By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2008)
I was originally going to do a post this week about my “top 10 Thanksgiving movies”, but after pondering it for a spell, all I could come up with was The House of Yes, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Ice Storm, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Alice’s Restaurant. After that, I had nuthin’ (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? But TV doesn’t count.)
Oh, I suppose there are many more titles out there (wasn’t there a Walton family Thanksgiving thingy?) but apparently they are not among my favorites. One theme that I can easily relate to, however, are movies about food (or with at least one memorable eating scene). Hey, everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, chew on these:
Big Night-This is one DVD that I have repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters points out with great veracity). Two brothers, one an enterprising businessman named Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble. Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played with much aplomb by Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, and Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci). Look for a mute Marc Anthony (the Latin pop superstar) lurking throughout as the kitchen assistant.
Comfort and Joy– Another quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth. An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies. Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and extremely dry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: It could take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to refer to as “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon chews up the scenery (figuratively and literally) as a vile and vituperative British underworld type who holds nightly court at a gourmet restaurant. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film. The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend a rich Jacobean texture to the proceedings. Look for the late great pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates.
Delicatessen-This film is so…French. A seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, future dystopia along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, shall we say, a “professional” eye? In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city streets). The film’s most memorable sequence, a wildly funny, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a master class in the arts of both film and sound editing.
Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s first feature film in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the others are still playing the field and deciding what to do with the rest of their life. They are all slogging fitfully toward adulthood. The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite meeting place, a local diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a true gift for writing sharp dialog, and it’s all the little details that make the difference here; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”. This film was more influential than it tends to ever get credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude (see below) as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!
Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.
My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating the whole running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.
Pulp Fiction-Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it: The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”). Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake. Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes. Even super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”
Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itam is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her hard work and sincere effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki). After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-her noodles are bland. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town, Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.
Tom Jones-Do I really need to explain? Just savor this morsel: