Hello, dear reader, and Happy Thanksgiving!
In honor of the holiday, I figured I’d do something a little different: A listicle! Please, hold your applause. I’d like to share with you my personal favorite moments in film either set at or around the dinner table, near food or, at the very least, the concept of food. This is by no means a definitive ranking of films, scenes, or anything like that. These are just five scenes I enjoy the hell out of, the movies they’re from, and why I think they’re *just* right.
So, reader, grab a turkey leg, undo that belt, and enjoy.
5) “The Last Supper” The History of the World: Part 1 (1981)
At this point in the film, noted “bullshit artist” Comicvs (pronounced comic-us) and his friends have escaped a Roman Legion, fled Rome, and are hiding out in “Judea.” Here, Comicvs takes up a meager job waiting tables. His first assignment? Taking orders during the last supper.
I’m an enormous fan of Mel Brooks. Though this scene is from one of his less-considered films, it remains a sterling example of the director’s signature comic stylings. The scene mirrors some of classic Monty Python in that one character, equal parts earnest and ignorant, becomes the immediate foil to another. In other words, when two people misunderstand each other, comedic gold ensues. Brooks’ conversation with Jesus of Nazareth is never not unbalanced. One wants to warn his disciples of an inevitable betrayal, the other wants to up-sell appetizers. Anachronistically, Da Vinci is placed right beside the group to paint the scene. It’s every bit as absurdly stupid as it sounds, but as Python‘s Eric Idle once said, stupid is funny.
4) “Big Kahuna Burger” Pulp Fiction (1994)
There’s a term in American Football for when one team is physically dominating another on the field. We call it “eating the other guy’s lunch.”
Samuel L. Jackson takes a big bite out of every scene in which he appears in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, and he stands there and chews that scenery every chance he gets.
This is a film with several food-centric scenes. Everyone remembers “a Royale with Cheese,” or, “I love you Honey-Bunny,” but my favorite scene has to be Samuel L. Jackson’s hit-man Jules’ lethal sermonizing after literally eating a guy’s food. We’re shown here, rather than told, that Jules is a force to be reckoned with – carrying with him the word of God (some form of it) and his great smiting-tool of a pistol. His presence is so suffocating to all those around him, that John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is relegated to the kitchen. We know who’s giving the orders here, who’s calling the shots.
Jules’ sarcastic “Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast” belies his ruthlessness for just a moment, though the audience is made aware of his intentions by his self-assured dedication to his monologue.
Tarantino has long been heralded as a master of dialogue, and with scenes like this it’s easy to understand why. At no point are we, the audience, allowed to think that these poor schmucks are going to finish their breakfast, or walk away with their lives (almost.) That the camera sits cowering behind the stuttering fool to whom the burger belongs is a carefully considered tool Tarantino uses to create Jules as a character. Following the events of the film, Jules finds himself in a very similar situation, but is still able to take command.
3) “Did you drink and dial?” Sideways (2004)
Alexander Payne’s films are studious, detail-rich, and full of inter-familial feuding and lying. Much like The Descendants, Sideways is about our ability to connect with one another, despite our many flaws or baser inclinations. At this point in the film, Paul Giamatti’s Miles and Thomas Hayden Church’s Jack are both road-tripping through California wine-country before Jack’s impending marriage. Miles is a down on his luck writer and English teacher, whereas Jack has had success acting in TV-spots and advertisement work. They both, however, suffer from the anxiety of having passed their primes. Miles hopes to derive some meaning from life by publishing a book, whereas Jack hopes to validate his virility by womanizing a bit before his wedding.
What makes this scene so significant, for me, is how wonderfully the characters of Miles and Jack are realized by just their on-screen chemistry and the stellar performances of all involved. Both Sandra Oh’s Stephanie and Virginia Madsen’s Maya are terrific as well.
The clip above only shows the latter half of the dinner scene, but Stephanie and Maya dine with Miles and Jack under the auspices that they are each single, and very much ready to mingle. Only, when Miles drinks, he slips deep into the insecurities bubbling beneath his surface, the very elements his character consists of. The dinner goes well, but with every sip of wine, the camera sneaks in and tilts and turns and eventually Jack is reprimanding Miles for being a terrible wing-man. The line, “did you drink and dial?” is wonderful, mainly due to the shameful look on Giamatti’s face.
This is a turning point in the film. One where Miles begins his journey toward self-actualization (albeit through Maya), and the enactment of the film’s central conflict – Jack’s womanizing and Miles’ covering for him. It’s funny, sad, and so deeply revealing of our characters. It’s one of many magnificent scenes in the film, and, thankfully, one that doesn’t shy away from the wine or the food.
2) “Dinner at Mom’s” Goodfellas (1990)
What Goodfellas get’s right is what The Godfather got right: Criminals have parents, too.
Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito is an unhinged maniac of a serial murderer in the film. He radiates violent energy from every cell in his body. So, what happens when he, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, and Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway all need to dispose of a body, but don’t have a shovel? Well, you ask your mother. Mama DeVito, played magnificently by director Martin Scorsese’s own mother, Catherine, offers not only a shovel, but a midnight feast of Italian cuisine. In a word? It’s hilarious. Not only because of how thoroughly it humanizes the most inhumane of the characters, but because the dialogue is largely unscripted. What’s better? Pesci and De Niro don’t hold a candle to this woman.
She’s a mother. She’s worried, she wonders why you never call, she has a pot of pasta in the fridge in case you stop by, and she wants to know when you’ll settle down and give her those grandchildren already. True to life, most of the men struggle to answer her in earnest.
In a film so full of life, in many forms, and edited with the type of frantic energy Scorsese applies to his best films (The Wolf of Wall Street, Raging Bull, The Departed), it’s refreshing to see a scene like this – a conversation in a room primarily shot from one angle – bisect the film. Before this scene, Henry and company are on the rise within Pauly’s criminal empire; afterwards? Not so much. It’s the perfect moment to pause, reflect, laugh, and wonder why Joe Pesci doesn’t know what deer-hooves are.
1) “Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey” The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppolla’s masterpiece. Yes, its sequel is incredible, and so is Apocalypse Now!, but nothing touches what may arguably be the greatest film ever made. Does it hold up in 2018? I’ll ask you, are we supposed to cheer for Michael? Or fear him? It’s an American movie about the corrupting ability of power – you’re god damned right it holds up today.
But this scene, the dinner between Michael, Sollozzo, and Captain McCluskey, is probably the best scene in the film. The Corleone’s have been attacked, their leadership in shambles, and Michael accepts a dinner invite from the attackers, under the guise of brokering a cease-fire.
There are so many great scenes at so many dinner-tables in The Godfather, but the whole point of the film – that Michael assumes an active role in his family’s criminal enterprise – is exemplified best by this single scene. The whole film the audience is shown what the Corleone family does, how they operate, and that Michael wants no part of it. He wants an honest, easy life. After a nearly-successful attempt on his father’s life? Yeah, not so much. This is an assassination mission. Retribution.
Al Pacino, ladies and gentlemen, before he was a standard of impressionists everywhere.
Coppolla, before he sucked.
The camera lingers on the three men as much as possible, moving only when it needs to. Discussions are had, food is ordered, and Michael is stalling. Then, the trip to the bathroom, the retrieval of the gun behind the toilet, and the long, slow push of the camera into Michael’s face as he agonizes over whether or not to kill for his family and betray the principles he swore to live by. The subway train screeches in the background, growing louder with the tension of the scene. And then? Gunshots. No music until after the deed is done.
Masterful stuff, people.
And there you have it! My top five favorite food-related scenes in film. What are yours? Let me know.
Go get some food, you animals.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this list. Expect more content like this in the future.
In the meantime, enjoy your Thanksgiving.
Until next time.