Set Menus

Book Review Reel Meals, Set Meals: Food in Film and Theatre by Gaye Poole, Currency Press Sydney 1999 Links the consumption of food with the consumption of culture.

We all know that the cinema chains make more money from candy bars than from ticket sales. No visit to the cinema is complete without the obligatory choc-top or packet of popcorn. Similarly, going to the theatre, like all religious rituals, has always been associated with food and drink consumption. The kabuki theatre is surrounded by a nest of restaurants and sake bars; patrons can thus conveniently sip and sup before, during and after the five-hour performance. Like the Japanese, we too survive Wagnerian operas, Indian epics and Western Australian family epics only with the sustenance of catered meal breaks. Even gallery directors have learnt that attendance at exhibition openings is rendered more palatable when accompanied by generous serves of sushi, seafood snacks and champers. There is, and always has been, an intimate connection between the consumption of food and the consumption of culture.

My father used to tell stories of imbibing culture with a capital K as a foreign student in Berlin in the 1920s; of how he would spend his limited allowance on cheap tickets to the opera or theatre, standing up throughout the performance at the back of the Gods, sacrificing comfort and bodily sustenance for the higher pleasures of art. My experience has made me more of a cynic; I suspect his memory was contaminated by two Romantic myths: that material deprivation enhances artistic creativity and appreciation; and that Europe is the locus of high culture. I don't believe that solitary starving artists produce masterpieces in basements or garrets, nor that Europeans are more cultured than Australians. In all societies an interest in the arts is limited to small coteries of people with impure motives. Some of us make a living from it – as performers and teachers and critics; the haute bourgeoisie consume it as a social ritual; the chattering classes need it as subject for their chatter. Most of these people are more interested in being seen than seeing; in who's who in the audience rather than what's what on the walls, on stage or on film.

Food and drink are not just pleasurable optional extras but essential to the oiling of social machinery. Theatre restaurants and cabaret shows recognise this, allowing more interaction between audience and performers, more ad-libbing and improvisation, and more variation in performances than the orthodox theatre. The mobile outdoor theatre not only frees the audience from its imprisonment in a fixed and confined indoor space; and moves the muscles as well as the emotions; it readily doubles with the family picnic, and is usually located in places (such as the Botanical Gardens) where such picnics take place. The breakdown of the distinction between performance space and audience space is even more pronounced in plays like Dimboola, where the audience participates as extras in the cast, as fellow diners and winers at the savagely lampooned rituals of a raucous country wedding.

Dimboola is discussed in Gaye Poole's Reel Meals, Set Meals, her analysis of food in film and theatre, but her focus is predominantly on intra-diegetic meals, meals prepared and consumed by the actors on stage and set, rather than the extra-diegetic eating and drinking of the audience. In this comprehensive survey, embracing scenes from 135 films and 60 odd stage productions, Poole describes the manifold meanings and functions of meals, meal-times and food in theatre and film. Under seventeen different chapter headings, she shows how these scenes mark distinctions of class, culture and gender; manifest power games; can be sexy or deadly, in the service of Eros or Thanatos; celebrate and satirise family and motherhood; embody lovingly constructive and murderously destructive desires; function as structuring devices; entertain, shock and provoke thought. It is an ambitious project, attacked with zeal and great gusto.

However, the galloping gourmet's guide to theatre and cinema, like some cookbooks with too much rich fare, can give the reader indigestion. The author attempts to cover all the angles, and describe all the meal scenes in a vast and disparate collection of productions. In addition to the classical theatrical repertoire of 'tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral–comical, historical–pastoral, tragical–historical, tragical–comical–historical–pastoral', her examples embrace the realist film, the surrealist film, the absurdist farce, the post-modern pastiche, silent slapstick, the gothic, black comedy and film noir. They include horror movies, family melodramas, romantic comedies, teen movies, coming-of-age sagas, suspense thrillers, women's films, fantasies, adventure movies, and war movies. (The only major absence is scifi: a significant omission.) Obviously, with such a vast canvas, no single text can be given extensive or intensive analysis, and readers with special affections for particular plays or films may find the treatment of them here cursory, if not superficial. Poole's bibliographic sources are also a mixed bag. Her undiscriminating pot-pourri of popular journalism and high theory may alienate readers with rigorous academic standards. Ultimately, despite the zeal and zest of the author, and the racy descriptions of particular scenes, I was left with the impression that food and meal-times can mean anything and everything.

My own training as a film critic predisposes me to favour concentration on a few select texts and to explore them in greater depth. To select films, like Tampopo and Babette's Feast, that are centrally concerned with food, or employ food as their central metaphor; films where the preparation and consumption of food resonate with metaphor and allegory, with social comment and psychological insight; and explore them at length. Films like The Age of Innocence, Annie Hall and The Last Days of Chez Nous are only incidentally, not centrally, concerned with food, and do not deserve equal time, even if particular scenes in them do choose to illustrate social tensions and divisions around the dining room table.

Once upon a time, the cinema didn't need food because it had tobacco. Swirls of smoke created an aura of mystery and romance. Characters were defined by how they smoked and what they smoked. The femme fatale announced her entry with her elegant and seductive performances with filter tips; the macho hero's curled lip always held a drooping cigarette; gentlemen detectives and wise men smoked pipes; lovers marked the initiation and termination of their relationship by sharing a cigarette; tycoons and gangster bosses always smoked fat cigars; dying men begged a final cigarette from their grieving buddies. Smoking provided emotional pathos, enhancing love and death; it supplied literal and metaphorical fogs; in times of rigid film censorship, it signified sex ... I can see that I'm about to embark on a study of the semiotics of smoking in classical cinema. It's a more exciting prospect than food, and a much more unhealthy one.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.