Eating has become more and more difficult in the 21st century. Food isn't always the wondrous, romantic thing depicted in most movies. Recently we have learned about MSG, GMOs, polyunsaturated fats, trans-fats and the presence of the horrid "high fructose corn syrup" in just about everything. (It's in bread. Bread!) Sales of organic foods have increased drastically, and everyone has become an ingredient-reader and an amateur foodie. Now multiply this by about fifteen and you've got Thanksgiving dinner. Who's a vegetarian? Who's a vegan? Who's on the Atkins diet? Does putting the stuffing inside the turkey actually make it poisonous? Were those slivered almonds made on machinery that also processed peanuts? Who's allergic? What's the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? To get yourself prepared, I've assembled a chronological list of food cautionary tales, or hard culinary lessons learned.
Soylent Green (1973)
Is there anyone out there who doesn't yet know the secret component of everyone's favorite future foodstuff? If not, watching this film, directed by Richard Fleischer, will make you want to read the ingredients more often.
The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
The key scene in Luis Bunuel's film takes place at a dinner party. Guests gather around the table, pull down their pants and sit on toilets. They talk, rifle through magazines and otherwise engage in casual conversation. One guest rises, politely excuses himself and shyly asks for the dining room. Once inside, he shuts the door and begins eating. That's really funny, and in the joke, Bunuel asks why we perform one bodily function with great dignity in public and another with shame in private. As humans, our beliefs and behavior are utterly arbitrary. Try not to think about that at the dinner table.
Monty Python and the Meaning of Life (1983)
I'm pretty sure I never laughed harder in my life than I did when I saw Terry Jones play Mr. Creosote, the oversized fellow who orders a giant meal, consumes the entire thing in a horrifying fashion, and then turns down the offer of an after-dinner mint. The waiter persists: "it's wafer thin." Mr. Creosote agrees and begins throwing up like nobody's ever thrown up before. At one point, a cleaning woman is down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor, and he's puking on her back. Second runner-up: the pie-eating contest in Stand by Me (1986).
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990)
Helen Mirren stars as the wife of a monstrous connoisseur (Michael Gambon) that holds court every night at a Bedlam-like restaurant. Her affair with another patron leads to all kinds of bizarre gastronomical retribution. There's a lot going on in this colorful, unforgettable Peter Greenaway hit, but the one that haunts me places two naked people in the back of a truck filled with rotting meat and maggots. And that disgusting dish is among the few items that don't get consumed in this everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience.
28 Days Later (2002) Super Size Me(2004) Fast Food Nation (2006)
Aside from the opening, my favorite scene: our zombie hunters enter an abandoned shop for supplies. Most of the fruit and vegetables have long since withered, but there remains one full bin of bright, shining red apples (visually enhanced by director Danny Boyle's cruddy-looking digital cinematography). Brendan Gleeson regards them and responds: "Mmmmmm... irradiated." What does that mean exactly? Is it more, or less, dangerous than the zombies?
Morgan Spurlock's documentary was criticized for being gimmicky, but watching him "get high" from a McDonald's burger and then hurl from withdrawals was enough to make me give up fast food for good. That's effective propaganda. For further information, see the recent King Corn, all about high fructose corn syrup and the horrible, pasty, yellow stuff fed to cattle.
Most critics complained that it was too preachy, and they may have been right, but I thought Richard Linklater's lackadaisical signature style came in to save the day. Not to mention that it's funnier than it has any right to be: Bruce Willis's segment -- in which he eats a burger, drinks a beer and talks about the stuff that gets into the burger -- should have earned him an Oscar nomination. Regardless, it's based on Eric Schlosser's non-fiction book, so some of the scary, gross stuff in here is at least partly true.
Super Size Me(2004) Fast Food Nation (2006)
Fast Food Nation (2006)