Can I

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

WHAT IS OUR view of food in cine­mas? Well, ob­vi­ously, not be­ing mon­sters, we re­main vi­o­lently op­posed to the idea. For decades we’ve had to en­dure the sickening, mildewed stench of pop­corn. In re­cent years, mul­ti­plexes have in­vited pun­ters to con­sume hot­dogs (flavoured with the finest pink) and ab­surdly com­plex na­cho plat­ters (a tub of orange Plas­ticine be­side a pot of cold tomato soup) within their in­creas­ingly bland es­tab­lish­ments. Ig­nore all those mal­con­tents who retch when re­mem­ber­ing smok­ers in main­stream cine­mas. If the cur­rent trend con­tin­ues, the chap be­side you will soon be carv­ing a joint of lamb while wait­ing for the main fea­ture to be­gin.

Oh hang on. The sub­ject for dis­cus­sion is food in cinema. Well, it’s al­ways been there. One of the most fa­mous early ex­per­i­ments in film the­ory saw Lev Kuleshov, the great Rus­sian film-maker, in­ter­pos­ing shots of a man’s face with images of a girl, a cof­fin and a bowl of soup. The face was the same in each case. But, whereas the ac­tor seemed las­civ­i­ous when ap­par­ently con­tem­plat­ing the girl and sad when star­ing at the cof­fin, he ap­peared hun­gry when sup­pos­edly eye­ing up the food. One hun­dred years ago we learnt that just dis­play­ing food al­ters the mean­ing of a scene.˚ Char­lie Chap­lin ate his boot in The Gold Rush. Jimmy Cag­ney shoved a grape­fruit into Mae Clark’s face dur­ing The Public En­emy. The Marx Broth­ers didn’t con­sume duck soup in Duck Soup. Few great films get by with­out hav­ing some­thing to do with co­mestibles.

When at­tempt­ing an anal­y­sis of eat­ing in cinema, the temp­ta­tion is al­ways to cel­e­brate those films that revel in the de­li­cious­ness of food and its power to bring peo­ple to­gether. One might ar­gue that (like paint­ing) cinema is poorly equipped to grap­ple with the sub­ject. Af­ter taste and smell, vi­sion is, af­ter all, only the third most im­por­tant sense for the ex­pec­tant diner. Yet dozens of film-mak­ers (and still-life painters, for that mat­ter) have proved up to the task.

Few con­ver­sa­tions on the sub­ject get far with­out men­tion­ing the groan­ing ta­bles in Gabriel Axel’s Ba­bette’s Feast (1987). Fol­low­ing a spir­ited woman as, af­ter win­ning the lot­tery, she pre­pares a ban­quet for her em­ploy­ers and the lo­cal gen­tle­folk, the film fea­tures a jus­ti­fi­ably cel­e­brated ar­ray of stom­ach-rum­bling del­i­ca­cies: tur­tle soup, bli­nis with caviar, quail in pas­try, an ex­trav­a­gant rum cake. The feast is pos­i­tively sex­ual in its volup­tuous­ness. The re­cent Ital­ian film I am Love lav­ished al­most as much at­ten­tion on its food se­quences as it did on the trou- bling machi­na­tions of a pow­er­ful Ital­ian fam­ily. Luca Guadagnino, the film’s di­rec­tor, mod­elled the food on dishes served in the cel­e­brated Mi­lanese res­tau­rant Cracco Peck. Pep­per­oni pizza was con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence.

Other films that make the top 10 for food­ies in­clude the fine Big Night (1996), the use­less Cho­co­lat (2000) and the ex­cel­lent Tam­popo (1985). Food be­comes a metaphor for liv­ing. The cam­era rel­ishes the sheen, the suc­cu­lence and the colour of its cho­sen morsels. We are en­cour­aged to leave the cinema sali­vat­ing. To pon­der only the cel­e­bra­tion of food in cinema is, how­ever, to take a shal­low, su­per­fi­cial ap­proach to the sub­ject. Eat­ing runs through cinema. It helps point out so­cial di­vi­sions. It es­tab­lishes mood. On oc­ca­sion, it of­fers film-mak­ers amus­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­volt the au­di­ence.

Con­sider one of the sea­son’s most in­trigu­ing movies. Markus Sch­leinzer’s Michael con­cerns an emo­tion­ally re­tarded Aus­trian pae­dophile who keeps a young boy im­pris­oned in his base­ment. Within the open­ing 10 min­utes we see the per­pe­tra­tor cook­ing a meal for his cap­tive. What is this colour­less, dry meat that he’s fry­ing into obliv­ion? Our first sight of the ob­scure, su­per­nat­u­rally un­ap­petis­ing dish con­firms that we are about to spend 90 min­utes in a supremely un­happy place. The din­ner that fol­lows – all icy si­lences and snapped or­ders – acts as a hor­ri­ble per­ver­sion of the ar­che­typal fam­ily meal. That par­ody was pushed fur­ther in an in­flu­en­tial, if still un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated, James Whale film from 1932. A year af­ter mak­ing Franken­stein, the di­rec­tor of­fered au­di­ences a mag­nif­i­cent comic hor­ror en­ti­tled The Old Dark House. A group of trav­ellers has ended

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