Over the decades, Hollywood has sharply curtailed smoking in movies. And although they may not have had a huge effect, debates about the supposed dangers of sex and violence in film pop up from time to time, usually with the goal of protecting children from unsavory influences. The unstated part of that argument is that we adults are largely immune from the allure of vices on the big screen. Especially critics. Especially politicians. Especially parents.
But there’s no purer example of the effect of movies on the people watching them than a rumbling stomach. I remember the month I spent watching the films of Japanese master Jasujiro Ozu in Berkeley. It was a retrospective of gentle family dramas that usually—as family dramas must—included scenes at dinner tables and lunch counters. The film series had two effects: 1) it made me want to be a better son and 2) it made me hungry. The most obvious outward result: I spent that month and the next sucking down noodles and saki in San Francisco’s Japantown. After movies like that, who could resist? Many, many noodles. Oceans and oceans of saki.
Part of the effect is surely primal. See food, must eat. Another part of it is cultural. I like the way they leisurely slurp noodles in Japan. I like the way one person pours saki for another and keeps track of how many ochokos are a good personal limit before you get goofy (not because you always need to honor that limit, of course). My wife and I continued the tradition in San Francisco. She poured for me, I poured for her.
There’s a moment in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation when Bill Murray is on the phone with his wife. He’s in Japan, she’s in the States. He’s a guy who chuckles at the cultural differences and who doesn’t seem particularly interested in warming up to Tokyo. It’s just a job. He’s there for Suntory times. But in a moment of candor he tells his wife that he wants to make some changes in his life, wants to eat less pasta and more sushi. And while that’s all he really says, he seems to be talking about more than just food. Subtly, Coppola expresses the widening distance between the character’s life back home and his current place.
In good movies, food isn’t just food but a medium for a host of other messages. After watching Julie and Julia, the recent film about Julia Child, who cooked her way into America’s living rooms, and Julie Powell, who blogged her way through Julia Child’s recipes, technologist Dave Winer intriguingly came away with the impression that it was Julia, not Julie, who was the more ideal “natural born blogger,” even though she lived before the popularity of online communication. Instead, food and television were her media.
One of the reasons that food is such a powerful touchstone, I think, is that it’s where people come together. Families around tables, patrons at bars, cooks in kitchens. And where people come together, there’s bound to be unpredictable displays of whatever is locked up in their heads. With enough time and lubricant and casual participation, those anxieties or joys come to the surface.
Charlie Chaplin and co-star Mack Swain famously ate a shoe in The Gold Rush. The characters were stranded and starving in a cabin that was heavily snowed-in, and they turned to the shoe because, aside from the dog, it was all they had. In reality, the shoe was made of licorice, and although Chaplin was known for shooting and reshooting scenes dozens or even hundreds of times, in this case they only had a couple of shoes to work with. Still, two was enough. Both actors were sick the next day.
Eating was something of an obsession for Chaplin, not because of the food itself but because of the social mores that went around it. He didn’t simply eat the shoe, he savored it. He served it like Julie Child might have served coq au vin half a century later. He spooned melted ice over the top of it like it was golden au jus, sucked the nails like he was getting every last bit of meat from the bones, and slowed toward the end like his belly was getting full.
In The Kid, he and his five-year-old son live in derelict conditions but eat each meal like it’s a robust family feast. And in The Immigrant, his brilliant short from 1917, Chaplin spends most of his time in a cafe showing an impoverished newcomer’s view of an imposing new world. Waiters are intimidating, patrons are snooty, and chance meetings with friends are sweet but tense when you don’t have a dime in your pocket. Writing in Photoplay in 1917, critic Julian Johnston said about the 24-minute film: “In its roughness and apparent simplicity it is as much a jewel as a story by O. Henry, and no full-time farce seen on our stages in years has been more adroitly, more perfectly worked out.”
Of course there are much-loved movies that revolve around food almost entirely, or that stage major plot points around feasts. Big Night and Babette’s Feast come to mind, as well as last year’s Secret of the Grain. But a stronger testament to the fundamental power of food appears in movies that don’t focus on it exclusively. A movie that momentarily succumbs to culinary tangents sometimes seems open to life’s textures, because no true film about how we live can avoid it.
I’ve always loved the way Adrienne Shelly shot the pies, from above, in Waitress. They’re the character’s oasis and the expression of her creativity. And some two decades after Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, I mostly remember 1) Ray Liotta’s coke-brain hysteria in the third act, 2) the scene where a waiter carries a table through a nightclub, and 3) the way the imprisoned wise guys slice garlic with razor blades so that it practically liquifies in the pan. “It was a good system,” Liotta’s narrator says about the garlic. Indeed it was. But it also served a dual or even triple purpose in the film. It showed us good food, it showed us the criminals’ relatively luxurious life behind bars, and it showed us the strange psychology of a man who can drive a knife through someone’s neck but still savor the aroma of garlic, slicing it with a dangerous blade.
They say the producers of MacGyver always omitted important details from their bomb-making scenes so that young imitators wouldn’t blow themselves sky-high. I’d like to challenge filmmakers to do the opposite with their food-making scenes. Give us a few critical details. Slice the garlic very, very thin. Explain that risotto and pasta should not be served together because they’re both very starchy. Demonstrate how you should pour someone’s saki.
And pause, as the characters do, for food. Film is a soup, and soup is not simply to be eaten but to be made.