Putting You Off Your Grub
John North Radway
Posted on November 24th, 2012
You probably don’t want to read this article. Publication has been considerately withheld until after Thanksgiving, presumably so that neither our editor nor I are held responsible for spoiling anyone’s gleaming turkey, perfectly candied yams, or goblets of rose red Beaujolais. In fact, wipe that image from your head entirely. You don’t want to associate it with any of the following. And if you’ve eaten in the last hour, or plan to eat in the next day, you might want to stop reading now.
I’m not here to talk about the heartwarming bites at the end of “Ratatouille” (the stuff of dreams), the five-dollar milkshake in “Pulp Fiction” (it was worth it), the two dozen pies from “Waitress” (that’s an estimate), or anything the camera touches in “Big Night” (watch it if you haven’t seen it—then weep). The movies want to make us salivate, and attractive food, seductive food, delicious food, is as sure a trick as any. But sometimes the movies decide we’ve salivated enough, and they’d rather see us clutch our guts, double over in our stadium seats, and turn away from our popcorn with a silent vow never to open our mouths again.
Let me start by hitting close to home. (’Tis the season.) Think back to your recent Thanksgiving dinner. Were there various tempting dishes set out on a table? Fruits, stews, nuts, perhaps a large roast bird? Hold that image in your head. Cherish it. Now imagine a long and greasy haired old man in a ragged fur robe sitting by himself and eating it all—with his bare hands. You can almost smell the basting juices, and you suspect that they are indistinguishable from Lord Denethor’s body odor. Peter Jackson outdid himself in this scene from “The Return of the King” (2003) and undid many dinner-and-a-movie evenings for moviegoers worldwide. The sound of lips moistly smacking is captured in excruciating detail, and the whole sequence is crowned by a close-up of a mouth and chin dripping with brownish juices that resemble a mélange of chocolate pudding and chewing tobacco.
I am inordinately fond of fried eggs, but I have the movies to blame if I ever shy away from ordering them in an English diner. “Withnail and I” (1987) features the most horrifying eggs ever captured on film. Visible only for one blessedly brief close-up, they bob limply in a skillet, riding a gentle swell of oil the color of Lord Denethor’s toenails. Their yolks are an unhealthy shade of yellow and their whites are anything but white. I have tried against my better judgment to imagine the physical sensation of eating them. I can only suspect it would feel like allowing an enormous half-spoiled oyster to slide down my throat on a moist luge of gear oil. But before you judge our heroes too harshly, remember they only went to the diner because of several large rodents living among their sinkful of dirty dishes. You would do the same. Wouldn’t you? (Our heroes later invade an upscale tearoom while impressively sloshed, demanding cake and “the finest wines available to humanity”. They receive nothing of the sort. Redemption isn’t easy.)
Since we’re on about eggs, you might already be thinking about “Cool Hand Luke” (1967). Yes, he can eat 50 eggs, and we’ll never forget watching him boast, and try, and inexplicably succeed. But admit it—you’ve conveniently forgotten some of the details, haven’t you? This is one of the more convincing instances of nausea-acting ever captured on film. I am ignorant of what cinematic magic was used to distend Paul Newman’s gut to the size and shape of a small basketball, but the sight of it, swollen, round, tense enough to pop from a pinprick, makes me lose interest in eating anything other than iceberg lettuce ever again. Eventually his jaw won’t even move on its own, and you can feel the near impossibility of swallowing, the complete and agonizing rebellion of a body pushed beyond its limits. In the climactic moment of the scene, Luke doesn’t vomit—but I wonder how many viewers have. Not a good film for Thanksgiving night.
And if I haven’t spoiled you holiday season yet, let me show you one shadow more. Imagine you live in an apocalyptically industrialized urban nightmare dreamscape where steam pipes spew filth into every grimy alley and hideously disfigured women dance inside radiators. (Got that?) Your ex-girlfriend invites you over to her parents’ house for dinner, and when you get there her father tells you what’s on the menu: “We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things, they’re man-made. Little damn things, smaller than my fist. But they’re new.” If there’s one lesson to learn from “Eraserhead” (1977), it’s this: if someone offers you the privilege of carving an uncanny artificial chicken, you say no. (Politely.) Because as soon as you touch that chicken with the carving fork, it will start writhing on its platter, agonized, twisting its legs pitifully in midair while dark fluids ooze from its cavity. Is it blood, sewage, or your grandmother’s gravy recipe? The sounds of dry creaking and wet gurgling make the scene hard to forget, and I for one know that when some aunt or uncle pulls the turkey from the oven this Thanksgiving, a small part of me will wonder if it’s about to start twitching.