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Writing About Film

Eating, 1990Eating's Chef Cooks Up a Stinker

Eating (Henry Jaglom, 1990)

Unpublished, 1991

 

Anyone hoping for a spicy feminist interpretation of the dynamic linking women and food should avoid indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom’s newest concoction, Eating. Touted by the media as a blockbuster expose of the “hot hidden topic of the 90s” and playing to packed houses in Beverly Hills for the last six months, I expected at least a maudlin attempt at shattering a few myths or raising some consciousnesses. I was sorely disappointed — Eating is, instead, a simpleminded exploitative feast.

Jaglom, who was voted an “honorary woman” (in a secret ballot?) at a recent film festival, considers himself a feminist. If so, Jaglom is to feminism as Mario Cuomo is to liberalism. Eating’s premise is worthwhile, and Jaglom’s intentions may well be good, but in the film’s attempt to expose the influence of food over women — (and whether this is as taboo a topic as the film insists is debatable), it plays as more of a National Geographic spread than as a critique of the taught values and esthetics which fuel women’s oppression. Jaglom emerges as something akin to a Christian missionary spreading the word of Western civilization to the deprived natives of your third-world continent of choice. Eating completely wastes the potential value of the topic; most obviously because it was conceived, written and directed by a man. It’s hard to believe that any woman worth her cinematic salt couldn’t cook up something a bit more sophisticated. (For that reason, if none other, this man feels no compunction about reviewing the flick.)

The action in Eating, which won special honors at the most recent Sundance Film Festival, takes place in a single day, that of a joint birthday party for three West Hollywood women, each of whom is morosely entering a new decade of her life. The party guests are all women, and the film follows them through an endless succession of soap opera horror tales revolving around their lifelong enslavement to eating. Martine, a stunning French woman and object of distress for the other women, totes a handheld video camera and sporadically interviews the guests for a French television documentary, also about women and food. (As the director’s proxy representative, Martine is one of the more secure of the movie’s characters.)

As the movie drags on, each character sinks further into her own private hell, each encounter with another woman only reinforcing her own desperation. None of these women — young or old, short or tall, chubby or skinny — has reached any sort of spiritual peace, and Jaglom ensures that the viewer sees such a depressing state of affairs as the only logical result of their socialization. As envisioned by Jaglom, the women exist in individual spheres, where instead of drawing strength from the commonality of their experiences, they become increasingly hopeless and pitiful. The characters pepper their monotonous whining with recurring competitive episodes: they are constantly bickering, backbiting or slandering each other. Those with boyfriends or husbands are miserable, and the ones whose men are hurting them are characterized as deserving victims — for being too old, too fat, too skinny, too neurotic or just plain too ugly.

One of the film’s plotlines concerns Helene — who is unhappily turning 40 — and the off-camera exploits of her sexy, therapist husband, Frank; who, by the end, has left her for a younger, less neurotic woman. Helene’s pathetic fall into desperation is accompanied by the heavyhanded ironic device of her incessantly picking away at a crumbling muffin. Eating’s point is that if Helene only had been in control of her diet she would have kept her man. As her mother, played by Frances Bergen, says to her, “Men are like that. You just have to let them have their fun.” In other words, accepting life’s menu is the only way to get by. Likewise, Kate, who is turning 30, pines about her loss of self, her yearning for a child, and her regret over her teenage abortion (the doctor was named Chastity and was seven months pregnant herself). Yet, Kate’s retribution lies in none other than the perfect off-camera everyman, her husband of twelve years, who holds her frail body when she needs comforting. This female child, tortured by doubts and insecurities like the rest of the guests, is redeemed because she has a man to hold and protect her. Martine has similarly to some extent conquered her pain, but only through self-imposed asceticism — she knows she will never marry or have children. Jaglom bashes the women — and the viewer — over the head with women’s oppression at every turn: men are cold, food replaces the lack of love in their lives, and the women suffer helplessly because of it.

In the film’s latter stages, Jaglom obtusely reveals that buried beneath all the talk about food lies the true seed of power — men. The women constantly return to the motif of food as substitutes for the attention of men, with men, in turn, pointedly serving as substitutes for true self-respect and self-fulfillment. Indeed, for a film which has no male characters, men could not be more present, whether as the subject of conversations, voices on the other of the phone, or as the objects of dispute between the women. But Jaglom does not question this dynamic — he merely presents it as a poisonous reality and then leaves it dangling, unexplored for alternatives by the film’s increasingly imperceptive characters. In the ultimate rejection to the concept of women’s autonomy, one guest remarks to another how strange it is to have no men around. But men themselves are blameless, because the movie draws no connection between the patriarchy and its manipulation of women, the system which creates and maintains the beauty standard and which furthers these women’s oppression. In the end, men are the prizes for good behavior and good diets.

Eating’s final and most insidious irony is its dissolute employment of the male gaze. In what I doubt is a self-conscious attempt to mimic women’s often unconscious appropriation of the objectifying stare, Jaglom’s camera lovingly frames Martine face or breasts or rests longingly on the pert, little-girl figure of Kate. Indeed, in some ways, Eating is the ultimate “summer movie” — what’s more tantalizing than thirty women — many of them scantily clad — sitting around a Southern California pool? Such a prospect is what seemed to bring the four NYU frat boys who sat in front of us to the theater.

Eating’s production qualities and editing only reinforce the unsophisticated atmosphere of the film, while the acting, for the most part, is as flat as the narrative. Who can blame the actresses? Participating in this movie must have felt like engaging in the worst kind of childish exercise, especially with the reportedly tyrannical, albeit well-meaning, Jaglom running things. Eating’s only moments of insight or freshness come when the actresses drop their characters (narratively, for the benefit of Martine’s “French TV documentary”) and ad-lib stories of their own pasts. These testimonies at least convey some minimal sense of the complexity of the subject, while managing to avoid draining the women of their individual strengths.

I left Eating with a sour taste in my mouth; my companion, who lived through the repressive regime of the New York City ballet circuit, had a migraine. If this film was indeed meant to address the loaded subject of gender and food, it should give its audience a little more credit. Any sentient woman viewer is sure to have endured and given thought to the pressures of eating and body image; to such a woman, a production as basic as this comes across like an after-school special. If men are the intended audience, then the film is truly awful: a more pitiful group of females has never before been depicted. The film is not only thickheaded but it reinforces a multitude of misogynist stereotypes: what could be worse than a group of ditzy rich white (heterosexual) LA women grousing about having too much food on their plates? Eating’s universe consists only of food and these women’s helplessness before it; there is no awareness of the feminist movement, much less a world outside that of New Age Hollywood actresses, casting agents and their attendant paparazzi.

A film as shallow and reductive as Eating does much more harm than good. The film’s notices gave me false hope, an anticipation of a movie which would genuinely address the implications of the gender-food dynamic. Praised as both “important” and “hilarious,” Eating is neither; but is, instead, a light, unfunny comedy about a group of helpless, silly women. The film is about powerlessness and alienation, and offers no satisfactory resolution for its female characters. Similarly, it is so simplistic in concept that it does nothing to edify any but the most ignorant viewer. Despite Jaglom’s self-serving claims to the contrary, feminism is not about celebrating victimhood, but, rather, finding strength and unity beyond that oppression, about the power to effect change. This film, and seemingly Jaglom himself, fail to understand that tenet, and, ultimately, reinforce images of women which are best left to our pre-existing moralists of “proper femininity”: Phyllis Schaffly, John Cardinal O’Conner or Nancy Reagan. The question my companion and I left the theater with — besides how we would get our money back — was why a real exploration of the subject, by a woman who knows whereof she eats, has not yet been developed. The answer is unfortunately, painfully obvious — such an analysis would be too subversive for the film industry to stomach.

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