Tag Archives: Movies

Edible Ekphrasis

babette's feastLast week, I had the pleasure of watching the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast is set in a small village in the nineteenth century, focusing on two sisters in a strict pseudo-Puritan sect and their French cook Babette, whom they took in as an act of charity after she fled violence in France (as we all do from time to time). Her mastery of French cuisine contrasts the bland, simple food the sisters eat. Babette eventually inherits 10,000 francs, and decides to cook an elaborate, “real” French dinner for the churchgoers, who wrinkle their noses at the appearance of her imported ingredients (live quails, a turtle, various wines and champagnes), vowing not to mention the quality of the food to maintain their piety. Their decision to refrain from commenting on the food becomes more and more difficult as they eat, and the wine certainly complicates things, too.

It was one of the two last films that I watched on a Sunday night tradition that has become known as Single Guy Movie Night, hosted by a kind and brilliant PhD student and attended by myself and a fellow second-year MA student (and sometimes a married honorary single guy when he’s available). Since August, I have enjoyed our host’s meals and taste in movies, and he has occasionally tolerated the movie tastes of his guests.

This last year, I have watched more films on Sunday nights than I can remember: The 400 Blows, Road Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road, Moonlight, Elizabeth, Halloween, Carrie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Rogue One, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Spartacus, ParaNorman, The VVitch, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among many others. It was fitting, I think, to end with a soft film about food, and perhaps the best film about food I have seen.

There is a small canon of food films. Ratatouille remains my favorite Pixar film, and I enjoyed Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 Big Night, about Italian cooking. Jon Favreau’s Chef belongs in this canon, and though it is about many other, disturbing and beautiful things, Peter Greenway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover is a fantastic movie centered around the act of eating/consumption.

These movies are ekphrastic, in that they are about other forms of art. Most ekphrastic storytelling tends to be about painting or music. Putting the focus on food, and therefore taste, forces the audience to think about their own taste. The visual emphasis is on preparation, ingredients, cooking, and of course eating, a meta-narrativized mirroring of what audiences do when they watch movies, not literally eating the film but taking it in, enjoying its flavors, the blend of sweet or savory scenes, bitter or vibrant dialogue. As such, these films subtly ask their audience to reckon with the art they consume, the difference between taste and appetite, the difference between taste and quality, and do so in ways that invite variation. There is plenty to choose from on the menu; what will you watch tonight?

Babette’s Feast is different. At the forefront is gentleness. Rather than for competition or financial success, the film’s protagonist chef wants to give her patrons a free, perfect meal to show her gratitude. Her patrons, again contrasting from most food films, want to lower their expectations and resist enjoying the meal. The climax is the feast, but the pleasure of this long, drawn-out scene is watching the characters resist their own pleasure, and in subtle ways fail. The audience gets to see them lose, which means for them enjoying wonderful food. Babette brings them to their satisfaction by what she offers on the plate, giving them permission to enjoy life.

I prefer gentle movies, and that is a matter of taste. I like atmosphere, music, scenery, and subtle character developments that are easy to miss. But this is taste, and I give myself permission to enjoy everything on the menu. Life is short, and if I stuck to the same kind of movie, I’d miss out on the dozens of excellent movies I’ve had the gift of watching this past year with friends. It is too late to prepare a real French dinner for them to show my thanks. This has been an obscenely difficult and unpredictable academic year that left me paranoid, disillusioned, and feeling far from gentle. Babette’s Feast reminds me I am allowed to enjoy what I consume, whatever it is, and there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in things, in as many things as possible.

The year is over for me. What comes next is new and uncertain, but I would prefer to go into it with an expanded pallet and the energy to enjoy generously.


Genre, Nostalgia, and The Love Witch

I don’t normally do film reviews/analysis on this blog, but a recent viewing of The Love Witch with its “aggressive strangeness,” as a friend described it, warrants a a closer look.

witchAnna Biller’s 2016 The Love Witch begins as a parody of late 1960s/early ’70s sci-fi/fantasy sexploitation B movies such as Barbarella (1968) and A Touch of Satan (1971). Biller’s film establishes a concrete cinematic nostalgia that it then goes to great lengths to critique.

Spoilers and such: The main character, Elaine, is a witch utilizing her witchiness to seduce men in her supposedly endless search for love. After having killed her husband, Elaine quickly finds a new partner (Wayne) and uses her excessive witchitudes to convince him to take her to his getaway cabin. There, she gives him a “potion,” which causes him to “feel love” too intensely and die. (Audiences can recognize that taking beverages from strangers is also a possible way to die). Elaine attributes Wayne’s death to men being unable to cope with their emotions, and moves on from there, as we all should when someone feels emotions to death.

When Elaine finds  Griff, “the right one,” the film has veered from its established genre, becoming at different points a Hallmark romcom and a buddy cop drama. Disappointed that he fails to feel love for her (and also happens to be the cop who finds that she is guilty of “loving” people to death), Elaine stabs Griff in the chest. The film ends with a disturbingly quiet fantasy of Elaine marrying Griff in a Renaissance setting, interrupting the campy tone and ending with a serious meditation on the consequence’s of the film’s own logic.

The Love Witch exploits viewers’ nostalgia for a unique cultural moment that existed only after the emergence of birth control and before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, an era that felt like it was going places and might have were it not for the sudden death of hope that came with Reagan and the moral majority.

Elaine’s treatment of men is cynical and essentialist, and the film’s male characters buy into it just as much as she does. Audiences are meant to see her views as a product of her frustration with social expectations for happiness and monogamy, and she turns to witchliness to prevent further disappointment. Witchcraft here functions as a cult-like ideology: Elaine seeks improvement in relationships and cedes her agency to something beyond her (a program/product/cult), but as a result of that program/product/cult, she only ends up killing people (which, to no surprise, ends up hurting her relationships). Witchcraft is a stand-in for any commodified, pre-packaged self-help ideology, such as Sedona’s vortexes, Scientology, or the books of Rob Bell (all of which, I’m sure, have resulted in someone’s death).

Marriage appears most colorfully in a scene at a Renaissance fair, pulling back the curtain on Elaine’s personal investment in the program/product/cult. Elaine, like many Americans, is drawn to witchcraft simply for the nostalgia of a pre-globalized Europe, one without the intrusion of Christianity but all the aesthetics of a Pagan religion without the human sacrifice and patriarchy. All the fun without the historicity. Tolkien made even whiter and somehow less sexy. Halloween ruined by Medieval and Renaissance Studies majors. The list goes on. The film critiques the audience for participating in nostalgia for a style it portrays as commodified, pre-packaged, and self-consuming.

The Love Witch dissects the way many Americans imagine the sexual revolution, which existed between two periods of extreme repression, the 1950s and 1980s, and captures the strangeness of that moment of hope while simultaneously undermining it just as violently as it was subverted historically.

The film’s generic experimentation acts as a mechanism exploiting viewers’ nostalgia. The Love Witch tricks audiences the way time and politics often do, by taking its viewers on a trip they never signed up for but feel unable to step out of, forcing them to walk away with questions and pretentious blog post ideas about witch hunts and the 1970s or something.