Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it’s not available, because we stopped serving breakfast at 11:30. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
Restaurants are a precarious business.
People often show up to consume food in a rush, and are easily disgusted if the service doesn’t meet their exact expectations—even minor miscalculations can turn into loud complaints. If the atmosphere isn’t just right, if the food doesn’t arrive in a reasonable window of time, if other customers’ kids don’t behave, if the music is wrong, if any of a thousand variables becomes a problem, there’s a real risk of losing a customer’s business forever. The operating costs are high, typically, and the management has to trust haphazardly trained employees to prepare a variety of products consistently and quickly, ensuring they’re cheerful enough to handle the physical demands of carrying large trays of food while tolerating the often dehumanizing treatment of inconsiderate customers. Wages are generally so low an American can barely live on them, which frequently results in problems that affect an employee’s performance, including emotional distress. And customers don’t always consider any of these extenuating factors when judging the business.
So the people who own restaurants make rules. The rules help them deal with the complexities of their business model. And of course, as soon as there’s a rule, there’s a little territorial chieftain drunk on power prepared to apply it with rigid disregard for common sense.
This leads to dissatisfaction and rebellion.
Restaurants are breeding grounds for dissidents. Well-meant policies can curdle into mindless, ridiculous mandates. Dismantling them and reinstating a more humane world often requires an outsider with a voice of reason and, if it’s handy, an automatic weapon, as Michael Douglas’s haggard everyman in the movie Falling Down demonstrates.
Also, the management’s rigid rules can drive a character to the breaking point on either side of the counter.
That bit about not wearing enough “flair” in Mike Judge’s Office Space is a perfect way to demoralize Jennifer Aniston’s low-key, likable character, a version of Friend’s Rachel—only this time, without her coffee-shop support group. Turning an emotion like “spontaneous fun” or “wacky high spirits” into a meaningless, false requirement is not far from the truth at some chain restaurants, and is certainly grounds for flipping a long, emphatic bird in any setting. Office Space is a convincing argument that even normal people turn into revolutionaries when they can’t take any more and perceive that the only way to break free is to upset the current order. The intolerant bastard (played by Judge himself, incidentally) managing the movie’s fake pub, Chotchkie’s, has lost sight of reality, and exists in a world where fun is so important it has to be treated with humorless discipline.
Any rebel can identify that as a cause.
Some characters defy order and upset the humorless stability of a well-run restaurant because they’re a free spirit, and, well, just not a rule-follower. John Belushi’s Bluto in Animal House only cares about immediate gratification and having fun—there’s probably a sign in that cafeteria not to eat the food until you pay for it, but reining in his appetite to follow instructions is not even on Bluto’s list of considerations. The conservative, rule-following, top-of-the-power-structure students try to maintain status quo and smother Bluto’s chaotic influence, but are clearly outnumbered based on how quickly the food fight ignites. The idea that ’50s society was repressed is a basic trope, but the cliché is more fun if we get the sense that it’s always on the verge of subversive release and somebody’s about to get a face full of green Jell-O.
In the audience, we’re really happy that Bluto offends the nicely dressed conformists, and turns the cafeteria into a total mess. We’re all rebels at heart.
On the other hand, some characters buck against authority and upset other customers in a restaurant, because they’re kind of an ass. John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski believes he has the right to use profanities loudly in a nice little diner, because of the First Amendment. It’s not a First Amendment issue, as The Dude notes before abandoning him, and it’s also kind of uncool. Even if we’re on Walter’s side in a fight against nihilists later in the movie, the self-righteousness on his face when he stiffens his spine and announces his intention to finish his coffee isn’t all that attractive.
Some characters destroy the old order as an act of vengeance, often because that order is inherently cruel and sort of weird. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine in Seinfeld is plenty flawed, but she’s on the side of the downtrodden when she confronts the Soup Nazi and his inflexible requirements and unmerciful judgments. When the Soup Nazi realizes she has his recipes, he knows his nemesis Elaine has won—but it’s a pyrrhic victory, and he shutters his restaurant.
Rebels can win a battle and lose the war.
Once the war is lost, depressingly (but kind of humorously), some characters have to swallow their pride and ask for their job back. The Roches’ humbled narrator in their song “Mr. Sellack” is ready to submit to her former employer’s soul-killing requirements: Her dreams didn’t work out. She was singing “Hallelujah” when she left—it’s easy to imagine her quitting spectacularly, flipping the bird like Aniston—but that was then; the rules have won.
That’s the constant hassle: Breaking the rules feels good, but like the first moments after an April Fool’s Day prank when the joke’s over and everybody has to clean up the mess and get back to what they were doing, there are consequences to defiance. You have to pay the bills, as Aniston’s Office Space waitress points out.
Still—dehumanization, mindless rigidity, total disinterest, wounded self-righteousness, vengeance, and chasing dreams are all good reasons for characters to break down and challenge a restaurant’s regulations. Usually the story makes it clear why characters are acting a little crazy when they take a stand, or can’t overcome the rules without becoming emotional. We get why the guy in Falling Down is so upset by his lack of power; we get why Aniston’s character just wants to know what the minimum number of pieces of flair actually is.
Clarity around the reason for the rebellion is a reasonable expectation.
So why is Jack Nicholson rebelling against the restaurant rules in one of his most quotable movie scenes ever, from Five Easy Pieces? Watching what comes before and after helps explain why he’s so touchy.
That “I want you to hold it between your knees!” is one of the great Nicholson quotes, like “Here’s Johnny!” or “You can’t handle the truth!” Often it’s repeated as if the character is teasing the waitress with a weirdly kinky suggestion, or has just accomplished a triumphantly snarky putdown.
It’s natural to assume he’s simply a countercultural badass who goes around refusing to take guff from The Man (or The Intolerant Red-Haired Waitress).
But this is one of those ’70s-era movies that’s ambitiously trying to capture complicated, ambiguous emotions. Five Easy Pieces spends its 98 minutes trying to prevent us from reaching an unrealistically easy conclusion about Nicholson’s character’s behavior. The movie won’t allow oversimplified explanations for people’s emotions, or the true motivations of any of the great actors in the film.
Also, it’s a film that gives you no warning when it’s about to significantly change your understanding of who the Nicholson character is, or what’s eating him. So in the context of the film, there’s no quick explanation of why he gives up there in that diner just as he’s on the verge of cleverly figuring out how to get exactly what he’s decided he wants for breakfast. Why does he make that unlikely suggestion about what the waitress should do with the chicken just as he’s figured out how to win her petty game, rudely sweeping the drinks to the floor and storming out?
Obviously he’s fed up playing by someone else’s rules, struggling with a wave of disgust for the whole situation—including, we infer, a ton of self-contempt.
That’s more complicated than just being a badass. One of his traveling companions even tries to frame the whole episode as a brilliant, noble act of protest with him as a wily, subversive hero, but he won’t let her. He won’t let the answer be that easy.
His impatience with the waitress is nuanced when compared with Douglas’ no-good-very-bad-day-not-gonna-take-it-anymore schmoe’s inability to further tolerate life’s crappiness. In Five Easy Pieces, the authoritarian server’s insistence on the rules is just as constricting as the expectations of the movie’s stroke-silenced father. Eventually we start to see why Nicholson’s character is so quickly angered, why he’s endlessly dissatisfied with himself for being unable to gracefully accept his Lear-like father’s expectations—or the rules of that diner.
He certainly understands the rules. His character knows a lot about absorbing and adhering to instructions handed down from generation to generation, with only a little room for personal interpretation of those instructions: turns out this oil well rigger is a classical pianist too.
Let’s break down the complexity of what he wants and what the diner will give him, which he figures out and is able to manipulate instantly: He doesn’t want potatoes. He wants tomatoes. But, no substitution are allowed, even though by watching the waitress react to his challenge he infers, apparently correctly, that the restaurant has tomatoes. He’s flexible enough to give up on the tomatoes, though, so he tries to play by the rules and get a plain omelet, which comes with potatoes, and then have them hold the potatoes. After that, with a cup of coffee and some wheat toast, he’ll make do. Then the waitress points out that “No Side Orders” is a rule similar to the “No Substitutions” rule. Nicholson’s character accepts that, and infers they have bread and a toaster. So, he invents on the spot a completely legit plan that should make everyone happy: He’ll have the omelet, the coffee, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, hold everything, including the chicken salad.
If the situation could have ended there, everything would have been fine. He’s quick-witted and knows how to play by the rules, and can even tolerate a certain amount of waitress sass when it’s in his best interest. But she takes it one step further, and he can’t keep it together. The rules and their enforcers are overwhelming.
Nicholson’s character can’t get himself to accept the rules in any area of his life, can’t find his place anywhere, doesn’t know what he wants, even, and therefore never gets it. He can’t handle the truth. “I know what it comes with, but it’s not what I want,” he says (specifically about the No. 2’s inclusion of cottage fries and rolls; indirectly about life).
In a way, that defiant “I want you to hold it between your knees” shouldn’t be quoted unless there’s somebody nearby to add the line from the next scene, Nicholson’s character’s reply to the traveling companion’s celebration of his bold cleverness: “Yeah, well, I didn’t get it, did I?”
Just ask the Roches’ Mr. Sellack: the rules are there for a reason, and they’re probably going to remain in place even after a character takes a noble, crazy run at them. Somebody’s got to clean behind the steam table, and nobody’s going to get a side of wheat toast.
It does feel good for a minute, though, to rise up in defiance.
Spinach, bacon pancakes, the secret of Crabby Patties, and “Cheese, Gromit!”