December 22, 2008

0 A Cinematic Feast: Great Movie Dining Scenes, Part 2

This week I am continuing the post I began two weeks ago, about my favorite dining scenes in movies.

Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson (1970). The scene in the diner where Jack Nicholson tries in vain to order a plain chicken salad sandwich is remembered by everyone who has seen this movie. The confrontation with the implacable waitress is used by the writer (Carol Eastman) and the director to reveal details about Robert Eroica Dupea's (Jack Nicholson) character: he's a fearless, obnoxious, rude, boorish, and frustrated loudmouth who isn't going to endure anyone's insolence. The scene also serves a larger purpose—to lambaste the conformist, one-size-fits-all, no-substitutions mentality of mainstream American society. The scene is an unforgettable blend of food and politics, a bitter jeremiad with Nicholson as the haranguing prophet.

The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola (1972). Near the mid-point of this movie comes a crucial scene set in a small restaurant in Brooklyn. Deeply offended by the attempted assassination of his father and by his own mistreatment by a corrupt police official, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is to meet with the policeman and the head of the rival family responsible for the attempt on his father's life. The meeting will take place at the restaurant, where a pistol will be hidden in the bathroom. The plan is that Michael will retrieve the gun and shoot the two other men. We see Michael searching for the gun, but we do not see for sure if he finds it. He has been told to come out of the bathroom firing, but when he does come out, he walks quietly back to the table and sits down. Pacino's troubled facial expressions in the scene that follows are riveting. Is his obvious discomfort because there was no gun in the bathroom? Having been warned that the men will attempt to kill him at the meeting, is he now preparing himself to face certain death? Or did he indeed find the gun but is now having second thoughts about killing the men, an act that would be out of character for Michael as he has been presented in the earlier parts of the film?

Having kept us on tenterhooks for several tense minutes, Coppola finally reveals the answer when Michael suddenly pulls the gun from his pocket, shoots the two men, and calmly walks out of the restaurant. The scene is pivotal in the development of the character of Michael in that from this point on, he changes from a static character who has distanced himself from the family's criminal activities ("That's my family, Kay. It's not me," he tells his girl friend in the very first sequence of the movie) to a character in transition. At the end of the movie, Michael is a very different person from the one he was at the beginning, and it is this scene in the restaurant that sets in motion the sequence of events that will cause the transformation in Michael's nature and eventually lead to his becoming the new godfather.

You Can Count on Me, Kenneth Lonergan, (2000). Samantha Prescott (Laura Linney) and her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) have been out of touch for several months, and Sammy doesn't understand why. When Terry finally contacts her and arranges to visit, she suggests they meet in a restaurant. At first the reuinion appears to be going well and the two siblings are getting pleasantly reacquainted. But Sammy is puzzled that her gentle but persistent probing about where Terry has been for the last few months is met with evasiveness.

Finally Terry reluctantly reveals that he has spent the last months in jail. At this the strait-laced Sammy quietly explodes, and in an instant the entire mood of the occasion changes. Sammy is barely able to conceal her suppressed anger from the other diners—this is a rather nice restaurant, and she and her brother are well-behaved middle-class adults—while Terry responds with abashed guilt and shame. The scene is a marvel both of controlling and expressing emotion and of character revelation, all achieved through brilliant dialogue, direction, and acting.

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (1983). Is there anyone who hasn't already guessed which scene I've chosen from this movie? It is, naturally, the one in which the grossly overweight Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones) eats himself to death in a very formal and rather snobbish restaurant. After consuming a huge amount of food and literally inflating with each successive course, he is reluctantly tempted by the waiter (John Cleese) to consume one last tidbit. This proves too much for Mr. Creosote, who explodes (literally), showering the restaurant and other diners with half-digested French cuisine, a sort of culinary version of John Hurt giving birth in Alien. Python sketches are always gloriously silly, but that silliness is generally used to make a point. The point here seems to be not just the gluttony of one person, but the fanatical addiction to consumerism—and the vulnerability to incessant inducements to comsume more, more, more—of Western culture. The scene is an illustration of suicide by overconsumption. Whether you find it funny or offensive, once you've seen it, you are not likely to forget it anytime soon.

North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock (1959). This is not only my favorite Hitchcock film but my favorite movie of all time, so how could I not include it? The hero, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) first gets to know the heroine, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), during a meal in the dining car of a train to Chicago when he is seated at her table just as she finishes eating. The scene is filled with sexual badinage that clearly conveys the immediate sexual attraction between the two:

GRANT: The moment I meet an attractive woman I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.
SAINT: What makes you think you have to conceal it?

SAINT: I never discuss love on an empty stomach.
GRANT: You've already eaten.
SAINT: But you haven't.

In truth, Hitchcock's movies are full of noteworthy meals (is this really so remarkable, given Hitchcock's considerable girth?), and I could have chosen a scene from any of a number of his movies. Memorable dining scenes occur in Sabotage, where Sylvia Sydney takes out her anger at her husband, who's responsible for the death of her young brother, with a carving knife ; in Shadow of a Doubt, where the wholesome family and adoring niece unwittingly share the family table with the Merry Widow Murderer; in To Catch a Thief, where Grace Kelly and Cary Grant share a picnic on the Riviera after a hair-raising ride in Kelly's sports car ("Breast or thigh?" asks Kelly mischievously, offering Grant some cold chicken); in Vertigo, when James Stewart takes the newly transformed Kim Novak to dinner at Ernie's restaurant; in Frenzy, when Vivien Merchant proudly whips away the large dome covering a platter to reveal a supper of minuscule proportions, Hitchcock's skewering of the then-fashionable cuisine minceur. And who can ever forget Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh eating those sandwiches in a shabby motel room overlooked by stuffed birds (and containing a concealed peephole into the bathroom of the adjoining cabin)?

Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen (1986). Thanksgiving is the most American of all feast holidays, and it is the occasion Woody Allen chooses to open this film and, exactly one year later, to conclude it. The first meal serves to introduce us to the main characters, Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her family, and to Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) and his sexual obsession with her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). At the second Thanksgiving meal we see how all the various plot elements have turned out. Most importantly, we see that Elliot's obsession with Lee has come to an end and that Hannah's other sister, the flaky Holly (Dianne Wiest), has taken up with the equally eccentric Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen). The two meals that bookend the movie are wonderfully detailed social occasions that also serve as the essential organizing elements of the narrative.

Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman (1982). It seems appropriate to follow a movie that contains a notable celebration of Thanksgiving with one that contains a notable celebration of Christmas, and to follow a movie directed by Woody Allen with one directed by his idol, Ingmar Bergman. The sequence in question, which opens the movie, lasts nearly a full hour and must be one of the most richly detailed and lengthy meals in all cinema. The sequence begins with the preparations for a family Chistmas Eve dinner at the house of Helena Ekdahl, the matriarch of the family, where the housemaids are elaborately decorating the tree and placing presents for the children under it.

The scene then shifts to the theater that her son Oscar manages, as did his father before him. The end of a beautifully staged Nativity play is shown, followed by a festive backstage dinner for the theater staff given by Oscar. At one point he haltingly makes a speech to the staff about the importance of their work: "Perhaps we give the people who come here the chance to forget for a while...the world outside. Our theater is a little room of orderliness, routine, care, and love."

Back at Grandmother Ekdahl's house the guests begin to arrive. The dinner that follows is filled with unforgettable images: the candle-filled dining room, the copious feast set out on the tables, afterwards the guests and servants singing and dancing in procession through the house (an interesting counterpart to the danse macabre that concludes The Seventh Seal) while the children are being entertained by Uncle Carl's "fireworks show," which consists of him lowering his trousers and blowing out three candles in a candelabrum with a single fart. When the meal has ended, the children are sent to bed in the nursery, where they have a pillow fight with their young nursemaid. Later, after the lights are out, Alexander, unable to sleep, sets up and plays with his Christmas present, a magic lantern. After everyone else has gone to bed or gone home, Grandmother Ekdahl and her friend Isak stay up drinking cognac and reminiscing, during which she is stricken by a fit of melancholia and broods on the passing of time. "This happy, splendid life is over," she tells Isak, "and this horrible, dirty life engulfs us."

Bergman seems to have rolled all of life into this one meal: youth and old age, joy and sadness, reality and imagination, poverty (the chronically debt-ridden Uncle Carl) and prosperity (Oscar's financial success with the theater), sex (horny Uncle Gustav Adolf bedding the voluptuous nursemaid Maj) and death (Oscar, Alexander's father, is already showing signs of the fatigue and illness that will soon kill him.)

The Dead, John Huston (1987). Based on the short story by James Joyce, probably the greatest work of short fiction in the English language, this movie takes place almost entirely during one meal, a dinner given by three sisters ("the three Graces of Dublin") to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. This is last day of the well-known twelve days of Christmas and in the Christian religion is observed to mark the adoration of the Magi and the presentation of their gifts to the Christ child. The dinner tells the viewer everything about an extended middle-class Dublin family, especially Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston).

But the real revelation—Gabriel's own epiphany—takes place after the meal, during the carriage ride home, just as Gabriel, emboldened by the intensely emotional mood of the dinner they have attended, is about to declare to his wife his love for her. Before he can speak, Gretta, also deeply moved by the dinner experience, confesses her first youthful love and its tragic outcome and quietly falls asleep in the carriage. Gabriel realizes that her feelings for him can never be as strong as those for her dead first love, nor as strong as his own for her. The movie ends with the "Snow is falling" voice-over read verbatim from the story, one of the most hauntingly melancholic passages in all literature, and equally moving here as the finale of the movie and of the long career of its director, John Huston.


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