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!