This week’s films are not necessarily about food, but they all have edible titles. There are some terrific food-themed movies out there, but as the foodie movement grows I think we’ll see more and more product aimed at a very specific audience with Food Network tie-ins and celebrity chef cameos. Gag me. Here is a week’s worth of food-titled movies and my recommendations for dinner to go with them.
White on Rice (2009) dir. Dave Boyle
Nuts in May (1976) dir. Mike Leigh
Taste of Cherry (1997) dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Milk (2008) dir. Gus Van Sant
Caribbean Papaya aka Papaya Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978) dir. Joe D’Amato
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) dir. John Ford
Blueberry (2004) dir. Jan Kounen
White on Rice
40 year old “Jimmy” is a divorced Japanese oddball who lives with his sister’s family in America. He sleeps in the bunk above his nephew and he manages to insert himself into the family dynamic in many inappropriate ways. He’s sweet, but more than a little odd and when he fixates on a pretty friend of his sister’s who comes to stay in the guest bedroom, he swerves back and forth over the line between goofy and creepy.
This is a lovable “fish out of water” story, only it’s not clear that there’s a body of water anywhere that can hold Jimmy. For this dinner pairing, you’ll need to make your way to Kyoto, Japan for a cute but slightly strange combination of Spaghetti and Cake. What would be more expected than a restaurant serving Spaghetti and Cake on the streets of Kyoto? I found this place on a trip to Japan in 2002 and it was delightfully weird. They serve about a dozen or so styles of spaghetti with different toppings ranging from slightly Italian to very Japanese. They also serve cake.
Dinner with the movie: Spagehetti with Shrimp and Nori from Second House Spaghetti and Cake, Kyoto, Japan
Nuts in May
Mike Leigh wrote and directed this TV movie for the BBC back in 1976 and it’s full of all the awkward character tension that makes his later work so good. Keith and Candice Marie are a couple of grown up hippies who take a ten day vacation to commune with nature. Keith is a twit and a know-it-all and Candice Marie just sort of takes whatever kind of condescension he dishes out. They have enough of their own bickering and weird couple dynamics to make for an interesting film but when they run into fellow campers who don’t share their eco-friendly ways, the movie really gets cooking. The screenshot below is from my favorite uncomfortable scene where Keith goads fellow camper (and polar opposite) Ray into singing the inane song that they’ve written about going to the zoo.
If you’ve ever been to a restaurant that intimidated you with lots of preachy descriptions on their menu about local-this, free-range that, and the merits of a vegetarian lifestyle, then Nuts in May might be the movie for you. I actually appreciate all of that kind of stuff in a restaurant, but I appreciate it even more when the owners don’t make a big deal about it and just serve up the food without the bludgeoning education. If you can swing it, watch Nuts in May while eating take out (in compostable containers, of course) from the Red and Black Cafe in Portland, Oregon. They take their space quite seriously and you should know in about 10 seconds if it’s the kind of place you can deal with or not.
Dinner with the movie: The vegan special of the day (their menu is currently offline) from Red and Black Cafe, Portland, Oregon
Taste of Cherry
Abbas Kiarostami’s sober, award-winning film about a man looking for someone to bury him once he has committed suicide may be the brownest, dustiest movie I have ever seen. I’ve seen a handful of films from Iran, but this one was easily the most interesting. Mr. Badii wants to die for reasons he won’t discuss. He needs someone to check on him in the morning to either cover his body with dirt or help him up out of his makeshift grave if he is somehow still alive. More than half of the film takes place in Badii’s car as he tries to convince one passenger after another to help him. The film is slow and composed mostly of long takes that only ever have one character in the frame at a time, but it’s a wonderful meditation on the simple value of living. I didn’t care much for the final scene (which I won’t spoil here) but everything up to that was golden (brown.)
I really hate cherries, so I can’t pair the film with a cherry dish, but I developed a fondness for Persian food when I worked in Sandy Springs (just north of Atlanta.) That neighborhood is a hotbed for Persian restaurants for some reason. There’s a fantastic dish at Mirage made up of lentils, sundried limes, onions, and tomato sauce that’s to die-for. In this case, we should reverse the idiom and say it’s to live-for! It’s topped with fried potato strings and you eat it with saffron rice and it’s exactly the kind of dish that you can savor and simply appreciate being alive to eat.
Dinner with the movie: Vegetarian Khoresht-e Qeymeh from Mirage Persian Cuisine, Sandy Springs, Georgia
Though Milk treads through some perfunctory bio-pic notes clumsily, Sean Penn’s transformation into Harvey Milk is pretty incredible. Everyone else does fine work here, but it’s Penn’s performance more than anything else that makes the movie. Gus Van Sant is a difficult director for me to figure out. For every Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester, he turns out a stranger, more experimental film like Elephant or his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Milk is much closer in execution to his more approachable fare, but it deals with a topic that will turn a lot of people off immediately. It was a wise choice to make a conventional movie out of a somewhat unconventional hero, at least in aiming at the broad audience that should see this film. Had he done Milk in the style of Last Days, it might have been discarded as an arty indulgence. Personally, I found the story itself moving and the film a little too by-the-numbers, but I’m glad that Milk exists to put an important chapter in human rights history in front of eyeballs.
The best milkshakes I’ve ever had come from a place in Brandon, Florida called Campbell’s Dairyland. I swear that it used to be called Campbell’s Dairy Isle, but it burned down a while back and was rebuilt, so maybe that’s when the name changed. The Dairyland is a mom-and-pop version of Dairy Queen, from the soft-serve shakes to the greasy fried snacks. But what makes this place special are two shakes for which I have never found an equal: the Grasshopper and the Real Butterscotch. Yum. I’ve never tried the actual food there, but the hanging smell of fry oil in the place makes me think that it’s best to stick to the milkshakes.
However, just as the Red and Black Cafe wears its values on its sleeve, so too does the Dairyland let you know where they stand with the imperative “HAVE A JESUS FILLED DAY” plastered right on the drive through sign. Yes, it’s that kind of place. So if you decide to enjoy a Campbell’s milkshake with your screening of Milk, do me a favor and walk in there wearing a Pride shirt or something.
Desert with the movie: Real Butterscotch Milkshake from Campbell’s Dairyland, Brandon, Florida
This slice of exploitation sleaze has something to offend just about anyone: pig gutting, drug-fueled native sex rituals, an immasculating vixen, gratuitous shower scenes, and more. If you aren’t offended by the salacious stuff, you may just be put off by the film’s terrible dubbing or dreadful pacing. An American science team wants to build a nuclear reactor in the middle of a small tropical village, so they displace the residents and strut around insulting everyone. The village uses local hottie Papaya to fight back. She lures the foreign men in one at a time then dispatches them with her friends. Oddly, the people performing the weird rituals and killings are given a good excuse for their cruelty, but it all just feels like an excuse to string together some gore and soft core sex scenes–which of course it is!
Joe D’Amato’s film is trying titilate as much as shock and fans of these films take pride in the fact that the movies are decidedly un-PC. I can’t think of a restaurant that embodies this more than The Vortex in Atlanta, Georgia. Though it’s become an odd tourist spectacle over the years, The Vortex is still full of stuff that will excite or shock–from the giant skull entrance to the nude velvet painting to the loud music, to the menu that lays out rules about not being an ass. It’s the kind of place that flaunts its taste in the tacky without losing its edge to the kind of mandated corporate kitsch that dominates so many places that try to be cool.
Dinner with the movie: Bacon Cheeseburger and Tots from The Vortex, Atlanta, GA
The Grapes of Wrath
Maybe folks ought to pull out a copy of The Grapes of Wrath (the book, or John Ford’s movie) pretty soon and see what it’s about. As I watched the Joads trek across the country in search of menial work in California, I was reminded of how little value most people today put on simple things like making an honest living and providing for a family. This film came out in 1940 but the America that it presents is almost unrecognizable as the place we inhabit today. You can see the people who just want to get ahead by getting over and making as much as they can by doing as little as possible in this film–the sad thing is that they seem to have won the day. I guess that I’m a sucker for a good workers’ commune in a movie, especially when it includes dancin’!
The Black Star Co-Op in Austin, Texas is a brewpub that takes the co-operative ownership proposition seriously. They are closed on May 1st in observance of the international day for workers, they pay the staff a living wage, they are managed by a Board of Directors and a Workers Assembly, and they offer membership to anyone who wants in on the action. The food side of the pub serves a lot of locally-sourced ingredients and some of the beers have even been designed by member-owners. When the Joads get to the Department of Agriculture campsite and everyone is friendly and self-governing–well those are the folks who might have started Black Star.
Dinner with the movie: Bibb Lettuce Salad from Black Star Co-Op, Austin, TX
This film, loosely based on the French comic series by Jean-Michel Charlier and Moebius, was called Blueberry in France but renamed Renegade for us yanks. That’s too bad, because the film is a weird enough spin on the western to warrant an unusual name. Renegade just makes me think of Lorenzo Lamas.
Blueberry is the story of Mike Blueberry, a kid who narrowly escapes a run-in with a gruff gunslinger in a fight over a prostitute, is nursed back to health by some Indians, becomes a Marshall in the local town, and eventually has to confront his nemesis in the spirit world. If that sounds like a pastiche of western tropes, that’s because it is. When the movie is trying to be a straight-up western (with Vincent Cassel delivering lines in a thick French-Cowboy drawl,) it falls flat. But when it takes a swig of the peyote and wanders around in an abstract world of animal spirits, dayglow colors, and long tracking shots, it’s a lot of fun to watch. The two films it reminded me of the most were Young Guns (something about the fakey western stuff,) and Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. I mean, that’s a hell of a combination, so if that sounds like fun to you, by all means, check Blueberry out.
Maine’s most well-known culinary exports are blueberries and lobster. I don’t like either, but I like Maine a lot. When I visited, I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of tribal lands and native people up that way. We usually only ever see Native Americans in a Western setting, so what better food to enjoy with this offbeat homage to the medicine man called Blueberry than baked goods from the great state of Maine?
The Standard Baking Company is located right near the water in Portland, Maine, and they have some of the best pastries I’ve tasted on this side of the Atlantic. If I ever have to soar around the universe in a spirit body made of snakes fighting off another spirit body made of centipedes and spiders, this is the food I want to wake up to.
Breakfast with the movie: Coffee and Croissants from the Standard Baking Co. in Portland, Maine
Other Movie Weeks in 2011:
Beat Takeshi Week
French Action Week
Childhood Fascination Week
Australian Rules Week
Black History Week
Recent Westerns Week
Non-Godzilla Kaiju Week
Woody Allen Week
Secret Agent Week
Asian Action Week