Spag bol in the bath, french kissing with a raw egg, that notorious Clockwork Orange milk bar and more
Directors often develop such a distinctive style that their works can be identified from a single shot – be it their iconic colour palette and perfectly symmetrical shots (Wes Anderson) or simply an excess of unnecessary explosions (Michael Bay). David Ma, a food artist and commercial director, has dedicated a YouTube channel to recipe videos that emulate the style of our favourite directors. The videos explore a fascinating relationship between food and cinema; film stimulates our emotions with sights and sounds, while we, in turn, stimulate ourselves with cinema snacks to enhance our viewing pleasure. David’s videos include s’mores in the style of Wes Anderson, Tarantino-esque spaghetti and meatballs, and an homage to Bay with explosive waffles.
The use of food in film has a profound effect on our viewing, even if we aren’t aware of its subliminal influence. Here we take a deeper look into some iconic ‘food on film’ moments, and how they represent so much more than just a delicious prop.
WHEN FOOD IS FETISHISED
Food and sex have been bound together in an unholy matrimony for a long time. While many people would shy away from honey-soaked bed sheets for the sheer impracticality of having to clean it up, some filmmakers grab that messy sensuality by the horns and rear it in mesmerising ways. In Tampopo (1985) a Japanese comedy that revolves around one woman's quest to find the perfect noodle recipe to save her failing business, the man in the white suit and his lover fetishise food like no other. During the most memorable vignettes from the film, they make love to each other through food; salt is sprinkled on nipples only to be washed away with squeezed lemon juice, breasts are plunged into bowls of whipped cream, honey bleeds through lips, and a trapped shrimp writhes around on a lover's stomach.
Seeing the protagonist cut his lip on an oyster shell, then sucking it out of a young diver’s hand is pretty memorable, but the real showstopper is the egg scene: the man places a raw egg yolk in his mouth, drops it in his lover’s, and they transfer it back and forth with growing intensity, before finally, it breaks as she climaxes.
Arguably the only film that could rival Tampopo’s chemistry through sex and food would be 9 ½ Weeks (1986), a film about the suffocating sadomasochistic love affair between John (Mickey Rourke), a successful man who has a penchant for playing fucked up games with beautiful women, and Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), a gallery owner and delicate divorcée. The scene where they sit on the floor, the camera glued to the mouth of a blindfolded Elizabeth as she is fed everything from jelly to chilli and a sticky honey finale is mesmerising. It is one of the few scenes which causes us to yo-yo from hating John and his controlling nature to seeing him as… not so bad and kind of fun? This is a momentary lapse of judgement, of course.
Finally, no reference to food and sex in cinema is complete without at least a nod to horny as hell Jim and his warm apple pie in, you guessed it, American Pie (1999).
WHEN FOOD MAKES YOU UNCOMFORTABLE
Food in film isn’t all slow and sensual or a build up to sex; sometimes it is a tool for pure revulsion. Take The Temple of Doom (1984) and the controversial banquet scene hosted by a pre-pubescent Maharaja surrounded by soon-to-be-known cultists. Course after course comes out, each more grotesque than the next. The little snakes spilling out of the carcass of a bigger snake, the beatles sucked dry of their sludgy interior, the pièce de résistance of chilled monkey brain with removable scalp – the whole scene is repulsive; it portrays the hosts as barbaric and sets us up for the brutal realisation of their true nature towards the end.
An equally controversial scene takes place in Old Boy (2003) when Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) visits a sushi bar after being held captive for 15 years and consumes a live octopus. The whole scene is almost too painful to watch as its tentacles desperately wrap around his wrists and it presses its suckers against his nose, but his hunger is raw and as he tears it apart, there’s determination in his eyes.
Last but not least is the bathtub scene in Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) – Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) submerged in a bathtub of dirty water, eating spaghetti and drinking milk while his mother washes his hair. The whole scene only adds yet another layer to a film that makes you feel uncomfortable in an unplaceable way. While it’s not as forthright in its revulsion as other scenes, you can’t help but feel grossed out by the grimy bathroom with a piece of bacon taped to the wall, as Solomon sloppily chomps and squelches through a chocolate bar soaked in dirty bath water.
REVENGE IS A SWEET, SYRUPY DISH
Chocolate can be hypnotising, almost melt-in-your-mouth when done right on screen. There aren’t many instances where chocolate can make people feel repulsed, so it’s a pretty impressive feat when filmmakers manage just that. Children across the globe struggled to look at chocolate cake the same way again after witnessing that scene in Matilda (1996). Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) towering over Bruce Bogtrotter (Jimmy Karz) to reveal a humongous slice of thick chocolate cake, slapping it into his open palm before unveiling the rest of the colossal cake for him to gorge on, glistening with Cookie’s ‘sweat and blood’.
It’s a clever form of revenge, serving him the same cake that he stole from her in the first place and challenging him to eat every last bit. With the help of his friends cheers of encouragement, he manages to eat the whole damn thing – gross, but triumphant. Bruce Bogtrotter 1 - Miss Trunchbull - 0.
The most savage revenge is served up as Minny’s pie in The Help (2011). A supposed apology to Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) her ex-employer, Minny (Octavia Spencer) bakes her a chocolate pie with a twist. She eats it slowly, savouring the taste, the chocolate coating her fingers and teeth. It’s oh, so satisfying that Minny gets to say “eat my shit” with relish.
FOOD AS A POWER TOOL
Quentin Tarantino regularly uses food as a metaphor for power, dictating who has control, while chugging along his famous conversational dialogue style. Take the strudel scene in Inglorious Basterds (2009); Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) masquerades as Emanuelle, and meets Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) for the first time since he murdered her entire family. Landa, ever the gentleman, orders himself and Shosanna apple strudel. It’s like a stab to the chest when he orders her a glass of milk to accompany her strudel – a grim reminder of the drink he sipped before the brutal killing. Landa flexes authority by only allowing her to eat once the cream has arrived. Though outwardly polite, his base instinct gives him away, eating aggressively and ruthlessly. He thrives off making people feel uncomfortable – Shosanna’s nerves are reflected in the exaggerated noise of pastry teared apart by Landa’s teeth.
FOOD BUILDS TENSION: SWEET TREATS GO PSYCHOTIC, AND BURGERS BREAK RELATIONSHIPS
Using a jelly doughnut as a catalyst sounds quite comical, but there are instances when food adds to apprehension. In Mr and Mrs Smith (2005), the paranoia pot roast scene is one of the best examples of the gradual escalation of a tense situation – Jane (Angelina Jolie) and John (Brad Pitt) Smith have both discovered that their once increasingly uninteresting other half is actually an expert assassin, while not knowing whether their own cover is blown. Tension revolves around potentially poisoned cocktails and a game of chicken between Jane and John as he eats a dinner that may or may not be arsenic-tainted.
In Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is the epitome of hard headed drill sergeants when he unleashes hell and fury on already struggling Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) for the harbouring of one jelly doughnut. This sugared treat kickstarts Private Pyle’s psychological undoing, as his fellow marines are punished for his sweet indiscretions and made to watch him gorge on the sweet.
The Matrix’s (1999) Cyther (Joe Pantoliano) tucks into his “juicy” cut of beef across from his ominous dinner date, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) – it’s the perfect revelation of his devious intentions. “Ignorance is bliss,” Cynther says through the thick, pink piece of steak. The steak represents everything he’s willing to sacrifice mankind for; gluttony, greed, ignorance – he doesn’t care if it’s real, he’s willing to risk it all, just to forget it ever was.
In American Beauty (1999) highly strung Carolyn Burnham’s (Annette Bening) affair is unearthed during a post “workout” trip with her competitor lover to Mr Smiley’s drive thru where her husband, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) flips burgers. Lester knows exactly what’s going on when he hears her cackle on the intercom – it sets up his perfectly delivered line: “you don’t get to tell me what to do, ever again”.
MOB DINNERS AND MILK BARS: HOW FOOD SETS A TONE
Food fuels the senses, whether creating ambience or setting the calm before the storm. In Goodfellas (1990), there’s a satisfying ascent of power for Henry (Ray Liotta) as he climbs the rungs of the mafia, teetering at the top before he’s thrown in jail. In prison, the mob eat like kings; thick tomato sauce painstakingly made with razor blade-cut garlic, pan seared steak and lobsters on ice. A family meal for La Familia. The scene is nostalgic and comforting, it instils a sense of togetherness, before we’re plunged into the cocaine-infused chaos that is the rest of the film.
A truly iconic opening scene is the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Alex (Malcolm McDowell) makes unnerving eye contact with the camera while slowly drinking a glass of cold milk with his gang. It’s jarring: the ultraviolent youth’s drink of choice is innocent, in a film centered around violence and the fragility of the human psyche.
Chocolat (2000) as you can imagine, revolves around the consumption, creation and abstinence from chocolate’s intoxicating charm. It becomes so much more than just food – a symbol for desire, as individuals of the religious townsfolk flock to the exotic chocolatier during Lent, much to the rest of the community’s disdain. It symbolises weakness, sin, and promiscuity. In the beginning, it tears relationships apart, before slowly trickling into the cracks it created and sealing them together as a glue for relationships.