Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ratatouille

Food for plot

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Faye Wong in Chungking Express

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional restaurant would you most like to patronize?”

Movies are founded on sight and sound—to the extent that the best magazine ever devoted to the field took that as its name—and they can’t effectively draw on the senses of touch, smell, or taste. At first glance, then, it’s surprising that films have so often turned to food as a subject. Looking at the fabulous meals in movies like Big Night or Babette’s Feast, you feel a little like you’re watching an extended episode of Top Chef: as attractive as those dishes might be, when it comes to the actual dining experience, you have to take the word of the people onscreen. Of course, it helps that the look of food is a large part of its appeal. Given how easily food wilts under studio lights, it’s fair to say that in reality, whatever is being shown on camera isn’t nearly as appetizing as it looks, and any familiarity with the tricks of food photographers is enough to diminish one’s appetite. Still, it’s a beautiful illusion, and it’s only a convenient illustration of the ways in which movies enhance and counterfeit reality. A castle wall is made of polystyrene and cardboard, and an actress’s lovely face is the work of an army of stylists, so there’s no reason to complain that the food on the table has been treated with hairspray and baby oil.

In addition to its sensual appeal, food is often used to dramatize larger themes within the story. Among other things, it’s perhaps the best way around of depicting the creative process on film. You can’t convincingly show a character writing a novel or composing a symphony without falling back into the standard clichés about artistic inspiration, but preparing a meal is another matter. It’s no accident that the most luminous movie made about creativity in the last decade is Ratatouille: if there’s one thing animators know, it’s how to combine different ingredients and processes into a satisfying whole. On a narrative level, food also furnishes a metaphor for the characters’ emotional lives in movies as different as Tom Jones and Mildred Pierce. And it provides actors with excellent bits of business. One of my favorite introductions to a character in recent television history is the first appearance on Game of Thrones of Tywin Lannister, whom we first see casually butchering a stag while dressing down his son. (But I’ll admit that I was slightly distracted by the thought of how many different takes the scene must have required, and whether Charles Dance had to take any lessons in butchery—which probably informed his character in other ways.)

Charles Dance on Game of Thrones

A restaurant is also a perfect setting for a movie or television show. You have your staff, your regulars, and a constantly renewed stream of new faces, not to mention all the possibilities for drama inherent in running a small business. Even for stories that aren’t explicitly set around food, a restaurant provides a convenient location for a meeting or conversation, even if one of the two parties involved inevitably gets up just as the food arrives. It’s also a good place for disconnected characters to bump into one another—after all, regardless of age, occupation, or social standing, we all have to eat sometime—which is why so many shows have a restaurant as one of their only standing sets. (In some cases, as with the Mystic Grill on The Vampire Diaries, half the town’s social life seems to take place in the same dive.) But while a television series set in a restaurant can build up a large supporting cast of familiar faces, in a movie, there’s something a little melancholy about eating out. A restaurant is a kind of temporary home, a place where you rent a couple of chairs for an hour or two, and when you’re done, you pack up and leave. Which only makes it an allegory for the act of going to the movies itself.

That’s why, if I could eat at any fictional restaurant, I’d go with the lunch stand in Chungking Express. The food there looks pretty good, and we’re given a chance to see much of the menu, if only by implication: Tony Leung’s cop orders a chef salad every day for his girlfriend, and it’s only after the owner suggests that he give her a choice of salad or pizza that he realizes that she never liked chef salad at all. Shortly thereafter, she leaves him, causing him to observe wistfully: “If you have a choice in food, why not in men?” Leung spends so much time at the lunch stand, in fact, that his girlfriend leaves a Dear John letter there, along with the keys to his apartment, which sets the rest of the movie’s delicate plot in motion. In the end, Leung realizes that the happiness he needs has been in plain sight all along, in the form of Faye Wong, and he even goes so far as to buy the lunch stand from Faye’s uncle: “He’s a good businessman. First he sells me chef salad, then the entire restaurant.” It’s a modest place, but it’s also a point of stability in a city that never seems to slow down, and the men and women who cross paths there influence one another’s lives in surprising ways. And I’d like to drop by, just for a minute, if only for a chance to see Leung and Wong together at last behind the counter.

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

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