‘You Gotta Eat!’

by Kelly McErlean


Watching Tony Soprano descend the stairs into his kitchen, lumbering over to the fridge, open the tin foil package and eating some ‘Italian’ meats always makes me hungry. In fact, watching Tony Soprano eat in Artie Bucco’s Nuovo Vesuvio restaurant makes me cook! Pasta! Tomatoes, onions, garlic, parmesan, wine! All done in the ad breaks.

Characters eating on film is a basic requirement for any audience. We have to see the characters eat or they do not seem to be alive. Film narratives are not real time, we only watch them in a linear order, start to finish. Audiences appreciate that days in the story are represented by minutes in the film. To help suspend this belief and engage the audience the characters need sustenance.

Take Paul Anderson’s “Shopping” (1994). Billy (Jude Law) and Jo (Sadie Frost ) are hardened joyriders who hardly seem to eat at all. Not even a biscuit. They might drink a cup of tea, but they take so long to make the brew that it is a totally unsatisfying experience for the audience. This leaves an uncomfortable feeling of ‘unreality’ in the tale. If they don’t eat, how can they be real?

In Sidney Lumet’s “The Offence” (1972) Detective-Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) interrogates crime suspect Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen). The film is dark and dramatic with many scenes taking place at night. Johnson walks with Baxter down a dimly lit street. They wear heavy coats and gloves and their breath condenses in the air to make the scene look cold and bleak. As they walk, Johnson asks Baxter for some of his food from a paper bag, Baxter refuses. They argue and Johnson ends with ‘Just give us one of your bloody chips!’ This is excellent stuff. The tough policeman walking beside the known criminal on a cold winter night. The smell of salt, vinegar and chips dirves him mad and his hunger gets the better of him. He expresses a feeling we all know and recognise, ‘give us a bloody chip!’

J. Lee Thompson’s ‘”Ice-Cold in Alex” (1958) stars John Mills as ‘dogged’ British officer Capt. Anson leading a group of army personnel on a long arduous trek over North African desert. After many dangerous encounters they arrive at a bar in Alexandria. Looking very thirsty, Anson sits down, orders a beer, drinks it down (in one) and breathes the line ‘Worth waiting for.’ His sense of thirst is palpable, and when he drinks the beer we can almost taste it. Now if Anson had spent the entire film travelling through the parched desert, arrived at a bar and passed on the beer, the film would have expired in a debilitated fizzle. The audience would have languished in a mood of ‘is that it?’

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994) Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) asks Brett (Frank Whaley) for a bite of his ‘tasty burger’ and a drink of his ‘beverage’. Jules enjoys the food as much due to his discriminating palate as for the fear his consuming behaviour instills in his ‘young friends’. Here, food is important. We know it is early morning and Jules has not eaten yet. He has work to do concerning his young friends but he is hungry. That bite of the burger and sip of the beverage keeps us going. He has eaten.

Martin Scorsese also includes some lavish dinner scenes in “The Age of Innocence” and “Gangs of New York”. These scenes are magnificent in their attention to detail and the generous range of food on the table. In Scorsese’s films, people really ‘experience’ the taste of good food. Even in “Goodfellas” (1990), Henry (Ray Liotta), Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) sit down to a delicious looking pasta meal after (almost) brutally murdering Billy Batts (Frank Vincent). They eat with Tommy’s mother (Catherine Scorsese) and they tuck in with relish! Afterwards, they finish Billy off on full stomachs and our stomachs heave at the blood and gore.

However, the most perfect film for depicting gustatory delight is Gabriel Axel’s “Babette’s Feast” (1987). Much of the film is taken up with one sumptuous dinner. Each course brings great joy to the diners and stimulates their taste buds with evocative memories of past experiences. The sheer brilliance of Babette’s food provokes joyful reminiscences in the diners, and satisfaction in the audience. Even the smallest of morsels both liquid and solid are given correspondingly rich visuals and textured audio.

So larger-than-life character Tony Soprano enjoys his food and I for one enjoy watching him eat. He eats the way he lives, greedily, without finesse, huddled over his plate, guarding it. Tony is overweight because life has been too good to him and he has never stopped ‘gorging’. The final episode of the final series ends in a restaurant with Tony again ready to eat. His taste buds have taken a hammering over the years. We have watched it happening. But we never lose interest because if there is one thing audiences appreciate, it’s the taste of, and satisfaction from eating (and watching others eat) good food.


July 2007