Food Films Get Eaten Alive by 'Feasting Our Eyes'
So we should watch more Super Size Me and less Babette’s Feast? C’mon.
Laura Lindenfeld and Fabio Parasecoli’s Feasting Our Eyes: Food Films and Cultural Identity in the United States is a completely perfect application of critical theories of citizenship to food studies, specifically in the insight of cultural studies as it applies to the medium of film. It’s also a major buzz kill, denying most of the value of the most canonical American food films of the past 30 years. I wanted to love this book so much and dug into it with as much enthusiasm as I did when viewing the films it dissects. The result was that I waded through 200 pages of clever statements of the obvious composed with robotically academic precision, to be filled with postmodern dread and a nihilistic lack of serious alternatives where once my love of these food films had been.
If you loved Big Night, Fried Green Tomatoes or Ratatouille or The Joy Luck Club, you will not love this book. Because you know what? The immigrants in Big Night are ultimately a romantic marketing scam. The lesbians in the original Fried Green Tomatoes book are watered down by the film studio until they’re barely feminists, let alone lovers. Ratatouille is basically porn and The Joy Luck Club is racist. Lindenfeld and Parasecoli move like a finely tuned wrecking ball through several dozen popular US films, reminding us of what we pretty much already know: that despite the purportedly liberatory aims of the messaging in these films, the imagery and plot resolutions of these films actually undercut our freedom.
Well, of course. Postmodernism excels at the slash and burn and these two authors are expert practitioners. But beyond the lesson than any art object can be deconstructed until we’ve achieved its joylessness is the parallel lesson that postmodernity eats itself alive in a hilarious form of infinite regress -- also know as academic rock bottom. So if this review seems to entirely miss Lindenfeld and Parasecoli’s insightful effort to move us forward into a media space where food films are more politically engaged with the real power structures embedded in the hospitality industry and industrialization as policers of appropriate American citizenship, my apologies for ruining the main point of their book as they have ruined the main point of some of my favorite movies.
With one finger on the pulse of intersectional identity politics at all times, the chapters nevertheless subdivide food films by demographic characteristics of the protagonists: immigrants, white women, women of color, men, animated animals, tourists of ethnicities. So two-thirds of the book discusses some relationship between gendered bodies and food work. The basic argument throughout is that these characters only achieve happiness by capitulating to American normativity, that their stories are exclusively those of assimilation, successes invalidated by certain sacrifices of their self-concept they made to get there -- and of course, an ever-present concluding sentence about how this movie has no people of color in it, or that one pays no attention to lower class concerns, or another movie glosses over how the food is supplied, et cetera.
Let’s bear in mind that although the label of “identity politics” has been around since the '70s, it didn’t come to fruition as a graduate school dissertation juggernaut until the early '90s. Lindenfeld and Parasecoli’s window of film consideration runs from about 1987 to present. They may as well go back and look at films from the '20s or '50s. Would you apply Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity to Sunset Boulevard? You certainly could, for the sheer academic amusement of it, but would you then go on to conclude that the film fails at its essential mission because it doesn’t present a nuanced view of a dozen other things outside the one thing on which it is indeed perhaps making some headway? No, you temper your conclusions about art objects that predate the advent of the theories you are applying to them, in part because incremental forward movement is better than none at all and in part because it's simply ridiculous to hold all of history to the momentarily most current standard available.
Any effort on the part of the authors to historicize their project would have been most welcome. What they provide instead is a considerably weak tea of self-congratulatory solutions -- also known as “thank you for problematizing”. The concluding chapter begins by attaching hope to the rise of documentary food films, effectively reifying the most odious myth of genre-based filmmaking: that fictional films have no foundation in objective reality and documentary films are not subjectively slanted. So we should watch more Super Size Me and less Babette’s Feast? C’mon. Their main suggestion is that “you can make deliberate choices about what you do and do not consume in terms of food and media” (217). Well, obviously. And then to what extent are Lindenfeld and Parasecoli to be held accountable for consuming all these examples of food films that reinforce hegemonic ideologies of citizenship? It's like carbon offsets, where as long as they produce a book that knocks down the worldview of these films, their original sin of consuming the films is forgiven.
I can poke dumb little holes like that all day, but the point is that Feasting Our Eyes made me quite crabby. On every page, you can feel Lindenfeld and Parasecoli finding joy in their modes of attack. They are skilled. They've no doubt won themselves a prime slot on everyone else's works cited page for at least the next decade. This is a textbook example of how to construct a doctoral writing project. They cite the top shelf secondary sources; they use transitions in crystal clear order; they provide ample and effective quotations to serve as evidence from each questionable scene; there are 16 pages of endnotes, 13 pages of bibliography and another 13 for an index. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with their argument or their execution of it -- except that it executes so many of my favorite movies.