Feasting Our Eyes
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Feasting Our Eyes

Food Films and Cultural Identity in the United States

Laura Lindenfeld, Fabio Parasecoli

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eBook - ePub

Feasting Our Eyes

Food Films and Cultural Identity in the United States

Laura Lindenfeld, Fabio Parasecoli

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About This Book

Big Night (1996), Ratatouille (2007), and Julie and Julia (2009) are more than films about food—they serve a political purpose. In the kitchen, around the table, and in the dining room, these films use cooking and eating to explore such themes as ideological pluralism, ethnic and racial acceptance, gender equality, and class flexibility—but not as progressively as you might think. Feasting Our Eyes takes a second look at these and other modern American food films to emphasize their conventional approaches to nation, gender, race, sexuality, and social status. Devoured visually and emotionally, these films are particularly effective defenders of the status quo.

Feasting Our Eyes looks at Hollywood films and independent cinema, documentaries and docufictions, from the 1990s to today and frankly assesses their commitment to racial diversity, tolerance, and liberal political ideas. Laura Lindenfeld and Fabio Parasecoli find women and people of color continue to be treated as objects of consumption even in these modern works and, despite their progressive veneer, American food films often mask a conservative politics that makes commercial success more likely. A major force in mainstream entertainment, American food films shape our sense of who belongs, who has a voice, and who has opportunities in American society. They facilitate the virtual consumption of traditional notions of identity and citizenship, reworking and reinforcing ingrained ideas of power.

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FOOD FILMS AND CONSUMPTION
Selling Big Night
A chef in his whites sprinkles some chopped fresh herbs on two dishes that a man, sharply dressed in suit and tie, is holding for him to inspect. Viewers soon learn they are brothers, Primo and Secondo (first and second, in Italian), and that they are not American-born. “Yes…go!” says the chef, Primo, while Secondo rolls his eyes, his body language revealing his impatience. The doors open and Secondo brings the food to a couple sitting in an almost empty dining room. “Thank God! I am so hungry,” exclaims the woman, a cigarette in her mouth. “That looks good! You’ve got leaves with yours,” she adds, observing the fresh basil on her companion’s pasta dish. She looks inquisitively to the food Secondo is serving her (fig. 1.1). “Monsieur, is this what I ordered?” “Yes, it is risotto, a special recipe my brother and I bring from Italy,” he answers, while the camera cuts to another customer who is eating alone, observing the scene with an air of detached curiosity.
“It took so long I thought you went back to Italy to get it,” retorts the woman. During the waiter’s canonical offer for pepper and cheese, she keeps on pushing the rice around the dish, eventually inquiring: “Excuse me, didn’t you say this would be rice with seafood?” While grating cheese on the man’s pasta, Secondo responds: “Yes, it is Italian Arborio rice, the best, with shrimp, and scallop.” The conversation soon turns uncomfortable. “I don’t see anything that looks like a shrimp or a scallop. I mean, it’s just not what I expected.…But I do get a side order of spaghetti with this, right? I thought all main dishes come with spaghetti.” “Some yes, but you see…risotto is a rice, so it’s starch, and it doesn’t go really with pasta.” At this point the man intervenes: “Honey, order a side of spaghetti, that’s all, and I’ll eat your meatballs.” “Yes, he’ll have the meatballs.” “Well, the spaghetti comes without meatballs,” explains Secondo. As she rolls her eyes, she drops her fork and asks: “There are no meatballs with the spaghetti?” Secondo, visibly uncomfortable, comments: “No, sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone.” “Then I guess we will also have a side of meatballs,” she answers, clearly annoyed, while the other customer turns to look at the scene. Eventually giving up on the meatballs, she settles on a side of spaghetti. The dining room has quickly turned into a space where different culinary cultures clash.
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FIGURE 1.1 A core theme of Big Night is the clash between the culinary traditions of two Italian immigrants and the expectations of their American patrons about what Italian food should be.
The camera cuts back to Primo in the kitchen. “I want to know who is it for!” he declares. When Secondo tells him it is for the lady eating the risotto, he assumes an outraged expression of disbelief and disdain. “What? Why?” “I don’t know, she likes starches, come on!” “Bitch!” Primo shouts. “Who are these people in America? I need to talk to her.” “Please, what are you going to do? Tell the customer what she can eat? That is what she wants,” states Secondo, always straddling the two worlds. “This is what the customer asks for. Make it, make the pasta.” “How can she want? They both are starch. Maybe I should make mashed potatoes for on the other side.” After Primo declares her to be a “criminal” and a “philistine” and insists on talking with her, Secondo pushes open the swinging door between the kitchen and the restaurant, daring him to confront the customer. Primo stands helpless in the kitchen as his almost-assimilated brother returns into the restaurant to declare that the pasta is on its way. Primo grabs a pot, just to throw it against the wall, expressing all his frustration.
The tensions between a chef’s culinary expertise and his determination to assert his vision, on one hand, and the vagaries of the restaurant business, customers’ preferences, and the clashes of cultural capital, on the other, loom large in this famous scene from Big Night, one of the first food films produced in the United States, released in the second half of the 1990s. Codirected by Stanley Tucci (who also cowrote the screenplay and stars in the film) and Campbell Scott (who makes a cameo appearance), and set on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s, Big Night tells the story of two Italian immigrants who struggle to realize their personal take on the American dream. Brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) have opened an Italian restaurant called “The Paradise.” Primo is a brilliant, temperamental chef who refuses to alter his cuisine to fit the American palate and cater to what he considers to be tasteless New World preferences. Secondo, on the other hand, tries desperately to function as a liaison between the customers that embody the American life to which he is acculturating, and his brother’s artful cooking. The restaurant is slowly failing. Clientele wanes, while Pascal (Ian Holm), the successful, bombastic, and opportunistic entrepreneur down the street, is drawing in enormous crowds with his mediocre but flashy Italian American food.
When Pascal plants the idea into Secondo’s head that Louis Prima, the famous jazz singer, would come to a “big night dinner” at the brothers’ restaurant, Secondo and Primo proceed to create the meal of a lifetime, a culinary masterpiece. Prima never shows up, and Pascal is forced by his wife, Gabriella (Secondo’s lover, played by Isabella Rossellini), to disclose the fact that he has manipulated the brothers into failure so that they will come to work for him. The debacle pushes the brothers to a fist fight, which ends with Primo proclaiming, “This place is eating us alive.” The narrative resists closure, only subtly suggesting that the unstoppable dynamics of capitalism will devour Primo and Secondo, forcing them either to work for someone like Pascal or to return to Italy.
We have described this restaurant scene in detail because it effectively summarizes the main theme of Big Night, while also setting the stage for a trend that emerges in food films in the United States: the tension between adherence to one’s cultural heritage, in this case of traditional Italian cuisine, and pressure to commodify it to appeal to dominant tastes and commercial priorities. We recognize these dynamics in many of the films we discuss in this book when ethnic or racially diverse chefs or food professionals—both male and female—try to assert themselves in the U.S. foodscape, where business forces, media, and consumers often feel entitled to produce their own definition of what the “authentic” foreign cuisine is supposed to be. By observing how Americans behave in a restaurant that is proposed as an authentic Old World space, Big Night offers a critique of consumers who display ignorance of the complexities of foreign cultures, while positioning itself as a venue through which discriminating viewers can participate in the “real” gastronomy from Italy, presented as a land that values art and refinement above business. The film also identifies the restaurant as a crucial location for customers, chefs, and staff to negotiate their cultural identity as U.S. citizens from the vantage point of class, gender, and age.
In this chapter we explore restaurants in food films. Restaurants have come to function as key spaces in contemporary food culture. Increasingly, restaurants have acquired media visibility and relevance across a range of U.S. media. We need only point to the many television shows that feature restaurants and restaurant chefs: Diners, Drive-ins and Dives; Man vs. Food; Food Paradise; Eat Street; Unique Eats; Restaurant Impossible; and so many more. Given the obvious relationship of food to restaurants, it comes as no surprise that restaurants appear as important spaces in these films. Through the lens of cultural citizenship, we seek to understand how restaurants shape relationships, experiences, and identity in these films. Frequently, the main characters in food films focused specifically on restaurants are male. How do male professionals achieve cultural and economic citizenship through success (or failure) in food businesses? Where and how do issues of gender intersect with ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality? What does the commercialization of restaurant culture say about cultural capital, connoisseurship, and cosmopolitanism? Throughout this chapter we search for the tensions, contradictions, and inequalities that emerge, often behind the scenes, in these narratives and seek to understand how this complex mixture of identity traits helps to construct notions of good taste and citizenship, while defining what it means to be an educated consumer.
BIG NIGHT AS CULTURAL CRITICISM OF FOOD AND MEDIA
Big Night establishes a clear hierarchy between traditional and seemingly authentic food prepared by an Italian chef and the American customers’ culinary habits. This distinction seems to demand discernment, expertise, and good taste on the part of consumers and differentiates knowledgeable cosmopolitanism from the behavior of Primo and Secondo’s uncouth table guests, who appear to prefer uninteresting and supposedly bastardized fodder. By so doing, Big Night implicitly fails to acknowledge Italian American cuisine as a living and rich tradition with a complex history rooted in the migrant experience and limits true authenticity to the Old World, which looms as a space of nostalgia and emotional longing throughout the narrative, as it does in so many representations of Italian foodways in the United States. At the same time, the film projects on its viewers the ability to distinguish between good and bad food, assimilating knowledgeable eaters with art-house cinemagoers. The narrative clearly positions the viewers with the brothers so that they, too, view the eaters as “philistines” who are incapable of recognizing the beauty and intricacy of the food presented to them.
As is the case in so many food films, in Big Night the audience is expected to develop a sense of complicity with the film in terms of both gastronomic and cinematographic good taste. The filmmakers take for granted that the viewers understand and share Secondo’s barely concealed sense of dismay in front of culinary ignorance. At the same time, the scene lends itself to an ironic reading by positioning the brothers as humorous, while inviting viewers to empathize with their frustrations, pain, and awkwardness in this newfound culture. On the one hand, the story guides us to identify with the brothers’ plight, despite manners and speech patterns that mark them as different. On the other hand, the film aptly assuages the painful experience of assimilation through comedy, glossing over the criticism of a social and economic system that establishes painful pathways toward assimilation. For those who understand the frustration and awkwardness of trying to make a life in a new place, the humor may function quite differently than for spectators who have not experienced the financial and emotional struggles immigrants in the United States face. Positioned as coming from a place of cosmopolitan privilege, many viewers of this—and other food films—may be able to alleviate their own anxieties about the intense pressures of living in a monocultural, bland, market-driven society without having to actually share or even acknowledge the burdens placed on immigrants by this system.
Big Night also tells a cautionary tale of corporate destruction of a small independently owned restaurant, embracing a critique of what George Ritzer calls the process of “McDonaldization, that is, the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.” Much of this criticism revolves around what the sociologist describes as the “corruption of taste by commercial interests.”1 Big Night, as the first major U.S. food film, initially occupies a position that criticizes mass consumption—especially of ethnic otherness—and it does so from a privileged, elitist position. At the same time, the film establishes the space of the restaurant itself as crucial for the negotiation of individual and communal identities, the performance of cultural capital, and for the realization of the American dream of financial success and self-realization. Professional cooking and the restaurant industry appear as suitable choices for individuals looking to assert themselves in American society, a profound change from previous decades where all kitchen jobs were considered either domestic service or menial occupations. Restaurants constitute appealing venues for young immigrants or second-generation Americans trying to climb the social ladder. These attempts at social ascent cannot be separated from issues of class and gender. In fact, success in positions of responsibility in the food business requires professionalism, determination, strength, and ingenuity, all qualities that mainstream American culture often marks as primarily masculine.
Big Night uses food and the restaurant world to express criticism of dominant eating culture, consumption, and the socioeconomic dominance of Hollywood cinema, while exploring the process of assimilation in the United States. The film’s fiscal history reveals a great deal about its positioning as an object of consumption for specific audience segments: the art-house and foreign-film crowds. Produced on $4,200,000, the film opened on September 22, 1996, and grossed $185,942 the first weekend. By mid-October it had already grossed $4 million, and as of February 1997, $11,881,000.2 Big Night made the jump from art-house theaters to major movie theaters throughout the country and was heavily rented on video, demonstrating American audiences’ growing interest in all things food, and in particular in chefs, restaurants, and foreign culinary traditions. This is a signal the Hollywood industry took seriously, as the many food films that follow in the wake of Big Night indicate.
When Roger Ebert praised Big Night in the Chicago Sun Times as “one of the great food movies,” he drew a direct comparison between the film’s elegant style and the delicate “perfect risotto” that chef Primo creates in the film, thus equating filmic style with food culture and culinary capital. The fact that already in the late 1990s a film critic could refer to “food movies,” a genre that up to that point had been produced abroad and distributed with limited art-house releases, indicates a growing awareness of the emerging genre that reflects a sense of cosmopolitanism expressed through both familiarity with international cinema and knowledge of foreign cuisines. “Watching it,” Ebert writes, “I reflected how many Hollywood movies these days seem to come with a side order of spaghetti and meatballs. And mashed potatoes.”3 The not-so-discreet subtext is that cultured and refined consumers know what risotto is and how to eat it, the same way they can discriminate between intelligent films and mainstream fodder. Already in the late 1990s, gastronomic connoisseurship was recognized as an inherent trait for the cosmopolitan and sophisticated citizen-consumer, and restaurants emerged as relevant spaces for the construction of individual and communal identities in the configuration of this dynamic.
A close look at Big Night unveils how consumption operates as part of food media culture and how the production and enjoyment of food and media are interwoven, helping us to understand the subtle but persuasive, impactful role that food media play in helping to define what it means to be a citizen of the United States. Within the social practices of consumption, now widely understood as a “dominant contemporary cultural force,” food media have taken on a central role in constructing lifestyles and marking social positions.4 As an ephemeral object of consumption, food receives tremendous attention by the advertising industry on television and in the cinema. Food ads and marketing constantly teach consumers that they “need” something “new” and “different,” diversifying goods and introducing innovation. Food TV teaches how cuisine and lifestyle correspond to each other, determining trends and shifts in consumption and purchasing choices.
Reflecting chefs’ growing presence on TV, it is not surprising that U.S. cinema turned to the topic of food professionals and their business as an appealing focus area for mainstream audiences starting in the late 1990s. In the so-called Hollywood “corporate era,” Big Night appeared to provide a refreshing filmic contrast to ordinary commercial fare.5 The narrative and filmic style of Big Night, driven by the producers’ and directors’ expressed desire to produce a “different” kind of cinema, disrupts many of the qualities of Hollywood’s mainstream film production, the same way Primo and Secondo’s effort tries to question the dominant food industry and culinary culture. The history of the film’s distribution and self-representation through its marketing demonstrates, nonetheless, how firmly anchored the film was as a product of contemporary U.S. media and consumer cultures, as in many ways Big Night became what it attempted to deconstruct. The film’s depiction of masculinity and ethnic Otherness reiterates Westernized, Eurocentric legacies that define “good taste” and “class” in distinct and limited ways.
Like many independent and semi-independent films, Big Night explores the tension between producing art and earning money in a marketplace that demands high returns. The sound, mise-en-scène, editing, and narrative support this thematic tension. The exposition of Big Night, although seemingly simple, is elegant, rich, and filled with detail. Primo naturally drifts into his native Italian tongue; Secondo conscientiously corrects him and demands that he speak English, that is, that he act “American.” Indeed, the film oscillates consistently between Italian and English, often using English subtitles to translate the dialogue. The production of this filmic style—a style that was intended to and did indeed appeal to the “art house” and “foreign” film crowd in the United States—assists in staging a contrast between art-house and mainstream Hollywood film culture just as it contrasts New World individualism (associated with the United States) and Old World social structures (associated here with Italy). The film introduces a calm, naturalistic, real-time style with its minimal editing. Extremely long takes, focus on simple diegetic sound, and appreciation of subtlety and understatement contrast with the bombastic style of many Hollywood blockbusters from the same period. With its slow-paced editing, Italian neorealist-style cinematography, and deliberate rejection of Hollywood coverage techniques, Big Night, according to writer and director Stanley Tucci, his screenwriter cousin Joseph Tropiano, and codirector Campbell Scott, represents a different kind of cinema that draws on older, mostly European models. Tucci emphasized in an interview his desire to “make a movie in keeping with earlier filmmaking” in a style that bears a nostalgic look toward times before the influence o...

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