Phat Girlz (2006)

If Phat Girlz is about desire, for viewers even more than actors or characters, it is also about how that desire is constructed by images.

Phat Girlz

Director: #233;
Display Artist: Nnegest Likké
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Mo'Nique, Joyful Drake, Kendra C. Johnson, Eric Roberts, Jimmy Jean-Louis
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-04-07

What's most striking about Phat Girlz, the new Mo'Nique vehicle, is not what you think. Yes, she plays a character you know (Jazmin Biltmore), brassy, angry, and smarter than everyone else. And yes, she makes the case, eventually, that plus-size women deserve respect and love and all kinds of sexual pleasure, rather than derision and ridicule. But as first-time director Nnegest Likké's movie fulfills these expectations, it also offers up some indictments of mainstream media that strike resonant chords with its target audience. Indeed, at times the audience approval of Mo'Nique's famous sass was so loud that punch lines were indecipherable. Mo'Nique fans love her absolutely and unconditionally. And that warrants consideration.

Phat Girlz begins with Jazmin blissful. She's carried on a throne by buff men, and as she's set down, they approach her nether realm with the visible intent to "Bring mama home, baby!" The fact that this gloriously over-the-top first scene is intercut with Jazmin in her bed, dreaming it, sets up her desire, certainly, but it also, in another way, sets up yours. Whether this involves watching Mo'Nique as a character or object, point of identification, hilarity or anxiety has to do with where you sit, of course.

That the movie invites any or all of these possibilities makes it quite like The Parkers, her five-year sitcom with Countess Vaughan (late of Celebrity Fit Club). That is, the show and the movie solicit a range of viewers, deploying images occasionally reminiscent of those critiqued in Bamboozled, clownish, dispiriting efforts to entertain at any cost. Mo'Nique -- and more specifically, her costars -- perform comedy that involves abuse and ridicule. Whether they come back in triumph or come back for more of the same is less important than the laughs generated by the moments of abuse.

These images might be contrasted with Mo'Nique's standup work, which is more specifically located (her perspective), more robust, and more effective. Everyone knows that getting over for a "wide" audience means compromising, but the ambiguity in Phat Girlz doesn't always seem deliberate. (This even while understanding that authorial intention is a fiction and meaning is always left to the vagaries of consumers anyway.)

Jazmin's desire is thwarted daily, of course, in several ways. First, she's confronted by her roommate/cousin Mia (Joyful Drake), an aerobics instructor whose preferred daytime costume is a sweet little sports-bra and terry-clothy short-shorts. Her abs are spectacular, her face is a little taut, and she resides in Jazmin's own memory bank as one of the bijillion "skinny bitches" who tortured her as a child and on into her adulthood, calling her names, pathologizing her appearance, and moralizing her inability to "be a size five." (These childhood traumas are rendered in still photos, where Jazmin is played by Raven Goodwin, looking dejected or horrified or utterly despondent as thin girls harangue her.)

Working in a department store with her plus-size friend and floor supervisor Stacey (Kendra C. Johnson), Jazmin is further demoralized and frustrated, as still more "skinny bitches" shop and roll their eyes at the workers. In one Jazmin's-perspective moment, a white woman with a black boyfriend and hair in perpetual windblown-look passes by, glorying in her beauty and her boyfriend's pride. Worse, sort of, the girls' boss, Dick (Jack Noseworthy -- what happened to his career?) refuses to grant her even a smidgen of access to the store's women's line buyer, Robert (Eric Roberts -- speaking of lost careers). Jazmin gets piddly pleasure from calling Dick "Dickface," a joke that wears out in one telling (as does the "skinny bitches" joke, but both are repeated incessantly), but really, she wants to show her designs to Robert: she sews her own styley outfits, and wants to provide for all plus-size women, currently condemned to wearing clothes that look like "upholstery."

Jazmin gets a modicum of revenge for her diurnal stifling when, following an embarrassment at a club (a man laughs at the very idea that he'd give Stacey and Jazmin a ride home), the big girls plus Mia stop for a late-night meal at "Fatasssbuger." Here she provides a lively dozens show, though her opponent, a clerk with a pimple on his lip (Charles Duckworth, taller than when he appeared in 13), has no wit. His "you're so fat" jokes don't begin to compare with her "you're so ugly" comebacks, which makes her triumph hollow at best. At this point, you might be wondering what the film has in mind.

A contrivance (Jazmin wins a contest) sends the girls to a Palm Springs spa, where they meet doctors from Nigeria who prefer women of Jazmin and Stacey's mode, and disdain the preening Mia, who goes on to endure all manner of insult for the rest of the film, as she is judged as harshly as any plus-size woman ever. The film's logic here -- that inverting the hierarchy of men's assessments of beauty, from thin to large, amounts to retribution and redemption -- is surely troubling. It's not even redressed when, later, this logic appears changed up, somewhat: Jazmin redclares her love for her cousin, in spite of Mia's seeming behavior as a "hater." (And there's one more step, at film's end, when Mia is fully absorbed into phat-girlz' self-love, and appears voraciously stuffing her face with platefuls of food: she looks more sad than funny here, and it seems unnecessary mockery of a character who has already paid a price for her "skinny bitchiness.")

The other part of this logic, that men's desire determines women's worthiness, is certainly not unique to Phat Girlz. It's not even the film's only means to grant Jazmin, at least, as she does eventually sell her designs and become a spokesperson for something like plus-size women's rights (Stacey, however, has no such self-identity-making, but rides along as entourage to her friend's success).

Jazmin's designated man is the extraordinary hard-abbed object Tunde (Jimmy Jean-Louis), Stacey's is Akibo (Godfrey). While the secondary couple gets busy almost instantly -- he removes Stacey's glasses and their tongues go down each other's throats, in overwrought and repetitive sex-as-comedy scenes -- Tunde respects Jamzin, and asks her to respect herself. He suggests that calling herself a "bitch" only reinforces a mainstream contempt for women generally and black women in particular, that she is intelligent and worthy, that her beauty comes from within, etc. Jazmin believes this, then doesn't, then falls into a fit of psycho behavior that leaves her ripping up her bedroom and collapsed in tears (the scene is painful, in part because Mo'Nique, for all her talents, is not a compelling actor, yet, and in part because the point is so clichéd). Her self-redemption process follows quickly, as the movie provides the requisite "happy endings," about four more than it needs, frankly.

If Phat Girlz is about desire, for viewers even more than actors or characters, it is also about how that desire is constructed by images. Disappointingly, as much as it might have offered alternative imagery, the movie falls back on very familiar imagery. Mo'Nique can be unfamiliar, unsettling, and provocative, but she can also be exactly what you expect. Let's hope she finds a vehicle that allows more surprises.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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