November 14, 2014 // Of Pies and Films

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This an eventful Dailimages day! Today marks the first installment of my new weekly series: children’s playgrounds, empty at night. Every Friday a new one will be featured (thanks to the very practical list the city of Paris makes available online).

Today also, I post my stab at the Weekly Writing Challenge. Since the challenge came into my life three weeks ago, I now wait excitedly for each new installment, and the one from this week is mouthwatering. It’s about pie (more info here)!


OF PIES AND FILMS

I wanted to vary from the previous two tries and write an essay / opinion piece. At first I thought about writing an investigative report about the process of baking a pie, but then I (totally randomly, timing is a funny thing) stumbled upon a quote from Quentin Tarantino, in which he concludes his explanation of what a thrill the movie-going experience is by saying: “When you go out and have pie afterward, you’ve got some shit to talk about. You went to the movies that night!” (The New Yorker, Oct. 20th, 2003) and it made me want to do a little bit of an essay on the use of pie in film (please forgive the superficiality of the study, this is not a PhD on cinematic pie). Since pie can serve so many different purposes, I have grouped our subjects in five categories.

YUMMY PIES

My Blueberry Nights

The first pie movie that came to mind when I thought about this post was My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar Wai). It might not be anyone’s first guess, but that title always made me salivate, I think because my brain surreptitiously replaced the word ‘nights’ with the word ‘pie’. While I didn’t really enjoy the plotline, it does feature a blueberry pie scene (brain satisfied!) that mostly involves Jude Law repeating ‘blueberry pie’ several times in a sexy British accent.

Inglourious Basterds

The most magnificent recording of pie on film is, in my opinion, by Tarantino himself (who, by the way, with two pie entries in this list and the quote that spurred it, might have a pie fetish). When one of our heroes, a French jew played by Mélanie Laurent who narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazi villain brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz, crosses paths with her tormentor again, she expects the worst but is instead served the most delicious and most horrible piece of pie —strudel, to be exact, you have ever seen. You fear for her life along with her, but when the villain spoons cream atop the pastry, you might find yourself drooling, the cinematography is just perfect.

Waitress

In this feel-good flick, it’s about more than just a scene, it’s an entire ode to pie. Keri Russell is a “pie genius” waitress who bakes extremely appetizing pies (and uses them as an outlet for her various feelings about her shitty life). Do NOT watch hungry.

Labor Day

Now, I have to admit that I have not seen all the movies referenced here, but, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to find clips of the relevant scenes. This particular one takes you step-by-step through the process of baking a peach pie. While it was definitely more beautiful to watch than your average cooking show, and the uncooked pie does look tempting (you only see the cooked version through the oven door), I found the scene extremely corny. The acting isn’t great —there is no chemistry in what is supposed to be a seduction scene between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, the music is cliché and annoying, and the couple of “bar-room philosophy” lines are overkill.

Mildred Pierce

Second movie I hadn’t seen. Winslet is again baking a pie, this time on her own (she must have remembered all the things Brolin taught her in Labor Day). The cinematography is much better in this TV production and makes the pie (lemon-meringue) far more enticing. In fact, that opening scene alone made me want to watch the whole miniseries.

True Romance

Next Tarantino entry, although he only wrote the screenplay (Tony Scott directed). The two main characters meet at the movies and get pie afterwards to talk about the film they just saw (Arquette’s character says movie and pie is her tradition). Watching the scene in light of that Tarantino quote is amusing because it is its exact onscreen execution. Pie remains off-screen though, so I wonder how Quentin himself would have staged it.

Shane

In this western from the fifties, a beautiful stranger is invited to dinner by a family of homesteaders. The wife breaks out the fancy china for a scrumptious apple pie that she serves up in huge portions. The husband wonders about all this elegance as his eyes go from his wife to the stranger… I sense drama.

FUNNY PIES

American Pie

Of course this has to be our first funny pie entry. Jason Biggs deflowering an innocent apple pie his mom baked (Oedipus complex, anyone?) must be in the top ten of the pop culture references for 90s kids (sigh). But this scene is also representative of the persisting homophobia in America. Let me explain. In the very informative documentary about the MPAA, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, out director Jamie Babbit explains that a very coy masturbation scene in her own film, But I’m A Cheerleader (about a teenage girl coming to terms with being a lesbian), resulted in an NC-17 rating (which basically makes it impossible to find a distributor), while at the same time Biggs’ character was offensively screwing a pie and getting rated R (sigh).

Blazing Saddles

This satirical western comedy from Mel Brooks features a grand pie fight scene. About a hundred extras spill onto the street from Warner Bros.’ studios where the fight from the movie that the movie is about was being filmed (I’m confused too, apparently it’s a fourth wall thing). Given how much I love Young Frankenstein, I will gladly add this film to my watch list (unlike others gleaned from this pie research).

The Great Race

In this Blake Edwards comedy, an epic pie fight occurs in a bakery after Jack Lemmon gets pushed head first into a gigantic cake (this actually looked fun). He retaliates by seizing a nearby tart and shoving it into the pusher’s face. This starts a pie throwing chain reaction, with Natalie Wood as the first victim. The hurls are initially spaced out, but the rhythm rapidly increases to reach a Technicolor mess of cream pies. I read that it took 4,000 pies (for the grand sum of $18,000) and five days to shoot. At the end the cast smothered Edwards under a couple hundred pies as revenge. According to Lemmon getting hit by a pie “feels like a ton of cement”, but I still would have loved to be an extra in this scene. Based on my extensive research, I have to say I agree with the “greatest pie fight ever” qualifier.

Bugsy Malone

A musical gangster film featuring only child actors? OK. So when there is a shoot out between rival gangs they use custard-loaded automatic weapons, of course. And pies. Lots of pies. It seems to want to emulate the fight from The Great Race but still feels less epic.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This completely whacko and genius film was supposed to end in a giant pie battle in the War Room. People say it was cut because of a line that might have seemed too irreverent so soon after JFK’s death —although Kubrick himself says that it just wasn’t consistent with the tone of the film as a whole. And the footage was lost, which is a shame, because from what I can tell it could have been a contender for greatest pie fight ever.

*Addendum* Palais Royal *Addendum*

This French movie directed by the always very funny Valérie Lemercier is basically a parody of Princess Diana’s life. And in this alternate universe, Lemercier, playing the part of fake Diana, gets pied by a disgruntled citizen of her fake kingdom, and it’s so well done you can almost feel the cream on your own face. Given that this is one of my favorite French comedies, I don’t know how I could have forgotten it, but thanks to my brother that mistake is no longer.

GROSS PIES

The Help

Now this is quite the empowering pie (much more than Russel’s ‘I hate my husband pie’ in Waitress). In Mississippi during the civil rights movement era, a disgraced maid takes the revenge as a cold dish saying quite literally. The chocolate pie she serves her horrible racist former boss looks so delicious… until you find out about the special ingredient it contains (let’s just say it’s the pie equivalent of setting fire to a crap-filled bag). Gag along with the tricked character.

Sweeney Todd

The Tim Burton version of this barber-killer-character features an interesting scene in which Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter sing about how to dispose of the bodies he kills: use them as meat for her pies, she suggests! Depp is thrilled about the idea and they spend the remaining three minutes of the song discussing the meat merits of each social class —they agree the clergy provides for the best grub but plan on using anyone anyway. More humans, more pies, more money, right? The worst part is that the tune is actually quite catchy.

Stand By Me

I hesitated for a second between the ‘funny’ and ‘gross’ categories for this one but after watching the relevant excerpt (a pie-eating contest gone horribly wrong) and feeling like I was about to vomit I opted for ‘gross’. It’s actually making me nauseous again writing about it so I hope the rest of the movie makes sitting through this scene worth it.

Titus

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in learning more about this Julie Taymor movie after seeing the pie scene. It involves enemies of Titus being served up as pie-meat to their mother. Yuck. The pies look delicious (it seems the grosser the pie is, the more delicious it has to look), but the disgusting factor is further augmented by the close-ups of the mouths enjoying the dish. Bon appétit.

UNCLASSIFIABLE PIES

Pi

Whenever I mentioned to an English speaker that this week’s challenge was about pie, they replied “pie or pi?” (in French the words are tarte and pi pronounced ‘pee’, so there’s no confusion). My memory of this film is extremely fuzzy… I saw it late one night with a friend, fell asleep halfway through, didn’t understand what was going on… I wasn’t a fan (disappointedly so since I loved Requiem For A Dream). I have the soundtrack, and it is made up of quite stressful sounds that don’t make you want to experience the movie a second time.

Heartburn

See now, I don’t know if this might not be a more empowering pie than the one in The Help. It is unclassified because while the action involving the pie is comical, the underlying reasons for said comical handling of pie are a tad dramatic. During dinner with friends, Meryl Streep ends a tirade on love and trust by grabbing the cream pie they were to have for dessert, smashing it in Nicholson’s face (who plays her lying cheating husband), and leaving. She remains calm and composed throughout the whole thing —which is what makes this scene so good. But the kicker in my opinion, is that in the dead silence following the ‘incident’, Nicholson wipes his face, gets up, and heads out silently, just as calmly, licking the cream off his lips. The Help’s pie has more historical undertones, but also leaves our baker with some regrets, while this pie both feels more fulfilling and has no aftertaste. I’m calling this a pie-tie.

Chicken Run

This cute stop-motion animated tale from the geniuses behind Wallace & Gromit revolves around chickens trying to escape their destiny as meat in the famous Mrs. Tweedy’s Chicken Pot Pies. It could be a funny pie because the film as a whole is a comedy but we do lose some beloved chickens to the horrible pie machine, which is why it is unclassifiable (don’t worry though, it has a happy ending).

NON-PIES

This bonus category is here because all this talk about pie has me practically drooling all over my keyboard, and has made me think of other luscious food scenes that don’t involve pie.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Who knew Orson Welles would be included here? While I was initially mislead into thinking that it featured pie, further research showed that it was in fact strawberry shortcake. But it doesn’t really matter, watching the pastry being gulfed down, you can’t help but want to have a piece, and feel as full as the eater (the man doesn’t even pause for air between mouthfuls!).

Fried Green Tomatoes

One of my favorite movies also features an amazing cooking-slash-fighting scene. The main characters and best friends battle it out with cooking ingredients and it’s both fun and delightful to watch. Oh but homophobia rears its ugly head again: in the book this film is adapted from, the two women share more than a simple friendship. Of course that had to be hidden from the audience, and this playful fight scene was meant to be understood as a metaphorical sex scene (sigh…).

Small Time Crooks

In this Woody Allen screwball comedy from the 2000s, Allen’s simpleton character has the brilliant idea of purchasing a store right next to a bank in order to dig a tunnel and steal all the money from underground. As the front for his store he has his wife bake and sell cookies. As it turns out, her cookies are so incredibly delicious that they make a fortune off them (and it’s a good thing too since he and his useless buddies fail to rob the bank). Whenever I watch this movie, all I can think of is ‘Damn, I wish I could taste her cookies’.

Big Night

After working like maniacs the whole night, the “big” night, in order to save their Italian restaurant, the two brothers who own it are wiped out. In the final sequence shot, Tucci prepares a basic frittata that him and his brother share in silence. It’s just eggs an a little oil but it looks delicious.

Once Upon a Time in America

When we were kids, our mom would only let us see the beginning (aka the “kid part”) of this grand Sergio Leone gangster film. One of the boys plans on exchanging a charlotte russe —a sponge cake pastry topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, for sexual favors. He purchases the expensive pastry and goes to the girl’s home for his reward. Only she is late, and that pastry looks amazingly delicious. Sitting in her staircase, he starts by taking a small taste of the cream with his fingertip. Once, twice… until he gulps down the whole thing, taste buds satisfied but sexually frustrated.

Pulp Fiction

It’s only fitting that we end this list on yet another film from Quentin, one of my all-time favorites (original, I know). In one of the many brilliant scenes this film has to offer, Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) orders a five-dollar milkshake at a fifties-themed diner, to the utter befuddlement of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega. When that milkshake hits the table you want some too —and I don’t even like milkshakes! Now, that is saying something about the mastery behind such a scene. It is worth mentioning that the movie also features the fictional Big Kahuna burger, which Samuel L. Jackson perfectly conveys as “tasty”. However, the milkshake leaves a much more lasting impression.

So, why is pie such a good vector for representing food in film? Is it because of its versatility, both as a dish (sweet, savory, endless filling possibilities) and as a prop (weapon, conveyor of repressed feelings, builder of sexual tension)? And why is it, according to Tarantino, such a great dish to discuss a movie over? Why pie and not ice cream? Because it can be appreciated by everyone, kids and grown ups? It seems to me that pie is more of an adult dessert, but wouldn’t adults prefer to discuss a movie over drinks (that’s what I do anyway)? Is it because anyone can find a pie they like? Or because it can work as a metaphor for film: the crust is the directing, the filling the acting, the look of the pie represents the cinematography, the scent the sound… And if one element is bad, can the whole still be good? I think to get all the answers I’m going to have to have pie after my next movie-going experience.

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