Monday, November 21, 2011
The Great Sacrament of Cinema
Since Charlie Chaplin performed his winning roll dance in The Gold Rush, film directors have used meal scenes to capture a host of emotions; celebration, romance, resentment, and reconciliation, to name but a few. These golden moments not only whet our appetite, but involve us with the story as closely as any character on screen. With Thanksgiving upon us, the time is ripe for a glimpse at that welcoming movie setting, the family dinner table. Pull up a chair, dear reader, and enjoy this blessed feast of treasures from years past that remind us why the dinner table scene is the great sacrament of cinema.
Avalon - Barry Levinson's heartfelt masterpiece follows three generations of an immigrant family in Baltimore. (Has the Jewish experience in America ever been captured on celluloid more movingly?) The first family gathering scene depicts the perfect Thanksgiving dinner to a tee.
Stagecoach - In this hallmark western, a group of discordant stagecoach passengers embarks on a fast-paced jaunt through hostile territory. Along the way, the riders pause to enjoy a quick meal. John Ford uses the humble setting to establish the personalities of the characters and to ignite a liking between a pair regarded as outcasts by the others. The scene in question begins at 27:47.
It's a Wonderful Life - Every scene in America's perennial Christmas favorite simply sings. Here, our kindly protagonist sits down with dear old dad to discuss his future before leaving to attend his younger brother's graduation party. This brief but warm exchange between father and so is made all the more poignant, we soon learn, because it is their last.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Just as it is in real life, dinner time in the movies is not always a happy occasion. In this memorable moment from Steven Spielberg's classic sci-fi adventure, a father becomes a man obsessed before his worried family's eyes.
The Godfather, Part II - The haunting finale from the second installment of the Godfather trilogy scores a triumph. At first, the flashback appears to be a remembrance of happier times. Soon, however, the true reason for the recollection is unveiled. Francis Ford Coppola brilliantly juxtaposes the young Michael Corleone at the dinner table and the elder Michael Corleone in his darkened Lake Tahoe living room to reveal his essence: a tragic figure doomed to a life of loneliness by his own doing.
The Deer Hunter - This controversial but galvanizing saga stands as one of the most powerful war films ever made. In this moving conclusion, a close-knit circle of friends comforts one another after a funeral. Like many veteran communities, the horror of war has torn them apart, but love of country has brought them together.
Young Frankenstein - Mel Brooks and company send up Mary Shelley's famous horror novel in this wildly amusing romp. Here, an attempt at hospitality ends in disaster. With precision comic timing, Gene Hackman sews the perfect button on the scene with his hilarious final line.
American Beauty - This Best Picture winner from 1999 has stood the test of time as a near-perfect suburban family drama. Upon its release, Kevin Spacey's rebellious anti-hero Lester Burnham inspired scores of miserable men to change their lives. In this scene, a fed-up Lester takes an overdue stand.
Babette's Feast - The joy of cooking is brought vividly to life in this winning gem from Denmark. In the climactic dinner scene, a respected general expresses his gratitude for the world class feast -- and unconsciously resolves the regrets of a misspent youth -- with an eloquent speech modeled on Psalm 85.
Moonstruck - A colorful assortment of Italian-Americans in N.Y.C. weave a tangled romantic web in one of the best comedies of the 1980s. In this exchange from the flawless finale, a devoted but beleaguered wife forces her philandering husband to change his ways.
What are your favorite dinner table scenes? Share your thoughts with a comment below. Until next time, may your Thanksgiving be filled with delicious food, precious people, and warm memories to last a lifetime.