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 seek to 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, 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.
Last weekend’s release of Magic in the Moonlight prompted us to revisit Woody Allen’s undisputed masterpiece, Annie Hall, to chew on the centrality of food in the film, paying special attention to characters of the uncooked shellfish variety.
Alvy’s glasses. Annie’s tie. These iconic images connote two of Hollywood’s most beloved mental cases to ever lead a romantic comedy. Annie Hall boasts so many memorable moments—Marshall McLuhan’s appearance at the movie theater, Christopher Walken’s monologue (and the payoff in the car), Alvy sneezing into the $2,000-per-ounce cocaine—that the omnipresence of food is often overlooked. Yet it’s food that consistently colors the film’s characters and settings.
Allen draws his acerbic character sketches with a gastronomical eye. We watch a young Alvy Singer eat tomato soup with his teeth, his hand shaking with anxiety as the Coney Island roller coaster careens over his roof. The half-eaten sandwich that Alvy finds lodged between the seats of Annie Hall’s gold Volkswagen convertible reveals her messy, scatterbrained charm. Alvy orders “alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast” at an outdoor café in the City of New-Age-y Angels. On a previous trip to L.A., Alvy’s (ostensibly) acute nausea allows him to wriggle out of a television appearance, at which point he is suddenly able to stomach a plate of cold chicken. “Can I have the salt, please?” he asks, as Annie and the doctor discuss taking him to the hospital.
Food also functions as a marker of origins. The very un-kosher “dynamite ham” on offer at the Hall family Easter table contrasts perfectly with the Singers’ brash Brooklyn brisket, shown in split-screen. The Halls’ silent, polite hostility throws into relief the Singers’ dynamism and warmth, despite their yelling. One of my favorite food moments occurs at the deli where Alvy and Annie go on their first date. Alvy orders the corned beef while Annie opts for “pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise and tomatoes and lettuce.” To twist Annie’s words, she’s what Bubbe Singer would call a real shiksa.
But those are just some appetizers. To really unearth the function of food as character in Annie Hall, we must consider the lobster.
The lobster scene, for me, distills everything that’s wonderful about Annie Hall into one little—seemingly frivolous—bite. Alvy and Annie are trying to cook lobsters in their kitchen, but the creatures, having burst from their brown paper bag, are all over the floor, and the humans are in a panic (“Dial 911, it’s the lobster squad,” whines Alvy). Alvy is like the lobster he spots running blindly behind the refrigerator when faced with hot water—childish and wimpy (“They’re only baby ones!” says Annie).
Annie, however, gets over her initial squeamishness and picks up a lobster, dangling it hopelessly and tauntingly in front of Alvy’s nose, daring him to grab it. He does, but he can hold on for only one fleeting moment as Annie snaps a photo, before dropping it into the pot. That shot ultimately memorializes him on Annie’s wall—we see several large lobster photos behind Alvy when he comes over to kill the “spider the size of a Buick.” Alvy and Annie’s relationship, once developed, fizzles out—the meal’s over—but remains ideally fixed in art.
The lobster scene, a cinematic touchstone, is convincing in its simplicity and silliness: a totally simpatico couple at the peak of their affection. The lobster scene is a paradigmatic example of showing rather than telling, as it speaks to what is impossible to articulate. “I lurve you, I luff you,” Alvy tries, when “love” doesn’t say enough. He tells Annie after they have sex that it was the most fun he’s ever had without laughing; the lobster scene captures the most fun anyone’s ever had with lobsters without eating.
But alas, the pot is constantly threatening to boil over. It is the second lobster episode, sans Annie, that brilliantly elucidates why Annie and Alvy’s relationship was both destiny and destined to fail.
After he and Annie break up, Alvy tries to create lobster mayhem with another woman, but she won’t have it: “They’re only lobsters,” she says dismissively, taking a languid drag of her cigarette. She doesn’t even get his joke about feeling out of sorts since he quit smoking 16 years ago. She’s just a normal person—a drag. So what did Annie have that the other girl doesn’t?
Annie Hall is often mislabeled as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That folklore dictates that a young man gets stuck in a rut and the Manic Pixie’s sole function is to give him back his joie de vivre—usually by having really short hair and being oh-so-spontaneous. In light of the recent retraction by Nathan Rabin of his now-ubiquitous phrase, I couldn’t help but re-watch the film with the MPDG traits in mind. Rabin believes that his 2007 critique of the archetype may have, ironically, contributed to its dominance; the Manic Pixie became a Frankenstein Monster as she was subsumed into the “Internet feedback loop.”
In his piece, Rabin name-checks Annie Hall as a false Manic Pixie, and I couldn’t agree more. Sure, Diane Keaton is quirky and beautiful, but an MPDG indictment hinges as much on the co-star as it does on the female lead. The essence of a MPDG, as defined, is the impossibly monumental effect she has on a man. Annie may be manic, but part of the point is that she has no revolutionary effect on Alvy. “I think that if you let me, maybe I could help you have more fun,” she tells him after their first reunion. Well, he doesn’t let her. Alvy’s existential crisis is life-long, and no amount of “la-di-das” could ever bring him out of it. (“The universe is expanding,” after all.)
And yet, he tells Annie: “There’s just something different about you. I don’t know what it is but it’s great.” That “it” is not trite or condescending. The unknown “it” is love.
In fact, I think that we’ve got it reversed: Alvy functions as Annie’s own Manic Pixie Nightmare. He brings her out of her (lobster) shell, and encourages her to sing and to go back to school. He tells her that she’s lucky he came along. Then, of course, he spews misanthropy and pessimism at her: “Life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable.” Luckily, she is as capable of emotional growth as she is of picking lobsters up barehanded; she doesn’t try in empty desperation to repeat the past.
The contrasting lobster scenes illustrate that Annie and Alvy get along because they’re both delightfully insane; everyone else is a huge bore because they aren’t. “You’re a grown man, you know how to pick up a lobster,” says Alvy’s unnamed second lobster date. No, he isn’t; no, he doesn’t. A “grown man” would see nothing in the lobster but his dinner, and palm one easily; Alvy is intimidated, agitated, and enthralled by his lobster—and so he can’t hold onto it (her). These miserable Manic Pixies were perfect for each other, and destroyed each other with their neuroses. It was fun while it lasted, but at the end of the film, as we watch Annie and Alvy finally part ways after a friendly lunch, it’s clear that they’ve both escaped a steamy demise.
Alvy opens Annie Hall with an old bit about two elderly women complaining on vacation: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” says one, and the other replies, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions!” It’s how Alvy feels about life, and it’s how I feel about his relationship with Annie. These lobsters are crazy, and their story is over much too quickly. MM
Screenshots taken by MovieMaker.
Check out these previous installments of Feast for the Eyes:
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