Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation.
Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and Mark Bernard. Detroit, MI, Wayne State University, 2014. Pp. 334, introduction, body with photographs, four appendixes, notes, works cited, index.
Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and Mark Bernard bring their considerable expertise in film studies to exploring the use of folklore and social anthropology’s foodways paradigm in film analysis. All three authors have backgrounds in film studies, but it is perhaps Cynthia Baron’s previous forays into foodways that account for the foodways focus of the book (she has contributed articles to Food Culture and Society and Food and Foodways). Appetites and Anxieties is explicitly intended for students and those interested in film studies and political economy. The book would also be suitable for those interested in foodways and how foodways intersects with other fields. Overall, this book is an easy read for someone at the college or graduate level. There wasn't too much esoteric jargon and the prose has an easy flow.
Two themes thread their way through this book, both of which are laid out in the introduction. One is that “the foodways paradigm provides a special set of questions when examining films' cultural politics. When looking at films in terms of foodways, the pleasures, dangers, and implications of consumption take center stage” (4). The authors argue convincingly that foodways analysis has a place among other well respected forms of analysis including gender, ethnic, sex, class, political, feminist, Marxist, post-colonial, queer, and ethnic studies. Specifically, they argue that "the critical lens denaturalizes a culture's norms, values, and beliefs about food products, meal systems, and the procurement, preservation, preparation, presentation, consumption, and cleanup of food" (25). The second theme that runs through the volume is that the relationship between the film and food industries has led to a policy of self-censorship in the film industry in order to keep the food industry happy, which has not been to the benefit of audiences.
The introduction of Appetites and Anxieties presents the foodways paradigm and how it can contribute to ideological studies. It also gives a solid scholarly groundwork of folklore and cultural anthropology for the rest of the book, which draws especially in folklore from Don Yoder, Michael Owen Jones, and Lucy Long. The first chapter lays out the study of foodways, some of the tensions surrounding foodways that people and films deal with, how various films use foodways and to what ends, and what parts of foodways are neglected in film. The authors illustrate how what is made seem “natural” in terms of foodways in films can be very revealing about the films politics and the culture it that produced it. As a whole, the chapter provides a solid foundation for issues explored throughout the rest of the book.
Chapter two goes deeper into the political nature of films by looking at the relationship between the food and film industries. This was one of my favorite chapters simply because I learned a number of interesting tidbits. For example, did you know that you can determine the status assigned to a film during production by which food industry partner it is paired with? Apparently, McDonald's is first-tier while Dunkin' Donuts is second-tier (56).
Chapter three examines, as the subtitle says, “utopian films' use of food to create community.” Specifically, it analyzes Bagdad Cafe, a movie about a community in the Mojave Desert centered on two women who work at the Bagdad Cafe. In direct contrast, the next chapter looks at a dystopian world revealed through food in the South Korean film 301/302. 301/302 again focuses on two women, but this time both of them have eating disorders which culminates in one woman eating the other. In both of these chapters, the book provides an analysis of the films and an examination of how food was utilized in the films to convey harmony and disharmony. The next chapter focuses specifically on acts of cannibalism in food. Ironically, it appears that when humans are on the menu, a wider range of foodways than is typical gets shown, including food procurement, preparation, and cleanup.
Chapter six looks at two topics: foodways in gangster films (including The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Bugsy) and the treatment of foodways by specific directors (including Steven Spielberg, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Buñuel).
The next two chapters are about documentary films and examine the history of the foodways documentary film genre and the politics involved with the making and distribution of foodways documentaries. This is where FLOW, Food, Inc., The Corporation, King Corn, The Future of Food, McLibel, We Feed the World, and The End of the Line are discussed. I especially enjoyed the discussion of Food, Inc. and the reactions to the documentary.
The final chapter, “Food as a Window into Personal and Cultural Politics,” examines the role of foodways in Mr. Saturday Night and Mysterious Skin. It is another favorite of mine and I would highlight this chapter as being the most exemplary in the book in terms of its foodways analysis.
There are also four appendixes, three of which are useful resources for those interested in food film studies (selected films and scholarly works). By far the most interesting appendix, however, was the first which discusses the fascinating world of food stylizing with expert Ann Schulz.
Though the book has numerous good qualities, there are some stylistic elements that distract from the quality of Appetites and Anxieties. The writing can be quite repetitive, to the point of lifting whole sentences from the introduction and dropping them throughout the book. It left me with the impression of a slightly amateurish writing style. Furthering that impression are the heavy use of quotes by folklorists and anthropologists, but without much actual application of the methods of analysis those scholars are describing, and the authors’ unacknowledged food counterculture leanings. However, for those familiar with foodways, the most distracting aspect of the book is likely to be the amount of time spent justifying the foodways paradigm. This is probably because Appetites and Anxieties is geared more to those studying film and political economy than foodways, but it proved distracting nevertheless.
Despite these issues, the book is a worthwhile read for those interested in the film industry and the history of documentaries, political economy, or foodways. The book is a fine contribution to the food in films genre.