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.