I’m thrilled to have written a few entries in the newly published Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, edited by Andrew F. Smith. As I flip through this tome—brimming with stories about Gotham’s notable foods and beverages, restaurants and bars, historical sites and events, cuisines, personalities, and brands from throughout the city’s five boroughs—one of my favorite entries so far is on Edward Hopper’s paintings of New York City food life.
Depicting at times eerily quiet moments with minimal action between human figures, Hopper’s subject matter often drew from urban sites of quotidian America life, including food spaces—modest restaurants, automats, coffee shops, and chop suey joints—which Hopper frequented often with his wife. His paintings use these culinary locales, however, to express the common themes that mark his body of work: anonymity, anxiety, pensiveness, loneliness, and isolation.
Hopper’s work critiques the promises of an abundant, fast-paced, cosmopolitan life in the big city, showing how the easy availability of food and drink at all times of the day and night might not lead to contentment. Instead, it fosters dissatisfaction and unease. More isn’t better. More might, in fact, be less…and lonely.
While others have commented on the lack of food in Hopper’s food spaces, I wonder if one of the things we can take from his paintings in our present food moment is the darkness that ensues when food loses its abilities to foster commensality, community, and joy. Some will argue that knowing where your food comes from and making ethical purchases fosters human connection that ripples throughout the food chain. Others might assert that mindfully engaging in the rituals of eating can make even a solitary cup of coffee a rich and meaningful experience.
I’m not sure what Hopper would make of our alternative food movement, but his critique is most poignant in Nighthawks (1942), a painting that despite its largely pessimistic view of “America” has become an icon of American popular culture, frequently featured, adapted, and parodied. Some maintain Hopper’s tone of loneliness and elusive satiation, while others depart from it:
In the wake of the massively anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I am also intrigued by the many Star Wars parodies of Nighthawks, including this one:
Although fortifying themselves with beverages, our favorite characters sit alone, even when seated side-by-side. Looking straight ahead or with eyes cast downward, they stare off blankly. They are tired, perhaps remorseful, a bit defeated.
Here begins my rant.
This Hopper parody perfectly encapsulates what has happened to Star Wars in the tumultuous flood of promotion that has accompanied Episode VII. I’ll preface this by saying I’m a pretty liberal scholar of American consumer culture; I don’t find it wholly controlling, stagnating, base, or constraining. I find it possesses limitless potential for consumers to make their own meaning in ways that exceed false consciousness or the intentions of big business and advertising. I’ll also add that I’m no Star Wars aficionado or geek. I didn’t grow up with it. I didn’t even see any of the films until college. That said, even I am shocked and appalled by the overt and never-ending commodification of this installment of the franchise. In acts of sinister synergy, there are product tie-ins for everything from toys and novelty items (which at least make sense) to:
- coffee creamer (Boba Fet’s flavor is Italian sweet crème. I’m not joking.)
- sandwiches (Didn’t you know lightsabers and footlongs pair perfectly?)
- ice cream (Yup, you can choose between the dark side and the light side flavors.)
- batteries (Duracell’s tie-in is actually mentioned on the film’s website for positively promoting imagination.)
- laptop (It allows you to “unleash your inner sith” with a red backlit keyboard.)
- jewelry (Because every kiss begins with Darth.)
- make up (Verbatim promo for Star Wars Limited Edition Super Sizer Mascara: “Dare to discover your dark side with 400% more corner-to-corner volume.)
This might actually be the dark side, people. Look at the painting! This sort of madness murders R2-D2 and C-3PO, leaving them askew in the snow, discarded scraps of metal. This over-commodification exhausts a mythology based a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that has come to be devastatingly meaningful to fans. Star Wars as a film empire may prove timeless and universal, but its marketing potential ought to exercise some reasonable limits. To be surrounded at every turn by movie tie-ins is not to pay tribute to a significant part of cinematic culture, but to be well and truly alone, numbly staring into our drinks à la Hopper.