Criminally Insane is the thing of legends. IMDb describes it as “An obese woman recently released from an insane asylum kills anyone who attempts to get her to stop eating.” and the VHS blurb boasts “250 pounds of maniacal fury” (sidenote – I’m at least 250 pounds and homegirl is nowhere near that). Given my recent fatscination due to my weight gain in the past year and a half, and the persistence of my best friend Kapi’olani, we finally sat down to watch the thing of VHS lore and it did NOT disappoint in any way. To be honest, to be real, to be frank I was blown away. Finally, big beautiful womyn have reached mythic, mad, glorious proportions.
Let’s back up – paracinema is awash in images such as this. From Repulsion to Possession to Images to any Jose Larraz film to countless slasher finales, the image of the woman wielding the phallic symbol before/during/after murdering someone (usually a man) dominates the imagination of male filmmakers the world over. I won’t get into the object fixation because it’s literally been written about by everyone and also its boring and trans-ness is pushed to the wayside in favor of reductive readings but the gist of it is – it’s an empowering symbol. And while I WILL write more on this at a future date, it’s neither exactly a male fantasy of female empowerment or a female one – what’s ignored in these discussions is the possibility that our identified victim/aggressor can be both and that is what is empowering. But back to the movie – the reason this is so important is because instead of the usual willow-y/haunting beautiful figures we’ve come to associate with fashionable madness through film and television, our protagonist (if there is one–nobody holds our sympathy or identification more than crazy fat Ethel) is “250” pounds, pissed off, and she looks it. And we root for her, despite her casual 1970s racism, despite her murders, despite the obvious camp inherent in what is essentially a John Waters film played straight and (unfortunately) less queer, Crazy Fat Ethel is our girl. And as hollow as saying representation matters is, there is psychological value in the representation of ugly madness for me. Nobody seems to talk about it but I know viewing myself outside of myself as some archetype of beautiful female madness has enabled me more than one person has. It is so easy to identify with a trope and have that trope propel you further into your own latent mental illness, imo. Not that I haven’t always had mental problems, but striving to fulfill this image subconsciously of the beautiful, doomed, mad girl – a way of aestheticizing what is otherwise unbearable – has hurt me as much as the madness has and vice versa. Think of girls performing sexuality before having one – I have probably always been mad, but I have known how to perform it from such an early age figuring out what is legitimate and what is symptomatic becomes an arduous and seemingly fruitless task. We need Ethel because she is crazy and fat and not glamorous and we still love her. We love her because she is larger than life (no pun intended), because she is a victim of a flawed psychiatric system, because in the end we know she alone knows what is best for her because we have all been there. And maybe I’m getting too deep in my feels over her – I should step back and mention the film is hilarious, shocking, amazing, genuine, melodramatic in the absolute highest positive, and cathartic. You need to approach these films from a pure place, not a naive place per se but one free of knee-jerk judgement and critical of constructs of quality that have been hammered into us from day one because in the end they’re always changing – what could be more limiting than adhering to the social code acceptable now instead of adhering to your own?
I guess what I look for in films, besides comedy whose job is to satirize social roles (when done successfully), is the genuineness Criminally Insane delivers on. Made on a micro-budget with one set, there’s something transcendent in the unprofessional line delivery and the bargain bin costumes and dialogue. It’s the reason I love melodrama, and Italian horror, and 80s action flicks. These movies are often self aware but they never play off of that – something that is so insidiously cheap to me. While I love Rocky Horror and John Waters, I love their serious progenitors the most. Through humor these comedic films lambaste the social rules of middle class America, but the films that play this straight subvert those social roles on a wider scale, often effortlessly.
Crazy Fat Ethel doesn’t kill because people keep getting in the way of her food, Crazy Fat Ethel kills because a whole social structure is in place that pathologizes her eating habits and appearance. Crazy Fat Ethel is a reactionary, but a justified one. A big girl can only be pushed into a corner for so long…
this is the last thing im reblogging but i cant believe i spoke this much truth circa August 2015 and now i can barely write at all