Lust for life

An incomplete essay on culinary cinema. Or, a film critic’s recommendations for foodies.

WORDS NOEL VERA | ILLUSTRATION  TONE DAÑAS


It’s hard to make a case for films about food before the late 1980s. There wasn’t much of a movement to help stimulate craving other than the occasional cooking show on American public television (Food Network was only a glimmer of an idea in the horizon), and the handful that actually dealt with the subject weren’t all appetizing.

Ted Kotcheff’s Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) had the brilliant conceit of chefs being killed according to their specialties (you imagine Eric Ripert or Daniel Boulud pausing to reflect: “Y’know that really isn’t a bad way to go”) and not much else — as a comedy it’s sad, as a mystery obvious, as a romance only intermittently sexy (thanks mainly to the performance of Jacqueline Bisset as one of the chefs). Visually the menu — pigeon en croûte, canard à la presse, a Le Bombe Richelieu — is more mouth-watering on paper than on the big screen.

Somewhat more interesting is Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) — a watered-down adaptation of Roald Dahl’s comic-horror children’s book, about five kids who walk into a chocolate factory and are done in by their respective unbalanced appetites (think of Dante’s Inferno only with sugar and cacao beans added). For all of Stuart’s visual clumsiness, he did manage to snag Gene Wilder, an actor who specialized in unhinged visionaries (The Producers, Young Frankenstein), to play Wonka. What the film lacks is what all great horror provides: a distinct sense of beauty — something Tim Burton manages to (somewhat) supply in his handsomer more faithful (down to using Dahl’s original title) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Burton fails to insist that Wilder repeat his performance as Wonka alas; instead Johnny Depp plays Wonka as a marginally less creepy Michael Jackson, a clever if not inspired choice. 

STEAMY SEX, STEAMY COOKING

So far we’ve mentioned American productions, two of which are adaptations of a British novel — but food, of course, is a worldwide phenomenon; other countries are, in some ways, more intense and less inhibited in their obsession.

Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate (1992) equates steamy sex with steamy cooking and while the food looks good, the movie’s simultaneously too overcooked and too tasteful to take seriously. Buñuel might have done something with this, something vinegary and unsentimental that the audience could sink their teeth into; as is, it’s a bowl of oversweet arroz con leche, fit only for gumming.

Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987) is more focused and considerably better made, partly because the source material is Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), partly because the story isn’t spread across 40 years and several generations. You do catch hints and glimmers of Blixen’s ironies, though Axel seems to want to render them in as generic and inoffensive a manner as possible, packaged in an exotic European landscape, in a scrupulously subtitled European language (the original story was written in English), with any metaphoric barbs blunted for American (or at least English-speaking) audiences. The menu as depicted onscreen was offered in several restaurants during its commercial run, to complete the gourmand experience. 

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Babette’s Feast

Of the usual suspects (the aforementioned Like Water for Chocolate and Babette’s Feast, Alexander Payne’s Sideways, Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet etc.) I like and respect two:

Ratatouille
Ratatouille

Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night (1996) is about the conflicting impulses involved in establishing a commercially successful restaurant and cooking deliciously authentic Italian food. For its centerpiece, the film features a spectacular sequence depicting the construction (as in “the assembly of many pieces to form an edifice”) of a timpano (a drum): literally a large cylinder of dough stuffed to brimming with meatballs ziti boiled eggs grated pecorino chunky-sharp provolone a rich ragu sauce, lovingly baked to a golden brown.

Big Night
Big Night

More delicate was the film’s tone: a mix of deadpan observational comedy and low-key hedonism laced with a fatalistic attitude towards Italian cooking — the kind American diners weren’t quite ready for in the 1950s (at one point a diner insists on having meatballs with his spaghetti). The fondness for back-home cooking seems prescient but is basically what most immigrants felt on arriving in America: a chance to reestablish and reinvent oneself on new soil, yes, but also to reaffirm — to present one’s own identity (represented by one’s food) as a gift for others to accept or reject as they see fit.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) is funnier, crazier, even more pointed — a satire not just of Rocky-style competition training (in this case the eponymous housewife/chef’s quest to make the perfect bowl of noodles) but of passion in all forms (a gangster and his cute girlfriend eat and love their way through a variety of decadent scenarios). Itami isn’t content to stick to a single narrative or even a pair of interlaced stories; he’s perfectly happy to stray and sample other small tales tapas-style, including a pair of con men trying to scam each other in a restaurant, and a sick woman asked by her husband to rise from her deathbed and cook the family one last meal. The last vignette (the mother as heroic servant, especially in Japanese or Asian culture) mixes extremes of pathos and humor in a way that recalls the “Mr. Creosote” episode in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: the humor is funny up to a point, then it sprouts fangs. Funny in this case is beside the point; Itami from satirist becomes some kind of truthsayer.

Tampopo
Tampopo

Of the less usual suspects, there’s Tsui Hark’s The Chinese Feast (1995) which, on paper, is about as profound and substantial as a vegetable wonton, your basic win-the-cooking-contest story with a chef’s-redemption-from-alcohol subplot thrown in. Stylistically, it’s a glorious banquet of filmmaking styles Hark assembled from directing the Once Upon a Time in China movies. A knife flashes round a pear and the peel falls apart in a spiral; the flesh opens up as lotus blossom petals; wok oil flares; ladles swirl like swords; ice cubes clatter — and suddenly sweet-and-sour pork is served crusted in crystallized syrup. At one point, the menu (from the Manchu Han Imperial Feast, a spread of over a hundred dishes cooked in every regional style exclusively for the Emperor) demands a live monkey brain, flash-fried — does one admit defeat, or serve the legendary dish at the expense of some poor animal’s fresh-cracked cranium?

Hark’s film is stuffed with everything culinary and cinematic; maybe what’s lacking is that je ne sais quoi, that indefinable ingredient that can ignite a film’s narrative. Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery (1996) offers a parody of food culture ­— of celebrity chefs (who started to make their influence felt about this time), of Iron Chef (a nuttily stylized televised cooking contest that began airing in Japan in 1993, same year The Food Network was established in the US), of refined palates and titanic appetites. Chow would shoot the cooking sequences the way he shot the soccer and kung fu sequences in his later breakout films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, with bravura energy and a brazen disregard for the laws of both physics and conventional narrative.

At the same time, there’s something oddly winning about Chow’s comedy. His hero (also named Chow) meets Turkey (Karen Mok), a disfigured food cart cook who, it later turns out, harbors a gigantic secret crush on him; his own redemption depends on how he reacts to this unexpected burden/blessing. Wild inventive plot twists are a staple of commercial Hong Kong cinema, particularly comedies; Chow draws on them for his best comic moments (as when Chow combines Turkey’s Beef Balls and a rival’s Pissing Shrimp to create — what else? — Pissing Beef Balls, juicy morsels of ground beef and shrimp with the resiliency of ping-pong balls). At the same time, he adds an old-fashioned love story to give the film just a hint (but only a hint) of self-sacrificing sweetness.

Films about food are often comedies or come across as comic; hard to be serious with such an ostensibly lightweight subject. The desire to puncture that conventional thought might have driven Marco Ferreri to make the 1973 La Grande Bouffe (The Great Feast) — that and his desire to move out of the shadow of Luis Buñuel, to whom he has been frequently compared.

It’s the most straightforward of scenarios: a chef, a judge, an airline pilot, and a TV producer all gather at an empty villa to eat themselves to death — and right away you can’t help but compare poor Ferreri’s most famous and possibly best work to Buñuel (The Exterminating Angel where diners attend a party from which they cannot leave, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie where the diners attend a party that cannot push through) and especially Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The latter comparison is a bit unfair. Salo (an adaptation of the Marquise de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom) came later and shows some of Ferreri’s influence — but Pasolini goes much further, weaving a vast tapestry of perversions that includes coprophagia and murder. La Grande Bouffe, despite its title, is a more introverted affair, with the four men devoted to self-destruction rather than sadism. The impression the film finally leaves us despite the moments of slapstick and loud bodily sound effects is of sadness: of four men so exhausted of aspiration they can only seek a surcease of all aspirations, all that wine and grease and fat and cream consumed lubricating their way to the end. As provocateur, Ferreri doesn’t make one forget the elegantly offhand effrontery of Buñuel (you can see the flop sweat where the former exerts with all his might to shock) or the magisterial authority of Pasolini — but does develop a flavor all his own.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Interesting dichotomy: before the development of today’s food culture, filmmakers treated eating as an occasional esoteric appetite not without danger; with the rise of Food Network, Rachael Ray and the Cooking Channel suddenly cooking and eating movies are a regular concern, with titles coming out every other year — life-affirming pictures meant to rejuvenate lives, bring people together, add beauty to the world. Part of why I like Big Night so much is that this doesn’t quite happen. The bittersweet conclusion leaves the brothers’ ambitions unrealized, to wait decades for the likes of Mario Batali to take up their cause (to be fair Batali does it in a no-nonsense just-the-facts-ma’am region-by-region fashion, and looks like a Family caporegime — in fiery ponytail and matching orange clogs — to boot).

One of the more popular television shows on cable is Bizarre Foods, where host and chef Andrew Zimmern travels the world looking for disgusting and sometimes forbidden dishes to eat — and what one asks is the most forbidden delicacy of all?

It has a subcategory all its own, from Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (not the earliest but one of the most prestigious) to Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (misleading, as Harry Harrison’s original novel Make Room! Make Room! dealt with overpopulation not cannibalism) to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (brutally effective, and an early example of the “found footage” genre) to Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s Delicatessen (grotesque and funny) to Fruit Chan’s Dumplings (creepy sexy).

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (2007) — about a psychotic barber who kills his clients and has his girlfriend turn them into meat pies — isn’t the first film on the killer (earliest adaptation was in 1926) nor the finest on the subject (that would be Ichikawa’s, not only great but horrifyingly funny) but does dwell at length on the key ingredient (sales soar, thanks to the freshness of the meat). Sondheim roots the source of Todd’s fury firmly in class injustice (a working man whose wife was raped; daughter, abducted; he himself falsely convicted and exiled). At one point Sondheim lampoons the typical epicurean’s obsession with provenance (think Anthony Bourdain, only more amoral) in the song “A Little Priest:”

“Is it really good?”

“Sir it’s too good at least! Then again they don’t commit sins of the flesh so it’s pretty fresh.”

“Awful lot of fat.”

“Only where it sat.”

The song steps back to take in the cosmic view:

“The history of the world my sweet”

“Oh Mr. Todd,

Ooh Mr. Todd, what does it tell?”

“Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!”

Burton realizes Sondheim’s lyrics onscreen with distinct flair, using stylized enclosed sets to depict 19th century London then photographing the endlessly varied behavior of blood as it echoes the endlessly varied behavior of men, the crimson juice spurting, spitting, fountaining, dropping from a slit neck in a rich red curtain or gurgling out a puncture wound like thick stew.

Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd

The ultimate in transgressive eating, the ultimate in transgressive food — but my favorite film on the subject? Nothing so outrageous really: Yasujiro Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) an understated comedy about spoiled Tokyo housewife Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and her business executive husband Mokichi (Shin Saburi); Taeko fumes and whines about her dull spouse, at one point rebelling by taking a train to Nagoya without leaving word. Suddenly, Mokichi is called away to Uruguay on a long business trip; suddenly the couple are to be separated for months, and on emotionally uncertain terms.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice

Taeko (skip the next few paragraphs if you haven’t seen the film!) comes home too late to catch Mokichi. She wanders through the darkened empty rooms and you appreciate how Ozu’s static low-angled shots suggest the desolation not just of the house but of her feelings. Then Mokichi comes home anyway — turns out his plane suffered engine trouble and was forced to return. He’s hungry; the couple ventures into the kitchen looking for food.

We have Taeko bumbling through pots and fridge (she’s never really cooked there before), we have Mokichi thoughtfully holding her sleeves up while she washes in the sink, we have plates and bowls and pot loaded on a tray with a slight sense of urgency (due to hunger) and not a little eroticism (the quiet intimacy).

Taeko samples Mokichi’s food; she suddenly apologizes to her husband — and who can blame her? She’s been seduced and totally overcome by this most elemental of dishes: hot green tea poured over cold rice (to heat and moisten) topped with pickles and a bit of soy for flavor. The most comforting of comfort foods, and basically what (Taeko realizes) her husband has been to her all this time.

That’s the film’s charm — not that it’s intense or esoteric or extreme or even particularly food-centric but that it both surprises and soothes the viewer (and Taeko) through the simplest of means. Sometimes what you crave isn’t an exotic food or elaborate dish or grand smorgasbord; sometimes what you crave is that smallest of miracles, a quick late-night snack, maybe with someone you care for, even love. De gustibus non disputandum est as the saying goes, and thank goodness for that.

Oh, and a footnote: Filipino films? Alas Lino Brocka never really focused on food beyond the lack of it among the urban or rural poor. I do remember the climax of Manuel Silos’ Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessed Land), where basket after basket was filled to overflowing with heavy bunches of lanzones, as large and taut and luscious as the pears in Dovzhenko’s Earth. I remember a melodrama (Pahiram ng Isang Umaga) that featured tocino (marinated pork) — delectably sweet and garlicky in real life, far less so on the big screen, alas. I remember Laurice Guillen’s American Adobo — a well-made family comedy but with little reference to the classic dish beyond the title.

There have been at least two recent independent productions that focused on food: Adolfo Alix’s Daybreak (2008) and Roni Bertubin’s Lovebirds (same year); I’ve yet to see the former, the latter (awkwardly charming ultimately moving) isn’t so much an eating or cooking picture as it is an erotic rom-com. Filipino food in my book is one of the world’s great underrated cuisines and I would love to see a serious Filipino film take a serious crack at the subject.