Food—both the making and eating of—has always been a central theme in filmmaking
Analyzing film is all about connections. Truth be told, connections are to be found in all types of art. The years we all spent listening to English teachers drone on about theme and symbol, about extended metaphor and allusion, about reading deeply and drinking in the words and style of authors were not just standards dreamed up by some academic blowhard sitting in an air-conditioned university office to cause misery and pain to students who just want a cigar to be a cigar.
These literary devices, these ideas behind the story, are there to enhance the enjoyment of the work, to express ideas that are too complex to be so simple, too powerful to be understood through surface level thinking. Children begin with easy books, with easy movies, and hopefully they are lead from wide yawning valleys into dense jungles of meaning, taking stepping stones from Dr. Suess to Suzanne Collins to Aldoux Huxley.
Film appreciation develops much the same way, although for whatever reason it isn’t taught with the same fervor as reading despite containing precisely the same understandings that develop from precisely the same skills. An avid film watcher might progress from Star Wars to The Magnificent Seven to Seven Samurai. Film is ripe with meaning, with symbolism and allusion and metaphor, if viewers are willing to look closely. A great film is as rewarding as a classic novel—an Ingmar Bergman film is as layered and complex as anything James Joyce ever wrote and can be written about and analyzed as extensively. For a great film, everything you see is carefully and neatly planned.
There is a concept in literary theory known as “Chekhov’s gun.” This idea argues that every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary. Anton Chekhov is quoted as saying “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Of course, there are those that take this idea to the extreme—not every description is meant to move the plot—some is meant to set the mood or the tone of the story. Not every object in a film scene is going to be important—some is simply set dressing for the same reason. But often, films use these background elements to further the story, to reveal character, or to give the audience necessary context for what is about to unfold.
A common element that often goes unnoticed by the average viewer is food. Food and drink are such ordinary—yet vital—parts of the human experience that often it is just seen as unimportant background elements. However, upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see just how necessary food can be to telling a story. It can be a cultural marker for the filmmaker, a way to reveal the essential nature of a character, or even be used to as an allusion to other art forms. Any time a character is eating in a film, the audience should take notice.
Most often, food is used as a character marker. Obviously, there are cultural implications to food, meaning that it’s an easy tool for filmmakers to insert into a scene to draw attention to the backgrounds of particular characters. In films like The Godfather, the food is, of course, Italian, with major events accompanied by various forms of pasta and pastries. The effect ties the people in the story to a particular region, associating the criminal elements of the mafia with Italy—the Corleone family’s cover for their real family business is the business of importing olive oil, again rooting the characters and the crimes to Italy, first and foremost.
But this is also a very surface level reading of the purpose of the food. In her essay “Take the Cannoli,” Sarah Vowell describes the scene where Clemenza engineers the death of a rival family associate, but takes a moment to remember his responsibility to his family. She says: “The grisly, back-of-the-head murder of a rat fink associate is all in a day’s work.” But Clemenza’s overriding responsibility is to his family. He takes a moment out of his routine madness to remember that he had promised his wife he would bring dessert home. His instruction to his partner in crime is an entire moral manifesto in six little words: ‘Leave the gun. Take the cannoli’.”
As one of the more memorable lines in the film, the implication is clear: these are hard, dangerous, evil men. But evil men are also only men and men are capable of thinking in broader terms. Family and honor and murder are equalized and equivocated through a small reference to an Italian staple.
Food, it seems, also stimulates conversation. Books could likely be written just on the way that Hollywood uses food as a way for characters to interact, to share ideas, to express the thoughts and feelings of the filmmakers in an organic, relatable way. My Dinner With Andre, a film summed up entirely by the title, uses the setting for old friends to debate and defend their lifestyles on screen, asking that the audience take part in the conversation through their own thought processes.
Roger Ebert stated that “what they actually say is not really the point, I think. I made a lot of notes about Andre’s theories and Wally’s doubts, but this is not a logical process, it is a conversation, in which the real subject is the tone, the mood, the energy. Here are two friends who have each found a way to live successfully. Each is urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee.” Where else can such a conversation take place, surrounded by food and drink?
Dining is an act which itself necessitates and drives conversation, an act of social and physical comfort that allows us to express ourselves. But just like a specific type of food is used as a way to reveal character, conversations around a dinner table often do the same.
Diners are a popular location in film—Quentin Tarantino lives and dies by them. Think back to the opening of Reservoir Dogs. There is more here than scrutiny over the meaning of “Like a Virgin” or the absurdity of tipping. In fact, Mr. Pink’s aversion to tipping is central to his character, and ultimately, to his survival of the film. He doesn’t tip, he doesn’t believe in tipping, and he has no loyalty to a society that says he has to tip. That very attitude, that logical rejection of a common custom, keeps him from participating in a standoff that goes badly for the rest of the characters. Without that early conversation, started by simply sharing a meal, his character wouldn’t have been as believable.
But, of course, the preparation of food is just as crucial when it comes to Hollywood depictions. If reality television is to be believed, cooking is becoming less a byproduct of living and more an art form of the highest order. Humans are great at categorizing, which leads to ranking which leads to criticism.
The relationship between the chef and the filmmaker should be obvious. Both carefully construct their art, putting heart and soul into their craft, to have its success be measured not just by the general public but by people whose sole job it is to judge them based on a set of arbitrary ideas.
The relationship between the artist and the critic is a rocky one—critics are loved when they praise the artist and savaged when they do not. Hollywood tends to depict the critic as all powerful, capable of destroying an artist inside and out with a few negative words. This is seen in films about cooking from Ratatouille to Spanglish to the recent Chef.
Chef, a Jon Favreau film with a much lower budget that Iron Man, is a 2014 film about a famous chef leaving a popular L.A. restaurant to return to his roots of cooking good, low cost food while reconnecting with his son. It’s easy to see the film as an allegory to Favreau’s own career as a director, which steadily increased in budget and acclaim until Cowboys and Aliens was not well received.
Chef appears to be his answer to that, his way of returning to a love of filmmaking. Both Ratatouille and Chef ultimately paint (although somewhat grudgingly) a positive picture of critics, showing them as humans who simply love food (or in the case of Chef, film as an analogy) but use their role as a critic to drive the artists to create for the sake of creation rather than appeasing the powers that be.
Like everything in a film, the presence of food can be endlessly analyzed and discussed. There are always reasons, arrows pointing this way and that, which lead to conclusions and conversations. It’s what makes art so challenging. It’s what makes film so worthwhile. There’s always something new to see.