Tony: Can you cook?
Barrett: Well, it’s… if I might put it this way, sir, cooking is something in which I take a great deal of pride.
Tony: Any dish in particular?
Barrett: Well, my… my soufflés have always received a great deal of praise in the past, sir.
Tony: Do you know anything about Indian dishes?
Barrett: A little, sir.
Tony: Well, I know a hell of a lot.
[Tony sits in the other chair.]
Tony: You’d have to do all the cooking here.
Barrett: That would give me great pleasure, sir.
The above exchange from Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Robin Maughan’s novel The Servant (1963) happens during the first scene, a job interview in which young, posh Tony (James Fox) gets a sense of manservant Barrett’s (Dirk Bogarde) skills to decide if he will hire him. Up to that point, Barrett’s responses have been measured and confidently, fluently delivered. But when cooking is brought up, Barrett begins to pause and repeat himself. Is it his enthusiasm showing through that makes him doubt before speaking? Or are the pauses a liar’s tell, which Tony inevitably misses thanks to his position of aloof superiority? Clearly, such a statement would be easy to confirm – Tony would test its veracity as soon as he has a meal Barrett prepared. Later in the film, Tony is more than pleased with Barrett’s cooking, as he exclaims on several occasions how much he enjoys the latter’s dishes. Yet, as power plays begin between the master and his servant, the viewer has cause to question the quality of Barrett’s culinary talents, even when Tony himself has apparently vouched for them. What matters in the bit above, as well as in the rest of film, is not so much how good Barrett’s cooking is but that it is Barrett who’s doing “all the cooking here.” What the viewer sees is how much agency anyone surrenders to the person who fixes their meals, and how that surrender turns the ability to cook into a frighteningly effective means of dominance. Read more
Sometimes things get busy. People have birthdays. Major film conferences loom on the horizon. Personal lives intervene. This means that, occasionally, screenings get postponed.
Such was the case for our March 1 Cinematheque event, during which I was planning to present Nénette et Boni (1996). Cinematheque, as we’ve noted before, is our graduate student-run, bi-weekly (every two weeks, not twice a week) screening series, organized according to a given theme. If you followed Special Affects last month, you know that this semester’s theme is “Food & Feast.” Our Cinematheque organizers describe movies that fit under the food and feast bumbershoot this way: “films that not only indulge and overwhelm our gustatory sensibilities, but remind us that we see with our taste buds as well as our eyes, that we think with our stomachs as well as our minds.”
Nenette et Boni (1996) builds upon this by suggesting that we think with our appetites—gustatory, sexual, and psychological. Or that’s not quite right. It’s more that our thinking percolates through various uncontrollable urges that swirl together a brew of alternately repulsive and appetizing sauces, meats, creams, doughs, cobs, and French sticks. (I don’t drink coffee, so the mixed metaphor in the previous sentence almost certainly makes no sense.) Read more
Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) showcases the flexibility of food as an organizational feature of movies. A requisite part of the film (and television show from which it is distilled) is the recognition by Rob Brydon—a comedian and television personality who plays a heightened version of himself, and who acts something like the Boswell or Sancho Panza to Steve Coogan’s heightened version of Steve Coogan—that Coogan has been entrusted the job of writing a series of restaurant reviews despite the fact that he isn’t much of a gourmand. During their first meal together, it becomes clear that Coogan was planning to rely on his foodie girlfriend (Margo Stilley’s Mischa, physically absent for the duration of the journey because she took a job in America, and is clearly on the outs with Coogan) for writing advice. With a limited food vocabulary in place, and no gustatory credentials save being rich, Coogan mostly limits his comments to “nice” and “quite good” throughout their travels. One wonders what his eventual write-ups will look like! So if the film really isn’t about food, then what does it offer? What happens when two of the screen’s most committed “frenemies” spend several days together? Read more
In her last post, Kuhu talked about how she noticed the way some Israeli films she saw “[told] small, personal stories that were carefully imbricated in a culture of pervasive political strife.” Sometimes I wonder if Israeli films that are made (in part) for global consumption inevitably contain this dynamic in that it seems that any narrative film which depicts individuals associated with a particular national identity are always experienced as allegories. That is, an Israeli in a political film is always standing in for all Israelis and the larger political situation. In this way, the multifunctional roles of the characters in a film like Lemon Tree—as both metaphors of power relations and sincere figures within the diegetic narrative—always contain a central tension between the individual as a unique entity and the individual as a manifestation and representation of the larger political forces which he or she symbolizes. Read more
Eran Riklis’s 2008 film Etz Lemon (Lemon Tree) seemed to me, at first, a fairly tangential fit into Cinematheque’s Food and Feast series, but as I went back to an interview with Riklis, I noticed his insistent attachment to the metaphor of the lemons to tell his story, and it seemed to be an entry-point to watch an overtly political film in a food and feast series. I first watched Lemon Tree at a film festival in New Delhi in 2008. The festival had a section dedicated to films from Israel and Palestine, and was showing films like Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir and Eran Kolirin’s hilarious comedy The Band’s Visit, among others. I was struck by the fact that a majority of Israeli films were deeply critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and had found evocative ways of telling small, personal stories that were carefully imbricated in a culture of pervasive political strife. Read more
In his blog article on Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, film scholar Steven Shaviro suggests that the film’s “sheer joy”–its combination of playful formal innovation and various scenes of unrestrained merrymaking (Marie-making?)–”owes nothing to the mechanisms of identification and objectification, sadism and paranoia, that [Laura Mulvey] dissects in ["Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"]. The “visual pleasure” of Daisies, in other words, doesn’t quite fit into Mulvey’s framework, nor is it neatly positioned against the patriarchal regimes that produce such pleasure. For Shaviro, the pleasure of Daisies is hard to pin down; the film clearly “works…but we don’t have a good language to describe how and why it works.” For me, such elusive visual pleasure can be found in the film’s depiction of food, though the how and the why are still mysteries to me. Read more
Vera Chytilova’s 1966 Czech New Wave film Daisies has been described as a feminist masterwork, yet Chytilova instead suggests that the film is a “philosophical documentary in the form of farce”, critic Michael Koresky in his Criterion essay for the Pearls of Czech New Wave Eclipse Series even describes the film as suggestively as “an anarchic slapstick, like a New Wave Marx Brother’s Comedy”.
At its most playful, chaotic, unexpected, and colorfully stunning, the film is also a dark critique about the position of rebellious and anarchic youth during de-Stalinization and pre-Prague Spring 1960s Czechoslovakia. A hi-jinx romp through the city and the country is book-ended by images of mass scale political and capital destruction in war and industry. The last moments of the film juxtapose the criticism of the youth as in one translation “rotten” (in this version “spoiled”) as minor in comparison to larger societal upheaval of the time. The last line proclaims: “This film is dedicated to those who get upset over only stomped on bits of lettuce” suggesting that minor damage of youthful recreation should not take critical censure better directed at political leaders. Read more
Food is not properly the stuff of the cinema–it often functions as a prop, an expository device. In Dinner at Eight, The Man who Came to Dinner, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the actual dinner is shortchanged. To make food the subject of the camera– to linger on a close-up of a perfectly cooked and garnished porterhouse, to isolate the audible crackle of sizzling bacon–is to take us out of a world of characters and plots and rub our noses in the succulent sights and imagined smells emanating from the screen.
When food or feast is displayed as spectacle, it provokes our desire, sometimes our disgust. When foregrounded as a narrative device, food can serve as a marker of class and culture, and eating can become a social adhesive or a universal symbol for consumption. But films can play with these conventions, turn them on their head. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, it’s the relentless deferral of a meal that exposes the characters’ inner lives. In Diary of a Country Priest, it is the deprivation of food that constitutes a profound but tragically unnoticed martyrdom. At what point do cannibal films and vampire films crossover into the genre of the food film? When does the image of rotting flesh become something that we reluctantly consume, both as spectacle and as food?
For this Spring’s edition of Cinematheque, we were looking for presenters to screen films that not only indulged and overwhelmed our gustatory sensibilities, but reminded us that we see with our taste buds as well as our eyes, that we think with our stomachs as well as our minds. In other words, we wanted to push the boundaries of taste.
Over the next few months, Special Affects will feature a monthly guest editor to curate a variety of posts on diverse topics in film and media studies. These posts will also feature responses to a number of academic and cultural events happening around Pittsburgh and at the University of Pittsburgh that we believe have an important impact for our own community and for film and media studies at large. As this February’s guest editor, I’m excited to draw your attention to a number of exciting posts we’ll feature on the site over the next few weeks including Oscars coverage and Spring Cinematheque round-ups. Additionally, our theme for this month will parallel our Graduate Student Spring Cinematheque series “Food & Feast”. In this series so far, we have screened and discussed: Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies (Sedmikrásky), Eran Riklis’s 2008 film Lemon Tree (Etz Limon), and Karen Shakhnazarov’s 1989 film Zero City (Gorod Zero). Over the next few days, we will feature discussions and responses from the film’s presenters. In deciding on this topic, Cinematheque organizers Jordan Schonig and I, were curious about the broad application of both the ideas of food and feasting in the history of film. To continue our thinking about this month’s theme, I wanted to feature Jordan Schonig’s thoughtful introduction to our “Food & Feast” series. Thank You for stopping by, we’re hoping this will be an appetizing month! – Katie Bird