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Meals on Reels: Food As Metaphor in Film



Back before over-the-top budgets put an end to productions that employed thousands of extras, many a biblical epic depicted hordes of evil ones dining on a non-stop parade of exotic eats while the poor starving good guys barely got by on a diet of unleavened bread and water. Countless Westerns portrayed the rigors of life on the range with scenes of cowhands hunkered down around a chuck wagon while they fed on biscuits and beans. Innumerable period pieces have defined an era by incorporating a meal of the appropriate societal niche, geographical place and particular time into the story line.

Lightening quick food "moments" and brief vignettes, provide immediate understanding of a character's essential persona. In "Public Enemy", when Jimmy Cagney ruthlessly jams half a grapefruit into his timid girlfriend's face, he at once reveals his arch-villain mentality. In "Gone With The Wind", we witness Scarlett's petulance when she storms and frets about not being able to chow down with the guys at the opening scene's barbecue, and we see her steely core when she scrabbles in the dirt for a carrot vowing "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!".

In his coming-of-age classic "The Breakfast Club", director John Hughes succinctly demonstrated the marked differences between his main characters by showing what each one had brought for lunch. The socialite dined on sushi, the intellectual ate a balanced Basic-5 meal, the sports jock consumed a hearty assortment of high-carbs, the eccentric bohemian tossed away her sandwich filling opting instead for a creative pile of sugar crystals, while the outlaw ate nothing at all.

Frequently, plots twist and turn on pivotal food scenes. In Orson Welles' classic film "Citizen Kane", the rift between husband and wife that leads to the disintegration of their marriage is neatly conveyed when the Kanes are shown having a silent breakfast at opposite ends of an immense table. In quite another vein, "Tom Jones" graphically demonstrated to many a movie goer just how titillating an activity eating can be. The famous food scene where Tom and his amorous dinner partner seduce each other by slurping oysters and toothily tearing into turkey legs as errant juices trickle down their chins remained unrivalled for sensual innuendo until Bo Derek peeled and ate a banana in "Tarzan The Ape Man".

Occasionally, entire films will revolve around a food theme. "Who's Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?" used food motifs throughout as both the settings and methods of murder. In "Babette's Feast" a gourmet meal was the catalyst that proved how even the most stolid souls can be awakened from a complacent existence by a pleasurable eating experience. More recently, "Like Water For Chocolate" used food symbolism to maximum advantage. Every major plot point occurred during food scenes that were underscored by the heroine's passionate thoughts as she prepared, served and witnessed the effects her culinary masterpieces evoked from the film's cast of characters.

As a cinematic device, food has been used to express the entire range of human experience. The sanctity of family is lauded every time a family sits and sups together, and especially at the climactic Christmas dinners in "It's A Wonderful Life" and Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol". Countless slapstick pie fights have had us rolling in the aisles at life's absurdity. And when Charlie Chaplin's starving Tramp makes a meal of his boot and shoelaces in "The Gold Rush", we are caught between pathos and comedy wondering whether to laugh or cry.


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