Hamburger America

Movies about food preparation and consuption also tend to be films about enjoyment, and George Motz’s Hamburger America (no IMDB listing) is no exception. That these films also often tend to be about place also seems far from coincidental. While I have in mind films such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate, and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, all of which celebrate the sensual pleasures of preparing and consuming good food, a certain type of enjoyment even creeps into several scenes in Morgan Spurlock’s scathing critique of the fast food industry, Super Size Me. (my review), even though Spurlock seeks to deny or disable that pleasure by showing the harmful consequences of a fastfood diet on his body.

It’s this pleasure in preparing and consuming food, namely hamburgers, that Hamburger America seeks to celebrate. I had a chance to watch the film last night at a screening, wisely served with a burger and a beer, here at Catholic University last night (the film’s director George Motz attended CUA). In the film, Motz travels to eight burger joints scattered across the US, sampling the burgers at each location and allowing the restaurant’s owners to talk about the work that goes into the preparation of their specialty and about the history of the restaurant itself, which more often than not, also represents something of a fmaily history. Motz wisely stays off camera, allowing the locals to speak for themselves rather than making himself the “star” of the documentary. In a sense, the film is “about” a certain mode of production, nostalgic for the local cuisines that sometimes disappear beneath the weight of so many franchise restaurants. This enjoyment of the local became most vivid for me during Motz’s visit to the Bobcat Bite, a Santa Fe, New Meixco diner, where the specialty is a green chile burger. Because I had several friends in graduate school who were from New Mexico, I came to some understanding of just how important the green chile is to the local cuisine, and each restauarant offered some kind of similar localized pleasure (even writing this review is making me hungry).

There were a few places where the film seemed to want to defend itself “in advance” against the anti-fastfood treatises such as Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, with several characters reporting that they eat one of the local hamburgers every day, and those comments about the healthiness of eating hamburgers struck me as somewhat unnecessary, as I don’t read either of those texts as criticizing the local burger stand at all (both Spurlock and Schlosser. Instead, they seem more critical of the fast food industry as such (in which food preparation is completely mechanized) or in the monopolization of choice (fast food restaurants that eclipse the local that we se in Motz’s film).

On the whole, however, Hamburger America is an enjoyable little film (it should be playing soon on the Sundance Channel, I believe), although you probably should not watch it while you’re hungry.


  1. Darren Said,

    September 30, 2005 @ 9:48 pm

    I caught this on Sundance a month or two ago. It was one of those happy accidents. I was flipping channels, saw that a documentary was about to start, and gave it a shot. What began as a fairly pedestrian idea became more and more interesting to me as it went on.

    What most impressed me was the attitude the filmmakers took toward the people in the film — both the burger-makers and the customers. There were so many opportunities for Motz to invest them with artificial weight, but he always maintained a position of curiosity. It’s a very humanistic film, I think. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 30, 2005 @ 10:03 pm

    Yes, I think Motz’s “position of curiosity” kept the film grounded, and the treatment of both customers and burger-makers always seemed generous to me as well.

  3. Ueber Alles Said,

    October 1, 2005 @ 3:17 am

    Ueber Alles – The Movie – They disproved Einstein!

    Forget everything you know….

    This movie is a mental rollercoaster!

    Ueber Alles – The Movie

  4. harry Said,

    October 16, 2005 @ 2:36 am

    We screened the movie a few nights ago, and what strikes me as a key to the film is the depth George goes into about cooking methods and recipes while managing at the same time to keep the movie focused as a story about people.

  5. Chuck Said,

    October 16, 2005 @ 10:32 am

    Thanks for stopping by. I’d agree that these are the strengths of the film. I’m always intrigued by the emphasis on the “local,” and these individualized recipes, in my reading, can even be understood as an implicit critique of the chain restaurants that homogenize taste.

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