Monday, December 8, 2008

A Cinematic Feast: Great Movie Dining Scenes, Part 1

Doesn't everyone love lists, especially cinephiles? The Internet Movie Database lists their top 250 films. The American Film Institute has numerous lists—the top 100 movies, stars, laughs, thrills, and songs are only a few—and regularly comes up with new ones, the latest the top 10 movies in 10 genres. Critics publish their top-10 lists at the end of every calendar year. Even the British indulge in cinematic listmania. A few months ago the Times published its list of the top 20 movie endings of all time (which, curiously, didn't include Citizen Kane). And just recently the French publication Cahiers du Cinéma published its own list of the 100 greatest films of all time. I love lists too, and today I want to list my favorite eating scenes in movies.

When I read a novel or short story and the characters are having a meal, for me it's not enough to be told simply that they ate. I want to know exactly what they ate. The more complete the description of the fare, then the more vivid the scene is for me. Taste is, after all, one of the five senses, but because it's so difficult to describe in words, it's the one most often missing in works of written fiction. Even the senses of smell and touch tend to get more attention in literature.

Movies have even more difficulty with physical sensations than books do. Movies can't even describe physical sensations; they can only suggest them visually. And movies can't directly engage any of the senses except sight and sound. John Waters did experiment with a gimmick called Odorama, a version of the scratch-and-sniff card, which he used in Polyester to get the sense of smell into the movie experience. In his movie The Tingler ("Ghastly Beyond Belief!") horror schlockmeister William Castle used a vibrating device called Percepto that was attached to seats in the theater and vibrated whenever a character in the movie screamed. And in the novel Brave New World Aldous Huxley described the "feelies," movies that allow the viewer to experience the physical sensation of touch associated with events in the film, although that was strictly imaginary.

Even though they can't make us taste what the characters are eating, movies can show us the act of eating in vivid ways, whether that vividness comes from the visual strength of a scene or from its narrative impact. What follows is a strictly personal list, in a deliberately chosen but otherwise not significant order, of the fifteen eating scenes in movies that I find the most memorable.


Viridiana, Luis Buñuel (1961). This movie is the first one on my list simply because it's the first one I think of when I think of eating scenes in movies. It was one of the first foreign-language films I ever saw, at the very impressionable age of eighteen. The first movie that Buñuel had made in Spain in decades, it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival. But it was banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican, and when you see the sequence that culminates in the freeze-frame pictured above, you can understand why. This is the ragtag bunch of misfits and pariahs that the naive title character, recently departed from the convent, has assembled to form a Utopian community at her uncle's farm. But when the masters of the house are absent on business, these pathetic outcasts break into the main house, set the table with the best china, break into the pantry and wine cellar, and stage an unforgettable beggars' banquet.

As the drunken meal reaches its peak, one of the women says she wants to take a photo of the occasion. "What will you use for a camera?" asks one of the men. "I'll use the camera my father gave me," she replies, then lifts her skirts, bends over backwards, and aims her crotch at the revelers. The photo she "takes" is the one above. Having grown accustomed to these characters throughout the movie and having come to regard them merely as a colorful ensemble, the viewer is completely unprepared to see them arrayed thus. Once seen, who could forget the image? Certainly not Robert Altman, who copied it in MASH, or the makers of the TV series Battelstar Galactica, who also copied it in their publicity for a recent season of the show. The sequence ends in a drunken free-for-all that destroys the dining hall and everything in it. So much for charity and good works, Buñuel seems to be saying.

Two other Buñuel films containing meals deserve mention. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) the entire movie is a running gag about a group of people who keep trying to get together to eat dinner but each time are interrupted before they can actually sit down and begin, a cinematic exploration of endlessly delayed gratification. In The Exterminating Angel (1962) the situation is inverted, when a group of dinner guests do eat an elaborate meal but afterwards find themselves trapped, eventually abandoning all efforts at civilized behavior and finally dying.

Babette's Feast, Gabriel Axel (1987). This Danish movie, an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, culminates with an extended and richly detailed depiction of a lavish multi-course banquet, from its elaborate preparation to its lengthy consumption. The meal is prepared by Babette (Stéphane Audran), the French housekeeper to two elderly, unmarried Danish sisters who want to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of their late father, a minister. The bleakness of the setting, a small Danish village, and the austerity of the sisters' lifestyle form a striking contrast to the colorful, exotic, and sensuous meal. For Babette, the meal is a means both of reliving the epicurean traditions of her homeland and of treating her friends and neighbors to a voluptuous culinary experience that is beyond their experience and imagination.

A number of films from the late 1980's and 1990's are constructed around the vivid onscreen presentation of food. Other examples are Tampopo (1986), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Eat Man Drink Woman (1994), even in a sense the movies Big Night (1996) and Chocolat (2000). Having chosen Babette's Feast as representative of this type of movie, I'm going to concentrate for the rest of the post on films in which food and dining are not so much ends in themselves but instead serve the interests of the narrative, are used to make a specific point, or pop up in unexpected places.

Stagecoach, John Ford (1939). In this, to my mind the best Western ever made, an assorted group of travelers is thrown together for a dangerous stagecoach journey through Apache territory. Among them are the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), on his way to jail, and a prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor), who has been run out of her last town and is on her way to a new one. When the stagecoach stops for the night at a remote outpost, the characters assemble for dinner. But Dallas is shunned by the others, who refuse to eat at her end of the table. Ringo then moves from their end of the table to hers and shares his meal with her. This innocent act of friendship (it's unclear whether he actually realizes that she is a prostitute) leads to a chaste romantic attachment and at the end of the movie Dallas's promise to wait for Ringo until he is released from prison. In Ford's world view, these two characters are ennobled by their lack of hypocrisy, and redemption is possible through non-judgmental respect for another as simply a fellow human being. And that redemption has its germ in this one meal.

Citizen Kane, Orson Welles (1941). In this legendary film, the main character is married to a woman who gradually grows to despise him for, among other things, his infidelity. The growing distance between the two is conveyed literally in a brief montage of breakfast scenes. In each scene the two are shown at opposite ends of the table in a medium-long shot, Kane on the left, his wife on the right, with the table between separating them. In each successive shot the table grows longer and the distance between the two increases, until finally Kane is at the far left-hand side of the screen and his wife at the far right-hand side. Their estrangement is further underscored when each begins to read the newspaper at breakfast, completely obscuring his face from the other. In a final stroke, Kane is shown to be reading the newspaper he publishes, while his wife is shown to be reading a rival publication.

Tom Jones, Tony Richardson (1963). Tom (Albert Finney) has been wrongly evicted from his boyhood home through the machinations of his evil step-cousin. On the road he encounters one Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), who is in the process of being hanged by a renegade Redcoat (presumably after being raped). He rescues Mrs. Waters and takes her to an inn to spend the night. Before retiring, they share an unforgettable meal. They attack their food in a mountingly orgiastic (puns intended) frenzy of degustation, their glances at each other becoming more lascivious and the atmosphere more erotically charged with each course. Finally, unable to bear the tension any longer, they race upstairs to a room and begin to tear off each other's clothes. Never has the connection between food and sex been so graphically depicted in a movie.

Alice Adams, George Stevens (1935). This movie contains one of the most memorably funny dining scenes ever. The young Katharine Hepburn, exaggerating her mannerisms and accent to the point of artificiality, is the socially ambitious Alice Adams, daughter of a working-class family who longs to be accepted by the snobbish upper-class social set of her small Midwestern town. When she meets rich young Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) at a society dance, she sets her cap at him and eventually invites him to dine with her family. In planning this meal, Alice goes all out to impress Arthur and to represent her family as of a higher social status than they really are. But the dinner turns out to be a complete and hilarious disaster, as everything goes wrong. The evening is miserably hot and humid, and the rich and heavy menu Alice has chosen is wholly inappropriate to the weather. Alice's family are uncomfortable in their unfamiliar formal clothing. And the family's housekeeper (Hattie McDaniel), forced to wear a ridiculous maid's outfit, is rebellious and cantankerous for the whole meal. Her disgusted expression each time the absurd, frilly little tiara she is wearing wilts in the heat and slips down her face and she must again push it back into place clearly expresses her opinion that the whole charade is nonsense that won't fool anyone. Arthur reacts to the disastrous situation with aplomb, but as things go from bad to worse, Alice, frantically trying to maintain her composure, becomes more and more overwrought, and her behavior becomes increasingly more mannered and brittle. Stevens successfully evokes conflicting emotional reactions in the viewer, for as funny as Alice's comeuppance is, you just can't help at the same time feeling her humiliation.

The Gold Rush, Charles Chaplin (1925). Much of the first part of this movie is about food, as prospectors in Gold Rush Alaska struggle to keep from starving to death during the harsh winter. Chaplin uses the situation to devise many very funny gags. But perhaps the funniest of all is the Thanksgiving dinner that Charlie, holed up in a snowbound cabin, cooks for himself and his surly companion. The main course? A leather boot. The sequence in which Chaplin boils the boot then serves and eats it is one of the classics of cinema. His mimicry of a waiter in a formal restaurant as he serves it, separating the upper from the sole as though boning a fish and dishing up the shoelaces like pasta, his facial expressions as he determinedly forces himself to eat the boot (I seem to recall reading that it was actually made of licorice), all the while gazing wistfully into the middle distance as if trying to will away the bleakness of the situation, and after he eats the last bite delicately sucking the nails as though they were succulent bones—every inventive moment of the scene is funny.

Later in the movie a second great eating scene occurs when Charlie invites Georgia, the dance hall girl he has developed a crush on, and her friends to share his New Year's Eve dinner. Charlie cooks a big meal and entertains the girls with his famous dance of the rolls, one of the simplest and funniest movie gags ever devised, and one of the greatest. When the New Year's celebrations wake him up, Charlie realizes he has been stood up by the girls and has fallen asleep and dreamt the whole meal. The expression on his face in the few moments it takes him to understand what has happened is one of almost heartbreaking disappointment, and as the scene slowly fades out, you can almost sense Charlie's hopes fading with it. In just moments, the mood has gone from humor to pathos. Never were the two sides of Chaplin's sensibility and their fundamental inseparability expressed so succinctly as in this scene.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________
Thanks to C. K. Dexter Haven for suggesting Alice Adams. Next week I'll be writing about one of my favorite holiday movies. In two weeks I'll be discussing eight more movies with memorable dining scenes. Until then, bon appétit!

53 comments:

stayathomedad said...

Also, in the Citizen Kane scene, pay close attention to their wardrobe. Watch Emily go from the sexy sleeping gown to the buttoned-up formal wear. It's not just the conversation that's getting icy.

GenReviewer said...

I hope to see the great scene from Freaks (1932). Creepy stuff, when they all chant "one of us" and goobledy goo or whatever it is they say.

http://genreview.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Where's Heat? :D

Anonymous said...

Where's Heat? :D

Aaron said...

Reservoir Dogs?

Anonymous said...

Wedding Crashers?

Anonymous said...

the last 20 years has evidently seen a severe shortage of good dining scenes

Ivo said...

"Happiness"! Opening dining scene is classic!

Snoopy said...

Heat

Anonymous said...

Christmas Story Chinese Christmas dinner. Fa ra ra ra ra.

Anonymous said...

Reservoir Dogs, Heat and the plate scene from American Beauty are relevant I think.

Anonymous said...

How about Pulp Fiction and Jack Rabbit Slims

Anonymous said...

The Last Supper - on numerous occasions...

Anonymous said...

How about the fake orgasm scene at the diner in When Harry Met Sally

Anonymous said...

What about Diner (1982)?!?!

Anonymous said...

What about Big Night? And the Bachelor and the Bobby-soxer? After all hell breaks lose in a Chinese restaurant, the waiter asks, "Will there be anything else sir?" Grant responds, "for instance?" Or something to that end.

Tim said...

I hope Part 2 will include:
"My Dinner With Andre"
"The Big Night"
and the King Chicken sequence from "The Loved One".

Thank you for including "Babette's Feast". Rarely can a dinner scene bring tears to one's eyes.

Bernard in Boston said...

There's a wonderful banquet scene in "The Age of Innocence"

Anonymous said...

Big Night?
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman?
Tampopo?
Monsoon Wedding?

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, swaggering in with a stag on his shoulders.

Anonymous said...

Umm... where's Godfather...?

Anonymous said...

What about My Best Friend's Wedding?? "I say a little prayer for you...."

Anonymous said...

Yeah the godfather was the first one that came to my mind

Anonymous said...

Opening scene of Happiness is great. Huge mistake being left-out. Hilarious and classic

Anonymous said...

Festen?

Christian Eriksson said...

Paradise Now has one of the most interesting dinner scenes I have ever seen. The two elected suicide bombers are having their last supper together. However, the director decided to mimic Da Vinci's last supper painting. Intriguing, considering they're Muslims.

Oh, and I totally forgot about the dinner scene from Freaks (1932). I never wanted the film to end.

If anyone would like to view a slightly dysfunctional dinner, watch The Tin Drum. It's near the beginning of the movie, before he throws himself down the set of stairs.

Christian Eriksson said...

Another movie I forgot - The Meaning of Life. There are three great dinner scenes. Conversation menu, Death, and the infamous Mr. Creosote's dinner.

Anonymous said...

The baked beans meal in Blazing Saddles

The first diner scene in Diner: "You gonna eat that?"

Several dining scenes in The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover

The "Bella Note" scene in Lady and the Tramp, referenced recently in Enchanted

And last but not least...

Mr Creosote's restaurant meal in Monty Python's Meaning of Life;

Albert said...

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

R. D. Finch said...

In two weeks I'll be writing about another eight great dining scenes, some of which have been mentioned. Thanks for all the suggestions, just about all of which would have fit the subject quite well, but the next eight have already been chosen. Several of these will be from the 1980's and one from 2000. As I state in the "About Me" section in the sidebar, my interest and knowledge is mostly about classic films, and I can only write about movies I've actually seen and watched closely (and am sure I remember pretty accurately). Thanks again for the suggestions, and I'll be on the lookout for these movies.

Anonymous said...

Another great scene comes from The Great Dictator when the Jews are trying to decide who will go on the suicide mission - fantastic fun!

Anonymous said...

Also the hilarious family Christmas dinner with everyone wearing Santa Lucia burning candle crowns in The Ref

Anonymous said...

Another one you missed - Hannibal.
;D

Anonymous said...

12th Night dinner from Huston's "The Dead." Great ensemble piece. ('Course it helps when James Joyce writes the dialog.)

Red Tie Guy said...

Even if it was only over coffee, the scene in Heat made the movie. It is also a rare one, not of hero and villian, but professional opponents of each other admiting they will do violence unto each other without hesitation in a very professional manner.

Miqque said...

Honorable (but sloppy) mentions to The Dark Crystal and of course, "Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!" from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

And Alien. We can't forget Alien.

Anonymous said...

"The Family Stone"...one of the most viscerally uncomfortable dinner scenes in recent memory.

Anonymous said...

The end flashback scene of Godfather Part II with Michael discussing his enlisting in the military with his Tom and his siblings
- Fredo, whom he recently ordered the murder of in the main storyline was the only person to support Michael's decision.

Great scene

I have to agree with everyone else that mentioned Heat

How about the dinner in Rocky Horror Picture show where Eddie is served as a main course?

Letters to Han Solo said...

I'm with "Anonymous" when she mentioned Wedding Crasher. In particular, the scene where Vince Vaugn sits down to eat breakfast with his back turned to Owen Wilson. He's pissed off that he's still there and has to stay so his buddy can get the girl, but he's hungry.

Anonymous said...

Probably not in anyone's top ten, but 9 1/2 Weeks is an unbridled orgy of food at its sensual height

Anonymous said...

Probably not in anyone's top ten, but 9 1/2 Weeks is an unbridled orgy of food at its sensual best

lisa said...

Beetlejuice! Daylight come and me wanna go home

Clayton said...

Beetlejuice?

Anonymous said...

I know its been said many a time on this list, but HEAT has to be on that list. Classic scene. Godfather has to be there as well. As far as comedies, Swingers is hilarious and Wedding Crashers is the funniest of them all.

Anonymous said...

Obviously it would be stupid not to include Little Miss Sunshine.

Anonymous said...

American Beauty. The dinner where Kevin Spacey throws the dish against the wall!!

Anonymous said...

'How about Pulp Fiction and Jack Rabbit Slims'

I was thinking the same thing, except was thinking of the diner scene that starts and ends the movie (yeah its for breakfast but whatever). either way pulp fiction HAS to be on this list

Anonymous said...

How about American History X?

Anonymous said...

Not enough people remember Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill. There is a scene where the boy, who has run out of food days earlier, has a "meal" of cut-out pictures of food from a magazine. I dare anyone to view that scene and not break down. I dare you.

TheCreeper said...

Waiting...

The flashback scene to Ryan Reynolds having dinner with his mother (Wendie Malick) in front of Justin Long.

Monty's Mom: So I called your house today, at two. You were still asleep, weren't you?
Monty: That's an understatement.
Monty's Mom: So what did you do last night? I trust my little angel didn't do anything immoral.
Monty: Well, ummm... Let's see. I started by getting completely hammered drunk. It was bad. Then drove, while intoxicated, to pick up this disease-infested hooker.
Monty's Mom: Uh huh...
Monty: From there... uh, let's see. Me and the hooker went back to my place...
Monty's Mom: The hooker and I.
Monty: Excuse me. The hooker and I went back to my place and from there... God, it was just a blur of intravenous drug abuse and unprotected sex, while taking the Lord's name in vain.
Monty's Mom: Dean, did you know that when Monty was a child everyone thought he was retarded?
Monty: Dean, doesn't my mom look old? I mean, much older than she rightfully should?
Monty's Mom: So why aren't you and Serena still together? I liked her.
Monty: I don't know. I guess it got old. We had a relationship based on orgasms.
Monty's Mom: Oh, how charming. You are being safe aren't you? I don't think I could handle the idea of you reproducing.
Monty: Come on, mom! Of course I'm being safe. I pull out.
Monty's Mom: Yes, well your father pulled out too but we've all seen the tragic end of that story.
Monty: You think I wanna have kids? Absolutely not! That's why I stick to anal sex.
Monty's Mom: If only I had been so lucky.

Sam Farley said...

I also have to add a personal favorite. Punch-Drunk Love. The part where Barry punches out the windows. Hilarious every time.

http://genreview.blogspot.com/

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Excellent recap of that ALICE ADAMS dinner scene! I laughed again thinking about Fred Macmurray sweating over his soup!

Congrats on your blog having so much widespread appeal. You're getting all kinds of responses.

Zwirbler said...

All the american-italian gangster movies are great representatives not only of italian-american cultural understanding and traditions but also display a grotesque view on food in film.

godfather 1-2, goodfellas, casino. furthermore I can recomment pride&predjudice (food as marker for social boundaries), james bond movies (mostely drink but also food as marker of style) etc etc