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Redefining the food film: Food and childhood
Film 5: Unruly Appetites. Words, narration and 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:
Film 1: A Glass of Orange Juice In Palestine, by N.A. Mansour
Film 2: Spaghetti Breakfast, by Andrew Key
Film 3: Imagined Food Futures, by Chris Fite-Wassilak
Film 4: Disconnection meals in Buenos Aires, by Kevin Vaughn
Today’s film, the last film in the series, is by Joel Blackledge, on how food is often used in films to teach children the rules of adult society, and as a tool of punishment, but how unruly appetites often win out.
Film 5: Unruly Appetites
Words, narration and editing by Joel Blackledge
It’s an adult’s task to teach the rules of society to children. The role of the child is to learn or, more commonly, to rebel against those rules. A great way to tell this story is with food. Dinner tables are classrooms and mealtimes are lessons. Don’t eat too much; finish your vegetables; don’t play with your food – in fact, don’t have too much fun at all. The rules of what, when, where and how to eat underpin polite society. It’s in eating that children learn to behave like adults, or learn why they shouldn’t.
A family meal being equal does not always make it fair. But it can be difficult to keep a fair justice system from the kitchen. Spike Lee wrote Crooklyn with his siblings, based on their memories of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. In one scene, middle child Nate isn’t allowed to leave the table until he finishes his black-eyed peas – which he just can’t bring himself to do. His mother holds her ground, but the united front is undermined by his father. It’s one of many everyday negotiations in the film, and shows the difficulty of pleasing many mouths with one recipe. Fairness is dealt a further blow when the dog steals a slice of cake, and the difference comes out of Nate’s share. There’s a difference between fairness and equality – ultimately, some people just don’t like peas.
A childish appetite can be wild and insatiable. For the adults who usually provide the food, their children’s hunger is a source of annoyance, exasperation and even fear. For a child to grow up means to control that appetite, to tame the wild beast, so they can live peaceably with others.
Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is a fantasy set in the marchlands between innocence and experience. When Chihiro and her parents find an abandoned food stall stuffed with hot delicacies, it’s the adults who surrender to their appetites. This being a fairy tale, they are punished for their gluttony: a familiar cautionary tale. Eating as pure delight, without obligation or responsibility, is not the correct way to behave; coming of age means learning that there can be too much of a good thing.
Pinocchio learns this lesson on Pleasure Island, where he ignores the wisdom of his conscience and indulges in pie and ice cream, which in the film is equated with violence, tobacco, alcohol and… pool. His transformation into a donkey is a story to tell little boys who won’t eat their vegetables – a large appetite is a sin, and one that makes you less than human.
Now alone in a strange land, Chihiro has to grow up fast, so she starts working in a magical bath house. Like many Miyazaki films, Spirited Away is an ode to compromise, responsibility and the satisfaction of a job well done. Chihiro finds meaning in her work, and in the food around her. This is not just about eating, but taking the parental role of feeding others as well.
The ghostly demon No-Face has a bottomless appetite and will reward any food with mounds of gold. While the other workers rush to pile up the impossible banquet and cash in, Chihiro only offers No-Face a balm to soothe his hunger. She feeds to keep the bath house peaceful and just.
But, sometimes, when food is used as a tool of discipline, it doesn’t work out as planned.
Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro is another fantasy about a ten-year-old girl coming of age. Ofelia is warned not to eat any food from the table of the terrifying Pale Man. So when she eats a grape, this is not a plot hole, but a simple and righteous decision on her part. In the supposedly responsible adult world, Spain is suffering a crippling famine under a fascist government. Maintaining the privilege of childish independence, Ofelia dares to take from someone who has more than his fair share.
Many children are taught to hate and fear their own appetites, and to discard their uninhibited pleasure in food as a sign of maturity. But the law creates its own transgression, just as limitations create excess. These stories of children exist in that tension between rules and rule-breaking.
In Matilda, schoolboy Bruce Bogtrotter faces a retributive punishment for the crime of stealing a slice of chocolate cake: he is made to consume the entire thing. The punitive logic is clear: if Bruce learns to despise cake – and, by extension, his desire for it – then he’ll curb his eating habits and stop being such a nuisance to the adults. But unlike, say, Augustus Gloop in another Roald Dahl adaptation (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Bruce is not bested by his gluttony. In fact, he embraces it – he cheerfully devours the whole cake and wins the day. The audience of other students, for whom this spectacle is a supposed deterrent, side with Bruce: he’s their champion, because he has delayed the onset of adulthood for another day.
The role of food to help children grow up is totally reversed in Hook, where an adult Peter Pan recovers his childhood by imagining a hyper-real banquet. Glazed meat sits next to doorstop cheese slices and cake that seems to be made of plasticine. Eating and playing are totally entwined here, so of course the meal descends into a rapturous food fight.
In Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, one meal is the spark that ignites the fire of revolution. The roughhousing, cigar-chomping students of a repressive boarding school are served nothing but beans, while the housemaster quietly steals their chocolate snacks. At one lunchtime breaking point, the beans barely touch the table before they are upturned in an anarchic riot. Now riled up, the boys get organised: under the banner of a skull and crossbones, in a blizzard of pillow feathers, they rise up against the adults and march out to freedom.
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.