The Politics of Movie Food
Six culinary sub-genres to sate our strongest appetites
In my latest cinematic adventure Tormenting the Hen (2017), I use food in a pivotal scene to divide the characters down racial, cultural, and sexual lines. I think everyone has been in a situation where a friend from another country describes a delicacy from their upbringing and the response is: "Oh, that’s gross!" Think tripe, think haggis, think sushi, think anything that's foreign to you before you try it. I wanted to use food and culture in a different way than I’d seen. I wanted to use chitterlings and chicken hearts as tools of seduction and division. In my 2012 film Dipso, the characters enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner of a deer that they hunted and killed—shorthand to illustrate class themes. In my 2016 short film Albatross, the characters eat a birthday cake with a picture of the birthday girl on it. Writing scenes like this got me thinking about the politics of food and why we eat what we eat. What part of the animal are some cultures willing to eat and others not?
At its base, food is a celebration of life itself. Without the food we eat, or don’t have the opportunity to eat, life ceases. Access to quality products, production, and proliferation is a major concern of our generation. Given the obvious importance of nourishment to our bodies and souls, I find the presence of food in film rather curious. Either it's completely eliminated from the story altogether (have you ever seen Bogart eat?), or it's relegated to window dressing, functioning simply as atmosphere. Sometimes food can be more than just food. The acclaimed "royale with cheese" scene humanized murderers in Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction. Just think of it: Vincent was in the culinary Mecca of the world, France, and he eats a Big Mac? How American is that! And thus, how relatable. The Goodfellas "garlic cutting meat sauce" prison scene has the same effect. Both of these examples are simple ways to create universal bonds with an audience. Who hasn’t had a royale with cheese or a meat sauce? Food activates all five senses. Movies engage only two, yet with the power to conjure emotion beyond memory or personal experience. Seeing and hearing food has the sublime ability to push our senses further into taste and smell, yet most films don’t bother to depict eating at all. So my question is: Why is food so rare to see, hear, smell, and taste in film?
Among the films that do deal with the the culinary, I’ve found that there are a few sub-genres worth discussing:
1. Food as food
As a culture we are drowning in documentaries about food. The landmark documentary Titicut Follies is not really about food per se, but nonetheless depicts one of the most traumatic feedings ever in the history of film: A patient in a psychiatric facility, presumably starving himself, is force fed through a tube by a careless, cigarette-dangling-from-his-mouth doctor.
2. Food as sexual aid
9 ½ Weeks, Like Water for Chocolate, Henry and June, Last Tango in Paris... It seems you just can’t have romance without some sustenance to go with it. Nauseatingly enough, it recently has come out in the press that Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando, the director and star of Last Tango in Paris, conspired together to not tell Brando's young costar about the butter-as-lubricant rape scene in advance. Betrayal between actors is gross both on and off camera. Then-nineteen-year-old Maria Schneider never spoke to either man for the rest of her life, stating she “felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Bertolucci recently responded that he felt guilty but does not regret it.
3. Food as cultural identifier
One of the most compelling opening scenes from City of God follows a sprinting chicken through the narrow alleyways in Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Not only is it a beautiful metaphor of the strife of slum life, but it also literally depicts food running away from its would-be consumer. In Western society, we go to great lengths to separate ourselves from the fact that food is life but it's also, often, death. This scene is a wonderful shortcut into the cultural perspectives of the characters.
4. Food as comic device
"Pie in the face" movies abound, but my favorite scene comes from Top Secret! A German speaking waiter recommends “diced pig entrails and poached flaming hog balls," and Val Kilmer replies plainly in English, “Anything’s fine.” A more philosophical dissection comes from Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a wonderfully surrealistic satire lampooning folks who are so fed that they have no need to eat. An opposite take on the dinner party occurs in his previous film, The Exterminating Angel, where little food is available.
5. Food as central theme
Think Babette's Feast, or Big Night, or Tampopo. These films can be garden-variety, or they can be great. I think Diner is one of the strongest of this genre because it illustrates the bonds formed within a small town through simple eating and complicated relationships.
6. The cannibal film
This type of film really whets my appetite, mostly because it subverts assumptions. Cannibal films pique audience curiosity at best, but mostly spark repulsion and outrage. One of the most infamous of this genre has to be Cannibal Holocaust. Almost universally banned and panned, the title alone creates and atmosphere of threat and assault. In truth, the most controversial thing about the film is a sea turtle’s onscreen death, not, in fact, the cinematic threat of cannibalism. Death onscreen is rare, and the death of this turtle is so vile it questions the ethics of the filmmakers themselves. Did they do it for effect? Alive, a Hollywood film based on a true cannibalism story, takes an almost nostalgic approach to the subject. It’s thick with the sadness of the survival story of a rugby team whose plane was downed by a storm. One of my personal favorites is Delicatessen, the arthouse black-comedy masterpiece that comments on class while butchering its subjects. Keep The River on Your Right is a beautifully articulate documentary about a Westerner fraternizing with cannibals in Peru. Finally, a film that cross-germinates the cannibal genre is Pigsty, a metaphysical-survivalist mash-up and nihilistic riff on notions of fascism and history.
Food and family, in the name of bounty and gratitude, is what the holidays are supposed to be about. But often our bounty is built on the backs of those without. As we gorge, others starve. We all know this, but are unable to change the politics of it, and so another season of abundant consumption comes and goes. And I ask myself, and you, to think about what it means when food is present or absent in the cinema you ingest.