Meals on Reels

By Stu Kobak

      When Mark Lester sang Food, Glorious Food in Oliver! he was dreaming more of a simple turkey with traditional sides. He wildest epicurean imaginings couldn't have conjured up the array of spectacular dishes served up in films like Eat, Drink Man, Woman or even Babette's Feast.
    Gourmets, gourmands, gather round, to explore some of the best meals ever prepared or served on film. The art of the kitchen transferred to the art of cinema, a stimulating visual combination powerful enough to stampede a thunderous herd of moviegoers from theater to local restaurant. I think foreigners may have the edge when it comes to serving up film meals.        
Nothing ever delighted my eye and stomach on film like the magnificent preparation of Chinese food in Ang Lee's splendid Eat Drink Man Woman. Master Chef Chu is a family head  who carries his passion for food to the extreme. Ritual family dinners with his three grown daughters are a cooking class, a critical essay on tasting and evaluating food. Cinematically, director Ang Lee and cinematographer Jong Lin shoot the food with the same passion that the Chef Chu creates his masterpieces. Lee' sensitive insight into character extends to food. Just as the relationships of the girls and their father are explored, so too are the masterful ingredients that grace Chef Chu's platters. The director's sense of cuisine would make a catering genius envious. The unique sensibility that combines the perfect ingredients for each platter of food extends to the elements working for and against each other in the family. Platter color combinations are stunning enough to turn gourmet magazine editors to mush.  Scenes shot in the kitchen of Taiwan's Grand Hotel are especially magnificent. 
     Perhaps Ang Lee should get some special award for presentation of food on screen. Before presenting the consummate magnificent of cuisine on screen in Eat Drink Man Women, Lee presented magnificent images of food in The Wedding Banquet. Though lacking the power of the personal touch of Eat Drink, The Wedding Banquet rates as a cuisine stopper. Don't put me in front of the screen on an empty stomach please.
     An ingratiating English language remake of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman transported the divine Taiwanese inspiration to Los Angeles. Restaurateur Martin Naranjo steps into the shoes of Chef Chu. The Latin food preparations are colorful in Tortilla Soup, but the remake rhythms are just a hint of microwave. Details are slicker, more plastic and lack the intricacy that graces the original source material. The best thing about Tortilla Soup is perennial supporting actor Hector Elizondo getting a juicy leading role. The worst is Raquel Welsh as overstuffed love interest Hortensia.
    The spicy foods of Taipei and Los Angeles are an endless strings of frying pans from the Denmark village where Parisian exile Babette delivers a scintillating feast of high sophistication to the simple table of the two spinster sisters where she is employed as housekeeper. Babette's Feast, is a lean and spare Danish film except for the kitchen work. The central meal builds majestically as an expression of Babette's suffocating art. Once the ruler of a Parisian high society restaurant kitchen, politics have brought her to another part of the world and another part of her life. But Babette's spirit survives through her love of the culinary arts. Adapted from an Isak Denisson short story,  The wonders of the kitchen translate to the table with perfection in this Nordic cinema soufflé. Babette's almost religious preparation of her statement meal is meticulously filmed by writer/director Gabriel Axel. Preparations begin with delivery of the food and wine. Step by step the grandeur of Babette's gesture unfolds. Audiences get to share the purity of vision. Babette holds her intense focus like a great general planning a major battle and deploying his troops for perfect execution.  Every moment in and around the kitchen leading up to the meal is delicious, but the serving of the meal itself with layered revelation is a magnificent experience. Babette's Feast is a true triumph of culinary visions. The menu is so stunning that a trendy New York restaurant, Petrossian, actually served a version of Babette's Feast as a menu special for several years. Turtle soup anyone?  
    From refinement to boorishness in one great leap across the water from Denmark to England.  Do you really want to hear about The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Peter Greenaway's film resides in the Greenaway universe, a unique place that resolves around an oval sun, if that's possible. Greenaway sees things differently. His best work is mesmerizing, breathtakingly beautiful, and filled with unusual details. The Cook et al is amongst the director's most eccentric and hypnotically involving films. Happily, it's not the typical food flick. Mixed in with the fish and fowl are people parts served up in a feast dreamed up by a tough gangster with sensibilities honed in Hell. Greenaway chooses to treat the overgrown opulence with particular disdain. While intricate epicurean platters are presented with theatrical flair, this banquet ultimately translates to disgust. The splendor of table is debased by despicable acts. Greenaway's cast seems immune to food poisoning. Michael Gambon sits at the head of the table as crime boss Albert Spica. Gambon presents Spica's boorishness with relish. The refined Helen Mirren is a strange bird basting alongside Gambon as his wife Georgiana. Mirren's strong presence keeps the table from splintering under the weight of repugnance. No, I don't recommend The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover as after dinner fare. Let's say this stands strongly in the court of alternative cinema cuisine.
    Hot on the heels of Greenaway's splendid meal perversion is a more elegantly devious but equally splendiferous spread in Felicia's Journey. Atom Egoyan's psychological thriller stars Bob Hoskins as Hilditch, a solitary man whose mother was a well-known television cooking show hostess. Hilditch watches old tapes of his mother's on screen preparations and studiously follows the recipes to sumptuous meals, albeit eaten in the solitude of his sickness. The enduring image of Hilditch sitting alone at a table dressed with food for a feast remains haunting, like the ghost of Thanksgivings past. Bob Hoskins' Hilditch is a chillingly memorable screen portrait. One can't help wondering if Hoskins came away from Felicia's Journey with a new respect for the rigors of the kitchen. 
     Julie Taymor's striking Shakespearean adaptation Titus is far from a food movie. While the bloodbath of revenge dominates the horrific vision, Taymor's imagination does conjure up some demented displays of food. The coronation feast is an sumptuously overripe  vision of excess. But the food highlight comes as Titus himself plays mad baker dancing around the table with the addled glee of a Pillsbury poster boy while serving a memorably disgusting concoction.  I can tell you one thing for certain, Anthony Hopkins will never bake a pie for me.
      For a wholly irreverent look at movie morsels you might take a gander at Le Grand Bouffe. Marco Ferrari's strange soufflé of comic madness presents a towering array of food from slabs of raw beef to a towering desert to die for, literally. It's right up there with some of the most disgusting food depictions ever concocted.  Le Grand Bouffe spoofs the grand appetite in an eating frenzy to end all eating frenzies. Four men make a pact to eat themselves to death over an extended weekend. One is a chef, another an important judge, the third an airline pilot, and the fourth a television producer. Why they have decided to end on one last disgusting eating binge is not really clear, but it's not that important. The food's the thing, and a little sex on the side doesn't hurt either. Talk about a strange suicide pact. Presentation of the food is not especially imaginative. The great tri-pate house that the chef gouges on is the closest the film comes to culinary inspiration. handling of the food delivery perhaps is most inspirational. With a quartet of actors like Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli and Ugo Tagnazzi eating kamikaze zeal.
    Sex and the kitchen during Mexican revolutionary times are examined with delightful perspicacity in Alfonso Arau's screen adaptation of former wife Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate. Ample helpings of passion are diced, pureed, minced and molded into a spicily prepared cinematic meal. The ecstasies of sex blend with the wonders of the kitchen with sensual results. Like Water for Chocolate's signature dish is a soup seasoned by the sadness of lost love. Tita, the young woman, deprived of her lover by virtue of her place as the youngest daughter in a traditional family, toils in the kitchen making the wedding cake for the marriage celebration of her sister to the man she loves. Her tears turn the wedding banquet into a crying binge sparked by the batter's secret ingredient. Another memorable dish is produced by a lover's roses pestled into a quail sauce that arouses uncontrollable sexual passions. It lights a memorable fire under Tita's robust sister Gertrudis that leads to a life of revolutionary passion and ardent sex.  It's all narrated by the grandniece of Tita while she chops away at onions, tears flowing, as she recounts those days of passion.  Bring on the onions, I say.   
    Of course, Arau's flick isn't the first to link sex and food for salivating results. They have traditionally shared side by side cinematic seats. One of the most famous of the erotic eating sequences takes place in the Academy Award winning Tom Jones. Here's the challenge: order a half dozen oysters with your date after a screening of Tom Jones.  
    Dissecting the delights of a noodle highlights the scrumptiously hilarious Japanese film Tampopo. The beauty of a noodle soup, the perfection of ingredients, the temperature and even the perfect way to sample it, boil up a bubbling comic adventure surrounding the art of noodle magic. Director Itami does more with a bowl of soup than most directors could do with a full scale banquet. The mock serious tone with which his characters approach the task of noodle nirvana never stops rolling out the laughs. For a side dish mixing sex with an assortment of oriental exotics, Tampopo delivers some strange sights of a gangster and his gal doing some nasties with food.
     Not every treatment of cuisine on screen emphasizes the beauty of the food. The extremes twist our view of food and manage to disgust us. Take Richard Lester's fine adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh satire The Loved One. Not everything in the movie works equally well, but the wonderfully disgusting portrait of Mr. Joy Boy serving his obese mother an endless parade of food is a passionate cinema food treatise   delivered with the greatest of gourmand gracelessness.  Mr. Joy Boy dances around his mother with tiny temptations like whole roast turkeys and Rod Steiger has a field day as the mortician whose mother lays transfixed by television commercials coddled comfortably in the layers of her own fat. When Steiger dances in to his mother's comfortable bed dining position singing Momma's Little Joy Boy loves cookin, cookin, it's the height of gourmandize bad taste. Can you bake a cherry pie charming Joy Boy?
    Even Indiana Jones must endure questionable cuisine in service of adventure. A good banquet variation slips into  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  Monkey brains anyone? The gelatinous delicacy doesn't sit too well with Western stomachs. Indy and femme fatale pal Wilhelmina can't quite share the Thuggee affection for the special dish.  If all these food descriptions are making you salivate, perhaps we should turn to the imagine of Monty Python for any final thoughts on screen cuisine. Talk about exploding the myth of fine table, the Pythons could poke a pin in anyone's balloon, and the eating scene in The Meaning of Life takes the cake.
    How many more memorable movie meals have tempted or disgusted you? We all have our favorites. Perhaps those home for the holidays flicks touch us in some way bringing on memories of our own family meals past. Some movies treat food with disdain, others with regal relish. Next time you charge up your home theater with a




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