Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 7, 2010
The Oscars are tonight but surely the recent blog-a-thon covering that topic has quenched your thirst on that subject. Let’s move on to food, which comes to my mind thanks to my friends Chris and Huong, who are opening a new restaurant. They invited various acquaintances and family in for free meals and drinks to help them put a new staff through their paces and, of course, hopefully stimulate word-of-mouth. The restaurant business is a tough gig with high-risks and a cut-throat market. But the artistry aligned with this basic necessity is undeniable, and cinema is full of examples. Skipping past the recent Julie & Julia, I’ll focus on international or indy fare.
Man in White Suit (Koji Yakusho): “I’ll kill you if you make that noise once the movie starts! Understand? And… I also don’t like watch alarms going off.”
Alright, so the above quote from Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985) doesn’t deal with food – but it’s still too good to pass up. Tampopo was not, as is widely held, Itami’s career-making debut (that honor goes to Ososhiki, which was released the previous year), but it remains his most successful and acclaimed work. Itami himself called Tampopo a “noodle western” with a tip of the hat to Leone’s spaghetti westerns. It’s about a trucker, Goro, who rides into town obsessed with setting up the perfect fast-food noodle restaurant. This one gets top billing because it served as an inspiration to my friends, whose restaurant is called Black Pepper Pho. And while the mastermind behind Black Pepper Pho is not Japanese (she’s from Vietnam), I can personally attest to her culinary genius and am already looking forward to some perfect noodles.
Kenny Shopsin: “…people who say that they’re terrific, Bill Clinton, Cardinal Egan, anybody you want to talk about, They’re not so terrific. Martha Stewart, they’re not so beeping terrific either. And there’s nothing wrong with being not so terrific. In fact, it’s what the whole ballgame is about, being not so terrific… and accepting it.”
I Like Killing Flies (Matt Mahurin, 2004) was an oddly touching documentary about Kenny Shopsin’s family-run Greenwich Village eatery. Shopsin’s high-cholesterol specialties included over 900 items that were all prepared in a small, ramshackle kitchen that could easily be mistaken for a closet aboard a WWII submarine. Adding to the gruff fun are the chefs profanity-laced meditations on the basics (sex, life, death) to other more specialized areas (say, waste disposal, exploitation of developing economies, and – of course – the titular subject of insect extermination).
Primo (Tony Shalhoub): “Do you know what happens in that restaurant every night? RAPE! RAPE! The rape of cuisine.”
Big Night (Campell Scott, Stanley Tucci, 1996) might not be the best film to recommend to someone opening a restaurant, since it deals with one that’s struggling to stay afloat and is launching a last-ditch benefit to stay alive. But the storyline provides good breezy fun that goes down easy. It was a clear audience favorite when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and you get the sense that everyone involved in the production was having a good time while making the film. Ultimately, it does make you hungry and casts a warm glow around kitchen shenanigans. And speaking of shenanigans…
“Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
The above quote, of course, comes from Terry Jones’ Life of Brian (1979), which has a wealth of other great food-related quotes (“Wolf nipple chips. Get ‘em while they’re hot; they’re lovely.”) But that film has very little to do with the kitchen so I’ll simply use it as a launching pad for a more appropriate, but still funny, and certainly very English, bit of food preparatory business: Wallace & Gromit in “A Matter of Loaf and Death.” Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Short Film for animation, tonight we get to see if it takes home the award. Certainly if a screening of it a few weeks ago at my theater is any indication, and measuring the applause it received, I’d say the odds are very much in its favor. While Wallace’s enthusiasm for cheese is well known, this particular outing focuses on bread. Our dynamic duo have turned their house into a fully automated bakery, and they’re rolling in the dough – both figuratively and literally. Business is booming and life is good, but with the mysterious disappearances of 12 other local bakers, Gromit suspects foul play is at hand. This time, however, it won’t be a penguin causing the troubles. There’s more than just a bit of Hitchcockian fun going on here, and the animation is top-notch.
Jian-Chien (Chien-lien Wu): “We communicate by eating.”
Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994) strays away from the restaurant business, but it does deal with a master chef in Taipei who is losing his sense of taste and living with three adult daughters. Both the kitchen and the act of food preparation serve on metaphoric levels. Lee would later be nominated for an Academy Award for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and finally actually take home an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain (2005), but it was with such early arthouse staples as Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Pushing Hands (1992) that he built his reputation. Having already covered Japanese food, and here Taiwanese food, I now feel compelled to add a quote for the Chinese foodies: Mark Gor (Chow Yun Fat): “For you, rice nothing but for us, rice just like my father and mother. Don’t f-ck with my family! If you have any dignity, apologize to the rice right now! OPEN YOUR F-CKING MOUTH AND EAT THE RICE!!!” That would be from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow 2 (1986), and it certainly emphasizes that whole “we communicate by eating” thing.
There are a couple obvious chef-related films that I haven’t seen (Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, Mostly Martha, The God of Cookery), leaving also room for many honorable mentions that stray away from restaurants but focus on food in a celebratory way. A few that come to mind are; Babette’s Feast, Chocolat, Tortilla Soup, Festen, Fried Green Tomatoes, Like Water for Chocolate, The Last Supper, The Exterminating Angel, The Scent of Green Papaya, and the obvious My Dinner with Andre. But what about the flipside? What happens when that perfect noodle is made of Soylent Green? Next week I’ll take a look at the subject of food when the key word is not celebration, but desperation.
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