Films aren’t just moving pictures of beautiful people who have to overcome problems — they can be transcendent, they can be their own philosophical statement, they can be an exploitation of the deepest recesses of the human psyche, they can be vapid, uninspired garbage that’s only purpose is trying to sell you toys, or they can be ingenious statements on culture that can propose an alternate lifestyle to its viewer…
Anyway, what’s more desirable than a McDonald’s lifestyle? Probably a lot of things, but I want to write about films and McDonald’s, so keep your wise remarks to yourself.
Here's a bunch of films that feature the Golden Arches...
ROBERT REDFORD AND DUSTIN HOFFMAN, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN – 1977
What could be tastier than political corruption? Well I’ve got the answer for you: political corruption *and* McDonald’s. As Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman prove throughout All the President’s Men, there is nothing tastier than a juicy scoop.
All the President’s Men is the story of two reporters at The Washington Post, who are assigned to cover a minor story about a break-in at the Watergate complex. What they end up doing is uncovering probably the most notorious political scandal ever. Pretty heart-stopping stuff.
In this scene, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) discus the many twists-and-turns their case is taking. This shows that McDonald’s can be a place for minds to meet, for ideas to be presented, discussed and dissected — and not just for foul-mouthed, baby-faced kids wearing parkas to throw chips and yell at each other.
Other than that, it’s a good use of irony, as the two men discuss an event that challenges the extremely Americanised philosophies of truth and righteousness, while eating in, what has been described as ‘the new American church’. Sly, witty and political. Kind of like Nixon?
TAKESHI KANESHIRO, CHUNGKING EXPRESS – 1994
More than just a reasonable meal out, McDonalds can be, if you’re a skilled cinematic auteur like Wong Kar Wai, a good signifier of influence, as is the case with Chungking Express.
Chungking Express is the proper mental story of two stories told in sequence, each about a lovesick copper in Hong Kong mulling over their relationship with a woman who has recently binned them off, and their attempts to try and get over their ex-ladyfriend and find a new one.
After a long evening of being sad and buying out-of-date cans of pineapple, Qwiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) decides the best thing to remedy his sorrow is some hearty processed meat.
The way Wong Kar Wai uses McDonald’s is pretty exemplary. He takes a staple of American culture and shows it as a regularity in a city halfway across the world. Having his characters eat there shows how deep rooted other cultures were in Hong Kong, a city which was in the midst of being handed back from the English empire to communist China.
It could also serve as Wong Kar Wai showing appreciation for the other parts of American culture he’s heavily influenced by (all throughout the film, The Beach Boys play, as another example). After all, Kar Wai’s affinity for western films can be felt in the subject matter, plot and action of Chungking Express…
Or was it was just a convenient place to shoot and has nothing to do with what I’ve just said? I’m not sure, I didn’t Google it.
WU NIEN-JEN, YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO) – 2000
Here with another example of East meets (meats) West is Edward Yang’s second masterpiece, Yi Yi, probably the most socially conscious film to feature McDonald’s – save maybe Mac and Me or Big Daddy…
Yi Yi (or A One and a Two as it’s known here in the West) is the story of NJ and his trials and tribulations with family life, his daughter Ting-Ting’s first experiences with love and heartbreak and his young son Yang-Yang’s troubles with school.
During a lavish wedding, NJ sneaks Yang-Yang out and the father/son duo go for a silent McDonald’s. Rather than a critique of American imperialism (which this scene could be easily read as), this scene instead unfolds as a patient, tender observation on family life, on how we treat those we are bound by blood to, and how those familial politics transcends borders, revealing to us that children everywhere prefer the sweet, processed taste of Ronald’s burgers and nuggets than boring, dry traditional cuisine.
My point is, McDonald’s can be beautiful and teach us things we never knew about the world, and ourselves. How nice.
PAUL GIAMATTI, SIDEWAYS – 2004
A really depressing example of McDonald’s in film here, with Paul Giamatti melancholically modelling what academics have dubbed ‘fast-food-fatigue’ (I’ve just made this up). Now, it must be noted that this may or may not be a McDonald’s, but I don’t care; if it’s fast food, it’s McDonald’s. Now let’s crack on...
Sideways tells the story of Miles (Paul Giamatti), a depressed teacher and failed writer extraordinaire, and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), a past-his-prime actor, as they go on a week-long wine tasting trip before Jack gets married. Needless to say, as it’s a film, things happen, people change and get upset and stuff, which leads us to this here ‘fast food restaurant’ scene.
In a moment of bitter and crushing tragedy (well, first-world tragedy) Miles ditches his ex-wife’s wedding to instead go to and sit in sorrow at the local burger joint. After saving a prized 1961 Château Cheval Blanc for years, Miles, having hit rock bottom, dumps the prized crimson liquid into a disposable coffee cup and gulps it callously.
While the McDonald’s location serves as nothing more than depressing scenery, it certainly is an effective way to show someone who has lost all hope, someone who can now only find solace in cheap burgers. Sounds like someone needs a Happy Meal if you ask me…
In conclusion, McDonald’s in films aren’t just fast-food restaurants; they’re an integral part of the mise en scène, a way to present the films themes and philosophy, a method to show the worst, and best of humanity. Also a place for the characters to eat burgers in.
To round this off, here’s Michael Douglass in a film about tripping up I’ve never seen.