Food is a rich cultural signifier and storytelling device, both ripe for fetishization and so familiar that we often overlook its cinematic affect. In Feast for the Eyes, we chart the gastronomic iconography of the screen, move forward from simple fantasies of edibility, and ponder instead the depths of narrative, character and theme that a simple pastry can encode between its buttery layers. From Chocolat to Chef (see this menu explication from Roy Choi himself), from Tarantino to Miyazaki, from The Trip to, well, The Trip to Italy… you’ll never watch a dinner table scene in the same way again.
It’s impossible not to include Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress in a discussion of cinematic food. In fact, the problem with Waitress is that it’s too suited to our purposes. With a protagonist who processes her emotions by baking pies named for her moods, the tongue-in-cheek distillation of narrative, character and theme into digestible pieces is the movie’s central trope. There’s nothing to explicate; it’s splashed all over the diner’s chalkboard menu, as if Sylvia Plath had taken up oven mitt and rolling pin instead of pen.
Luckily, the trick is as charming as Keri Russell’s performance as Jenna, the Louisiana pie wizard-come-diner waitress who finds herself inconveniently knocked up (by her husband Earl, of all people) at the film’s opening. (This news comes right after a pie-making title sequence that ends with a shot of Jenna lovingly placing a fresh pie tin in an oven.) Jenna’s invented recipes, shot from overhead in rich golden light, are lively, breezy and droll – despite their generous doses of resentment, self-doubt and grumbling resignation.
Take a look at the display for a grasp of major plot points:
I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby/Bad Baby Pie: “A quiche with brie cheese, egg and a smoked ham center.”
I Hate My Husband Pie: “You take bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel.”
Baby Screaming its Head off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining my Life Pie: “New York-style cheesecake, brandy-brushed, with pecans and nutmeg.”
Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair Pie: “You smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust.”
I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie: “Vanilla custard and banana. …Hold the banana.”
Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie: “Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed-in. Flambé, of course.”
(All sound and look delicious, though it’s I Hate My Husband Pie for my money.)
In premise, at least, Waitress and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child are two sides of the old motherhood-complicates-female-creativity coin (in Obvious Child, Donna’s stand-up comedy is inspired by tumultuous life events). “I don’t need no baby. I don’t want no trouble. I just want to make pies. That’s all I want to do: make pies,” says Jenna right after the telling pie-in-the-oven image of the opening sequence. Baking, so associated with femininity, often becomes cinematic shorthand for a wholesome, nourishing maternity. With its undertones of fertile creativity, it lets Jenna be acceptably womanly despite her immediate aversion to actually being a mother (a displacement made even stronger when Jenna reveals that it was her own mother that taught her to make pies).
Waitress‘ gender politics and plot venture in an opposite, far more conservative direction from this summer’s hit abortion comedy—Jenna loathes guy but keeps baby; Donna likes guy but loses baby. In a film that doesn’t even allow its protagonist to seriously consider the possibility of abortion (right from the start she deems it out of the question), Jenna’s baking rescues her back into the comfortable folds of conventional audience likability.
For the most part, Waitress is happy to paint broad strokes with its humor and fairy-tale story beats (some of Jenna’s latter creations reflect that, with filling so neon as to be pretty unappetizing. Maybe she should’ve held back a little on the coloring). Husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto), is stupid, crude and violent, so blatantly abhorrent that he starts honking from blocks away when he picks Jenna up. He jealously refuses to let Jenna pursue her baking ambitions, and, worse, doesn’t seem to even register her talent (“Your pies ain’t bad” is his only opinion on the subject). It’s unbelievable that Jenna would have stayed with him as long as she has. But lest we yield to temptation and write him off as an absolute villain, Shelley’s script tosses in a tiny pinch of sympathy for the character.
Fittingly, it takes the form of food imagery. In bed one night, after unsuccessfully cajoling his pregnant wife for sex, Earl turns on his back to go to sleep, saying (in the blithely complacent tone Sisto employs throughout the film), “I love you, baby. I don’t care if you’re fat. You’re my sweet thing.”
Jenna turns away with an expression of consternation. She’s surprised at the unusually affectionate sentiment, sympathetic toward the brute, and guilty. She has a (literal) sweet thing in her life, too—pies. It’s something that she knows she is good at, no matter how much her personal situation goes to hell; if her pie-making was taken away from her, she’d have absolutely nothing. Earl’s sweet thing, on the other hand, is Jenna herself—to the point of derangement. He is as obsessive over his wife (her whereabouts, the degree of her affections) as she is about pies. And while he displays glimmers of recognition of just how far from his illusions Jenna’s feelings have fallen (“Tell me you was going to surprise me,” he begs her when he discovers the money she’s been hoarding for her planned escape), he nevertheless remains happy to stew in his own misogynistic nuptial fantasies. If Jenna was taken away from Earl, he’d have absolutely nothing—but running away from him is precisely what she plans to do.
By drawing these parallels between the two characters, the “sweet thing” line makes Earl’s monstrosity—his dangerous appetite for psychological confection, an energy that can curdle into sickness—a little sympathetic, while it explains the burden Jenna can’t bring herself to give up. That’s a fair amount of flavor packed into such a little bite. MM
Screenshots taken by MovieMaker.
Previous Feast for the Eyes installments:
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