Once upon a time, going to the movies meant two hours of intense character based dialogue, detailed plots, stunning props, intricate back drops and clever witty twists… mostly it now seems to be 85 minutes of CGI, animation, superheroes, remakes, sequels and constant frenetic explosions. The movie industry sure has changed. But looking back to many of the great movies of our time, I often notice the use of food as so much more than just a background prop.
Of course some movies centre food as the principal theme and subject matter, like Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink, Man Woman, Big Night, Julie & Julia, and my personal favourite, the Academy Award winning Ratatouille; an insightfully written Pixar “kids” movie that near perfectly encapsulated the constant frustrations and dizzying heights of modern kitchens. Being set in Paris no doubt helps frame the beautiful vision of what is essentially a classic love story. It’s high point – the fiendishly hysterical (dare I say accurate!) portrayal of food critic Anton Ego, who with a voice dripping like liquid velvet (the immortal Peter O’Toole) steals the show. Interestingly co-writer/director Brad Bird even interned at Thomas Keller’s restaurant The French Laundry (one of the world’s 50 best restaurants) to get a feel for things – kudos to him.
Many of the world’s great films have used food as an integral element to shape a scene, develop a character, or in some cases, even igniting sexual tension (I promise I won’t mention Marlon Brando and a slab of rapidly melting butter…).
I can’t imagine seeing Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) wise cracking in the Ocean’s trilogy without continually eating. His reliance in almost every scene to be snacking was as much a part of his character as his pimp suits, svelte boyish good looks or Ted Nugent’s shirts.
I don’t know about you, but for the past 25 years I’ve always thought about slicing my garlic with a razor blade – the only way to get it so thin “that it liquefies in the pan”; a magically taught lesson in Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus – Goodfellas. And speaking of the great New York director, its hard to forget perhaps cinema’s greatest ever beautiful loser, boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) manically instructing his wife to not over cook his steak, after-all “It defeats its purpose”.
As a child I remember being equally freaked out and enthralled by the wildly beastly and exotic (though hardly Indian) spread of monkey’s brains, slithering snake inside snakes, goat’s eye soup and beetles served up to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and cohorts in The Temple of Doom. Similarly the decadence of the dining table in Pan’s Labyrinth is equal parts one of the most breathtaking and eerie food scenes ever filmed. The overwhelmingly majesty of the Technicolor dishes and their layout is tempered only by the hauntingly ethereal and frightening apprehension of what is all around.
I can only assume that the director, Guillermo del Toro got his motivation from watching Peter Greenaway’s stupendous 1989 visual masterpiece, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which featured a visceral and virtually nonstop showcase of the most vibrant food ever shot on screen.
Pulp Fiction, the film that has changed more in film in my lifetime than any other, featured more perfectly scripted lines about food and drink than any episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. Who can forget the $5 milkshake that didn’t contain Bourbon, the truly sexy mention of blueberry pie, the Royale with cheese, and, for my money, arguably the finest line about fast food ever put to screen; in a claustrophobic apartment Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the cusp of delivering one of cinema’s most acerbic and least magnanimous monologues when he sprouts the line “Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast”. I’ve craved a Big Kahuna burger ever since.
For the downright sexy contributions food has given cinema, its hard to look past the film Chocolat, which featured two of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing and desired actors, Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche weaving a flirtatious dance through the bucolic French countryside in the 1950s whilst metaphorically dripping in the world’s most desired food – chocolate. Topping that with unadulterated titillation was Kim Basinger doing her submissive best on the kitchen floor whilst Mickey Rourke had fed her a fridge full of tasty morsels in 9 ½ Weeks. And surely lobster has never been so succulently desirable than when a scantily clad, half tuxedoed Jennifer Beals suggestively toys with her swanky meal in Flashdance.
And finally, if you are just after downright simplistic foodie belly laughs, then check out the impressive artery hardening order from Harold and Kumar who finally get their desires met at White Castle or John Travolta’s Tony Manero strutting like a street walking cheetah with a double stacked pizza in Saturday Night Fever’s opening scene.