For me, movie-going is a sensory experience first. I love how movies make me feel, and I love how they make me think, but it’s the initial primal, reaction that I love the most. Which is probably why I find myself coveting a lot of movie food. Also, I love food.
A good film can open the viewer up to feeling all sorts of things, and easily render an audience member a raw wound of susceptibility. So when an alluring dish is seen, consumed or even merely described on screen, I’m often drawn in with more intensity that I may have been if I’d encountered it in real life.
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) is a criminally under-seen period adventure produced by Steven Spielberg under his Amblin Entertainment banner. Written by Spielberg protégé Chris Columbus (the writer of Gremlins and The Goonies who would go on to direct Home Alone and the first two Harry Potters) and directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man; Wag The Dog), it’s a handsomely-produced family film with thrilling action, the occasional genuine scare and not one single recognisable actor. I can’t think of any film with even a remotely comparable scope that doesn't feature at least one ‘name’.
Young Sherlock Holmes also holds a strange place in movie history as the first film to feature a fully computer generated character — in this case a stained glass knight who literally leaps out of a church window to terrorise a priest — which is only one of many impressive special effects in the film.
The pretext for this craziness, and pretty much all the special effects sequences, are poisoned darts which caused the victim to experience severe and outlandish hallucinations, which we get to see through the magic of film.
The young Watson is portrayed in the film as having a Homer Simpson-esque proclivity for sweet treats, and during a tense scene set in a graveyard, he gets a dart in the neck, which causes him to behold a a crypt full of cakes, tarts and pastries. But then it gets really weird. The treats all begin to sprout arms, legs and eyes, and proceed to attack Watson — a link of sausages trips him over, then the cakes all start ramming themselves and each other into Watson’s horrified maw.
Not only do the cakes themselves look particularly creamy and delicious, there’s something uniquely horrifying about how they force themselves upon Watson, and it only makes me want them more. If only to hear their little eyes pop when I eat them.
When I first saw Point Break at the movies in 1991, I don’t think I’d ever heard of a “Meatball Sandwich”. While on a stakeout with surfer crew-infiltrating partner Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), Gary Busey’s character Pappas instructs his young charge to go and buy him two meatball sandwiches from a joint down the road. My young mind simply couldn’t comprehend it — how could you put meatballs between two slices of bread without it all falling apart? Surely they would have to be sliced up? Were they leftover meatballs? Was pasta involved? My pre-Subway self was all sorts of confused.
Then Keanu returns with said sandwich. And although we only catch a brief glimpse (and Keanu describes it as road kill!) it is clearly a thing of beauty.
As we all know, America has a relatively broad definition of the word ‘sandwich’, and in this case it refers a long white roll with whole (smallish) meatballs and marinara sauce. It looked amazing, and the concept lingered in my mind long after the movie had faded. I made sure I got one the next time I visited America (it was delicious!), and thanks to Subway ubiquitity and the rise of global diner culture, an American-style meatball sandwich can be enjoyed by most residents of Earth. But they never look quite as good as Busey’s.
The experience detailed above led to a mild obsession with American sandwiches on my part. What a humble New Zealander might have once called a ‘filled roll’ somehow takes on a greater significance when referred to as a sandwich.
One of my other favorite on-screen examples occurs in the semi-classic 1986 comedy Back To School. The late Rodney Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire out of place amongst his shallow wife’s society pals. When his wife (memorably played by the great Adrienne Barbeau) throws a cocktail party, the uncomfortable Thornton approaches the fancy canapé table with much trepidation. “I hate small food,” he explains.
So he grabs a giant loaf of bread, cuts it length ways, hollows out the inside, and proceeds to cram entire plates of hors d’oeuvres (including devilled eggs; a tray of meatballs and other indistinguishable savories) into the loaf as snooty party guests look on with bemusement. He gets a waiter to help him cut the loaf in half, then heads outside to enjoy his sandwich by himself.
This sandwich stuck with me not only because it looks so darn delicious, but also because beyond the devilled eggs and the meatballs, it was also filled with Thornton’s anti-snob insouciance, and thus functions as a satisfying microcosm of the film’s overall dynamic.
Also the fact that it’s shot all in one take makes me believe I’m watching Dangerfield making a sandwich the way he would in his private life. There’s a no-nonsense paciness to the way he puts it together that only makes it seem like he’s done it many times before, which again, only makes it seem all the more delictable.
Another great movie sandwich is the one Bill makes for his daughter towards the end of Kill Bill Vol 2. It’s pretty basic — white bread, crusts cut-off — but the slow deliberate rhythms with which he constructs it make it a very alluring sandwich indeed.
1988’s Midnight Run, one of my all-time favorite movies, features two scenes in which dishes are described but not seen, which can sometimes be more evocative.
Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin have been on on the run for days. During a brief respite from their various pursuers, they find themselves stumbling down a dusty desert road. Not having eaten for ages, Grodin’s chatty mob accountant brings up a dish he fondly recalls, lyonnaise potatoes, and waxes lyrical about its appeal.
The pair’s desperate hunger is beautifully portrayed here, and the way Grodin describes the dish is perfectly rambling: “…hamburger, cheeseburger, any of your meat dishes really”. You can really feel their empty stomachs, especially in De Niro’s hilariously exasperated response.
Later in the film, the pair find themselves at a diner with only enough money for tea and coffee, but the look on Grodin’s face as the waitress describes that day’s special — chorizo and eggs — is utterly priceless.
Both of these scenes capture the elevated importance of food when you’re on the road. And they both take on a greater significance when a secret about Grodin’s character is revealed at the end of the film.