Bright Lights Film Journal

Eating Cinema: The Frozen Dessert as Audiovisual Synaesthesia

“But we can imagine infinite other, less stodgy flavors: a Saragossa Manuscript of Neapolitan layers within layers within layers; a Cannibal Holocaust of pure cherry surrounding a chunky mystery surprise; a Seventh Seal of precious white vanilla lost in an ominous ocean of midnight chocolate.”

The Oedipus myth tells us to beware our eyes, so blinding will be the apocalypse of self-knowledge. Contrarily, the man grown accustomed to blindness and no longer terrorized by sight can, like Homer, freely “organize what he has seen and fashion it into a comprehensive epic,” as Walter Kaufmann claims.1 An excess of knowledge kills; an overcoming of knowledge liberates. Millennia later, scholars of the sensorium, from Adorno to Martin Jay to Michel Serres, repeatedly call our attention to modernity’s revolt against the dominion of the visual. While Oedipus had only his fate to fear, we more political, more soulless creatures must fend off the ocularcentric illusion lest we fall into an ochlocratic daze. Adorno declared that the Enlightenment signaled humanity’s first great, failed attempt to overthrow the old sickness of image and icon; yet the visuality of the religious emblem was soon replaced by the visuality of the scientific method, and the Kantian tradition of objectification continues unabated, as we privilege the coldly visual above what touch, smell, and taste tell us. Today, sight reigns supreme in our still-cinematic millennium, and Dolby’s omnidirectional boom now amplifies our degradations as much as the Tin Pan Alley songs Adorno mistook for jazz trivialized them. If the history of humanity is in fact the history of our perceptions, their cultural formations, and their postindustrial subjugations, then we reach into the world as far as society will allow our senses to wander. Sight and sound have been colonized into slowly grinning deaths; should, then, our more animalistic, less censorable, less cinematic senses come into greater repute?

The intimacy of touch might have redeemed us had it not been politicized and legalized. The erotic confidence of tactility will never rescue us from alienation, unfortunately, as long as democratic laws forbid us from touching our neighbors without consent. We therefore must put aside the sense (and legitimacy) of touch for the moment, so degraded has its nature become by law and the alleged “public sphere.”

The proximate nature of smell and taste seems to be more ours; sight and sound, the more public, ubiquitous of sensations, were ready-made for distortion, censorship, and every other social or sophistic interference. Of course, it is true that smell and taste are almost equally acculturated and have been historically subject to much mismanagement.2 Feculent smells, directly correlated in the 18th century to the spread of disease, were highly stigmatized and regulated, and today rendering plants, abattoirs, sulfur ponds, and similar scandals are cordoned off into lower-class geographies to prevent property values from putrefying. Taste has been variously regulated according to classist sumptuary laws, Sabbatical prohibitions, halal and Talmudic commands, and other historical amusements. Yet these prohibitions were so symbolic that they could not withstand the Enlightenment as visuality did; their religious denials of bodily reality were only manifestations of hierarchic rituals, and, like vegetarianism, never claimed that specific, material flavors were immoral in the way that the medieval church declared polyphony or dissonant harmonies wicked.

Though students of culture (and Pierre Bourdieu) would argue that the physical act of taste cannot be divorced from the class-conscious acculturations that inform the socially tasteful, in our pre-postmodern hearts, we still believe the escapist joy of taste is a portal to private truth. The unconstructed immediacy of flavor may not be a total fantasy: when we were three and tasted chocolate for the first time, did we experience a “social construction” of the culture industry or the rush of cocoa fat and refined sugar molecules invading our neural centers? Taste, like touch, is more rational than sight; excepting those with phantom experiences, taste and touch do not deceive. One equipped with even a pedestrian tongue can judge all the subtle layers of foretaste and aftertaste in wine, yet one with 20/20 vision still knows only the surface of sights. The erotics of taste combine the verifiability of touch with the interiority of hearing — the experience of taste can only occur within our flesh. Tasting is the most democratic and earthly sense — one may be blind, deaf, and dumb, but, no matter how lost within the culture industry, one can still taste the unpoisoned fruit of the trees and vines. Taste, too, knows no technological aggrandizement, as eyes benefit from microscopes and telescopes, our ears from listening devices, and our hindmost orifices from scientifically lubricated rods. Sapidity uncorrupts reality.

But taste now faces an intruder, a colonizer, an entity intent on transubstantiating the private, primeval immediacy of flavor into vision — that which is most easily manipulated. The villain, obviously, is cinema, mad in its desire to infiltrate every niche of human experience.

I recently saw in a Munich supermarket something that gave me amused pause: ice cream that is supposed to taste like movies. The Langnese company has released two new frozen dessert flavors: “Gone with the Wind” and “Doctor Zhivago.” Admittedly, this attempted synaesthesia is hardly transformative and is limited to conventional associations: Vom Winde verweht is infused with dark chocolate and “fiery” raspberry, while Doktor Schiwago is “snow-white” ice cream laden with mascarpone, vodka-lemon sauce, and miniature “chocolate snowflakes.” Notably, the manufacturers’ glance is directed toward Hollywood chestnuts — there are no Heimat ice-pops, no Young Törless Crunch, and certainly no Triumph of the Will Unadulterated Natural Vanilla. The transatlantic gaze speaks, I suppose, to a certain romanticism Europeans still have for Hollywood, much as the novels of Karl May allowed 19th-century Germans to dream of America’s Wild West. But we can imagine infinite other, less stodgy flavors: a Saragossa Manuscript of Neapolitan layers within layers within layers; a Cannibal Holocaust of pure cherry surrounding a chunky mystery surprise; a Seventh Seal of precious white vanilla lost in an ominous ocean of midnight chocolate. I confess that I can’t imagine what Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen might taste like, though for some reason King Vidor’s work reminds me of heavy pound cake.

Until now, we only metaphorically consumed and digested cinema; now the culture industry wants us to literally re-experience sight as food, as if the Dutch master’s realist lemon peel and glistening lobster could suddenly spring into succulence. Certainly, the fetish character of food here reaches unforeseen heights, as eaters of the cream become presumable enfleshments of the rotten Clark Gable or moldering Vivien Leigh, or of the narratives they signify.3 The communion wafer — made of water, flour, and sometimes yeast — is purposefully tasteless, a tabula rasa onto which the supplicant projects a holistic aesthetic experience (caramelized or marshmallow-filled communion wafers will simply not do).4 Though this cinematic ice cream is similarly irrational in its desire to transubstantiate the consumer, its overly specific content is contrary to the Christian rite’s fetishistic cookie, as the ice cream forces the eater to imagine only a single, ossified aesthetic narrative, rather than the variations on a prescribed — yet confusing — theme even conformist believers potentially envisage. The frozen dessert’s mandate for resurrection also puns on the notion of recreation: just as ice cream is the typical recreational food of bourgeois families, so do partakers of refrigeration technology “re-create” themselves as the cultural icons pictured on the cardboard box, in accordance with prearranged wish-fulfillment fantasies.

The attempted transubstantiation of cinema into flavor may only be a further variation on Hollywood’s current (economic) dependence on remakes, our culture’s most current and frivolous rebellion against time. Like the cartoon character who refuses to age, the remake traps us in eternal childhood and a kind of “reverse amnesia,” a desire to repeat past experience in present history, lest time proceed and creeping death approach. At a certain point, however, the ritual stasis and economic pretext of sequels and remakes become psychologically insufficient. We must not simply repeat the image and narrative, but must transform them into other, seemingly more personal senses — and because we cannot remake Gone with the Wind (at least not yet), we must take it whole into our bowels for temporary safekeeping. Our happy organs, a few short hours later, will mimic biologically what the culture industry otherwise accomplishes economically.

The fantasy of eating a transubstantiated aesthetic does hold tantalizingly anti-intellectual promise: we’d no longer need to worry about schools of interpretation, historicized modes of production, or the obligation to employ terms like “doxic,” “specular regime,” and “prismatic.” We’d only need a close reading of eating and shitting, the brain usurped by the stomach and intestines, hermeneutic effort supplanted by physiological ease, filmmakers trumped by corporate chef and food science graduate student. Perhaps after our tongues became accustomed to experiencing sight as taste, when gustation becomes gestation, we could soon enough skip the cinematic middleman altogether, and just imagine Proustian visions — even narratives — inspired by capsicum and marjoram, Indonesian ginger and fenugreek, anise and Fleur de sel. The idea is not mere whimsy: when we listen to film soundtracks, we already mentally combine the actual diegesis (assuming we’ve seen the film) with whatever extradiegetic images our daydreaming brains conjure in a given moment. The only difference here is that we dispense with the film itself, much as we imagine the nonexistent texts of Percy Grainger’s The Warriors—Music to an Imaginary Ballet or Alexandros Mouzas’ Music for an Imaginary Film.

I realize, however, that there is alternate interpretation: the ice cream, rather than signifying cinema’s attempt to colonize and commodify taste, could instead reveal the earthly lack of the cinema, which requires the reality of taste to supplement or complete its imperfect and spectral vision. We know countless films, from Babette’s Feast to Big Night to The Chinese Feast, already exploit food as visual erotica, as did Tom Jones more literally before them. Flavor’s direct power is likewise shown in other films that present taste — that is, the sight of taste — as the ultimate offense and taboo: consider Pink Flamingos’ climactic moment of canine coprophagia, a novelty act such as The Worm Eaters, or those Chinese black magic horrors — such as The Devil (Xie Mo) and Centipede Horror — that obsess with the forced vomiting of vermin. Marco Ferreri’s Le Grande Bouffe makes the final Freudian turn by joining in the same absurdist swallow eros and thanatos, as the film’s grand bourgeois nihilists gourmandize themselves to death on a final meal of Nirvanic richness and unthinkable cruelty.

The present craze for flesh-hungry zombies in film and video games has, I think, degraded the good, healthy shock that attended the era of George Romero and his Italian epigones. The cannibalism that was once a significant taboo has become as sanitized as Catholicism’s tasteless wafer, flesh reduced to flour and blood to water in a sort of reverse miracle. We should not forget, however, that necessary connection between taste and smell. I suggest that film violence is desensitizing — and I don’t doubt it is — not because there is too much of it but because it has no full sense to begin with, only the crippling banality of vision. Most people believe the repetition of violence alone numbs us, but we become desensitized because the violence is odorless—if we smelled the burning flesh, the rot of the corpses, or the fetid, spilled fluids in the sun, we’d instantly be resensitized and would likely bolt the theater. Could it be that “Odorama” always held the panacea to our alienations?

Perhaps no account of the sociology of food is more thoroughgoing than Norbert Elias’ description of medieval commensalism in The Civilizing Process. Nobles cemented their economic bonds and established social hierarchies by passing communal plates at the dinner table, dunking their unwashed fingers into common bowls in a prescribed order, sharing each other’s saliva, and otherwise engaging in behaviors we’d today deem rather uncivilized. Postindustrial life has replaced the aesthetics of commensalism with the virtuality of mass production. We no longer need to dine at the same table because our foods are near-perfectly standardized: the eater of a Big Mac enjoys instant communion with the countless global strangers he knows bite into the sterilized and near-flavorless meat at the same instant he does. The consumer of Gone with the Wind ice cream likewise understands her love of the film transcends herself as long as other Germans — and one day the entire world — associate the flavor of bright raspberry with the film’s scenes of fiery-red destruction. The anthropologist Mary Douglas famously compared the ritual of the dining table to that of the sacrificial altar; today, we can dispense with both, for even if a Kentucky Fried drumstick in Nashville varies marginally from a drumstick in Beijing, and even if the two distant tasters rely on differently acculturated taste buds, they know that between their corporatized bird legs lives a virtual union more lasting than any merely human bond.

If corporatism destroys the geography of taste, a Gone with the Wind ice cream would logically colonize the geography of our minds, the visceral power of taste notwithstanding. We value taste because, like touch, it is ephemeral, providing an intense climax of sensation that, like a good narrative, obediently folds into denouement and closure. We may be amused that a carton of ice cream tries to express auteurist intent or tries to transubstantiate Max Steiner’s thick pathos into maraschino cherries, yet the ice cream, under the guise of pleasure, can be nothing less than the attempt to make uniform the sense which we’ve held so personally.

We can imagine unseen sights — say, a green cow with a dragon’s head, nine iron udders, and the head of Dick Cheney — but it is far more difficult to imagine unexperienced tastes, even in simple combinations. For example, what would a synthesis of cantaloupe and cinnamon taste like? We first imagine them alternately, then the cinnamon sprinkled atop the melon, then the two mixed in a blender — yet our virgin tongues can only create approximations based on general expectations and can never truly prepare themselves for the actual synthetic taste. Is this proof of something? The tongue is clearly the most naïve of all senses, unable to synthesize without prior experience, as the eyes can. It is unsurprising that the culture industry would like to step in and do the synthesizing for us, providing us with only prior ingredients and known quantities (i.e., Doctor Zhivago) that will not disturb our senses. Obviously, we will refrain from eating received visions; less obviously, we will now let our tongues, well-equipped with naïvete, explore a future whose senses grow increasingly farther from our reach.

  1. Kaufmann, Walter. Critique of Religion and Philosophy. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, 14. []
  2. The downgrading of taste is also revealed in the English prefixes used to signal eating or taste, gastro- and gusto-. The two seem unfortunately interchangeable, and oddly we use the word “gastronomy” rather than “gustonomy,” emphasizing the hidden site of digestion (“gastro-” or “the stomach”) rather than the site of pleasure. []
  3. The fetish or totemic character here is particularly notable, as pop-culture fetishes seldom address taste and generally are limited to sight — for instance, the inscribed visage of Ronald Reagan, Leonard Nimoy, or assorted saints on mass-produced commemorative plates. []
  4. I understand the church allows some leeway here — for instance, gluten-free sacramental wafers. []