At the movies · Notes from West London

Food in the movies

Back in the 1980s a school-friend made a comment about TV dramas that still holds true much of the time. When food is introduced in a scene there is a strong chance that one of the characters will throw it at another. Similarly in many movies food can’t be allowed just to sit there: one or more of the characters has to make some comment about it (if they’re not throwing it around). I am always grateful when food is presented in a movie or drama in a natural way, with people eating it and getting on with their lives. Food does not have to be turned into a punch-line whenever it’s on screen.

“Strangers Kiss”, an American independent movie from 1983, arrived in this country well-reviewed, with praise for Peter Coyote’s performance as a film producer trying to put together a low-budget movie. It’s an okay film. It had a limited release, so there’s a strong chance that you haven’t seen it. Coyote plays a fast-talking, hustling kind of guy and one of his most memorable scenes (as I recall it) was a monologue shouted down the phone, lasting a minute or two. Before the phone call begins he orders a sandwich, something like pastrami on rye, from his assistant. At the end of his rant down the phone he hangs up, takes a bite out of his sandwich, and shouts, almost without a pause from the telephone conversation that has just ended, “Hey, this is salt beef. I ordered pastrami.” Or something like that. There’s certainly a punch-line, based on the sandwich that he ordered, to finish the scene. I groaned, wishing that he could just eat the sandwich and not make a comment about it.

“I ordered pastrami” has become a shorthand phrase that my brother and I use to highlight this tendency to make food the subject of a scene when it should be left in the background. I appreciate that some people might feel different about this. In “American Beauty” (Best Picture Oscar winner for 1999) there’s a family meal during which Kevin Spacey asks, calmly and repeatedly, for someone to pass him the broccoli. There might have been audience members thinking, “Oh, great, he’s asking for the broccoli, nobody’s passing it to him, he’s getting angry, he’s still calm, but you can tell he’s getting angry, he’s going to pick it up the bowl and smash it against the wall … yes!” I had the opposite feeling, and said (out loud – I was watching it on video), “Oh please don’t pick up the broccoli, please don’t pick up the broccoli, just leave it, no don’t fling it against the wall, just …” Too late.

This all came to mind earlier this week while watching the most recent winner of the Best Picture Oscar, “Spotlight”. There’s a leaving party early on and we are introduced to characters eating cake. They walk back to their offices eating their cake, not making smart comments about it, just getting on with things. Throughout the movie there are scenes set in restaurants and bars, used to further the action, with no extraneous comments about the food and drink being consumed. At one point John Slattery (playing Ben Bradlee Junior) brings leftover pizza to Mark Ruffalo’s character Mike Rezendes, who expresses his gratitude, says how hungry he is and starts eating it. That’s it, no lame jokes about the food, no punch-line. I was disproportionately grateful for all of this. It enhanced my view of the movie. Sometimes I’m very easily pleased. (And here’s the punchline:  I’ve never had pastrami on rye.)

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