In Big Night, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's 1996 drama about two chef brothers cooking a one-of-a-kind dinner at their struggling Italian restaurant, there's a moment where the siblings unveil their prize dish, timpano, a mix of meat, cheese, pasta, tomato sauce, and hardboiled eggs served inside a drum-shaped crust. The unveiling begins with an overhead shot of the brothers carefully lifting the chafing dish to reveal the timpano; at the sight of that buttery crust, the audience I saw it with collectively exhaled in pleasure and envy—a noise that was half sigh, half moan. We all wanted to be in that movie, in that restaurant, sitting at the brothers' table as honored guests, knife and fork at the ready. Dear Lord, that food looked good.
Images of food—and the preparation of food—invariably have that effect on people. They unite viewers who might otherwise have nothing in common; they plug directly into the primal craving for transitory pleasure, the desire not just to admire and then consume inventively prepared food, but also to serve (and be served by) people who love us.
"Feast" is a tribute to such images. This video essay—which is offered in two formats, a straight-up montage with clips listed chronologically at the end, and an "Annotated" version identifying each clip, music cue, and offscreen line as it appears—is not meant to be comprehensive. Heck, it couldn't be—a video essay that attempted to include every food-related image and situation that a moviegoer holds dear would be longer than Lawrence of Arabia (and that would be the short version). Think of "Feast" as an appetizer intended to stimulate appreciation of the films that are included and enthusiastic citation of all the ones that weren't. (And yes, I expect—and want—to see omissions listed in this page's comments section; if you're curious, the eating scene from Tom Jones would have been represented, but unbeknownst to me, my DVD was scratched and there wasn't time to get a replacement.)
Writer-director Paul Schrader has said that sex and violence are the vicarious pleasures that drive the vast majority of commercial films, and he's right. But food is arguably just as alluring, and in its way, its appearance on screens—and when it does appear, it's often as lovingly lit and framed as a reclining nude—might be even more revelatory and pleasurable, because its appeal isn’t solely based on unattainable fantasy. It's not bloody likely that any of us will ever be able to bed a movie star or save the universe from evil. But if we study and practice the culinary arts (or are lucky enough to know somebody who's already an expert) we can experience delights that are as astounding as any mouth-watering scenario that food-obsessed filmmakers can devise. Every plate of food that appears onscreen is a dream that could come true.
As I put the clips together, a few observations came to mind. One is that cooking, perhaps more than any activity, lets an actor exude absolute physical and intellectual mastery without seeming domineering or smug. Why is that? It's probably because, while cooking is a creative talent that has a certain egotistical component (what good cook isn’t proud of his or her skills?), there's something inherently humbling about preparing food for other people. It doesn't matter whether you're a workaday gangster footsoldier giving lessons on how to cook for 20 guys, like Richard Castellano's Clemenza in The Godfather, or a hyper-articulate, super-fussy kitchen philosopher like Tony Shalhoub in Big Night, ("To eat good food is to be close to God..."), when you're cooking, it's ultimately not about you; it's about the people at the table. Their approval and pleasure is the end game.
Which means that the inventiveness and style displayed by, say, Stéphane Audranin Babette's Feast, Lumi Cavazos in Like Water for Chocolate, Sihung Lung in Eat Drink Man Woman or Hector Elizondo in Tortilla Soup is ultimately outer-directed, no matter what type of grandstanding or psychic self-flagellation occurs in front of the stove. It's about showing that you can care for, and please, others. That's why Ray Liotta's gangster in GoodFellas, a drugged-out, paranoid id creature, rushing from felony to felony during the final section of Scorsese's epic, seems decent and centered – even, heaven forbid, normal—when he's supervising the creation of his brother Michael's favorite sauce, then checking in via phone during his subsequent criminal errands to admonish his relatives to stir it so it doesn't stick. (Michael: "I'm stirrin' it!”)
Another note worth making: the number of films built around the preparation and consumption of food (not just films about eating, but films about other subjects that just happen to contain a lot of food-related moments) has jumped sharply since the 1980s. I'm not sure why this is. It may have to do with a more widespread interest in culinary matters (exemplified by cooking magazines and cable shows), or it might be the near-total eclipse of black-and-white film by color, which is better suited to tableaus of entrees and side dishes.
A third possibility might be that the proliferation of food films (and food culture) is a collective, unconscious reaction to the gradual splintering of society in the postwar, post-industrial, God-is-dead-and-I-don't-feel-so-good-myself era. The institutions and rituals that once defined families, communities, even nations have begun to ebb. But the feast endures—even if it only occurs once or twice a year, and even if the participants (as 1995's underrated Home for the Holidays demonstrated) spend more time evading and needling one another than coming together to celebrate their common bonds. Food is a uniter, not a divider. Read a political manifesto on the bus or the train and people tune out. Read a list of ingredients for timpano or green bean casserole or quail in rose petal sauce and they don't just listen, they nod their appreciation and let out subtle little mutterings of pleasure. Recipes are family-friendly erotica. Who doesn't love to eat?
Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door