Focus Features takes an alternative look at food and movies by soliciting examples of “sustainable cinema” from five prominent figures within the food movement.
Super Size Me
I have to begin with this one because it’s my screen debut! I appear in it for ten seconds as a talking head defining calories, among other things. This is Morgan Spurlock’s account of a month-long experiment eating nothing else but food from McDonald’s. Spurlock’s depiction of his 25-pound weight gain is not only a commentary on the role of fast food in America’s obesity epidemic, but also a fast-moving and riveting examination of the corporate side of our country’s love affair with burgers and fries.
It’s hard to imagine that a story about how two guys grow corn on one acre in Iowa could be so utterly delightful, but Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis have a sense of humor along with plenty of imaginative smarts. This is the best place to see how industrial farming really works. Spoiler alert: I love the scenes in which they start with corn and cook up a batch of high fructose corn syrup, take two minutes to plant their acre, and discover that their acre is eligible for corn subsidies. This film may be a documentary about corn production and harvesting, but it is a pleasure to sit through again and again.
This is the most commercially successful of the recent documentaries exposing the evils of the industrial food system, and for good reason. Starting with the splendid opening credits, it is wonderfully directed (by Robbie Kenner) and narrated by food movement superstars, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Even for people who know something about industrial food production, the film breaks new ground. For me, the most moving episode was the 4:00 a.m. immigration raid on hapless Mexican workers at a Smithfield packing plant. The film tells stories ranging from the infuriating (seed patenting) to the heartbreaking (the lethal effects of toxic E. coli on a small child). Best, it is a rousing call to action. Join the food movement!
Who knew that the Japanese made spaghetti Westerns? As it happens, they do or at least used to. A lone cowboy rides into town and teaches a young woman how to cook noodles so delicious that customers line up to eat them. The message? It takes hard work to develop real cooking skills but the results are worth it. The hero may ride off into the sunset, but this film carries its lessons lightly and is marvelous cross-cultural fun.
La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille
I can’t decide between these two films for my number five. La Grande Bouffe (The Great Binge, in my translation) is a French film of the 1970s that doesn’t seem to show up in food film festivals. It deserves a revival, not least for its splendid cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, among others. As I recall, the guys spend a weekend gorging on food and sex, giving entirely new meaning to the pleasure of food in general, and to fruit tarts in particular.
Ratatouille is, of course, about a cartoon mouse who yearns to become a chef, and does so with great panache. The film is surprisingly faithful to the day-to-day reality (OK, exaggerated) of professional kitchens, and the extraordinary amount of teamwork involved in producing superb restaurant food. It may not make anyone want to become a chef, but it gives plenty of insight into what it takes to do so.