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Redefining the food film: Spaghetti Breakfast
When food doesn't bring people together. Words and narration by Andrew Key; editing by Joel Blackledge
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts.
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The following newsletter is part of Vittles’s ‘Redefining the food film’ package, which looks at how food functions in different films and film genres.
You can watch the previous films in the series below:
Today’s film is by Andrew Key, on the times when dining tables don’t bring us together…
Film 2: Spaghetti Breakfast
Words and and narration by Andrew Key; editing by Joel Blackledge
We recommend that you watch the film above with the sound on. Subtitles can be turned on using YouTube’s caption settings. If you are unable to watch the film then we have published the text of the narration below.
A dining table brings people together: a vehicle for bonhomie, conviviality, love. But not always! As much as it’s a place of togetherness and belonging, the dining table can be a conduit for tension, hostility, aggression, resentment. Eating is an intimate act, and doing it with other people is not always pleasant. Watching and hearing other people eat can be infuriating – just see Phantom Thread, in which Reynolds Woodcock grimaces with barely suppressed rage as his wife Alma emits a series of contented mouth-sounds over breakfast.
Because of this, dining tables are extremely useful cinematic props. Shooting a scene around a table at which a meal is taking place gives the film-maker a chance to bring an ensemble together, providing an opportunity to map out and develop the lines of tension running between various characters. Here, the shared meal can be a site of ill will: an opportunity to express grievances, to criticise, to attack; it can be accompanied by awkward, stilted conversation, morose chewing under a cloud of silence, the air humming with tedium, anxiety, the chafe of obligation.
A dining table is at the heart of A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes’s 1974 film about the sometimes-intolerable pressures of family life. In a pivotal scene, construction worker Nick Longhetti (played by Peter Falk), comes home one morning. He’s been out all night on a double shift, fixing a burst water main. Because of this emergency, he’s stood up his wife Mabel (played by Gena Rowlands), who had sent their three children to her mother’s house for an evening so she and her husband could spend some time together.
Nick and Mabel’s house is crammed. The two adults sleep on a fold-out bed in the dining room; one of the doors leading out of this room has a sign reading ‘PRIVATE’, letting us know just how little privacy they have. Nick arrives home accompanied by his work crew, who slowly realise that they’re intruding on a complicated situation. The previous night, Mabel, feeling abandoned, went out, got drunk, and brought a stranger back to the house; in the morning, she seems not to recognise that this man is not her husband. He’s gone; she’s on edge. Still, she does what’s asked of her when Nick returns: she cooks. What do you cook first thing in the morning for your husband and eight other men – his friends and colleagues – who have been working all night? An enormous pot of spaghetti with tomato sauce, served with red wine and bread.
The meal does not go well. None of the guests know what to say, or how to respond to Mabel, who is too much for them. She sits at the head of the table, the PRIVATE sign above her head, and one by one she says hello to the men, who are reticent and awkward. She starts flirting with one man, Billy, who becomes visibly uncomfortable, before Nick shouts at her and there’s an eruption of violence. The meal, already ruined, comes to an end with a phone call from Nick’s mother, neurotically concerned about her health. His crew file out uncomfortably, with looks of relief.
During the meal, we never get a master shot of the whole table – nothing that shows a shared experience. Instead, the camerawork reiterates how fractured and isolated the characters are. It’s not always easy to know who’s speaking. People talk over each other; they speak when they’re out of shot, interrupting the flow of the scene; the camera frames the side of someone’s head too closely. Shots are interrupted by people leaning forward, or by hands reaching across the table to grab cutlery, wine glasses, bread. The camerawork and editing create an atmosphere of tension and disruption, at the same time as they recreate the chaos of a large shared meal – its mix of cheerfulness and neurotic tension.
Cassavetes took three days to get this scene right. It was rehearsed repeatedly, first without the spaghetti, and then about thirty times with it. The film’s producer was in the kitchen simmering batch after batch of sauce. (Cassavetes obtained 110 boxes of pasta from a manufacturer with a promise that he’d show the packaging in the film, and then reneged on it.) At first, the men, many of whom were not professional actors, were acting too likeable: trying to be charming, good guests, telling stories or jokes; trying to make the meal a success. Cassavetes did not want the meal to be a success: he wanted his actors to allow their real personalities to show. The scene has the uncomfortable air of improvisation but it was tightly honed and practised.
Later in the film, there’s another devastating scene around the same table. After some erratic behaviour, Mabel is committed to an institution; she comes home, burnt out, only to find that Nick has organised a party for her, then cancelled it and sent everyone home last-minute, except the immediate family. They all sit down around the same table at which the spaghetti breakfast took place. This time Nick and Mabel sit next to each other, opposite everyone else. Someone brings food in from the kitchen but nobody eats. This meal is also a failure.
These scenes are painful to watch because they explore the deep loneliness that comes from the inability to truly connect with your loved ones. That the dining table is in the room in which Nick and Mabel sleep and have sex makes the loneliness even sharper. Nick loves Mabel, but he doesn’t understand her; she’s too much for him, too strange. He wants her to be the kind of woman who happily cooks spaghetti for ten first thing in the morning, to be the kind of woman who can make that experience fun, spontaneous, but without getting too involved in it.
And so, the dinner table becomes a site of failure, a place of hurt. Mabel sits facing her husband, his friends, their family, and is confronted by the inescapable fact that she’s not right for them, that they want her to be someone she isn’t. In the end, Nick and Mabel are stuck; kept together by the intensity of their love, but separated by the insurmountable distance between them: an abyss the length of a dining table.
Andrew Key is a writer living in Sheffield. He is the author of a novel, Ross Hall (Grand Iota, 2022) and his essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Parapraxis, LA Review of Books, and The Point, among others. He writes a Substack, Roland Barfs Film Diary (rolandbarfs.substack.com).
Joel Blackledge is a writer and filmmaker based in the West Midlands. His video series Feast Your Eyes explores how films tell stories with and about food. His writing has been published and produced by Novara Media, Little White Lies, BBC Radio, the Oslo Architecture Triennale, [in]Transition and Liars' League. Find him on Instagram at @dam.fino
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson, and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.