In the Best Possible Taste: The Foodie Movie
It was in Breakfast Of Champions that Kurt Vonnegut imagined life on a planet devoid of all plants and animals save humanoids. These humanoids took pleasure in (to our minds) an exotic, even aberrant form of pornography. It wasn't the sexual act that repelled and transfixed them. It was images of food and eating. For an hour and a half, the movie camera barely strayed from close ups of lips, teeth, and bobbing Adam's apples as a family pigged out over a simulated meal. At the film's climax, the stuffed actors cleared the table and dumped the leftovers in the rubbish - leaving the audience in ecstasy.
In the 30-odd years since that book, we've come a lot closer to making 'food porn' a reality - TV chefs are celebrities on a par with pop stars and footballers; there are dedicated food channels on cable, and in some parts of East Asia you will find shows quite similar to the film Vonnegut describes, where the focus is less on cooking than on eating. All in the best possible taste, no doubt.
If there's an element of decadence tied to food snobbery, perhaps that accounts for the belated emergence of the foodie movie over the past quarter century. I suppose there must be some, but I can't think of a single example from the black and white era. It's also the case that puritanical America has been particularly slow to convey these sensual delights… the "classics" in the field would be the Japanese Tampopo (1985), the Danish Babette's Feast (1987), and the Mexican Like Water for Chocolate (1992), each, in its own way, a heartfelt tribute to food, glorious food.
Thankfully Italian-Americans like to smuggle some pasta into their gangster stories. There's always something simmering in the pot in The Godfather and The Sopranos, while Paul Sorvino gives us a cooking masterclass behind bars in GoodFellas.
Sergio Leone came up with one of the most revolting eating scenes in his Marxist spaghetti western, A Fistful Of Dynamite. But he made amends with the wordless five minute (!) scene in Once Upon a Time in America involving a little boy and a cream cake with a cherry on top. This delicacy is the price of a five minute fumble with the tenement floozie, but temptation gets the better of the boy, and first the cherry goes, then the icing, until finally there's nothing left, not even a crumb.
For other filmmakers, food is an adjunct to sex, not an alternative to it - see, for instance, the famously debauched dinner scene in Tom Jones, or the notorious erotic egg yolk scene in Tampopo. The faintly risible blindfold sequence in 9 1/2 Weeks gets a more foodie-centric reprise in No Reservations - one of three restaurant themed movies to come out of the US this year. In another, Waitress, Keri Russell proves that the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach. (A fourth recent restaurant movie, Waiting, might be termed an anti-foodie movie for its stomach-churning insights into the service sector, and the same goes for Fast Food Nation, a grim expose of industrial practices up and down the food chain.)
There's no sex in Ratatouille, of course, the best of the three, and also the film that best conveys the ardour and intoxication of the true gourmet. Too many animated films these days seem designed to sell junk food to kids (see Over the Hedge for example), probably not unconnected to their lucrative cross-promotion deals with burger chains and other Transfat pushers. Ratatouille, on the other hand, is the story of a rodent who realizes he doesn't want to eat garbage all his life. The film chronicles his voyage of culinary discovery, from his first sneaky peek in a cookbook to the point where his dazzling gastronomy is the toast of Paris (Pixar prevailed on French Laundry chef Thomas Keller to come up with the rat's revolutionary ratatouille recipe).
Good as Ratatouille is, my favourite foodie movie remains Big Night, another restaurant story, this one co-directed by actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci. The Paradise - an Italian-American joint in the 50s - is on the verge of closure; the menu is just too authentic for homogenized American tastes. Salvation may be at hand with the promised appearance of popular crooner Louis Prima (whose songs pepper the soundtrack). The staff prepares Prima a banquet he'll never forget… Yet what sticks in the mind is the morning after, and a lovely, long final shot in which Tucci cooks himself an omelet. The sequence couldn't be any simpler but the effect is absolutely mouth-watering.
The Films for Foodies Collection
Like Water for Chocolate
The Wedding Banquet
Eat Drink Man Woman
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Raise the Red Lantern
La Grande Bouffe
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The Scent of Green Papaya
At the Height of Summer
A Good Year
A Walk in the Clouds
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