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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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