Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Foodways: A Critical Lens that Provides New Insights into Film and Culture
I would thank editorial board member Mark Bernard for co-editing this issue of The Projector; the time and expertise contributed are sincerely appreciated. I also want to thank the many scholars who responded to our call for papers on food, film, and media/consumer culture; additional essays concerning food and film will appear in subsequent issues.
The substantial number of rigorous submissions signals scholars’ growing interest and investment in research at the intersection of food, film, media, and culture studies. This situation reflects a larger development, namely, the incredibly rapid expansion of the food studies field since the early 1980s. That burgeoning area of study parallels an increase in food journals, the appearance of food films, the rise of food documentaries, and the emergence of food movements that aim to foster sustainable agriculture and the view that healthy food and clean water are basic human rights. Work in the food studies field examines research questions that concern foodways, a term that designates the range and collection of social customs, personal choices, naturalized beliefs, behaviors, values, systems, and activities that surround the production, extraction, distribution, preparation, presentation, consumption, cleanup, and disposal of food and drink.
This issue of The Projector opens with an essay by Leslie H. Abramson entitled “Knife Skills: Women and the Cut in Hitchcock Films.” By exploring materials, spaces, and characters associated with domestic meal preparation – knives, kitchens, and women – Abramson adds new insights to the extensive collection of auteur and feminist studies of Hitchcock films. Revisiting well-known scenes from Blackmail (1929), Sabotage (1936), Psycho (1960), and Torn Curtain (1966), Abramson not only illustrates that female knifing is a motif in Hitchcock’s films, but also that these striking scenes of knife wielding women are among the most spectacular and inventive instances of cutting/editing in Hitchcock’s body of work. The final segment of Abramson’s essay takes a material-feminist angle that considers women’s work as cutters/editors in the silent era. That interesting line of research leads her to propose that, “Informed by the conditions of early film production and authorship, in reflexive displays of superlative women’s knife skills through cutting edge sequences, the director’s films pointedly speak in the lexicon of a vital female voice – significantly, when the most is at stake cinematically.”
In the next essay, “When a Weirdo Stirs the Pot: Food and Masculinity in Ratatouille,” Fabio Parasecoli looks at the representation of food as a means of self-expression in the animated film Ratatouille (Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava, 2007). Parasecoli locates the film within cinema history and commercial film/media practices, and notes that the film banks on “the widespread interest in kitchen and the cultures that sustain them.” Focusing on its representation of food preparation and consumption, Parasecoli examines the film’s ideological perspectives on class and masculinity. He points out, for example, that “In the world of Ratatouille, successful males define their primacy against the background of lower status males, just like celebrity chefs establish their position by asserting their preeminence over line cooks and armies of busboys and dishwashers.” Analyzing the film’s closing scenes to illustrate another instance when “taste and food-related behaviors [are] markers of class distinction,” Parasecoli offers the insight that with the rats as kitchen laborers, the film naturalizes the image of “the quiet, omnipresent immigrant workers who allow the American restaurant industry to thrive.” Parasecoli also shows that the film’s conclusion naturalizes the view that “Remy and the model of masculinity he embodies manage to be accounted as socially acceptable through paternal approval.”
The peer-reviewed research articles by Abramson and Parasecoli are followed by two invited essays that focus on food, film, and pedagogy. The first of these, by Julie Tharp, is titled “Food, Film, and Friendship.” The essay provides an overview of a course she has been teaching for ten years that is designed for “adult students as part of a non-credit community outreach program.” Tharp draws on her catering experience, film studies background, and interest in ethnic food to lead the course, which focuses “primarily on foreign films in an effort to broaden community members’ understanding of global issues, aesthetics, and foodways.” Class meetings are held in her home and Tharp prepares meals designed to complement each film. For example, to accompany “Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou Zhang, 1991), a film about a young woman forced to become the third bride to a wealthy Chinese nobleman, [Tharp] provided a Chinese wedding meal and explained the symbolism of the foods.” Tharp prepares discussion questions for the paired and larger group discussions that follow the screening and meal; she has also created a website with recipes and filmographies. She concludes: the course is “about broadening students’ perspectives, increasing tolerance and compassion, and teaching visual literacy and critical thinking. I think it’s also about pleasure. The classes provide opportunities to find pleasure in a community of learners, trying on new tastes, sounds, and ideas.”
The second pedagogical essay is titled “Food in Film and Media: Opportunities for Engaged Learning.” In this essay, I outline three assignments for textual studies of food in film and media, and four assignments for ethnographic studies of food, movie-going and media viewing. They are based on research started in 2001; findings from that research appear in Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation (Wayne State UP, 2014), co-authored with Diane Carson and Mark Bernard. The essay offers the following conclusion: “Connecting the study of food to the study film and media helps students appreciate the meaningfulness of food choices and behaviors – when represented on screen or in daily life . . . Media can influence people’s food habits and the rhythms of daily life. It can also supply a rich source of material for inquiries into the choices that people make about food, film, and media consumption.”