Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bread & Hunger

Isn't there a Gramsci comment about starvation (the paradox of its existence given its non-necessity)? Or am I recalling someone else? This article on Venezuela has got me thinking a little ...

... about many things really, but among them (for the purposes of this, a personal and film-related blog), instances of hunger in cinema--what films evince a really palpable sense of hunger (in me, in other viewers); what films acknowledge and utilize certain connections to the psychology of food, nourishment, consumption, thirst, hunger, starvation, satisfaction ...

... for some reason I associate Memories of Underdevelopment strongly with coffee; in Westerns coffee and whiskey saturate the screen and are often used as ways to present feelings between characters (think: eggshell in the coffee grounds in 3 Godfathers); Godard may have shot the most famous cup of coffee in film but in his body of work I just as intensely recall the meal Anna Karina makes in A Woman Is a Woman (a roast, no?); of course in French cinema there's a whole history of great cafe sequences, including the one in Chantal Akerman's I'm Hungry, I'm Cold, where the two girls order, I think, two coffees, and then count money to order two pastries as well (am I totally misremembering? is it from a different film altogether?); Americana gets a nice lard-fried flour representation in prison movies (fried dough in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, beans--not to mention eggs!--in Cool Hand Luke) and also in Ford's great proletarian howl The Grapes of Wrath or Capra's It Happened One Night (black coffee/donut; one egg; carrots!); or the price of breakfast on the train in The Palm Beach Story; the moment I recall most strikingly in Haneke's Code Unknown is when the farmer feeds his son beets (because that's all there is).

In Verhoven's Black Book chocolate (in addition to having a particular narrative function) boasts a job as a kind of signifier of plenty and privilege--though it's surely not the first WWII film to do so, just the one I've most recently seen. This film enacts this kind of "chocolate privilege" on another symbolic level, too, in that the heroine's lover offers it to her in an analogy of his social/economic protection of her in dangerous circumstances ...

What strikes me about a lot of these is not that these instances of food & drink in film operate like they do on the Food Network (enticing me to make a ravenous trip to the refrigerator, grocery store, or local restaurant). Instead, what seems to really affect me in cinema, when it comes to dealing with food, is its unforced evocation (even provocation) of a certain lack driven less often by narrative contrivance but by a certain conviction about the brutality of a social system as well as possibly the more bourgeois-friendly vagaries of The Way of the World (cf. Pedro Costa--though I'm bowdlerizing him--"something is wrong"). "Brutality" is in fact too strong a word, or even too indicative of a cogent and harsh political critique, as a description for some of these films, of course. But that's the point--what I'm describing is not only the films, but my specific ways of receiving, organizing, and coding various tropes in cinema (cinema that I either like or that has some kind of an effect), and so the presence of food means the most to me, at least in the context of film, whether it explicitly or potentially says something not only about the obvious pleasures of consumption, but simultaneously about economic lack, starvation, and even perhaps, presumably, about the hardships of life both necessary and unnecessary.

In Bicycle Thieves the point gets hammered home with the father-son pasta meal; it's mawkish--which isn't to say I've got a heart of stone, I'm a pretty sentimental guy really, but honestly I prefer the impoverished gustatorial cinematics of Pasolini's Accatone, more hard-edged but more heartbreaking because of it, which if I recollect rightly opens with its eponymous hero wolfing down pasta, and which later on has all those working-class i vitteloni-echoes complaining about , and scheming to get the pasta, meat, and sauce so that Accatone's mother (grandmother?) will cook for them.

Soon, soon, I'll mention a few comparable things in relation to Cassavetes. (And someone should discuss Blake Edwards' treatment of alcohol in depth if they haven't already.)

In Lost Illusions there is a restaurant Lucien patronizes when he's out of funds: Flicoteaux. It specialized in whatever was in season, and in all parts of animals, and only poor students and the like were to be seen there. Back when my friends and I were still actively contemplating a food blog (a miscarried project...) I suggested Flicoteaux as a possible title.

Forgive the run-ons and nightmarish syntax, readers: stream-of-consciousness is all I can muster as I slowly hammer away at one hell of a writer's block ...

12 comments:

dave said...

"The fact that there is no need for people to die of starvation and that people are dying of starvation is a fact of some importance one would think."
that's Gramsci alright.

I'm trying to think about social oppression and hunger, but your coffee mentions bring to mind cinematic representations of food as the _benefit_ of a system of social oppression (ie, for the victors/oppressors), as represented by Lynch's man-who-spits-out-espresso-as-if-it's-shit, or by the overabundance of Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Though Coppola goes out of her way to deny that her heroine ever said "Let them eat cake," the film seems designed as an occassion to show off fancy shoes/dresses/wallpaper, and to revel in an inhuman (literally, in this social context) abundance of cakes, torts, and pastries.

dave said...

a note on the quote: I haven't been able to place it definitively as Gramsci yet; the internet has some people who attribute it to him but nothing definitive. I haven't picked up Gramsci more than once or twice in the 5 years since I got out of college, and my copies of his books seem to be at my parents' house, so I can't even page through and hope to stumble upon it. so, it might be Gramsci, or might be a quote someone would like to attribute to him. either way, it seems that's the one you were looking for.

Zach Campbell said...

Google suggests that I must have read the alleged Gramsci quote from China Mieville. It's his fault!

And speaking of Lynch--there's also the famous "Pabst! Blue Ribbon!" But I'm hot-and-cold on Lynch, and don't like Blue Velvet, so maybe that's why those great inverse instances you mention didn't spring to mind. (And I didn't see Marie Antoinette.)

girish said...

Just got back from Killer Of Sheep. (Wow.)

Speaking of coffee, there's that scene at the beginning in which Stan and his friend are sitting at the kitchen table and Stan tells him, holding a cup of coffee tight against his cheek, that it reminds him of a woman when they're making love. To which his friend chuckles, "I never knew no woman who had malaria...!"

Zach Campbell said...

Girish, I remember Stan asking his friend if he wanted coffee, but weren't they actually drinking tea in that next shot (the tea bags hanging from the cups)? That's what Nirav and I both noticed as we compared notes after the screening.

girish said...

Oh wow, I didn't pick up on that. Nice eye, Zach!

Alex said...

Not precisely hunger (or maybe even the opposite), but what the post most reminded me of was the scene in Oliver Assayas' Demonlover where Connie Nielsen and Charles Berling "dine" in one of those upscale, expense account Cal-Asian fusion type places. The food is less food but a social status signifier of power. Unlike the somewhat stupid traditional Hollywood image of "businessman places" as dark, wood-paneled steakhouses, Assayas correctly shows us how the appearance conscious (or rather, appearance insane) businesspeople of today try to eat as little as possible (lean and mean, baby, lean and mean!), while still spending a lot of money.

They're not really eating, but more performing eating (in a movie where the characters are always performing or pretending rather than actually being anything). And this is mirrored in both the characters and their pretense of being sexually attracted to each other. It's not clear in Demonlover's world there is anything really material, so it's dubious (as the plot eventually shows us) whether these characters actually feel any bodily lust or bodily hunger whatsoever.

Noel Vera said...

In Philippine cinema there are very few films that deal with food or hunger, unfortunately, which is strange, considering how our films always deal with poverty.

There's American Adobo of course, but the title is more a catchall phrase evoking Filipino American culture than an actual treatis on the making of the dish, or its American equivalent (if there is any).

Perhaps the finest Filipino film I can remember on the subject is Manuel Silos' Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land) where Silos conveys the juicy sweetness of the lanzones.

Food is important to our culture, of course; it's oddly not important to our film culture...

Zach Campbell said...

Alex, that's really strange--I can't remember where (was it on somebody's blog? email? real life conversation?), but I know recently I was either reading or talking about that same issue with regard to American Psycho. Damn my sieve-memory, if anyone online can help out ...

Noel, have I ever told you about the first time I had Filipino food? It was at a friend's high school graduation party. Three plates full, plus dessert, and I wasn't even that hungry. I became a vegetarian about six months later, and didn't really have any Filipino food until I reverted to omnivorism. At any rate, one would think the delicious food would inspire more Filipino filmmakers to put it in their work--your report on its relative lack onscreen surprises me. Anyway, maybe in Jackass 3 they'll eat balut.

celinejulie said...

As for film about food, I think one of the most impressive is a short Brazilian film called ISLE OF FLOWERS (1989, Jorge Furtado, A+). Claudio Carvalho wrote a very good synopsis of this film in imdb.com as this:

“ The ironic, heartbreaking and acid "saga" of a spoiled tomato: from the plantation of a "Nisei" (Brazilian with Japanese origins); to a supermarket; to a consumer's kitchen to become sauce of a pork meat; to the garbage can since it is spoiled for the consumption; to a garbage truck to be dumped in a garbage dump in "Ilha das Flores"; to the selection of nutriment for pigs by the employees of a pigs breeder; to become food for poor Brazilian people.”

ISLE OF FLOWERS can be viewed in French with no English subtitles in Google video in this link:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5681159585444975111


I highly recommend this film. The style of this fast-paced, informative, funny and heartbreaking film somehow reminds me of Alexander Kluge.

This is what Laura U. Marks wrote about ISLE OF FLOWERS:

"ISLAND OF FLOWERS is a surrealistic documentary about the extremely poor people who live around and eke their livelihood from a garbage dump outside Rio de Janeiro. In five minutes, the film demonstrates with wicked economy the inexorable logic of making equations between money, commodities and lives. It is a savage critique of the process of capitalist abstraction, recreating in reverse the accordion-like movement whereby human suffering is transmuted into value."

The quote above is from the film’s website.

As for film about eating, one of my most favorite is IN MY SKIN (2002, Marina de Van, A+), in which a woman is having problems at her workplace, and is literally eating herself. I don’t know what this film means, but one Thai critic thinks it might be a metaphor for consumerism. However, in indiewire.com, Marina de Van denied that IN MY SKIN is a social critique:

“In the middle of a boring meeting, cutting herself reminds her that reality exists beyond the corporate world. de Van disavows any intention of social critique in her emphasis on the business milieu. Instead, she thinks "it was important to anchor my character in the real world."”

Noel Vera said...

Filipino food has its regions--Visayan and Mindanao Islands cooking is fresh seafood, and a specialty is crab with a thick sweet coconut-based dipping sauce. Bicolano (Southern Luzon) cooking is all about chilis and coconut milk, much like the Thai. Tagalog or Central Luzon cooking is classic Spanish--crispy pata (deep fried pork leg), afritada (pork, potatoes and peppers in tomato sauce), Kare-Kare (pig innards and tail and vegetables in a peanut stew, served with shrimp paste) and sisig (pork head meat with chilies on a hot plate). Ilokano (Northern Luzon cooking) is about mountain vegetables prepared simply, the claasic pinakbet (vegetables tossed whole to simmer in a clay pot) maybe sprinkled with chopped bagnet (a kind of uber pork crackling).

A rather unique Ilocano dish is pinapaitan first class--simply put, goat stew flavored with goat bile (an additive to the urine). I can't recall a cuisine in the world that uses that ingredient.

Zach Campbell said...

Jit, Island of Flowers is indeed a very interesting film. (I watched it twice when I was an undergraduate.) Still haven't gotten around to In My Skin, though.

Noel, thanks for the skinny on Filipino food. I imagine my friend's catering was Tagalog ...