We were talking the other day about scenes of pleasure in film. There were exceptions, but by and large, the examples people were bringing up involved one of two things—food or sex. I think a lot of that has to do with how well both of those come across on film. When you think about it, that doesn’t necessarily make sense, given that both of them also involve a ton of sensations that film isn’t really equipped to portray, but there it is.
They are our most sensual, least intellectual pleasures. That may be part of the issue. You don’t need to think about eating good food to appreciate eating good food; the sense memory overwhelms you. Sensations of touch, too, are pretty easy to grasp even though you can’t get the sensation through the screen. Even if you’ve never experienced the kind of touching you’re watching. I don’t know how it works for people with touch issues or low libidos, I admit, but I think the average person connects to it quite easily.
Actually, I saw Don Juan de Marco in the theatre, lo, these many years ago. Went with a female friend. Neither of us were in general attracted to women, much less each other. We just thought, “Hey, it would be fun to see the new Johnny Depp movie with my friend!” And we watched. In a very specific kind of silence. It was us and about a half-dozen couples in that theatre, and pretty much the second the end credits began, it was just us. We were very quiet still, processing. Getting ourselves back. And it’s not even that good a movie!
Still, we connected to exactly the emotions the movie wanted us to experience, and it didn’t take much effort on its part. (It didn’t hurt that it starred 1994 Johnny Depp, I can tell you.) Similarly, I have watched plenty of movies involving food in some way that left me famished. Perhaps the oddest was the time I watched All the President’s Men with someone and then drove an hour and a half to find an open restaurant. (Look, I lived in rural Washington State at the time and didn’t have a kitchen.) They spend a lot of that movie in McDonald’s, you see.
I think possibly one of the reasons the two appear on film so much is that they’re at the very base of the human experience. We are animals; we eat and procreate. The third corollary, that we defecate, doesn’t show up much, because we’ve hedged it around with so many privacy taboos (also Joe Breen’s thing about it, which I think lingers in film culture to this day), but we cannot be completely private about the other two. We have long made eating social, and really, procreation is a two-person activity. It is private and not-private all at once, almost by its very nature.
I think this is also part of why films as diverse as Tom Jones and Tampopo have interjected food into their eroticism. In Tom Jones, the actual act of eating is foreplay. In Tampopo, there is one couple for whom is is foreplay and one for whom it is sublimation, desire for touch expressed as desire for taste. They are both physical urges, and while people experience them on different levels and may for whatever reason not really experience them much at all, they can be so tangled into one another as to be essentially interchangeable.
And, of course, it’s not merely possible but easy to overdo either one. (Well, how easy it is to overdo sex depends I suppose on your physical stamina and your ability to find willing partners.) Certainly either one can wear us out on screen. While they are our visceral pleasures, too much viscera just bogs down after a while. (This may tie into why I’m not one for torture porn or extended action sequences; I would like to think with my movie eventually.) It’s also second-hand pleasure, which is less immediate. Better than nothing but not as good as the real thing.
There are many other pleasures in film, of course. One of the ones that came to mind for me was at the beginning of Up—the pleasure of sitting quietly in a room with the one you love and have loved for decades is not as enthusiastic a pleasure, but it’s a pleasure worth having for all that. But perhaps we don’t remember the quiet ones quite so well as those driving ones.