One Big Night: The Subjectivity of Art
by Christian Villacres
“To eat good food is to be close to God” (Primo)
Stanley Tucci’s 1996 film, Big Night, gives an account of two brothers who emigrate from Italy to the United States in pursuit of the classic American dream. The brothers, Primo and Secondo, plan to fulfill their dreams by starting their own restaurant, that they denominate Paradise. Primo is a gastronomical genius who is eminently proud of his national cuisine and works as the restaurant’s primary chef. Meanwhile, the younger brother, Secondo, serves as the charismatic manager of the restaurant and is filled with a blistering passion for finding success in the fabled green pastures America has to offer.
Together, the two brothers would seem to form an indomitable duo. Despite their potent combination, however, Paradise ultimately fails, signaling a likely end to their pursuit of the American dream. The failure of the restaurant can be most directly attributed to Primo’s style of cooking. Despite Primo being acknowledged as a world class chef several times throughout the film, his refusal to change his dishes to better suit the taste of his American patrons results in the restaurant’s ultimate demise. Primo’s extreme pride was his ultimate undoing. The flagrant criticism of Primo’s cooking is an example of just how impactful the subjective stance of a restaurant’s customers can be, regardless of the true quality of the food prepared.
Cooking is a form of art because just like art, cooking allows an artist to express their creative skill and imagination. Also like art, cooking can be interpreted, admired, and criticized in countless ways. Similarly to how every individual art critic may have a personal interpretation of a famous masterpiece, every individual person may have built their own understanding of a chef’s dish. This difference in opinion represents a delicate intermingling between the creator’s identity and that of the observer, or in the case of Big Night, the diner. The main difference is that in the case of a restaurant, the customer’s interpretation of the food must be held in higher regard in order to garner financial success. As stated by Pascal: “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.” While Pascal may be issuing sound advice to Secondo when he speaks these words, he knows that Primo would never be willing to succumb to the will of those that criticize his culinary creations. Primo exhibits moxie when he neglects to change his cooking in exchange for success and goes as far as to say that Pascal should be placed in jail for ‘raping’ the cuisine he considers sacred. The film, as a whole, supports the idea that beauty should be kept in the eye of the beholder, however it does not try to hide the fact that when it comes to art in commerce, the world can be a cold place.
Every true artist has their own grand masterpiece. For Leonardo da Vinci many consider his portrait of Mona Lisa or perhaps his depiction of The Last Supper to be his greatest work. Amongst all subjective interpretations, a common consensus forms around these kinds of works that marks them as timeless pieces. Primo’s Mona Lisa exists in nothing less than the secret recipe he and his brother brought with them from their home town of Abruzzo: Timpano. The unveiling of this traditional dish and the captured reaction of those that behold and consume it solidifies Primo’s place as a masterful chef. This event parallels a baptism; however, this instance is poignant in nature as it also marks the brothers’ final and failed attempt at finding success in the land of great opportunity.
Throughout the course of the film, subtle cues in cinematography and sound add depth to the film. Overall, the camera work was rather simple, which actually lends a sense of reality to the film. The sound used throughout the film followed suit, as the sound was almost exclusively diegetic, which also added to the humanity of the film. Primo’s encounter with the car salesman and the dinner were two scenes that did use non-diegetic sound. There were a few instances in which more active cinematography was used to convey emotion in the film. For example, a dolly camera was used to create a tracking shot in several scenes that needed to feel more chaotic or busy. These kinds of shots serve a role in pulling the film’s viewer into the action of the scene at hand. In the scene depicted in the still, the camera is recording from the perspective of the Timpano, which signifies a grand unveiling, and also allows the viewer to understand the extreme tension of the moment through the reactions of the characters in the shot.
The film offers the viewer an introduction into the world of modern transculturation and its consequences. Pride for one’s own creations is important. The ability to swallow one’s own pride is equally as important. Both of these themes are presented in Big Night as Secondo and Primo could not succeed in America without making a few compromises. This truth is made known to the two brothers by the ending scene of the film when they realize what is truly important. Whatever the medium may be, above all, great art must generate emotions of joy in all parties involved. In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”
Tucci, Stanley, Campbell Scott, Jonathan Filley, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, and Isabella Rossellini. Big Night. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001.