Food in Film

May 29, 2009

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Image from "Like Water for Chocolate".

Last week, I went to the newly opened Whole Foods Market on North Avenue. It was a creepy experience. This store is not about selling groceries,  but a Disneyland of mini-restaurants, food, wine and coffee bars.

 

“To eat is to be close to God,” says Primo, the protagonist of Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's film, The Big Night, and many of the dozens of films about food — Ang Lee's Eat, Drink, Man Woman, Alfonso Arau's Like Water For Chocolate, and Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast celebrate this relationship between eating and sensory transcendence.

 

I wasn't thinking of the perfect noodle, like the characters in Juzo Itami's wonderful film, Tampopo, or of that miraculous quail Babette uses to transform the lives of two Danish spinsters in Babette's Feast. It occurred to me that the circus atmosphere of the new Whole Foods provided a perfect setting for a movie death scene.

 

I harkened back to Dusan Makavejev's film, Sweet Movie, where Anna Prucnal, the lover of the lost sailor from Potemkin Pierre Clementi, is trapped on a barge, and floats down the canals of Amsterdam, to die,  killed by Prucnal in a vat of sugar.

 

It's the death of the Potemkin sailor, and the death of the revolution, but it is also the death of capitalism, of conspicuous consumption, of a society unable to integrate health and freedom into individual personality. When food becomes entertainment, we lose our life-giving connection to the earth and to the food she gives birth to sustain us.

In a more radical film like Marco Ferreri's La Gran Bouffe, four men seclude themselves to literally eat themselves to death. Food is a means of self-destruction. Later, in Sweet Movie, Makavejev returns to the subject of food psychology by introducing the character played by Carole Laure into the radical therapy commune of Otto Muehl. Muehl is a painter, and filmmaker. In the 1970s, he founded the Therapy Commune in Vienna as a type of alternative society. Its members submitted to psychoanalysis, collectively educated their children and practiced free love. The long Muehl therapy sequence in Sweet Movie  involves a lot of play, but nothing disturbs more then when the commune members play with food  to throw it  and smear it on themselves. This begins a descent into what Muehl called the “utopia of regression”, a return to a pre-nascent state where needs and emotions become primal and whole. The scenes assault and shock the senses and lead to Carole Laure, unable to rid herself of her narcissism, being photographed as she dies in a vat of chocolate.

 

This year at the Berlin Film Festival, I saw the most beautiful film ever made about food. It was also the simplest. The film has no commercial future in America. It is directed by Ermanno Olmi, the 78-year old Italian neo-realist best known for his Tree of The Wooden  Clogs. In his film Terra  Madre, Olmi shows us the dynamic between man and the Earth. It's a dynamic that defines our humanity. The film divides into two, very simple parts. The first provides a cinematic record of the annual World Conference on Food and Sustainability held in Turin. Full of speeches and panels, one factor of the conference that strikes you is the immense diversity of the audience. Delegates hailed from numerous African countries, and Indonesia, from Italy and South America. Indigenous people traveled far to share their experiences and express the singular belief that our action must change to preserve a dying planet. A teenager from Massachusetts tells a moving story to the audience of how he led other students to pester the school administration to let students grow their own food for their school cafeteria. The project has subsequently been copied by students in other schools.

 

The second half of the film is completely visual. We see an old man, who lives in a stone house nestled in a mountainous river valley somewhere in the Dolomites, care for his garden through the seasons. There is sound but no dialogue , a barking dog , curious children who come to visit. Filmed with the kind of painterly rupture one encounters in great art, you see the pruning of the vines, the tilling of the soil, trees blooming, and grapes harvested under a winter sky.

 

It's all very simple, all stuff that we know. Yet, in our world where we are alienated from the sources of our food as we are alienated from one another, it all seems strangely awesome, beautiful, moving, and revealing.

 

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.