Joseph Tropiano, Campbell Scott, and Stanley Tucci, 1996
#15, 1996 Skandies
Most of the movies I watched on this trip through the '96 Skandies list were rewatches — I watched way more movies in the mid-'90s than I do today — and I decided to take another look at Big Night mainly because I wanted to look at the food again. Big Night is about a pair of immigrant brothers who run a failing Italian restaurant in an American beach town in 1960 or thereabouts. It's failing because it's 1960 or thereabouts and Americans aren't ready for the authentic Italian cuisine the brothers serve — the customers disgustedly pick the basil off their pasta, squint quizzically at the risotto, exclaim in outrage upon discovering that the spaghetti doesn't come with meatballs. There are various plot threads — the brothers are pursuing various women, a rival restaurateur may be trying to undermine them, etc. There's also a long dinner party sequence that is meant to show the power of food to bring people together in an ecstatic communal experience, full of overacted "this is delicious!" reaction shots that Elizabeth rightly compared to a trying-on-hats montage. I didn't really care about any of that. What interested me about this movie was its portrait of the elder brother as a great culinary artist stuck in a time and place where people didn't really think of cuisine as an art.
I am pretty anhedonic in general, and I only really like a tiny fraction of the music and literature and cinema that's out there. I mean, I read a book or watch a movie that makes me go "wow, that was great" maybe once every couple of years. At any given time I like about four bands — every time I discover a new one, one of the old ones breaks up. But food is another story. I eat something that makes me go "wow, that was great" almost every day! Often it's something I prepared myself! Cuisine is the art form that has improved my quality of life more than any other, and I don't think there's even a close second. And it's one of the few that can't be digitized and beamed around the world, so every community needs to build its own distinct base of skilled artisans. One of the main reasons I live where I live is that I would be distraught to be too long removed from the Cheese Board and Cha-Ya and La Note and Sketch and Zachary's and Starter Bakery and Pizza Politana and the Hot Shop and the rest of my regular rotation, and one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling is to see (and taste!) what other places have to offer that you can't get here. So, yeah, to me this movie wasn't about the younger brother's affairs, or the pleasures of conviviality… it was about locals discovering that there was this guy who could make food that tasted like that and that he lived right here.