Friday Follies [n., pl.] postings on Fridays about fashion and food in film from guest bloggers with impeccable taste.
“Come Elwood, let us adjourn ourselves to the nearest table and overlook this establishment’s board of fare.”
Eating out is a highly charged social activity, to say the least, with profound dramatic and comedic potential built into it. This is probably why so many superb cinematic moments involve the problem of eating with others. An example: Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers, 1980) screech to a halt in front of a fancy French restaurant, Chez Paul. They walk inside, take a table, and spend some time behaving badly. Granted, they have a good reason for acting out, having come to pressure their old band mate, Mr. Fabulous, into quitting his job as maitre d’ of this fine establishment and rejoining the band. But their “mission from God” is only an excuse. The brothers relish the scene, eating up the stuffy atmosphere like the hungry low class wolves that they are. Having ordered a $120 bottle of Dom Pérignon ’71, five shrimp cocktails, and some bread (from waiter Paul Rubens, pre-Pee Wee Herman), they proceed to overstep as many bounds of good taste as possible. As a young Aykroyd slurps his champagne from a large goblet, Belushi puts on a sort of Spanish-Arab accent and offers to purchase the daughters of the disgusted gentleman at the next table. And most memorable, to me, is what the brothers do with the shrimp: inspired mock-snobbery at its finest.
The scene is straightforward snobs vs. slobs, and it draws the line between the two in great, multi-sensory detail. Not only do Jake and Elwood look out of place, wearing shades and eating with their overstuffed mouths open, but also, as the snob at the next table explains, “Frankly, they’re offensive. Smelling. I mean they smell bad.” Class lines are drawn on the soundtrack, too: the sound of snobbery is chamber music and a soft murmur of conversation, while the sound of slobbery is the loud whistle waiter-call and the noisy champagne slurps, more than loud enough to turn polite heads. So we see, hear, and smell the transgressions being perpetrated, and somewhere along the way, I think we can taste them, too (they taste something like a shrimp tail flung across the table into your mouth). Taste, after all, is the subject of this scene, a sharply performed encounter between the high and the low, good taste and bad, so to speak. The Blues Brothers pointedly upset the proper order of things, and they do so with great joy, pure style. As social commentary, it may be forced and heavily stereotyped, but this is excellent lowbrow comedy doing its thing, acting out.
Belushi had delighted us with his slobbery two years earlier, in the unforgettable Animal House cafeteria scene. As Bluto, he eats his way along the buffet, stuffing his face to capacity. [Note that the noisy slurp plays a role here, too: with a furtive glance around and a mischievous eyebrow-lift, Bluto vacuums up a Jell-O square without paying for it.] His tray piled high with everything, he sits down to eat with some bonafide snobs. More slurping. They express disgust, and he responds: “See if you can guess what I am now.” He inserts some sort of white food product (a hard boiled egg?) into his mouth and—pop!—splatters it all over them. “A zit! Get it?” The frat boys give chase and, as an escape strategy, Bluto gives that famous two-word cry: “Food fight!” Anarchy ensues. Order gives way, at least for the moment, to an uprising of mass slobbery. Bluto and the Blues Brothers are revolting in more than one sense.
Do these scenes amount to the comedic equivalent of a revolutionary manifesto, or just funny blue-collar trumpeting? Incisive social critique, or just heavy-handed class warfare stuff (i.e., classic comedy material)? Either way, it’s god damn good, and funny. Who can deny the recreational value of disorderly conduct? Comedy’s most noble pursuit, of course, is to take the stuffing out of us, to locate and release tensions, put things out of place. If these scenes are still funny, then their lesson remains relevant: the revolution will begin with bad table manners.—René Thoreau Bruckner, Visiting Assistant Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California