Fantasy, food and popcorn

December 26, 1997

Cinema's relationship with food runs the gamut from custard-pie fights to the Last Supper, Ian Christie explains

One of the earliest British fantasy films is entitled A Big Swallow. Made around 1901 by James Williamson, it shows a gentleman infuriated to find himself being photographed, who advances on the camera, opens his mouth as wide as the screen, and swallows both camera and operator whole. If cinema itself is a kind of consumption, hoovering up reality and feeding it to us in bite-sized chunks, it seems strange that so little attention has been paid to the filming of the food process.

I have a personal recollection of the close link between film-making and gastronomy. During the ten years that I knew the British film-making duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, I enjoyed some of the best meals of my life. Eating well was an article of faith for Powell and Pressburger. During the second world war they agreed deals with Arthur Rank over dinner at the White Tower restaurant in Percy Street, staying late and locking up after the owner had gone home. Powell even ran a hotel on the Riviera for some years, while Pressburger planned his travels with Michelin in mind.

In the 1970s, the start of a tribute screening of their restored Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) - which includes a famous dinner-party scene set in 1918, in which the Blimpish Clive Candy hopes to persuade his German friend of England's goodwill towards her recent enemy - was delayed so that our dinner guests could finish their dessert. Lunch with either of these gourmets was often surprising: Powell sharing his delight in finally perfecting a cauliflower soup, or cracking open a jambon en crote to reveal a welcome message spelled out in cloves; and Pressburger's reckless disregard for calorie-counting in preparing central European specialities, including a memorable potato cooked whole in a pound of butter.

There are younger film-makers who keep alive the tradition that links cooking and cinema: Raul Ruiz and Claude Chabrol spring to mind as gastronomes. Indeed there is a theory that claims the same skills are needed for both professions (planning, blending, improvisation, diplomacy).But to gauge the consumer's point of view, I carried out some fieldwork to see what associations spring to mind at the mention of "film and food".

Not surprisingly, the young have one unanimous response - popcorn. Equally unsurprising is their amazement that popcorn is in fact a relatively recent staple of cinema-going in Britain. Twenty years ago, ice-cream still reigned, sold by roving staff with trays, until a purposeful Americanisation of cinema-going brought in popcorn, along with new films starting on Fridays (instead of Sundays) and eventually the full panoply of multiplex theatres. It is hard to resist linking today's routinely massive buckets of popcorn and cola with a determined consumerism, which has certainly doubled attendance rates since 1986, but has also limited the range of films, especially non-American films, in British cinemas.

Trendy teenagers and young adults, attuned to oblique or perverse associations, are likely to recall the opening riff from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction - in which John Travolta impresses his fellow hit-man by explaining that the French call a quarterpounder with cheese a royale. Video rental aficionados can point to recent hits like Joe's Apartment, in which an innocent arrival in New York is befriended by the cockroaches in his tenement, who dance attendance - and sing, since it's a musical of sorts - before revealing their territorial imperative by wrecking an attempted dinner a deux with his girlfriend. Food in these ironic postmodern movies, as in the British black comedy Shallow Grave, is more likely to be a trap or a nasty surprise than simple nourishment.

For older, more versatile filmgoers, films with food at or near their centre unspool backwards from Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), in which tense Taiwanese Sunday dinners focus the dilemma of which daughter will look after father - the meal as social ritual. But above all, one 1980s film is remembered for its portrayal of lives devoted to the perfection of food as powerful metaphors. From Denmark came Gabriel Axel's adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story, Babette's Feast (1987), contrasting the sumptuous cuisine of Anna Karina's former Parisian chef with the asceticism of the sisters whom she serves. Here potential excess and gluttony are sublimated into sacrifice, indeed worship. Blessed are the frugal, Axel implies, for they shall be rewarded with a sublime feast.

But, after the life-affirming qualities of Babette's Feast, true cinephiles will turn to the dark side of food on film, eating as life-denial or a form of aggression, in two garish, brilliant films that have both given viewers (and censors) serious qualms. The more recent is Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), in which a brutal psychopath uses the restaurant he owns as a grand guignol theatre to humiliate and punish those in his power, especially his wife. Eventually his wife turns the tables on him, taking revenge for the killing of her lover by forcing her husband to eat the cooked corpse (although she shoots him at the last moment).

As in much of Greenaway's work, a clear set of antinomies underpins the violent action and lurid images: food and excrement; food and books; haute cuisine and decaying offal; and of course, the raw and the cooked - life and death. The film comprises a series of melodramatic tableaux that attempt to unite these opposites or substitute one for the other. Greenaway has given critics and audiences a hook on which to hang their unease, describing the film's model as "classic Revenge Tragedy out of the 'theatre of blood', with its obsession for human corporeality". But another visual point of reference is Dutch 17th-century painting, which provides the background decor for this restaurant, in which "guests" can be, quite literally, attacked. Everything in this upmarket eaterie of the late Thatcher period contradicts the visual and social order portrayed in the Dutch scenes of banqueting. Here it is dog eat dog, and man eat man.

The other defining work of the dark cinema of food dates from 1973, and has rarely been revived in Britain. Marco Fererri's La Grande Bouffe (English title: Blow Out) is about four men who retreat to a castle to eat themselves to death. This neo-Sadean orgy - with its comic counterpart in Terry Jones's exploding fat diner in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life - marks the ne plus ultra of the cinema of disgust; a metaphysical rejection of the world translated into a relentless, nauseating spectacle of self-destruction. Clearly film, with its intense visuality, is able to explore a range of extreme emotions and experiences by proxy. Cocooned in darkness, we watch what we desire, but cannot or would not want to experience in reality. In early mimetic theories of film and in some recent forms of cognitivism, this might be described as "kinaesthetic" stimulation; while in psychoanalytic theories of film it is likely to be conceived as "identification" with the screen phantasy. But whether this response is conceived in materialist or symbolic terms, it posits a special, intense interactive relationship between the screen world and the real world. Mostly this stops short of spectators imitating what they see on screen, but there is a rich folklore of odd behaviour in cinemas which may deserve more attention than it gets in film scholarship - as a kind of psychopathology of spectatorship.

When film shows started at the turn of the century, mainly in variety theatres, they followed the customs of the time, which included eating and drinking. As shops and even rooms were pressed into service to cater for the new craze, the habit continued. George Pearson, an English film pioneer, recalled his first visit to a "penny gaff" which smelt of "stale cabbage leaves and dry mud" because it had until recently been a greengrocer's. In Russia, as Yuri Tsivian has revealed, chewing seeds and eating nuts and apples was common, as was spitting the husks and cores at fellow members of the audience. When high-class luxury cinemas began to appear after 1910, seating was segregated to limit this skirmishing, and the foyer started to evolve as a cafe or bar, soon providing a social counterpart to the auditorium itself. In Britain and America, with their strong temperance movements, foyers developed as tea-rooms, and there were even recurrent attempts to serve tea in the cinema. In the 1910s, this involved keeping the lights on, which proved unpopular; but Denis Norden recalled, from his days as a London cinema manager in the 1930s, how films would be stopped abruptly at 4.30 pm and the lights turned on so that afternoon tea trays could be passed around. Oranges were often handed out at children's shows, and the peel inevitably converted into missiles to throw at the screen.

Throwing things at other filmgoers and at the screen has not been confined to unruly children's matinees, as is proved by the rich range of anecdotes collected in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond's Seeing in the Dark,an informal anthropology of auditorium behaviour. No doubt it owes much to the popular tradition of cinemagoing; and perhaps also to the peculiar kinaesthetics of watching vigorous, suggestive action from a fixed seat. But could it also be influenced by one of the earliest distinctive tropes of screen drama - the food fight, with its weapon of choice, the custard pie? Like much else in film comedy, the mechanics of the custard-pie fight were apparently worked out at Mack Sennett's Keystone studio around 1915. They were then taken up and developed by many popular screen comedians, with Laurel and Hardy's aptly-titled Battle of the Century (1929) widely regarded by connoisseurs as the apotheosis of the genre.

Another theme that emerges from Breakwell and Hammond is the association between cinemagoing and clandestine sexuality. A number of anecdotes recall sexual initiation, and exciting or perplexing childhood observations of sexual activity. Significantly, perhaps, some of these feature food as an adjunct - nuts, ices, chocolates, all acquire erotic associations in this litany of surreptitious revolt. In the darkness of the cinema, freed from normal social constraints and stimulated by the eroticism of the filmic spectacle, there is scope for ... well, let's say, some entertaining forms of semi-private satisfaction.

As staunch latter-day surrealists, Breakwell and Hammond are well aware of the tradition that regards cinemagoing itself as a surrealist activity. Andre Breton used to lead his followers in and out of cinemas at random, creating a kind of collage vecu, in which the dream-like condition of film-viewing was valued as an aid to liberating the unconscious. If scholarly film studies has largely disdained such matters, it has perhaps cut itself off from one of the underlying attractions of filmgoing - and one reason why the cinema has so often attracted the attention of moral zealots and censors. A new public sphere, it is also the space of private fantasy and even illicit behaviour.

Despite the crescendo of custard pies and orange peel, films and filmgoing in the 1920s were not all about the conspicuous waste of food. An important theme that links both American and Russian cinema in this decade is the exact opposite: hunger. As early as 1909, D. W. Griffith pioneered the use of parallel editing in A Corner in Wheat, which shows a grain speculator who has driven up the cost of bread suffocated by his own wheat. After the Russian revolution, the celebrated foundation of the Soviet montage school of film-making was a series of experiments in editing carried out by Lev Kuleshov in 1921; and what had first inspired Kuleshov was his earlier discovery that by intercutting the face of an actor with a close-up of a bowl of soup it was possible to trigger the audience's interpretation that the character was "thinking about" food.

During the famine that followed the civil war, many Russians would have occasion to think longingly about food - an early agitational film was starkly titled Hunger, Hunger, Hunger - and in fact the first great international success of the new Soviet propaganda cinema, Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, starts with a truly dialectical food drama. The film's opening section is called "Men and Maggots"; and it is the crew's complaint that their meat is crawling with maggots - rejected by an officer, despite the close-up evidence - which sparks a mutiny. Having treated the sailors like "maggots", this same officer is thrown overboard to "feed the worms", and the process of revolution, which will soon spread to the city of Odessa, is started.

If scarcity marked the portrayal of food in the 1920s, then plenty was the keynote of the following decade. Alexander Korda set the trend with his rollicking Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), offering a shrewdly populist invocation of Merrie England in the celebrated image of Charles Laughton banqueting on chicken legs. Russia, too, contributed to the panoply of groaning tables, laden with rich food and drink, in the series of late 1930s kolkhoz musicals by Ivan Pyriev - a Stalinist version of the "Potemkin villages" originally created to disguise Russia's rural misery from Catherine the Great. Eisenstein would contribute an historical dimension to this bucolic image in his Alexander Nevsky (1938), with its bustling Novgorod market scenes, and in the formal wedding banquet sequence of Ivan the Terrible (1945), with its extraordinary procession of swan-neck dishes. After the war, with hunger and hardship still rife, the kolkhoz fantasy of abundance returned in such films as Kuban Cossacks (1950) and The Cavalier of the Golden Star (1951), which Khrushchev would single out for denunciation in his 1956 "secret speech". Stalin, he claimed, had used cinema for self-serving myth-making, and nowhere had this been more evident than in the spectacle of plentiful food on Soviet screens through the hungriest decades.

Surrealism was not only interested in the phenomenon of filmgoing. It bequeathed to cinema, as it did to painting and literature, a new explicitness and relish in breaking taboos. Most of these taboos were ultimately sexual, but often they involved other areas of inhibition, including the complex links between eating, sexuality, and death. Across the career of just one surrealist film-maker, Luis Bu$uel, it is possible to trace a continuing assault on these conventions, much of it expressed through bizarre images of food and eating.

Bu$uel's first film in his native Spain, in 1932, was a documentary on the barren region of Las Hurdes, known in English as Land Without Bread. From his Mexican exile, there are the extraordinary dream images of Los Olvidados (1950), in which a slum child imagines his mother thrusting raw offal towards him, and the atavistic parable of The Exterminating Angel (1962), with its dinner guests mysteriously trapped and only saved from turning on each other by the equally mysterious appearance of a flock of sheep. Back in Europe, Bu$uel's last years yielded the parodic beggars' last supper of Viridiana (1961) and the disturbing comedy of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which a party of would-be diners are constantly frustrated in their search for food.

The rituals of food and drink, for Bu$uel, conveniently signified the whole structure of "civilisation", by which mankind seeks to create meaning and impose order on the absurdity of life. Challenge or remove them, and chaos threatens. The ultimate chaos is, of course, anthropophagy - cannibalism - a threat that hovers over more than one Bu$uel film. And if surrealism's role is to challenge taboos, then the prevalence of cannibalistic fantasies is evidence of cinema's intrinsic surrealism. Probably the oldest such tradition in film is the vampire theme, which first appeared in early Bram Stoker adaptations, such as Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Browning's Dracula (1930), and has since, appropriately, refused to die. Yet for all the gore attending some vampire variations, this is metaphysical transgression: stealing the soul through drinking blood - a blasphemous satanic sacrament.

Cannibalism has a similarly magical basis, if it in fact exists per se - there is also what might be termed a pragmatic anthropophagy: eating the flesh of another to stay alive in extremis. Cinema is rich in examples of both - roughly the "zombie" and the "survival" traditions - but it has also produced some remarkable and disturbing hybrids, in which challenging the taboo against human flesh-eating is in fact the subject of the film. From Michael Curtiz's lurid medical thriller Dr X (1932), via such poignant and eccentric horror essays as Gary Sherman's Death Line (1972) - in which a cannibal-survivor preys on London Underground passengers - and Ruiz's The Territory (1981), this tradition has flourished in recent years.

To make a modern "cannibal" comprehensible and compelling is to confront us with our worst fears - worse, to taunt us with the simultaneous desire to deny and indulge them. They may be far removed from any "normal" attitudes to food and eating, but this is their symbolic, social function. These are extreme examples of cinema's ability to give therapeutic form to our deepest anxieties.

Deeply disturbing images of food are not the only feature of cinema's cuisine: the context in which "normal" food is prepared and eaten can also be highly significant. Meals, for instance, play an unusually dramatic part in many of Martin Scorsese's films. In GoodFellas (1990), a brutal mafia killing is followed by an alarmingly normal Italian-style meal, served by the director's own mother, Catherine. And one of the most sensuous and simultaneously menacing of all food images in cinema occurs in a prison scene, as the mafiosi prepare their ritual pasta sauce. The boss, we learn in voice-over, while seeing a close-up of chubby fingers at work, "had this wonderful system for doing the garlic. He used a razor and he used to slice it so thin that it used to liquefy in a pan". Later, the main character's drug-fuelled paranoia is signalled by his obsession with the meatballs and tomato sauce he's cooking as the FBI move in. "Keep an eye on the sauce and watch out for helicopters" is almost his last order before the Feds break in. Throughout GoodFellas, the exacting domesticity of Italian cuisine serves to highlight the terrifying normality of these mobsters.

For his Italian-American subjects, Scorsese can draw on his own memories and family tradition. The Scorsese Family Cookbook was published in 1996, (shortly before his mother's death). The Age of Innocence (1993), however, posed a new culinary challenge: how to recreate the elaborate dinners of Edith Wharton's 19th-century high society and give these unfamiliar rituals dramatic meaning? Scorsese's solution was to go for the same authenticity as in his gangster movies. Here every course and setting is meticulously researched, and its significance registered in the social dance that steers Newland Archer away from the exotic Countess Olenska and ensures he stays with the demure, yet steely May Welland. Dining is no more innocent in this social jungle, where, to Scorsese's delight, the most violent thing that happens is a breach of etiquette.

Here, as so often at the movies, watching people eat offers a profound insight into what makes them tick. Abstracted from the mundane reality of nourishment, with cinema's own fantasy food to hand, in the unlikely shape of popcorn, we can speculate on the symbolism and meaning of our daily bread.

Ian Christie FBA is professor of film studies at the University of Kent.

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