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Fries, and a wad of meat, to go with that shake

Exploring the vital role of fast food in cinema history takes very little time. By Dave White
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The animated feature “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters,” released this week, makes meaning out of a floating box of french fries, a milkshake prone to hysterical outbursts and a shape-shifting ball of ground beef. This means that anyone can invent meaning. So I will be that person. Right now you should get ready for a serious think piece about cinema.

Like that sled in “Citizen Kane” and that slab-of-whatever-it-is in “2001,” when you see french fries in a movie, you’re not just seeing them, you’re processing a complex series of semiotic codes. The purpose of french fries in most movies is to get thrown, to be used to rudely point at things or people, and to get stuffed into mouths en masse. Hence fries symbolize power, aggression and, conversely, humiliation.

In “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” the character of Frylock is the leader of the trio of non-crime-fighting, non-aquatic food products. He’s the smartest of the bunch and he floats above his roommates Master Shake and Meatwad, giving him a doubly powerful role in their crappy rundown house.

Bow down to the mighty FryFries give life-changing power to Elizabeth Berkley’s “Showgirls” character Nomi Malone, as well. In an early scene in the movie she violently jams them into ketchup and then hurls them across a table at her new best friend. Like a dog running around urinating on stuff to mark its territory, she establishes herself as the new sheriff in town, a woman who will do whatever it takes to become the most-nude person in Las Vegas.

No one else in “Showgirls” gets to eat fries; they all eat brown rice and vegetables. And that is their fatal error. By film’s end Nomi is more naked than everyone, rules an entire casino stage, has sent her competition to the hospital, has stomped a Michael Bolton-ish rapist into a bloody pulp, and has left town for Los Angeles at the top of her game.

Not so Morgan Spurlock, star of “Super Size Me,” who, in the film, consumes french fries as one of his three main food groups for month. By the end, they’ve beaten him. And this was a documentary, which sort of proves that their power to harm those who don’t use them well doesn’t just live in the sexy imagination of Joe Eszterhas. Tellingly, the print ads and posters for the movie featured Spurlock gagging on a handful of them.

Fries also play a part in Anthony Perkins’ descent back into madness in “Psycho II.” One minute he’s in prison, happily mumbling to himself, and the next he’s sprung, working in a diner, cooking up fries and hearing voices that cause him to injure a co-worker with boiling grease, the saturated fat of doom. Moral: You don’t mess with pommes frites, for they will destroy you.

Meat is murder — even in wadsMovie meat is just as bad. It is, in fact, usually murder. Or at least an accessory to it. In 1950’s “Gun Crazy,” the final straw for a pair of impoverished newlyweds involves their inability to order more than a hamburger in a diner. Then they go on a bank-robbery/killing spree. Who’s to blame? The burger.

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In last year’s weird “Fast Food Nation,” meat is the downfall of everyone on screen. Careers are ruined, immigrant dreams crushed, youthful idealism poisoned, Greg Kinnear traumatized. It’s a bloodbath.  And all this happens even before they show you the documentary-gross, slaughterhouse money shots.

Meanwhile, extending it to the realm of alternative beef, there’s “Parents,” about happy 1950s suburban cannibals, as well as some unhappy British kids who fall into a meat grinder in the Pink Floyd movie “The Wall.” And speaking of meat grinders, there’s also “Theater of Blood,” an oldie where Vincent Price serves a guy his own pet poodles.

I’m just scratching the surface here. From 1972’s “The Corpse Grinders” (a movie whose poster tagline “turn bones and flesh into screaming savage blood death!” reads more like English as a second language than ad copy) to the “E.T.” rip-off “Mac and Me,” which featured a break-dancing party in a McDonald’s restaurant that only feels like screaming savage blood death, to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a movie where a giant cheeseburger is the harbinger of bad times for everyone involved (not making that up, either; the late George Burns sings in it, too, and the lead female character is actually named Strawberry Fields), ground meat in films is almost always the enemy of life and sanity.

If you were of a mind to you could point to comedies like “Good Burger” or “Hamburger: The Motion Picture” or “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” or even to “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” to prove me wrong. But I’ve got my agenda here already and I’m just going to ignore those films, even if one of them is the basis for my thesis. Go see the ATHF movie. If you think this article doesn’t make much sense, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Shakes: The ultimate happy juiceMilkshakes are the gentle soul of the trio. Not in ATHF, mind you. Master Shake is a jerk all the time, spouting self-important, combative, non-sequiturs every time he opens his mouth. But in other films, shakes are sweet and happy, even musical gold.  This is because they’re made of ice cream and only dreary, killjoy, lactose-intolerant people hate ice cream.

Shakes in films get poured on heads to the delight of all, like in “Grease” when Stockard Channing dumps hers on Jeff Conaway. They leap out of blenders, drenching everyone for big laughs. They cost five whole dollars in “Pulp Fiction,” providing a moment of indignant bonding for the film’s most adorable couple, John Travolta and Uma Thurman.

Or they’re the subject of entire disco-era production numbers, like in “Can’t Stop The Music” where a group of little boy Village People look-alikes transform into the real, adult Village People, all dressed in sparkly white versions of their various masculine-drag personas, then dance around giant milkshakes and Valerie Perrine. Why? Why not? Shakes are the happy sidekicks; they’re the estrogen joy to fries’ insecure aggression and meat’s testosterone-poisoned crime wave.

And yeah, I just made all of this up.

Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at www.imdavewhite.com.