An art museum is a gastronomic space, so abundant are the feasting gods, last suppers, overflowing bags of game, bowls of glistening fruit and gleaners stooped amid wheat fields. Having lived their entire lives with the odor of dung in their noses, the Old Masters understood that the stray artichoke or haunch of venison belongs to a larger pattern of reaping and sowing, birth and bloodletting.
Filmmakers, by contrast, spent their USC years eating microwaved burritos. They couldn't care less what their shrink-wrappage contains unless there's a product-placement angle (e.g. Rene Russo bizarrely chugging an entire can of Pepsi One in The Thomas Crown Affair). Hollywood's most famous gastronomic scenes suggest how far we've fallen: Bluto Blutarsky using mashed potatoes to imitate a zit in Animal House, E.T. following the trail of Reese's Pieces (were it to oblivion!), Forrest Gump pondering his box of what are undoubtedly milk chocolates.
There does exist a small body of gastro-cinema (i.e., films about cooking and eating, not about the politics of production and consumption), but it's not terribly distinguished. Wild Strawberries is not about wild strawberries, alas, nor is Some Like It Hot about baked goods straight from the oven. Babette's Feast is the one film that is both genuinely about food and beyond aesthetic reproach. It generously suggests that religion is expressible in countless ways, not least by the kind of hours-long, wine-soaked meal during which the officers of the Second Empire seduced their mistresses in private rooms. Religion is the sum of our highest human expressions, the film suggests, and Babette's "cailles en sarcophage" belongs among these.
Such as it is, gastro-cinema encompasses two antagonistic philosophies. The first school avows the familiar Boomer program of personal liberation, with food—curry, paella, pâtisserie, etc.—awakening the sensual apparatus proscribed by the usual array of churchgoing, can-opening bourgeois. Chocolat is the preposterous Ur-film of this school. Premise: chocolatier persecuted by the world's only food-hating French people. Mostly Martha, about an obsessive-compulsive German master-chef who falls for a passionate Italian and learns to relax, interiorizes this kulturkampf. Re: Martha's "passionate Italian." Is there any other kind? Apparently not.
Mostly Martha at least acknowledges that cooking has something to do with craft. In films such as Chocolat, Woman on Top and Today's Special, Hollywood proposes that cooking is a matter of feeling, of discovering or rediscovering our spontaneous, sensual inner-self, often with the help of some charmingly free-spirited, preferably non-Western guru.
"You never use a recipe?" asks the struggling chef Samir in Today's Special. "Everything I need is here and here," answers Akbar, an impish, twinkling-eyed sage, indicating his heart and groin. Akbar undoubtedly speaks for Hollywood, which is why, Pixar aside, we have not seen a genuinely masterful Hollywood movie since the last years of the Carter administration.
In firm opposition are films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, chronicles of stalwart conscience, maniacal attention to detail and diligence as bedrock life principle. These are reverent paeans to the very obsessive-compulsive disorder that Martha overcomes with the help of her daffy Italian. These films offer sounder gastronomy, but also deeper art and truer philosophy, recognizing rather than shirking the hard, post-Adamic truth that we must struggle for our daily bread.
It's telling that my research turned up so few older films. Audrey Hepburn's soufflé falls at the start of Sabrina and Katharine Hepburn's embrace of domesticity results in a waffle fiasco in the final scene of Woman of the Year, but otherwise the world of fedoras and folded newspapers derives its calories from Scotch. "Let me fix you a drink" is the tag line of the Bogart era, but nobody ever asks, "Hey, you want a sandwich with that?"
Film's recent gastronomic turn is surely due to the Food Network, which has reconceptualized the kitchen as a domain of entertainment rather than craft and labor. Films like Julie & Julia and Spanglish spring directly from the loins of Emeril. The antidote to Food Network degeneracy is Paul Lacoste's television series Inventing Cuisine, which depicts the masters of French gastronomy as monks of hushed creativity (Lacoste's full-length documentary Entre les Bras—about Michel Bras and his son Sébastian—is in the same vein.)
The knottiest problem of my gastro-cinematic research concerned Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. In this surreal masterpiece, an unexplained para-psychological force renders the guests of a tony dinner party incapable of leaving. As the days pass, both finery and fine sentiments turn to rags and a caustic Crusonianism sets in. Is food a pretext or a theme? The latter, I think. In Buñuel's metaphysical calculus, humiliated paucity is penance for arrogant plenty. La Grande Bouffe—the most repellent of all films—becomes palatable (at least intellectually) once it's set in relation to The Exterminating Angel. It proposes suicidal plenty as penance for spiritual paucity. Is it homage, rebuttal or parody? Therein lies a doctoral chapter.
The gastro-cinematic canon
Ranked by culinary interest and artistic merit
1. Babette's Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel)
2. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava)
3. Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)
4. Conte d'automne/Autumn Tale (1998, Eric Rohmer)
5. The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Buñuel)
6. Big Night (1996, Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott)
7. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, Ang Lee)
8. La Grande Bouffe (1973, Marco Ferreri)
9. I Like Killing Flies (2004, Matt Mahurin)*
10. Kings of Pastry (2009, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker)*
11. A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt (2011, Sally Rowe)*
12. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, David Gelb)*
13. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963, Eric Rohmer)
14. Comme un Chef/The Chef (2012, Daniel Cohen)
15. Entre les Bras/Step Up to the Plate (2012, Paul Lacoste)*
16. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (2010, Gereon Wetzel)*
17. Tampopo (1985, Juzo Itami)
18. Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasens (1997, Shari Berman, Robert Pulcini)*
19. Toast (2010, S.J. Clarkson)
20. Bottle Shock (2008, Randall Miller)
Five films to make a foodie shudder
In order of deplorability
1. Chocolat (2000, Lasse Hallström)
2. Like Water for Chocolate (1992, Alfonso Arau)
3. Julie & Julia (2009, Nora Ephron)—"Julie" segments only
4. Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelly)
5. Woman on Top (2000, Fina Torres)