping on broken glass.
Gerry’s real life father then punches Tony in the chest, knocking him to
the ground. This exact moment is effectively when Gerry’s “fantasy” is
over. The menacing anal father is gone again, and Gerry has learned to
accept the Law, the Name-of-the-Father, and his actual father (whom he
may have had a problem with) is now there in place of Pat and Tony. Pat
still has a presence in the remaining section of the film, but not in the
place of the symbolic father in the fantasy he was before.
One other thing I wanted to discuss, that I observed as almost an entirely
different part of the film, is the presence of the camp nurse, Julie.
Although there are a couple of other female roles in the film, Julie’s is
the only one with multiple lines and a real presence. The very first
moment she shows up, she appears as a threatening woman to Pat, asking him
for directions to a building. He literally freezes in her gaze and cannot
answer her. From that point on, every time Julie appears on screen, it is
in some way overpowering to the male characters. They almost all lose
composure when she is around, and her look especially has an intense
power. I feel like Julie, as the sort of lone female in the film,
especially in the camp segment functioning as Gerry’s fantasy, is
representative of females in general to Gerry at that point. The female is
the zenith of desire (Gerry’s mother, keeping with the idea of him being
in the imaginary) but before entering into the symbolic, she can also be a
terrifying threat. Only after Gerry makes the deal to enter into the
symbolic (shed multiple pounds of flesh, not just the one) can he too
“have” a female and be the overpowering force over them instead of the other way around.

(Originally posted from poolspace.net)