Great Wine Moments in Movie History by CJ

Great Wine Moments In Movie History I – Bullitt (1968)

You have to focus on Bullitt pretty hard to spot its wine moment, I'll grant you. You have to want to see it. In fact, to be perfectly honest, it helps if you freeze-frame it on your home video and pore obsessively over the sequence where Lieutenant Frank Bullitt goes and has dinner at the preposterously-named Coffee Cantata restuarant (an actual place) in San Francisco.

Only then do you stand a real chance of discerning the instant where a wine waiter walks behind Lt. Bullitt, going from right to left of the frame, bearing a tray of drinks which are presumably meant to be wine. One hesitates to say conclusively that it is wine because although there are five or six half-full glasses on the waiter's tray, plus a possibly-stoppered but apparently label-free bottle, what's in them looks like Ribena or cherryade, or possibly red diesel, depending. The stuff is far too brightly transparent, with a horrible ruby-pinkness (perhaps the Technicolor, there), somehow made worse by the camp implausibility of the waiter doing the carrying.

This walk-on sports a supertidy Martin Scorsese beard plus collar and tie, uneasily contrasting with a bead necklace/Mandala chain round his neck to denote some kind of hippy partiality, but either way he looks wrong. And if he looks wrong (one instinctively feels), then what he's carrying must be wrong, too.

Not that Lt. Bullitt cares. He just angles himself into his seat at the table, from where he subjects his girlfriend (played by the worryingly beautiful Jacqueline Bisset) to a succession of quizzical, potent, glances. Meanwhile, a jazz quartet (real group, Meridian West) fires up and starts noodling away at some deliriously po-faced Jazz Flute music. A minute passes, and it's over. Everything about it, like everything else in the wonderfully lean Bullitt, does its bit and then makes way for the next piece of the story.

So, why the wine? After all, it passes in the blink of an eye, and the next really prominent drink you see is a glass of milk, being consumed with every sign of enjoyment by the Lieutenant. And when I first saw the film, when it came out, in the cinema, I must have been all of eleven, and not in any position to have any feelings towards wine, or Jazz Flutes, or anything even marginally sophisticated. I was there for the shoot-outs and the peerless car chase.

But eleven is an age when you are on the threshold of that larger understanding of the world about you; when adult things start to acquire a chimerical significance; when, for reasons you can't begin to articulate, that otherwise tiresome scene in the Coffee Cantata has a resonance which becomes clearer over time - the studied easiness of grown-up people in a trendy restaurant; the presence of Jacqueline Bisset; the glimpse of that drink which up to now has seemed bafflingly unpalatable but which is clearly a key component in this slinky new world.

Until I went back and checked, I would have sworn that Bullitt actually consulted the wine list and was about to opt for a nice Californian Zinfandel. But then that's what happens when the fuddled desires of youth get entangled with the consolations of middle-age.


Great Wine Moments In Movie History II – The Philadelphia Storu (1940)

There are plenty of movies with heavy drinking in them - The Lost Weekend (potential attempted suicide) and Leaving Las Vegas (chronically protracted suicide) spring to mind - but let's be candid: you come out of Weekend or Vegas sweatily vowing thenceforward never to consume anything stronger than shandy. They are both poor advertisements for drink.

So at this traditionally difficult time of year, you need something a bit more sanguine, a movie that's not afraid to look booze in the face and still act unconcerned. And in The Philadelphia Story we have a film which is not only incandescent with stardust, witty in a way that no movie has managed since the 1940's, luminously shot and sparklingly acted, but also steeped in alcohol. This is your film.

Does it apologise for drinking to excess? Does it promote it as a pastime? No. It disapproves. But it disapproves so seductively that it's not always easy to tell quite where The Phildelphia Story's personal ideology is located. C. K. Dexter Haven, for instance, a well-heeled yacht designer (played with impeccable generosity by Cary Grant) has previously been married to beautiful, chilly, heiress Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn, radiant and terribly funny), but the experience turned him into an alcoholic. Now acceptably dry, he looks on as she attempts to marry for the second time: the proposed husband a worthy goob called Kittredge, who worships the ground she treads on, as well as being ignorant of the fact that, in the right conditions, Tracy Lord will get shitfaced on Champagne and misbehave spectacularly. The conditions - a great society party on the eve of the wedding - duly transpire, and Tracy ends up in the arms of troubled hack journalist (he intends to be a great writer) Macauly Connor (a stupendously thin and passionate James Stewart, his only Oscar-winning performance), both adrift on a sea of drink.

The whole thing is Hollywood at the absolute peak of its powers - brilliantly clever, droll, magical. The emotional entanglements rival anything in Jane Austen. The resolution is as wise as it is heartwarming. Yes, the world is divided into those who like The Philadelphia Story and those who prefer the musical remake, High Society. But even allowing for the charmlessness of Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra's inability to act, Society is still a crappy film. The Philadelphia Story is the one which is preserved in the United States National Film Registry as an artifact of especial cultural merit. I rest my case.

And the drink, of course, the drink. By my rough reckoning, somewhere between half and two-thirds of the movie is spent with the characters drinking, getting drunk, being drunk, and recovering from being drunk. It is a drinker's fairytale, in which the cast starts on sherry, moves on to orange juice in a fleeting diversion by the pool ('How about you, Mr. Connor?' asks C. K. Dexter Haven, 'You drink, don't you? Alcohol, I mean?') before swerving into the cocktail hour, followed by a cadenza of endless Champagne. 'More Champagne!' cries the reprobate Uncle Willie at the height of the party, and by God, they get it. 'That was a flock of wine we got away with', Connor says to Tracy in the blinding sunshine of the following morning. 'What about an eye-opener?' Which arrives in the form of one of Uncle Willie's notorious pick-me-ups. 'What is it?' Tracy asks Dexter Haven. 'Just the juice of a few flowers', he says. And, suitably re-lit, they all launch into the final scene, mirth and heartache all round.

It is, therefore, an intoxicating film - figuratively - about figurative and literal intoxication, and the wisdoms that spring from it. It is a film that makes you feel better about drink and the world, which reminds you that Hollywood was once able to make the highest kind of art, and which demands, in the best possible way, that you raise a glass to it.


Great Wine Moments In Movie History III – Withnail And I (1987)

Withnail and I, a British masterpiece from 1987, is so profligate with its brilliance that if it has a problem, it's that it's one of those movies which too easily reduces itself to scene-spotting and quote-topping. If I come up with 'We've gone on holiday by mistake,' you'll come back with 'I feel like a pig shat in my head.' If you announce, 'We are not drunks, we are multi-millionaires!' then I reply with, 'I think it's time to release you from the legumes, and transfer your talents to the meat.' If I say, 'The entire sink's gone rotten,' you say, 'Then the fucker will rue the day!' And so on. It is an obsessional movie, a movie about obsession. And it makes its admirers into obsessives as well.

If it has a plot at all then it notionally concerns one thing: the attempts of failed actors Withnail (played by Richard E Grant, magnificently hysterical) and Marwood, his pal (played by Paul McGann, just on the edge of sanity, a look of constant terror on his face, as if about to be dragged into a threshing machine), to get wasted, even to the brink of death. No drug is too foul or too inappropriate: from speed, to lighter fluid, to dope, to anti-freeze, nothing is beneath contempt.

The drug of choice, though, the one that really gets them through the day, is alcohol. 'A pair of quadruple whiskies,' gasps WIthnail at closing time, 'and a pair of pints.' In a genteel tea-shop, he yells, 'We want the finest wines available to humanity', shortly before being thrown out. Indeed, about the second thing that happens in the movie is Withnail announcing, in sepulchral tones, 'I've some extremely distressing news...We just ran out of wine.' Wine, a baffingly patrician drink for such a pair of low-lifers, is the release they crave.

And they get it, in quantity, at Uncle Monty's frightful country cottage. A chapter of accidents sees them flee London for some quiet time in a nameless part of the North. Monty, a vision of magisterial camp, delineated to perfection by Richard Griffiths, unexpectedly turns up with the right stuff. 'Which of you,' he asks, gazing humidly at the two young men, 'is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?' And the wine certainly looks pretty good, as they work their way through it, in the form of an accompaniment for a leg of lamb and in purely spontaneous, hard core boozing.

It should look good, because it actually is. Bruce Robinson, the mad genius - as writer and director - behind Withnail apparently acquired a job lot of superb wines from an idiot in Manchester who didn't know what he had. It came from a hotel that was closing down, where the proprietor had a load of old drink which he reckoned was 'muck' and far too musty to sell to anyone with a taste for the good life. The muck included Chateaux Beychevelle, Petrus and Margaux, two hundred bottles in all, for which Robinson paid a couple of hundred quid. His plan was to use them as props in the film then auction them at Sotheby's afterwards and make a small fortune.

As it turned out, the cast and crew (with the exception of Richard E Grant, a teetoller, not that you can tell from his peerless impression of an out-of-control toper) drank the lot, in the space of a fortnight. According to Robinson, 'It was saveloy and chips with...shall we have the Beychevelle or Margaux?' In the end, only the empty bottles remained, Grant sharing the final scene of the film with what was once a '53 Margaux, plus the wolves at London Zoo.

As it turns out, Withnail and I is in reality a rite-of-passage movie, quite touching by the end, but a movie set in such an exorbitantly degenerate landscape that internal and external chaos are only a sudden flinch away. One, also, in which great wines get necked as if they were straight out of the remainders bin. Which is one very good reason why the film is such a classic: its integrity, its fidelity to the whole ethos of derangement is such that not only do its makers appear to be downing the finest wines available to humanity without even a backward glance, they really were downing them. This anarchic generosity of spirit, this crazed identification with the film's characters, floods through the movie itself, making it luminous with truth, and even a rancid kind of love. Is it the last truly great British movie? I'm inclined to hold my glass up to the fading light and repeat the words of Uncle Monty - 'There can be no true beauty without decay,' and nod, sagely.


Great Wine Moments In Movie History IV – Babette's Feast (1987)

Keen cineastes will have noticed the 25th anniversary cinema re-issue of Babette's Feast at the end of last year: winner of the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Babette, as it turns out, is also the perfect Christmas movie, on account of its bleakly puritannical first seventy-five minutes being followed by a twenty-five minute conclusion of such sumptuous generosity that you can't help but come out of the movie house feeling better about yourself and indeed, the rest of mankind.

The tale is simple: a Parisian masterchef - the eponymous
Babette - having fled the chaos of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, finds herself a refugee in Jutland of all places, among a small coastal community of impossibly pious and self-denying Danes. Unlike the voluptuous French for whom she has been catering all her life, these live on prayer, fresh water, mortification of the flesh and salted fish. They all seem to be about eighty years old. Full of Christian charity, they take her in.

Time passes. She toils among the seaweed and ludfisk. And then - and I don't think I'm giving too much away, here - Babette comes into a small fortune. Salvation: she can at last afford to leave Jutland and the muttering Danes, and return to a more congenial environment. But does she? No, in a spirit of love and gratitude she prepares the pinched little community the most delicious and extravagant meal it has ever eaten. Which also means wine, a commodity they normally avoid - a fine amontillado to go with the turtle soup, and then, famously, an 1860 Veuve Clicquot and an 1845 Clos Vougeot. By the end, a quiet ecstasy has overcome the oldsters, and they stream out into the night, beneath the diamond canopy of Heaven. And Babette has spent every last sou of her fortune.

Obviously, it's all in the telling. One stroke of genius was to cast Stéphane Audran as Babette. I don't want to get into a debate, right now, about who was the greatest French screen goddess (Bardot? Deneuve? Arletty? Isabelle Huppert?) but Audran is definitely among them. And perfect for Babette - beautiful, austere and proudly sensual. Cunningly enough, her genius as a cook is given full and disinterested recognition in the mouth of one of the more unlikely guests at the feast, a Swedish General who not only knows his way around the table, but around the wine cellar as well. High comedy ensues as he tucks, bewildered, into his Blinis Demidoff and his Caille en Sarcophage, wondering how a bunch of hayseeds can have magicked up such an incredible meal.

The setting, too, is perfectly realised. Karen Blixen's orginal story, Babettes Gaestebud, was set in Norway. But when the film's director, Gabriel Axel, went in search of locations, he found Norway too picturesque to sustain the note of spartan perversity that he wanted to evoke. So he came home to Jutland, whose western edge was quite horrible enough for his purposes. He had a fake late-nineteenth century coastal village thrown up amid the sand dunes - bleak and inhospitable as a bus stop in North Shields - and started filming. And the food: it appears as a genuine epiphany, spiritual and physical at the same time, created with devotion, consumed reverently, a kind of miracle; which, in the late nineteenth century, the greatest cooking probably was, probably in a way we don't understand any more. The booze, too: when the Swedish General realises that he's drinking a forty-year-old Clos Vougeot, you gasp with him, so intense is the moment.

Like any good film, it throws up more questions than answers. Is the whole event a critique of the futile spirituality of the Danish believers? Is Babette's sacrifice of her wealth a necessary atonement for a life spent in the service of a superevolved hedonism? Is the film humanist or quietly theist? Is it an incredibly roundabout way of hymning the pleasures of a really good dinner? Is it, even, about the wine, without which all the rest is necessary but not sufficient?

To be honest, when I saw the film back in the Eighties, once the glow of the fabulous Ms. Audran had worn off a bit, the thing I couldn't get out of my mind was the Clos Vougeot, and the supressed rapture with which the General pronounces that name. Clos Vougeot: just saying it is luxurious. At the time, I'd never heard of the stuff. Years later, I actually had some in a poncy restaurant somewhere in London. I can't really remember what it tasted like; but I think it must have been good. Or was that the movie talking?


Great Wine Moments In Movie History V – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

You have to hand it to Stanley Kubrick: his hit rate was amazingly high. Once you get past a clutch of early-Fifties apprentice works (Flying Padre; The Seafarers, anyone?) and onto The Killing of 1956, just about all his movies were international successes (Spartacus; 2001; The Shining; Dr. Strangelove), or, failing that, technically groundbreaking (Barry Lyndon; The Shining, again), or at the very least, magisterially controversial (Lolita; A Clockwork Orange). And of the big hits, 2001 - the only one with an Academy Award - scoops the trifecta on account of being an international success, a technical tour de force and, for over forty years, a source of chronic, aggrieved, debate.

After all, what the hell's it about? Yes, a sleek black monolith - as it might be, a support for the refurbished Hammersmith Flyover - makes timely appearances in the course of mankind's evolution from ape hominid to intergalactic starchild. But the narrative (if indeed it is the narrative) is so stately, so glazed with symbolism, that, for all its musicality and its frigid beauties, it quickly becomes (in the wrong hands) a Sixties chess challenge, a revenant culture puzzle with a top dressing of A Saucerful of Secrets.

The last ten minutes of the movie were the trickiest part of Kubrick's overall plan, and certainly provide the most fruitful ground for disagreement. These are the moments where astronaut Bowman (played by the intentionally interest-free Keir Dullea) disappears through the acid-trip star gate and ends up in a denatured Louis XVI hotel room with a spooky light-box floor. A series of enigmatic visual translations gets him out of his space suit and into the room, where he ages, dies, and at the moment of contact with the monolith, superevolves.

But just before that, he eats a meal. And not a Soylent Green-style putty, such as he and his colleague, Poole, have been stoically scarfing up while on board the big spaceship. This is a daintily-served main course, on a table, with some greens and a bread roll, and a glass of white wine (Why not red, to match his space suit? Or betoken blood? Wrong visual register?). The ageing Bowman takes a swig of the wine (a nice Pouilly-Fumé let's say) and forks in some greens. He eats with pensive slowness. With the edge of his hand, he accidentally knocks the wine glass over. The glass shatters on the glowing floor. He leans over and stares at the breakage for a full fifteen seconds, before lifting his gaze to see himself, lying on his own deathbed.

What does the bedroom mean? What does the meal mean? What the shattering of the wine glass? The critic Roger Ebert got out of it at the time by interpreting the whole environment as a 'Non-descriptive symbol'; while Kubrick himself kept questioners at bay by talking about 'Areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer'.

Move on to the present day, however, and it's open season: one online obsessive claims that the shattering of the glass is a concretion of Bowman himself breaking 'The film's visual code'; another argues that it refers to the Jewish tradition of smashing a wine glass at a wedding; 'Even after all that he has been through Bowman still makes mistakes,' asserts another; yet another ties it with a thousand knots to the Kabbalah and the Philospher's Stone; 'The symbolism is related to the smashing of the Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove,' says one nutter, somewhere; 'I should have read the book,' admits a straggler on reddit; and so on.

The thing is, it is clearly wine - suggesting a return to a more harmonious, pre-technological existence (also implied by the curly furniture and the dodgy Old Masters on the walls), as well as hinting at liturgical overtones/ritual sensibilities/cultural centrality. And the glass falls and shatters: a sign that things are about to move from one state to the next, causing Kier Dullea (with that sinister overgrown-baby look, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange) to give it his fifteen seconds of attention, before transubstantiating into a starchild and bringing the movie to a close.

We know that the last things anyone will find in a Kubrick movie, are unintended things. We also know that one of the things 2001 is not terribly much about, although not not about, is food and drink. And yet the last thing we see Bowman do is knock over a glass of wine.

I think I've said enough.


Great Wine Moments In Movie History VI – Gideon Of Scotland Yard (1958)

Gideon Of Scotland Yard (1958) is not much of a film, not by anyone's standards, and certainly not by the standards of its director, the legendary John Ford. What the creator of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was doing in the late 1950's with the small-budget London-based policier which is Gideon, is a bit of mystery. But there it is, Ford's only cop movie and one of very few films that he set in (what was then) the present day. I have now seen it twice, which is probably once more than John Ford ever saw it.

What's the story? We follow Chief Inspector George Gideon (played by Jack Hawkins, an actor whose head was directly attached to collar of his suit, no neck involved) through the course of one stupendously busy day, involving multiple murders, gun crime (quite a rarity in 1950's England), a Docklands boys' club, bribery & corruption, some fresh fish, an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, several routine traffic offences, and a lino-textured subplot involving the Inspector's daughter (played by a very young Anna Massey) and a chinless tyro police constable.

In the course of the action Inspector Gideon consumes (along with several cigarettes and a couple of pipefuls of ready-rubbed) five cups of tea, two bottles of beer, one pint of draught bitter, and two whiskies. Other members of the cast get through tea, whisky, a pint of half-and-half (light & bitter? mild & bitter?), gin (part of my ongoing gin fixation finding expression in the towering goblet of neat, room-temperature gin drained off in one scene by the slatternly wife of Cyril Cusack, playing a police snitch), plus a glass of some other drink. This is briefly sipped by Mrs. Kirby, the wife of a bent (and actually, dead) copper, before being tossed furiously in Gideon's startled granite face. What is it? It is never made clear - but it could be some kind of wine.

Not an appellation, clearly - this is 1958, and most of England was nowhere near that kind of cosmopolitanism, except at some restaurants and mausoleum-like gentlemen's clubs - but I'm guessing a wine-based beverage, maybe a Vermouth, maybe some kind of horrible Tonic Wine, a Wincarnis, at any rate something consumed in a chi-chi patterned wineglass with a stem and a foot, things that Inspector Gideon would be immediately suspicious of.

Rightly so: drink, soft or alcoholic, not only punctuates the movie, it provides a rubric, a commentary on the moral sense of the drinker. Tea, British tea, is the constant on which everything else depends. The virtuous consume it like water. Even the widow of the bent copper, otherwise a picture of weakness and corruption, has a cup of tea at The Yard while in for questioning, a sign that her sense of right and wrong is still, just, reclaimable. At the other end of the continuum of virtue? Whisky. In the film's only scene of real tenderness, Gideon and his superdependable ADC, Sergeant Golightly, share a nip of whisky from a hipflask kept in a filing cabinet and mutely reaffirm their love.

It is also whisky which is offered by the vampy Mrs. Dellafield - yet another suspect in the incredible catalogue of toerags and grifters who make up Gideon's day. She gives him a choice of drinks: he opts for whisky, of course. She is still on safe ground at this point. But when she attempts to drown the precious fluid in ginger ale, Gideon's suspicions go straight into the red zone, rightly, as it happens. Whisky, morally correct in the proper hands, becomes ambiguous, part of the currency of investigation, in the wrong ones.

But then, we kind of know from the start that Mrs. Dellafield is up to no good, the moment we glimpse her drinks tray on the way in: it looks just like Mrs. Kirby's – in fact it might even be the same props, cynically re-used. What have we already seen in Mrs. Kirby's illicitly-paid-for apartment? A couple of decent post-War big brown bottles with black and white labelling - whisky, perhaps a sherry too - but also some deformed and foreign-looking glassware and even a thing like a champagne bottle. I mean, it can't be, but the message is clear: the merest suspicion of wine, and you've got a likely perpetrator. Same stuff in the Dellafield studio-cum-boho-pad? All it takes is five minutes (after all, the Inspector still hasn't been home for his dinner) and the cuffs are on.

It's a simpler world, and in many ways, a much more appealing one. If your drink of choice is brown - tea, beer, whisky - you're probably in the clear. Any other colour? Alarm bells ring. Police work was like that in 1958. In fact, everything was like that. Mine's a half-and-half, and I'll trouble you for one of those individual pork pies, if I may.


Great Wine Moments In Movie History VII – An Eternal Golden Braid (1941-2005)

...Caché (2005): This wonderfully unsettling psychological thriller from Michael Haneke, deconstructs the supercomfortable middle-class wolrd of Daniel Auteuil, menaced by a hidden observer with a surveillance camera. Terrible truths are, inevitably, revealed. Being a film about well-heeled French domestic life - however threatened - it also contains several eating and drinking moments, and some handsome red wines: one of the absolute cornerstones of French culture, invisibly corrupted, as it turns out, by the invisible presence of Auteuil's stalker. That's how dreadful the threat is: even the innocent, pleasurable, wine becomes a part of it. So what antidote can there be to this existential terror?

Carry On Up The Khyber (1968): Best of the Carry Ons by a considerable margin, not least because of the celebrated sequence at the end of the film in which Sid James, Joan Sims and the rest, plough (with full decorations) through a formal British Raj dinner, under heavy bombardment from an army of enraged tribesmen led by the Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) and his lieutenant, Bungdit Din (Bernard Bresslaw). Bottles explode with shot, the chandelier crashes from the ceiling onto the table centrepiece, the orchestra is hit by a mortar shell, but the civilities never waver - not least in the the consoling and civilising presence of fine wines, a countervailing force against the dark barbarism outside. Clarets, from the look of them. Lady Ruff-Diamond (Sims), picking a chunk of ceiling from her pompadour hairstyle: 'Oh dear! I seem to have got a little plastered!'

Bicycle Thieves (1948): But what if you are the outsider? What if you are marginalised - like the father and son in Vittorio de Sica's masterpiece? Wine becomes implicated in your misfortune, an index, even, of your poverty and despair. Father (Lamberto Maggiorani) treats son (Enzo Staiola) to a restaurant meal with wine, a consolation for their latest round of misfortunes. 'Let's forget everything and get drunk!' he cries. But the next table is occupied by a family of gallingly prosperous suburban Romans. Their wine is plentiful and arrives in smart bottles with labels; the father and son's comes in a greasy blank carafe. The father's good mood begins to slip away. Within minutes, he is compulsively rehashing the events that have led to his downfall - the theft of his bike, mainly - and outlining the humiliation that threatens to overwhelm them. The wine is a false friend, confirming the mood, rather than banishing it. 'We'll find it,' says the son, braver than his father, 'we'll go every day to the Porta Portese'. Do they get drunk? No. But Dumbo does.

Dumbo (1941): This is one which Disney himself had to finish off, when most of his studio went on strike. It is also the one in which Dumbo and his friend, Timothy Mouse, accidentally get soused on some leftover grog - resulting in the authentically troubling Pink Elephants On Parade sequence. As anyone with children will tell you, this is one of the hardest episodes in a cartoon film to explicate to a four-year-old - harder, in its way, than the death of Bambi's mother or the surprising uselessness of The Jungle Book. Its vertiginous transformations and distortions (multicoloured devil elephants, amoebal ghost elephants) have something of the Little Nemo cartoons, but without the charm; while the atmosphere of sick menace is as bad as anything from Max Fleischer. This is not drink as we know it. This is a trip to the pharmacopeia, and one which tells you a lot about America's grimly conflicted relationship with drink and self-loathing. Not entirely dispelled by

The French Connection (1971): Another great film: William Friedkin's best, Gene Hackman's best, an unimprovable car chase, and a terrific stake-out sequence with Popeye Doyle (Hackman) freezing his butt off as he watches bad guy Charnier (Fernando Rey) tuck into a gourmet meal in a discreetly sumptuous New York restaurant (actually the Copain). Hackman gnaws a congealing pizza and blows on his chapped fingers; Rey luxuriates in, yes, a fine wine, a wine whose very fineness indicates how terrible and heartless he can be. This is wine as metaphor for evil - rather a remorseless depiction, especially from the country which gave us Dean Martin, but there you are. There is no necessary benevolence in the drink after all - only the capacity to take on a moral colour from whatever its surroundings happen to be. Which leads us handily back to the bottle on the sleek Parisan dining table...


So there were a few things I didn't write about, or couldn't be bothered to, for one reason or another, in 2016. Among them:

Great Wine Moments In Movie History VIII – Sideways (2004)

Given that Sideways in précis resembles nothing so much as Sediment (two middle-aged losers drink wine while failing to learn very much about themselves) it would seem the most obvious of all films to take a look at. Too obvious, perhaps. Also, despite the excellence of the leads (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) the movie as a whole left this reviewer just a tiny bit underwhelmed when he saw it a decade ago. The principal reason? Too much wine. And wine, as we all know, is the quintessentially boring consumable, more boring even than fast cars or cheese.

On the other hand, in a moment of great listlessness I did once Google Movies with wine in them, but that threw up some real oddities, so odd I just threw them straight back. Hands up if you've heard of, let alone seen, Bottle Shock (2008), This Earth Is Mine (1959, with Rock Hudson, Jean Simmons and Claude Rains, seriously), Merlove - A Documentary About Merlot Wine (2008, starring an animated bottle of Merlot), Barolo Boys (2014), A Heavenly Vintage (2009, New Zealand), The Secret Of Santa Vittoria (1969). None of which is to be confused with the profoundly yet satisfyingly insane The Duke Of Burgundy (2014) - a lesbian lepidoptery fetish movie starring the magnificent Sidse Babett Knudsen and a tremendous amount of ladies' underwear. But no wine, as I recall, although what I do recall of The Duke Of Burgundy I don't entirely believe.

Great Wine Moments In Movie History IX – Topsy-Turvy (1999)

As a rule, I find most of Mike Leigh's films completely unwatchable - his Happy-Go-Lucky of 2008 being about as bad as a film can get when it comes to tin-eared dialogue, lethargy-inducing mise en scène and dimwit characterization - and yet he has, in some kind of illustration of a basic human law, managed to produce a couple of really, really good movies - both period pieces: the authentically tragic Vera Drake (2004); and the authentically dazzling Topsy-Turvy - the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan got their groove back with The Mikado. And yes, in Topsy-Turvy, there is wine.

More accurately, drink punctuates the movie: a quiet index of the characters' situations and expectations, as meaningful as the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces. Which means that when, about fifty minutes in, we observe the actress Leonara Braham (unflinchingly played by Shirley Henderson) slumped in her dressing-room, filling a wine-glass brimful of neat bourbon and staring abstractedly into its depths, we know not just that something is wrong, but that it is terribly wrong.

After all, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) has been seen embracing the virtues of champagne (in a Parisian brothel); and some kind of high-end Burgundy, from the look of it, in a supersmart restaurant, where he inks his share in the new Savoy Hotel being built by D'Oyly Carte. His drink is a mark of licentiousness or high prosperity - in contrast with the stuff that W. S. Gilbert goes for. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent on pure top form) is prickly, diligent, obsessed with getting the small things right, keen not to waste money; tea and coffee are therefore his motifs, their sobriety only lessened when Sullivan - in one scene - plies him with a sugar-cube. Oh, and to round out the drinks selection, three of the younger male leads get stuck into some Guinness and oysters about half-way through the film; with hilarious consequences.

All of which is framed so thoughtfully, in such measured filmic terms, with such grave opulence, that it doesn't take much to disturb the surface richness. George Grossmith shooting up in his dressing-room is about the most shocking image; the actors' strike is almost as arresting, although for rather different reasons; Leonara Braham getting loaded and maudlin is another kind of backstage disruption, much bigger in impact than it has any right to be. As it happens, Miss Braham was in real life both a drunk and the mother of a clandestine child, even though her position in the company depended on her way with ingenue soprano roles. 'When I meet a gentleman, he invites me to supper,' she murmurs on-screen through her cigarette smoke, 'I mention my little secret - and then he's off, quick smart.' Her son, her 'Precious little bundle', is a tragedy as well as a justification for living - a situation which mirrors the bleak inability of the established, well-to-do Gilberts to conceive a child; as well as Sullivan's tendency to get his mistress pregnant before having the unborn child discreetly got rid of.

All of which is contained in the way Shirley Henderson aims her moue at the rim of her glassful of hard liquor, in the way she holds the glass close to her, tenderly resting it on her bodice, her fondling of the glass binding ideas of drink and maternal affection in one image. Which in turn is put into context by all the other visual references to cups, glasses, beakers and carafes littering the frame; which in their turn are all parts of the complex, crowded, visual texture of the film, whose genius is to reveal how all this density and complexity can be shaped into something as apparently air-light and uniform as The Mikado - or, if you want to go down that road, as coherent and satisfying as Topsy-Turvy itself. The glass is nothing, just a tiny part of the pattern, but on this occasion you've got to hand it to Mike Leigh: he really knows how to fill a picture with meaning.


Great Wine Moments In Movie History X – Noble Rot

First things first: Noble Rot was never actually made. Had it seen the light of day, it would have appeared some time around the end of 1983 and its principal star would have been John Belushi, of Saturday Night Live, Animal House and The Blues Brothers fame. Yes, the Noble Rot of the title does indeed refer to botrytis cinerea and, yes, wine is central to the premise of the film. Only two things in fact stood between Noble Rot and worldwide acclaim: the first was that Belushi died of a drug overdose in March, 1982; the second was the uncomfortable truth that Noble Rot was, according to Mike Ovitz, the Hollywood agent, 'Terrible'; adding, just to be clear, 'No-one will ever make this picture'.

This hasn't stopped it from acquring a curious, speculative life-in-death on the internet. There's more than one website dedicated to picking over the chimerical possibilities embodied in the script of Noble Rot - all that now remains of the project - and guessing how it might have provided Belushi with both a new career direction and a more impressive cultural legacy. Which, in turn, is a mystery in itself - the reverence which still haloes his name, twenty-five years after his death. After all, in this country at least, he was pretty good in Animal House, pretty tiresome in The Blues Brothers, and the bits of SNL that have floated up on YouTube are not without interest, but they don't make him look like a comic genius - more like someone whose edgy physical presence and gift for a certain kind of reckless deadpan made him the pet of his generation, but not much more than that, not after all this time.

At the start of the Eighties, though, he was so huge that plenty of people made it their business to find material that would enlarge the opportunities for his talents; and Noble Rot was the script in which he invested his last, best, most drug-addled hopes. The premise of the movie? Johnny Glorioso (played by Belushi), the undependable, gifted, scion of a tiny-but-perfect Sonoma winemaking family, has to take four bottles of the estate's finest produce (touched by botrytis, naturally) to a wine contest in New York, beat the pants off the opposition (which includes Blue Nun and Mateus, seriously) and thereby establish Glorioso Vineyards as a true contender. On the flight over, he falls into the hands of the duplicitous Christine (played by God knows who) at which point it turns into a diamonds-and-fraud caper, the sort that might once have starred Cary Grant or, at a pinch, William Powell.

Belushi himself - according to Bob Woodward's determinedly monotonous Wired: The Short Life And Fast Times Of John Belishi - had a hand in the script, and you can glimpse him and his co-writer Don Novello struggling to escape the burden of Animal House/Bluto Blutarsky ('Beneath that cold, beautiful exterior is a condescending person as vulnerable as any of us') without ever managing anything authentically clever ('The wine business isn't all popsicles and roses either.'). The idea canvassed at the time was that Belushi's genius for physical expression - plus the goodwill of his core audience - would be enough to bring the film to life. 'It needs a lot of work, John,' Belushi's manager told him; 'I'll make it work,' Belushi replied.

But the fact is that wherever you look, the storyline is so inert and the dialogue so pasteboard ('Somebody in your company must be in on it'; 'They may think he really is a vintner from California'; 'I'm glad I decided to fly commercially'), that no-one, not even Orson Welles (who gets his own freakish cameo in the second half) could have made much of it. Worse, no-one seems to have noticed that wine is, in itself, a quintessentially boring subject to base a movie on. Belushi must have assumed that wine would somehow lend classiness, sauvity, to his muddled character, something different from his usual screen persona. But wine is no more inherently interesting than potatoes; in fact its mere presence further deadens what is already straining to become a so-so jewellery heist romcom. Sideways (2004) at least addresses the boringness of wine and its devotees; Sideways is very slightly the film Noble Rot wanted to be. But even Sideways is a bit boring.

Anyway, Noble Rot didn't stay the course. It was in the process of being edged out by, of all things, a movie version of The Joy Of Sex when Belushi overdosed. But the script persists; and will go on persisting, a monument to a special kind of credulity. Until, possibly, they get Eddie Murphy to come out of retirement.


NB: I am indebted to David Secombe - cultural contrarian, cineaste and curator of The London Column - for the original tip-off about this doomed, depressing and truly futile project.

Great Wine Moments In Movie History XI – Solaris (1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) has become a one-film industry in its own right. Thousands of words have been written about it; thousands of hours spent debating its meaning and significance. It's Will Self's favourite film, but don't let that put you off. It's up there with A Bout De Souffle and Touch of Evil in cineaste culture. I saw it for the first time only the other day, so my take on it is still relatively innocent; although it's hard to shake off the feeling that Solaris is the kind of film enjoyed by people who don't really enjoy anything that much.

What's it about? In brief, this: strange goings-on (hallucinations, suicide) on board an elderly Russian space station floating above the planet Solaris require psychologist Kelvin to pay a visit and sort things out. When he gets there he finds the station tatty, mildly chaotic, the two remaining crew members (Snaut and Sartorius) in a state of deep, listless, alienation. He also discovers his wife, who actually committed suicide some years earlier. Not his actual wife, of course, but a projection of his memory of his wife, embodied by the psychically invasive planet above which the space station hovers. Hari - the wife - becomes increasingly real to Kelvin. Despite his efforts to kill her off and her own efforts to kill herself, again, she persists in hanging around to the point where the two rediscover their love for each other, or at least their love for an other which may or may not be the other. At the same time an accomodation must be reached with the sentient planet. Also, what is the meaning of space exploration? And what is the meaning of human? Is the film about the inevitability of repeating past mistakes? It's very Russian.

But here's the thing: in the course of a nearly three-hour movie, no-one on the space station eats or drinks a damn thing except at a melancholy party to celebrate Snaut's birthday. And what do they consume? Apart from the odd cigarette? Red wine. Why wine? It must mean something, because everything means something in Solaris

What is clear is that the wine accompanies an outburst by the misanthropic Sartorius, who reduces the luminously beautiful Hari to tears by reminding her that however real she may think she feels she is, she is no more than a representation of Kelvin's past and therefore has no existence. Shortly afterwards, she tries to kill herself. Again. It is one of the pivotal sequences - although every sequence might as well be a pivotal sequence, for that matter - and it has some red, not a burgundy, judging by the shape of the bottle, maybe a nice Dagestan, poured into crystal glassware. Tarkovsky was a deeply convinced Christian. A biblical, sacremental kind of wine? But Tarkovsky also disdained mere symbolism, the freighting of one thing with another's allegorical purpose. So perhaps not.

But it is red wine, after all, and nothing this colour inhabits the camera's field of view without some justification. Is it there merely to signal a lowering of inhibitions to the point where Sartorius can deliver himself of his thoughts? Man needs man, says Snaut, on his way to getting properly plastered. You're not a woman and you're not a human being, says Sartorius to Hari, a minute or so later, you're just a reproduction. A candelabrum crashes to the floor. 

Alex Garland's Ex Machina, from 2014, deals with similar ideas (handful of people in the middle of a futuristic nowhere, beautiful android girl crosses the line from machine to human) but the only booze in that movie appears to be designer vodka, in keeping with the affectless geeky modernity of the production. Or tequila. Either way, there's no visual impact if you use a clear beverage. Only red wine is emblematic of our shared humanity. Or maybe that's the point with the transparent vodka/tequila; maybe that's precisely the point in Ex Machina. And why aren't the Russians drinking vodka on the space station, it's the drink which fuelled a nation? Exactly. It has to be red wine. The characters in Solaris were dogged by disappointments, Tarkovsky later wrote, and the way out we offered them was illusory enough. I think, in the end, we all know what he means.


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