In film, the preparation and consumption of food is frequently an intimate activity that borders on the erotic. In Chef (last year’s underappreciated dramedy from writer and director Jon Favreau) food is a means by which we may connect with other people via culinary appraisal and gustatory pleasure, with Favreau’s protagonist and star restaurateur Carl Casper wooing the likes of Scarlett Johansson via the delicate preparation and presentation of a simple pesto pasta dish. By the sheer, sensory power of Kramer Morgenthau’s succulent cinematography, the viewer is romanced so that in Chef, and films like it that are summarily concerned with the animal allure of food, the senses of a refined viewer’s palate are complimented by the exquisite photographic representation of the food in the film, and the characters become wrapped up in the seeming appearance of things just as the viewers are in indulging that self-same fantasy, which is appropriately enough the primary aim and chief goal of most cinema in the first place.
Whenever we go to see a movie at the local multiplex, we are often giving into the desire to pretend that the world is other than what it appears to be. This summer has already seen a slew of action movie spectacles that were fantastically otherworldly that felt, at least for the two hours spent engaged with their supported narrative fictions, utterly alive and realistically relevant. Mad Max: Fury Road is an utterly surreal and bizarre action-thriller fantasy, filled to the brim with wildly fantastic imagery and dissociating set pieces that belong solely within the film’s depicted lunacy. And much the same can be said of any one of this summer’s other wild flights of creative imagination, regardless of genre (see Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Inside Out, or Trainwreck). Point being, film is, and has always been, a means by which socio-culturally shared dreams may be engaged in as a reality via the magic of cinema, an art-form that trades upon its ability to make the unreal seem momentarily achievable.
As an object of narrative focus, cinema works upon the subject of food in much the same way, highlighting and drawing attention to those aspects of a selected delectable’s presentation and preparation, whether or not the final result is reproducible in the viewer’s kitchen at home being entirely secondary to the fiction being temporarily entertained. Seeing as today is Culinarians Day, perhaps it would behoove us to examine this paradox of viewer self-deception more closely as it occurs in movies and on TV. Whether or not we are fully aware of such an active art of self-deception going on whenever we watch a movie featuring food, or gaze listlessly at featured programming on the Food Network in the wee hours of the early morning, food is a tantalizing object of immense fascination and desire, and the only other primary object of erotic satisfaction (save for sex itself) that might provide brief moments of pleasurable distraction amid the monotony of our mortal existence.
In terms of reality television, there are plenty of options to satiate our baser appetites for masturbatory, audio-visual consumption. On shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, foodie personality Guy Fieri is the veritable clown prince of overeating, trading on a thoroughly American over-appetite for greasy, fattening restaurant fare, the state of the national waist-line be damned. In such shows as Fieri’s, food is photographed to provoke hunger in the average viewer that ends immediately after said viewer takes the first bite of his or her preferred late night snack, the Food Network having become increasingly unconcerned with the art and process of food preparation, and sliding into a complacency intent on keeping viewers in a catatonic stupor induced by the network’s promoted acceptance of unbridled gluttony.
Dissimilarly, food as it is featured on film is often of an entirely different nature, meant to suggest intimacy and collaboration between the food itself, the chef who prepares it, and the patron who will ultimately enjoy its inherent nutrition personally. Whether it be in Disney and Pixar’s, Brad Bird directed culinary fable Ratatouille, wherein an anthropomorphic rat serves up an especially appetizing, computer generated vegetarian dish to warm the cold, dead heart of the most wizened miser of a food critic, or in Nora Ephron’s later cinematic work Julie & Julia, where food bridges the gap in time between an aspiring culinary pupil and an old, legendary hand in the kitchen, food on and in film is often a prop by which a script’s characters may be brought together in union with one another. Unlike Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, films like the Academy Award-winning Babette’s Feast of 1987 celebrate the holistic potential for food, in both preparation and consumption, to bring individuals together, as opposed to separating and dividing them into their own shallow corners of self-pleasure and immodesty.
In last summer’s Chef, writer, director, and actor Jon Favreau examined how the act of cooking, preparing, eating, and, most importantly, sharing the art of culinary tradition can bring people together who may have become otherwise estranged. In Favreau’s wonderful dramedy, the director gives Kramer vs. Kramer a run for its money in a retelling of the age old story held between fathers and sons, wherein the bond between these two archetypal figures is so often formed out of a single-shared passion or hobby. Carl Casper might be self-involved and obsessive, but in his ability to share his learned trade with his son, he finds a way back into the heart of his ex-wife, and rebuilds what he once thought to be lost.
On Culinarians Day this year, perhaps it might be appropriate to take another look at not only how and what you eat, but who you eat it with. There are plenty of examples on popular television that set a bad example when it comes to being compulsive consumers, but then again so do some films, as anyone who has seen Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal classic work of feature film animation Spirited Away can attest to. But unlike Chihiro’s parents, whose insatiable appetites turn them into literal pigs, we as viewers can look to the precedent set in such films as Jon Favreau’s Chef and Brad Bird’s Ratatouille in order to learn how food may be an object of intimate allure, but is also one of communal connectivity between ourselves and those around us. No man is an island when we can all share and enjoy the very best that the world’s greatest chefs and sous chefs have to offer and pass around, so on Culinarians Day this year, remember to enjoy your appetizing meal of choice as it may please the senses and the soul, on both the screen and in your kitchen at home.
Featured Image: Open Road Films