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Friday, August 27, 2010

This Week's Mercury Food Section: The Celluloid Diner

Posted by Patrick Alan Coleman on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 12:18 PM

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Call them what you will—coffee shops, greasy spoons, truck stops—I'll always know them as diners. And I love a diner; especially one as good as City State, the subject of this week's Last Supper.

While City State doesn't have the neon and rough edges that I prefer in a diner, it's doing its best to create a classic diner feel, with a touch of chrome, a lunch counter, and some deep vinyl booths. One afternoon while sitting in one of those booths, I started thinking about how American movies have traditionally used the diner as a public place for private discussions; a brief stop on the long highway of character development; the scene of the crime; a symbol of poverty and despair; a place where lives change forever over a tuna melt, a cup of coffee and a slice of pie.

Below, I submit for your approval some of the best diner scenes Hollywood has ever given us. Some are funny, most have NSFW language, and at least one features a man being graphically shot in the face. Hit the jump for the celluloid diner extravaganza, and as always, your picks are always welcome in the comments.

Before we start, there's something I noticed about the portrayal of the American diner on film: It seems when it comes to the movies, misogyny and chicken-fried steak go hand in hand. In films, diners are often places of testosterone and violence, where if women have a role at all, it's as conquest or server (and sometimes both). While I'd never made that explicit connection as a younger man, I can say when I look back on my life, the diner has always held a weird sense of swagger and masculinity. It doesn't really make sense, but there it is. I wonder… Do women feel differently about diners than men? Why is that?

We can get right into that discussion with this clip from Altman's Short Cuts featuring Lilly Tomlin, Tom Waits, and Huey Lewis (sans the News).

I can tell you one thing: If you learned everything about being a diner waitress from American movies you'd never want to put on a name tag and one of those funny paper hats. Especially with assholes like Jack Nicholson trying to bend the rules to get a side order of toast. From Five Easy Pieces



Why is the diner such a great place for discussions? It seems odd that people would talk so frankly in a place so completely public. Perhaps it's the noise. Perhaps it's knowing your fellow diners have been seduced into a fat-laden food reverie. Whatever it is, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino take advantage of the situation in Heat.

Harry and Sally also take advantage of the public-privacy of the diner in When Harry Met Sally. But here we learn there is a limit to how far you can take the conversation. This diner scene also stands out as one of the few where a woman is portrayed in a strong, positive light.


In this brilliant clip from The Hudsucker Proxy, the privileged conversation becomes narration for a scene that must have occurred a million times in a million diners across the country… In the Coen brothers' imaginary America, at least.

It seems that when people aren't falling in love or talking about crime in a diner, they're threatening to fuck each other up. Or sometimes actually fucking each other up. Even Superman gets in on the action. Click the picture to link to the clip from Superman II.

Ive never seen garbage eat garbage before
  • "I've never seen garbage eat garbage before"

The diner becomes a chilling setting for Viggo Mortensen to reluctantly inflict some brutal retribution in Cronenberg's A History of Violence

With all of the diner mayhem, it's good to know there are Bad Motherfuckers like Jules around to spread a little peace. From Pulp Fiction.

In the end, it can be hard to tell whether the diner is a sanctuary or just the setting for a bad dream, like Winkie's in Mulholland Drive



I guess the take home lesson here is that according to Hollywood, your favorite diner holds far more intrigue than a decent plate of fried potatoes. Maybe that's why I keep going back.

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