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The Writer’s Room: Food Films

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Everyone dies—until then, we eat. We eat to stave off death, and we eat to enrich our lives. We eat alone, we eat with other people. We talk about what we ate, and we talk about where to eat it. Some food is for the public, available at grocery stores and restaurants, while other food is rarer. Like theater, it can exist entirely within a single moment in time, never again able to be reproduced, no two cupcakes identical to one another.

In cinema, scenes of food and eating range the full gamut of narrative symbolism to extravagant food porn. Unwind from Thanksgiving with our writers, as we review all that food-themed cinema has to offer.


Marleen Apodaca, Blogger

Hook

Hook (1991):

Hook has always been a beloved film of mine, particularly since Robin Williams is in the lead role. In this tale, Peter Pan was so consumed by adulthood in the real world that he forgot what it was like to have a childlike sense of wonder and imagination. The infamous Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps his children, and Peter is pulled back into the enchanting realm of Neverland. To rescue his kids, he must regain his powers by tapping into his imagination.

My favorite scene is where Peter sits down to eat with the Lost Boys and everyone simultaneously yells ”Grace!” without saying the full prayer. They begin digging in, but the food bowls are barren. The scene comically unfolds when Peter looks at the boys in disbelief as they are savoring unseen delicacies while nothing but hot steam puffs out of the uncovered trays. Everyone is munching away while Peter is trying to make sense of everything. Rufio (Dante Basco), the leader of the boys, makes fun of Peter for being unable to use his imagination.

Rufio and Peter sling insults at each other while the rest of the boys make snide remarks. Once Peter uses his imagination by flinging a spoonful of cake icing at the Rufio, he is able to see the beautiful banquet that is in front of him. There is roasted chicken with vegetables and a variety of pastries. The best part is the massive food fight, and everyone is having fun.

This scene always made me hungry, and I wished I could jump into the television screen to eat with everyone at the table. Hook is definitely one of those movies that take me back to a simpler time with food fights and an era where Williams was still in the world making amazing films. Bangarang!


Dani Shi, Blogger

In The Mood For Love

In the Mood for Love (2000):

Teases of shadow food, food that is abstracted away into signifiers and then traded up as a mode of unreliable currency, seem to haunt the landscape of our favorite Wong daoyan’s aesthetic vision. Bartered free lunches hang on the air between Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and his cubicle mate (no omakase bribes here, Faye); a communal industrial-grade rice cooker is gifted to bestow peace, love, unity, and respect.

Of course, we find that it is a business trip souvenir from Mrs. Chan’s (Maggie Cheung) husband, who sends greetings from Japan. The Chatty Cathy neighbors are wondering, why does Mrs. Chan dress up like that for noodles and The Alley? Cutting into her Americanized beefsteak while Chow dollops a bit of exotic-looking horseradish onto its outer regions, she cocks an ear as he says, “I called your office, wanting to hear your voice.” Just like my husband. He’s quite the sweet-talker. Poised now with a bowl, chopsticks gripped tightly in one posed hand, thumbs out.


Connor Davis, Blogger

Super Size Me

Super Size Me (2004):

I can’t think of many films that so directly highlight the gluttony, greed, and greasy excess of American consumerism through food and food alone like 2004’s Supersize Me. As evidenced by the other entries in this writer’s room, food is such an integral part of our system of signs. The Thanksgiving dinner must be replete with turkey, gravy, stuffing, some variety of potato. Perhaps a corn-based dish. The late-night pizza delivery pairing a sweaty Halo 2 LAN party. An elegant surf and turf which complements a good wine, which complements a good blazer, not too flashy, yet broadcasting a subdued wealth and style. What is McDonald’s role in it all, then? Those golden, almost luminous arches on the hill? This answer ends up being the most interesting element of Morgan Spurlock’s incendiary documentary.

McDonald’s had always styled itself as fun. Its cast of zany characters fronted by Ronald McDonald, the always smiling clown, and the strident yellows and reds of both interior and exterior are evidence of this. Birthday parties were thrown there. Happy Meals with accompanying toys. That was McDonald’s place in our complex yet necessary system. Spurlock’s modus operandi was not, however, to deconstruct this meaning, but to succumb willingly to the veritable PlayPlace® ball-pit of Herculean consumption of McDonald’s menu items as his only source of sustenance for 30 days, documenting its effects on the human body.  This movie is what the Saw franchise is for food. Spurlock documents his weight gain (24.5 pounds), cholesterol spike (230 mg/dL), and drastic behavioral changes through the course of the experiment. He quickly begins to crave McDonald’s; his headaches and mood swings are alleviated after he finally procures a meal.

Like Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers or Woodward and Bernstein with Watergate, Spurlock delivered to us the caustic findings of a McDonald’s-only diet. Hyperbole aside, the film is an interesting, and truly sad, look into the reality of a surprising number of Americans whose diets do consist principally of fast food.

But Spurlock’s film didn’t just discuss our health in relation to fast food. It allowed us to think about its emotional and symbolic meaning, specifically and especially when encased in layers of signs and signifiers. There are moments in the film in which Spurlock looks at this larger role of McDonald’s, discussing the aforementioned gang of loveable characters like the titular Ronald McDonald, Hamburglar, Grimace, and Mayor McCheese alongside the warm imagery offered from the vibrant reds and yellows.  The Play Place and chicken nuggets become indelible memories for children, rekindled upon entering the doors of the big yellow “M” as adults. At some point, Spurlock and co. meet a wiry, middle-aged Don Gorske, who eats Big Macs like air, holding the world record for most ever consumed. There’s more there than just preference, some Fruedian obsession.

So, while a secondary or even tertiary theme, this is what the true legacy of the film has been. And one can see its effects. While McDonald’s did quickly nix the supersize option, McDonald’s metamorphosis into the gray corporate sludge has been even more notable. They’ve been a maverick of the “refinement culture” trend. The once bouncy, playful aesthetic has been traded for modernist designs, gray and boxy. Many Play Places have been demolished. The system is changing. You shouldn’t feel guilty, says Ronald (who will soon, I suppose, exchange his pinstripes and oversized shoes for a slick Ralph Lauren), getting that Big Mac®, large fries, large Dr. Pepper. This is sustenance, you see. McDonald’s isn’t for kids anymore. We’ve matured. Grimace is kept chained in some damp catacombs until his birthday. Then you are allowed to have fun. Are you still lovin’ it?


Finn Sullivan, Blogger

Shaun Of The Dead

Shaun of the Dead (2004):

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in his late 20s and just got dumped by his girlfriend. He spends most of his time at a pub called the Winchester, drinking with his slacker best friend, Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun needs to learn to grow up. It’s a pretty simple premise for a rom-com, and if this was Richard Curtis (no offense to Richard Curtis), that’s all it would be. But this is Edgar Wright.

Coming out of their British TV show, Spaced, Wright and actor/co-writer Pegg decided to make the first ever zom-rom-com, which would eventually become the first in a trilogy. A trilogy of three colors (or, more so, flavors), that in its name not only parodies a beloved trilogy of foreign films but also does so by incorporating a British ice cream brand known as Cornetto.

Perhaps the most beloved of the three (or would that be Hot Fuzz?), Shaun of the Dead has become a cult classic over the years, not only for its smart, witty sense of humor or its homages to classic horror films, but also because it has a whole lot of heart. It’s a comedy that doesn’t just focus on making the audience laugh. It certainly does that, but because it’s an Edgar Wright movie, it’s the rare type of comedy that focuses on actual character development. Like Scott Pilgrim later would, Shaun needs to grow up and change. And it’s not just his relationship with Liz that he needs to fix but also his relationship with his stepfather, played by beloved British actor Bill Nighy. Shaun’s character is handled in a fairly realistic way, and with the exception of the zombies, his character development throughout the film feels actually plausible.

Shaun also features a variety of appearances and cameos by some of the most well-known British TV actors, so if you’re familiar with Spaced or the British Office, you’re going to recognize a few people. It even has a pre-Studio 60 Lucy Davis (and yes, I bring this up only as an excuse to mention Studio 60 (it’s the most underrated show of all time. Go check it out.)). If you ever want to find out exactly who everyone in the movie is, watch it with Wright and Pegg’s commentary track, where they go into detail on every actor, from the cameos to the extras to the nameless kid with a basketball. It’s very clear that Wright-Pegg-Frost care about the movies they make, and the attention to detail in their films is part of the reason I never get sick of them. I feel like I could watch any one of them three times in a row every day for a week and still notice a new joke or sight gag on the 21st viewing.

Even though Shaun doesn’t particularly like his stepfather or Liz’s friends (and Liz doesn’t particularly like Ed), he still gets them all together for one last night at the Winchester. Though Shaun of the Dead is really more of a Mother’s Day movie than anything, at its core it’s about spending time with those who you’re closest with, even if you don’t particularly like all of them. So, I guess it applies to Thanksgiving too. So, if you have nothing to do this Thanksgiving, maybe put on Shaun of the Dead. If there’s any director who I’m the most thankful for, it’s Edgar Wright.


Anthony McKelroy, Blogger

First Cow

First Cow (2020):

What is a meal without dessert? Against a cross-section of Oregonian history circa 1820, Kelly Reichardt’s luxurious First Cow begs to offer the simple pleasures of milk and cake as a universe unto themselves. Food outside of time and place, outside of history. Based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, Reichardt’s film chronicles a twilight period of American expansion that was anything but luxurious. As the head chef for a band of fur traders operating in the Pacific Northwest frontier, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is limited to subsistence cooking that’s restricted by the lack of ingredients in such remote wilderness. Closer to town, he meets and befriends King-Lu (Orion Lee), bonding over their shared ambitions to operate a hotel-bakery in a pre-Gold Rush San Francisco.

Many of the characters in Reichardt’s cinema are fighting against the unseen currents of history but none so much as Cookie and King-Lu. They aspire to kindness while living in unkind times. Is dessert necessary for survival? Is joy? When living on the frontier in 1820, there is often little time for either, every day a struggle to survive, no meal guaranteed.

While not a traditional “food film,” First Cow hinges on the arrival of the first dairy cow to the Oregon region and how its introduction would shape the agricultural and economic fabric of the entire continent. Most importantly for Cookie and King-Lu, however, is the milk they can use from it to bake fried dough cakes to sell on the market.

Like the rest of the film, the images of the cakes are sumptuously photographed by Reichardt’s longtime cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, shooting digital day-for-night sequences that, for this writer, are nearly indistinguishable from the genuine article. But more than their depiction, the film is most imaginative with its reaction shots of character’s faces as they eat the cakes. Searching glances, intrigue developing, Kuleshov in action—the tension between what we see and what we imagine. In these moments, First Cow elaborates on food’s synesthetic powers, its nature to collapse time and space and memory into a single delicious dimension. Staggering in its historical portraiture, First Cow’s framing around food’s communal power makes it timeless and intoxicating to watch. A radical film about food as a radical act of love.


 

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