Department of Theatre and Film
Food in Film and Media: Opportunities for Engaged Learning
A simple but remarkable fact is that exploring food symbolism and characters’ food behaviors consistently enlivens and deepens people’s engagement with and understanding of films, television programs, and media in other formats. That is because representations of food and food activities carry dense information about individual experiences, cultural context, and a narrative’s underlying point of view. A teacher’s attention to texts’ representation of food and food behaviors can help students see how the film/media makers orchestrated elements in its audiovisual design to shape audience impressions and interpretations.
Faculty members who explore connections between food and film/media viewing can also enhance students’ insights into society’s and their own very individual choices about food and film/media consumption. This possibility arises because the many connections between the two types of consumption lead to a film seen in a theatre bearing “some resemblance to a meal served at a restaurant” (Hark 14). With “eating itself is an important corollary to movie-going,” in the era before Netflix, the food-film connection was “so strong that most video stores [sold] popcorn (in the microwave format) and candy” (Hark 15).
In film, media, and cultural studies courses, assignments that ask students to describe a text’s representation of food and eating allow them to focus on a delimited group of visual and narrative details. Assignments that ask them to do informal self-studies of their movie-theatre food choices and their television food habits give them illuminating, concrete, and often amusing ways to reflect on their relationship to food, media, and mass culture. Textual studies of food in film/media and ethnographic studies of food behavior, movie-going, and television viewing can sharpen observational skills. As a result, food and film/media assignments can even contribute to courses in screenwriting, acting, directing, and other creative/fine art endeavors. Assignments that develop students’ ability to do ethnographic work on food and movie-going practices and on activities surrounding food and television viewing facilitate research that contributes to reception studies and our understanding of film/media audiences.
Despite or because most people have seen hundreds of mainstream movies and spent thousands of hours watching broadcast and cable television, they sometimes cling to their belief that film and media images simply capture and reflect reality. Even if they come to see that film narratives and television programs are shaped by aesthetic decisions, political circumstances, and economic forces, it can be difficult for students to analyze the effect formulas and conventions have on film representations; it can be difficult to grapple with the impact television advertising has on viewers’ choices in the marketplace. In addition, it is always possible to miss the fact that some areas of life and human activity are consistently not represented in film and television narratives. Thus, students can feel uncomfortable when presented with questions that ask: what does a particular moment in a film/media text tell us about its target audience; given its depictions, who is included and who is left out of the conversation; how does a certain film or television program lead audiences to care about some things and some characters but not others?
However, by focusing on the network of activities highlighted by the foodways paradigm, students can rather easily see how film/media representations of eating and drinking illuminate “social interaction, identity construction, and the display and even imposition of power” (Long 143). Given that possibility, this essay outlines a few assignments that direct students’ attention to “the beliefs, aesthetics, economics, and politics involved in food behaviors” that are found in films and television programs (Long 144).
These assignments provide opportunities for students to examine food behaviors that range from procurement and preservation methods to rituals surrounding the preparation, presentation, consumption, and cleanup of meals. With foodways as the focus, the assignments offer tangible and accessible entry points for exploring film, media, and culture. That is significant. While students often define themselves by their film-media tastes, they might not reflect on their preferences and can be uncomfortable with assignments that ask them to examine their own choices and values. Yet assignments that ask students to analyze a film or television program by looking at characters’ interactions during meals help them see the benefit of studying symbolism and cinematic narration—even when they hold fast to the belief that movies and TV shows are just entertainment. Other assignments that invite students to describe their personal preferences when it comes to food and movie-going, or food and television viewing, give them an enjoyable and non-threatening way to approach self-studies of media consumption—perhaps especially when they are concerned that their professor will not understand or approve of their film and television viewing choices.
Film, media, and cultural studies faculty have discovered that the conceptual framework of foodways gives students a vocabulary for analyzing food on screen and off. In addition, when students use foodways as a touchstone in textual analyses, it facilitates coherent readings of individual films and increases students’ understanding of cinematic/media strategies and conventions. Integrating food and film/media studies offers students insights into specific television programs and episodes. It also enhances their awareness of connections between advertising and programming in broadcast and cable television. When students explore foodways in ethnographic studies of film/television viewing, they increase their understanding of the movie-going experience and the place of film and television in contemporary domestic life.
Textual Studies of Food in Film and Television
One way to introduce students to the study of food and film is to show excerpts of memorable moments in film. Scores of marvelous food scenes can be found in early comedies. There are humorous scenes in shorts such as Max Linder’s The Grass Widower (1912), which shows the befuddled husband’s increasingly disastrous attempts to shop, cook, and clean up on his own. In one scene in The Gold Rush (1925), Charlie Chaplin becomes an impromptu food-puppeteer when he casually sticks a fork into a dinner roll and another fork into a second roll, and then proceeds to create a table-top, soft-shuffle dance by transforming the forks and rolls into a dancer’s legs and feet. In another scene, Charlie cooks and eats his shoe when trapped in a snowed-in cabin. In another, famished Big Jim McKay hallucinates and sees Charlie as a chicken. Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick comedy Battle of the Century (1927) concludes with a spectacular pie fight. In Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), the spoiled runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) shows she is a good sport when she takes lessons in dunking donuts from the newspaperman (Clark Gable) and that she is becoming more down to earth when she capitulates and eats raw carrots, a food she had refused earlier in the film.1
The various aspects of foodways can be studied through lectures, reading assignments, directed discussions, and written reflections on personal food choices and behaviors. Initial presentations and assignments can be followed by group discussions, mock quiz shows, and individual projects. To illustrate the varied ways that foodways are woven into narratives, one can show excerpts from utopian food films like Tampopo (Jûzô Itami, 1985), where characters’ interactions surrounding food create community, and dystopian food films such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989), which use characters’ troubling food behaviors to represent the disturbed nature of the society and its inhabitants. To explore questions of gender and culture, instructors can contrast scenes from films such as Tess (Roman Polanski ,1979) and Bagdad Cafe (Percy Adlon, 1987). Tess uses food imagery to naturalize Alec’s thoughtless and arrogant taking of Tess’s virginity, whereas Bagdad Cafe uses food imagery to convey Jasmin’s evolving sense of selfhood.
Students can also explore the rich variety of films that fall into the gray area between food films (where food preparation, presentation, consumption, and so on are integral to the story), and films that use tangential food images and behaviors simply as “realistic” details and background elements. They can examine ways that food and food activities contribute to a range of genres and subgenres, from gangster and horror films to rom-coms, science fiction, and film noir. Cross cultural studies of food and film/media are especially illuminating. Discussing a number of food-in-film examples helps students better understand the dense meanings conveyed by food behaviors. Examining distinctions between different films’ use of food helps them see the belief systems implicit in specific characters’ food behaviors. These studies also illustrate that film/media narratives are designed in specific ways and that audience impressions are shaped by: the order of scenes; the time given to individual characters and story elements; the number of times a story element is touched upon; the character who takes audiences through the story and provides the voice or literal point of view; and the characters or imagery that reveal the narrative’s unresolved ethical dilemma, its figurative point of view, and its underlying mood (See Genette 1980, 1988; Bal 1997).
Students can explore the differences between scenes where eating, drinking, and other types of consumption carry symbolic meaning and scenes where they have little more than a decorative role. Students can consider moments when symbolism involves structured parallels and oppositions. For example, in John Woo’s film The Killer (1989), audiences learn that there are real connections between the killer and the detective because the film intercuts scenes of the two men smoking a cigarette in the same contemplative way. Sometimes, food and drink are used to convey general impressions of wealth or poverty. On other occasions, food behaviors provide insight into a character’s psychological or emotional state. In other instances, characters’ food selections give audiences information about their social circumstances and ethnic, regional, or national identities (Barthes 1974, 1977).
Students develop a better understanding of foodways and film/media aesthetics when they consider how food and food behaviors figure into a text’s audiovisual design. To locate the meaning conveyed when a specific food item or behavior is presented, students will want to recognize that framing choices and camera movements affect viewers’ interpretations – a slow track-in to a close-up of a sumptuous piece of chocolate cake creates a very different impression than a shot where that same piece of cake is a dot in the background of the frame. Editing choices shape interpretations of food and food behaviors—Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1970) establishes an integral connection between “civilized” and “uncivilized” people by intercutting shots of a white Australian butcher chopping up a rack of lamb ribs with shots of an Aboriginal youth chopping off the leg of a kangaroo he has just speared. Mise-en-scène elements (color design, lighting design, set design, costumes, props, makeup, actors’ appearances, performance styles) also play a crucial role in interpretations of food and food behaviors. Dialogue, music, and sound design are equally important (See Corrigan and White 2004). As students develop a better understanding of film/media, they will analyze representations of food more effectively. Their analyses will also become more nuanced as they become more experienced discussing cuisine choices, food etiquette, recipe design, eating protocols, shopping strategies, cleanup policies, and more.
Assignment I: Ask students to locate a couple of food-in-film examples and then determine if food is integral or tangential to the scene/story. Ask them to consider the effect of the narrative design (its order of scenes, etc.). Have students decide if food has symbolic meaning or simply serves a decorative or commercial function in their examples. Ask them to describe what kind of cultural knowledge is required to notice and understand the food symbolism. Ask students to discuss how food and foodways are presented in a particular scene or sequence. Have them describe how choices of framing, editing, lighting, sound effects, and so on shape audience interpretations of specific food items and food behaviors.
It is very productive to have students share and discuss their clips with classmates. Asking students to write descriptions is also useful. Sharing findings with classmates, through clips or verbal descriptions, allows students to see patterns in film/media narratives and in representations of food behavior and food symbolism. Discussions about what people have found also allow the instructor to ask students to reflect on the aspects of foodways that tend to be the focus versus the aspects of foodways that are rarely shown.
Assignment II: Ask students to locate one or more examples of food in television. They can share clips of television programs or write descriptions of their findings. Here again, it is useful for students to compare what they have found with their colleagues. Instructors can help students examine connections or contradictions between representations of food and drink within a program and the representation of food in the commercials shown before, during, and after the program. Cooking shows provide useful material to study, as do commercials for fast food and weight loss products.
Assignment III: Ask students to synthesize the information about food in film and television that has been generated by the class as a whole. Students should be able to build on class discussions to describe connections between representations of food and cultural norms. Teachers can ask students to explain how film/media representations depict relationships between food, identity, and community. Students can discuss patterns in film/television representations that link specific food items or behaviors with characters defined by their economic status, cultural background, gender, sexuality, age, regional affiliation, and so on.
Ethnographic Studies of Food, Movie-Going, and TV Viewing
Students’ self-studies of media activities indicate that there are significant connections between movie-going, television viewing, food behaviors, and individuals’ experience of “nourishment.” Undergraduates’ media logs reveal that students’ decisions about the films they view at a movie theatre are directly related to the size and timing of a film’s television ad campaign. Students’ media logs also indicate that watching certain television programs is a necessary part of their day. If they miss certain staples of their viewing day, they feel a sense of loss, discomfort, and undernourishment. Their logs also suggest that the food students choose to eat, and the time they choose to eat, is sometimes determined by television programming. Some people select food that can be easily consumed while watching television or sitting at a computer, and many feel most satisfied when they eat meals, alone or with roommates, while consuming media.
One way to introduce students to the ethnographic study of food and film/media is to show an excerpt from a film such as After Sunset: The Life and Times of the Drive-in Theater (Bokenkamp, 1996). One of the drive-in theatres featured in the film is the Skyview in La Mesa, Texas. The film’s segment on the Skyview drive-in shows children enjoying the playground and adults visiting with each other as they wait for sunset and the movie. However, as the interviews reveal, many of patrons are regular customers because of the drive-in’s signature sandwich that has chili, cabbage, and pimento cheese-spread sandwiched between two fried corn tortillas. In addition to showing scenes that highlight topics like dinner and a movie, faculty might also review ideas and questions surrounding foodways as student begin to reflect on their own food behavior at movie theaters.
Assignment I: Ask students to write about and/or keep a log of their visits to movie theaters during a selected period of time and have them note the part that food played in their movie-going experience. To help students explore the aesthetic, economic, social, and/or political logic for their food choices, ask them to explain their food selections and consider ways that food figured into the meaningfulness of their movie-going experience. Ask them if or how specific food choices were influenced by the other people attending the movie. It could be useful for them to describe their favorite movie food when they went to the movies as a child and to compare that choice with their current preferences. Ask them to write about what they do or do not eat when they go to the movies with roommates, casual friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, or a new date.
It could be useful for students to discuss if or how changes in their financial situation affect their movie food choices; if or how the type of film they are seeing affects their choices; if or how the type of theatre determines their food and drink selection. Class discussion of students’ observations can be extremely valuable. When students share their experiences, it becomes possible for them to see that food is an integral component of the movie-going experience and that their individual food and movie choices are often part of larger patterns in movie-going and food behavior.
Assignment II: Ask students to write about or keep a log of their domestic food and media habits. Ask students to examine ways that food has been integrated into their media viewing choices, and ways that media viewing has figured into their food choices and experiences. Students should attempt to articulate the logic for their food choices and the connections between meals and media choices. It is useful for students to reflect on their behavior. Are there differences in their food-media behaviors when they are with family, close friends, casual friends, roommates, or steady boyfriends/girlfriends? Instructors can ask students to describe other factors that influence their food-media viewing practices. Here again, it is useful and always amusing for student to share their accounts with the class.
Assignment III: Given the prevalence of home theatre technology, it can be useful to have students write about or keep a log of their home theatre experiences and the way food is integrated into those more and less formal events. Ask students to describe their media collections, media systems, and patterns in viewing habits. Building on that information, students can explore relationships between food and home theatre viewing. Ask students to consider ways in which their food and home theatre practices are affected by other viewers. What is different about their food and home theatre choices when they are alone, with roommates, close friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, classmates, a new date, or at their parent’s home? What are the factors that determine food and viewing choices when they view films at home? Comparing accounts of these experiences illuminates ways that people interact with food, media, and mass culture.
Assignment IV: Ask students to write about contrasts and connections between food behavior in the context of movie-going, television/media viewing, and home theatre experiences. It might be useful for students to look back at their essays on food in film and television to see if there are points of contact between media representations of food and individuals’ food and/or viewing behaviors. Instructors can vary the assignment’s length, degree of sophistication, and level of research according to the type of course they are teaching.
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. In addition, by using foodways as an entry point to explorations of film and media, instructors facilitate students’ understanding of media representations, cultural conventions, and aesthetic formulas. Integrating food, film, and media studies enhances students’ awareness of the many factors that shape food and viewing choices. Course activities that prompt students to use representations of food as a starting point for studies of films and media programs give them something tangible and personal to work with. Activities that lead students to use films and media texts to gain insights into people’s food choices, behaviors, and activities make those cultural studies fun and engaging. Course work at the intersection of food, film, and media studies helps students at all levels reflect on the cultural and personal dimensions of food and media consumption. 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 – and thus provide great opportunities for engaged learning.
1. Students will have many food examples from contemporary film and television programs. To broaden the discussion by using less familiar illustrations, instructors can turn to material from different eras and national cinemas. Portrait of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) shows the hallucinatory effects of drinking and over eating. A Corner in Wheat (1909) highlights the contrast in food consumption by the rich and the poor. In Battleship Potemkin (1925), an early scene shows that maggots in the ship’s food cause the crew to mutiny. In Freaks (1932), there is a pivotal dinner celebration. Citizen Kane (1941) uses a montage sequence of Charles and Emily at breakfast to show the deterioration of their marriage. In Tom Jones (1963), eating serves as foreplay to sexual adventure. The Graduate (1967) opens with telling scenes of Ben at a cocktail party. In Women in Love (1969), Rupert’s pronouncements on fig eating inflicts pain on Hermione. In M.A.S.H. (1970), Trapper John and Hawkeye reenact the Last Supper. In Phantom of Liberty (1974), there is a surreal scene of bourgeois couples at a dining room table seated on toilets. In Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), the sequence of the girls at a picnic establishes their delicate state. Jeanne Dielman (1975) shows scenes of cooking and housework in agonizing real time. King of Comedy (1983) features a dinner date between Sandra Bernhard and kidnapped Jerry Lewis. In Life is Sweet (1990), a bulimic girl makes her boyfriend cover her with chocolate during sex. In Bedevil (1993), a faux cooking show sequence mixes Aboriginal bush cuisine and European high culture to comment on colonial influence. In Pulp Fiction (1994), food scenes throughout the film reveal the characters’ quirky sensibilities.
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