Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speaking of Food Movies . . .

Yeah, I love to bake . . . but I also love watching movies.

In particular, I love movies that find ways to feature food in a beautiful way, as well as interesting food scenes in movies that otherwise have nothing at all to do with food. I've noticed that even in movies that fall into the latter category, often the most pivotal scenes occur while the characters are sharing a meal, are about to share one, or while someone is cooking. Examples abound. In The Godfather, for instance, food is not just sustenance. It's gangland fuel, and boy is it ubiquitous. First there's the wedding feast, which sets the stage for just about everything to come. Let's face it, the wedding feast scene entered the American vernacular a long time ago. How many times has my husband--apropos of nothing--smirked at me and, in the nasal voice of Michael Corleone speaking to his girlfriend Kay, remarked, "You like your lasagne?" or, "He's a very scary guy."

Or, remember the scene where Clemenza is showing Michael how to make spaghetti? I love it because it's so extraneous; it does nothing to advance the film, but it's the kind of little clip that stays in your memory. Miniscule, but somehow meaningful. "You start with a little oil, then fry some garlic. Throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, fry it and make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil, you shove in all your sausage and meatballs. Add a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar. That's my trick." (And whenever I say, "That's my trick," to my husband--also apropos of nothing--he knows just what the reference is, bless his heart.) The Godfather is classic fodder for this kind of thing. Somebody is always shoving something starchy or bready into their mouth. (Come to think of it, a whole lot of shoving goes on in this movie, most of it the bad kind.) When you're a Corleone, even if death is just about staring you in the face, you know everything's probably gonna be okay because, hey, the bread basket never goes empty. It's a movie that can really make you hungry.

Another film I just love, that has nothing to do with food--except perhaps in the way its very scarcity is played up-- is Pollock. All about Jackson Pollock, the American abstract expressionist painter who made his name in the late forties and sealed his own sad fate in the fifties, the movie is a treasure trove of moments too stunning to forget. Visionary genius though Jackson may have been, he sure knew how to ruin a dinner party.

There's a scene near the start of the film where he's sitting at the table with his brother's family, his odd strait-laced mother, and his new, Bohemian, artist girlfriend Lee Krasner. They're eating a large meal. Lee whispers quietly to him, expressing a bit of shock at the overabundance of homey food that must have taken hours to prepare, "Did you people eat like this all the time?" As the scene progresses and the characters chat, it comes out that Jackson's soon going to be abandoned by his older brother and essentially forced to live on his own--a prospect that apparently terrifies him. He responds by becoming increasingly agitated. The volume of his voice rises along with the blaring music from the radio, and he begins frantically banging his fists and forearms on the table while clutching his utensils like a toddler. It's a disturbing scene but it sure serves to let you know the direction in which the story's headed (that would be to Crazy Town). And that's nothing compared to what he does to the elaborate Thanksgiving meal that's destroyed later on in the film; I won't describe that for you. You really have to see it for yourself.

What's my favorite film that does focus largely on food? That's easy. It's Big Night. I adore this movie. Why? Well, maybe because nothing completely horrible happens in it. There is no violence per se. No death. No sickness. It's just a quiet little story that somehow manages to illuminate the lusciousness of regular life, through relationships, through appetite, through the elemental process of touching food and preparing it for the people around you. The principal characters are two Italian brothers--one more Italian than the other--who are trying to make a go of it in their own tiny restaurant somewhere on the east coast. It takes place in the fifties and the clothing, the cars, the music all lend wonderfully to the atmosphere. You get a sense of the striving-for-sumptousness that went along with that particular sliver of 20th century America.

Some of the food preparation scenes are positively meditative, if you're a food-o-phile. The restaurant's kitchen is spare and organized; it goes hand in hand with the older brother's culinary work, which is clean, inspired, and methodic. As a viewer, you can't not want to sample the dishes, having seen the labor and skill that went into them. You wish you could. It's almost enough-- just the "voluptuousness of looking" at the gorgeously prepared, utterly authentic Italian food. (Some famous poet used that phrase, which I've always loved, but I can't remember who the writer was. I'll let you know if I ever figure out who it was.) The film is by turns funny, sad, charming, poignant, but never conventionally action packed. Definitely worth watching.

So, here's my short list, in no particular order, of favorite movies that happen to have at least one or more great food-related scenes, even if the scenes are short and seem on the surface to be inconsequential to the story:
  • Eat Drink Man Woman (Exceptionally wonderful film, if you're into food and/or cooking; subtitled, just fyi.)
  • Waitress (If you love pie, you gotta see this one; not perfect, but still worth it.)
  • Diner (If you've never watched it, stop what you're doing right now and go get it.)
  • Avalon (Like Diner, this is another great Barry Levinson film, with many huge, loud, ethnic, family dinners.)
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring (Remember the way she meticulously arranges the brilliantly colored vegetables while Vermeer is watching? He knows immediately that he's stumbled upon no ordinary scullery maid.)
  • Chocolat (Not remotely a perfect film, but the chocolate scenes alone are worth the ride.)
  • Tess (That's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, of course, the 1979 version with Nastassia Kinski. Lasciviously fed to her by a predatory cad, she bites into a crimson strawberry with a look in her eyes that tells us she knows it's just been plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. And in another scene she dines on an enormous hunk of bread while resting in a hay field. A visually beautiful movie.)
What are your favorite food films? Comment, and let's talk about it!

P.S. Really looking forward to the movie based in part on Julie Powell's book Julie & Julia, opening in August '09--another good one to add to the list, hopefully!

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