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The Steven Spielberg Top 10: The use of Dining Tables




Dominic Holder's latest blog post explores the use of the table in Steven Spielberg movies.

The latest in my Spielberg top 10s is a closer look at the times that Spielberg has utilised the most practical of all props, the humble dining table. Sometimes these can be small, intimate scenes such as the mimicry between a father and son at the breakfast table or much grander settings, such as the "feast of beasts" at Pankot Palace. Spielberg uses this familiar setting to bring comedy, revulsion and sometimes just some exposition but the scenes below are all performed beautifully by the cast and are often the more underrated parts of his films. Please let me know if I've missed any of your favourites.

10. The make believe feast - Hook (1991)
Where better for Spielberg to explore the idea of lost innocence and memories of childhood than the Dining table. Hook has often been accused of being too loud, too over the top, I once heard someone inexplicably describe it as too much fun. I think this scene captures the point perfectly. As the Lost Boys sit down for their dinner of what appears to be empty pots and pans, Peter looks on bewildered commenting "eat what? There's nothing here, even Gandhi ate more than this". Stuffy adults the World over are in agreement with its ridiculousness. There then follows a perfectly played trading of insults between Peter and self-appointed Lost Boy leader Rufio "Substitute Chemistry Teacher" is an insult I still throw out there to this day.

Egged on by the Lost Boys who want nothing more than the cranky, old Peter to rediscover his former glories, Peter starts to get into it, launching a brutal tirade on the stunned Rufio culminating in the poetic "hey Rufio, why don't you go suck on a dead dogs nose" and flicks his spoon with imaginery icing to land perfectly with a splat on Rufio's face. Peter was starting to let himself go, to stop himself being so uptight, to enjoy himself. There is the lesson right there.

9. A loving game of copycat - Jaws (1975)
Where better for Spielberg to showcase the loving bond between father and son, than you guessed it the dining table. In a film dominated with scenes of terror and carnage, this quiet unassuming scene at breakfast showing the bond between father and son is 90 seconds of pure beauty. It is a scene that shows despite the chaos going on in Brody's professional life that the people that matter most are still there for him.

It's also poignant during these unusual times that young Sean is oblivious to the challenges that his dad and the adult world that surrounds him are going through. He is not interested in the political point scoring that his dad is having to deal with, he just loves spending time with his dad. It also demonstrates to Martin that when all the frustrations consume him, he need not look any further than his biggest supporters, his family "Give us a kiss", "Why?" "because I need it".

Worth noting that Spielberg goes someway to recreate this scene in E.T when Elliot first brings E.T into the house to demonstrate the bond that it already forming between the two.

8. The paranoia scene in Chuck's cafe - Duel (1972)
Where better for Spielberg to show a man wracked with paranoia clumsily order a sandwich? That's right, a dining table.

The centrepiece of Duel and possibly it's stand out scene isn't on the open road and doesn't involve a car or a truck (although the latter is glimpsed out the window). Instead taking momentary refuge in Chuck's roadside cafe, David Mann (that's M.A.N.N) takes a quick trip to the bathroom to freshen up and returns to see his chief tormentor nonchalantly parked up outside. Mann immediately jumps to the same conclusion as us, namely the driver is in the cafe.

What follows is almost 15 minutes of carefully constructed Hitchcockian suspense as Mann eyes up the several redneck truck driving patrons of the cafe. An intrusive voice over is an unnecessary addition but the tension is palpable, and the numerous red herrings are sumptuously served along with a Swiss Cheese on RYE, ooh and an aspirin.

This is Spielberg at his most showy, a young director trying to demonstrate that he can bring something different to a bog standard thriller, and this scene showcases a lot of the visual bravado that would be shown over the next 5 decades.

7. Scrumdiddlyumptious breakfast with the Queen - The BFG (2016)
Where else would Spielberg put a giant having breakfast with a Queen? Of course, the dining table (albeit a bloody big one).

Growing up The BFG was my favourite book, as someone who had to be forced to read anything as a kid (reading just wasn't as exciting as Star Wars), The BFG managed to break through my self-imposed barrier and even managed repeat reading. Imagine my delight, therefore, when my favourite director announced he was going to make a film of it. The finished film didn't quite meet my expectations, a few too many of the grizzly moments were left out for it to be a truly satisfying adaptation however, there was still loads to enjoy, none more so this note perfect, hilarious breakfast scene.

A scene that is packed full of slapstick and toilet humour, it's possible Spielberg hasn't had this much juvenile fun since the scene at number 10 in this list. From the chandelier smashing entrance to farting corgis and wind breaking monarchs this classic comedy trope of fish out of water is just an absolute delight, and my word, that breakfast looks good, and that’s before the Frobscottle makes an appearance.

6. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA - A.I (2001)
Where better for Spielberg to showcase just how creepy a married couple's new robotic child actually is? Oh yes, the dining table.

Opening the scene with David perfectly captured in the halo esq light fitting, the family embark on their evening meal in an atmosphere of awkwardness. David silently observes Henry and Monica eat their food and drink their drink, replicating their actions with his own empty glass and plate, whilst both Henry and Monica look on with a growing sense of unease. The deafening silence is alarmingly shattered as Monica struggles to get all of her noodles into her mouth by a terrifying cackle from David.

For me it is one of Spielberg's finest jump scares, completely unexpected and out of context with the scene. Monica and Henry's momentary shock is quickly replaced by nervous laughter as David continues to laugh maniacally. The darkness in this scene is very much in keeping with the mood of the first hour of A.I as Spielberg paints an uneasy utopia and shows humans barely able to understand on how best to cope with their new family member. The fact that David doesn't understand why he laughs at Monica's gastronomic short comings adds to the sinister feel. The start of the scene has David bathed in angelic light, by the scenes conclusion we are plunged further into a creepy, nerve jangling thriller.

5. Celie's triumph - The Color Purple (1985)

Where better for Spielberg to stage a grand standing moment that puts a true coward in their place? Of course, the dining table.

Everyone loves it when a bully gets their comeuppance, think about George McFly flattening Biff in Back to the Future and tell me there isn't a little smile forming on your face.

For the first two hours of The Color Purple, Celie (a quite stunning Whoopi Goldberg)is bullied, humiliated and abused by Mister (a monstrously buffoonish Danny Glover). Celie submits to everyone one of Mister's demands and the people around her accept that is just the way things are. However the introduction into Celie's life of the electrifying Shug helps Celie realise that perhaps she doesn't need to lead a life of suffering and hardship. After discovering that Mister has been hiding letters from Celie's sister Nettie for years, Celie finally finds the courage to confront Mister. This time Celie gives Mister both barrels in front of the whole family to tell him what a weak man he is and how unafraid of him she now is.

"Nettie and my kids be comin' home soon, and when they get here we gonna' set around and whip your ass" Nettie says with a quiet determination. It is a genuine punch the air moment, leaving a bewildered Mister speechless. It's the finest moment in a film that has plenty of glorious moments but can on occasions descend into Sunday afternoon melodrama.

4. Maybe it was an iguana - E.T (1982)
Where better for Spielberg to demonstrate the after effects of a failed marriage? That's right....the dining table.

Among all the magic and wonder in E.T there are scenes and story themes of sadness, loss and loneliness.

This scene towards the start of the film perfectly captures the new family dynamic, as departed father now leaves mum and older brother to act as surrogate parents to Elliot and Gertie. From the moment we meet Elliot we feel his isolation, he is on the outside looking in, and like any kid he wants people to respect him, he wants them to listen to him when he has something important to say, instead he just gets teased by his older brother. Older brothers are meant to do that, it's in their job description.

Here we see Elliot's frustration grow to the point where he announces that his brother may not have the most fragrant aural scent. The shock of that moment (which Spielberg refused to let the BBC edit out for it's Christmas Day premiere in 1990) is followed by a pause before Elliot delivers an even greater sucker punch by telling the occupants of the dining table that his absent father would believe him.

From light hearted teasing to awkward atmosphere with one line of spiteful dialogue. Elliot has gone to far but doesn't appear to care, not even by a clearly upset mother, a fuming big brother and a confused little sister.

It's a beautifully played scene that is in stark contrast to the loud, dancing, pizza scoffing, game of dungeons and dragons from the previous evening. It perfectly encapsulates the challenges that a family faces as they try to adjust to their change of circumstance, meaning things such as simple disagreements over who's turn it is to clear the plates off the table gets blown hugely out of proportion.

3. Feast of the beasts - Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Where better for Spielberg to exploit the Gastro fears of the characters and quite frankly the audience, that's right the dining table.

Perhaps the most controversial entry into this top 10, a scene that hasn't particularly aged well. On release Temple of Doom was criticised for high levels of violence, now it comes across as film veiled in thinly guarded racial stereotypes. The feast at Pankot Palace is played for laughs as repulsive course is replaced by repulsive course, whilst playing in the background we have Indy grilling the sinister Prime Minister Chatter Lal about the disturbing history of the Palace and its association with the Thugee cult.

What is great about this scene is the impeccable comic timing from Kate Capshaw. In a role often derided as a screechy, annoying damsel in distress, Capshaw realises that she is the comic relief in one of Spielberg's darker films. Ignoring the glaring plot hole of Indy appearing to being totally oblivious to a giant snake being on the table, which when cut into has 100s of little snakes pour out of it, Capshaw's reaction is pure slapstick gold. Follow this up with a main course of grilled beetle, a steaming bowl of eyeball soup and of course the crowning glory, for dessert, chilled monkey brains, we are witnessing a Spielberg scene that would never be made today and possibly shouldn't have been made then but it is tremendous fun.

2. I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Where better for Spielberg to portray a suspected mental breakdown than at the family dining table.

After having a Close Encounter with a UFO, Roy Neary starts to have strange visions of a mountain in every day objects. He becomes obsessed with this image, seeing it in every day objects including in the foam that he is about to use in his morning shave. As Roy's obsession grows, his behaviour becomes odder, resulting in the alienation of himself from his family.

As Roy daydreams he handed a bowl of mashed potato to which he casually starts spooning onto his plate. A moment later and Roy sees the shape in the mashed potato and starts to ladel the potato onto the plate, using his fork to shape it into the mountain. Roy only stops when he notices the family are staring. They are not just staring, the eldest son weeps as he watches his dad emotionally fall to pieces in front of their eyes. The rest of the family watch on aghast at these strange events

It's a tragic moment of realisation for Roy that perhaps everything isn't quite right, a realisation that his family don't recognise him anymore and the first real indication that they are no longer Roy's number one priority.

1. Spared no expense - Jurassic Park (1993)
Where better to knock an eccentric businessman down a peg or two....that's right the dining table.

Once the dust has settled on the ooos and ahhs of the first glimpses of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, a dose of sober reality is laid out to Billionaire fantasist John Hammond by the very scientists that he had hoped would endorse his magnificent theme park. However, what Hammond encounters is a barrage of criticism from all three, who raise the practical fears of this new Eco system that has been developed in a lab without any caution given to the environmental and ecological ramifications of such a place.

Serving West Chilean seabass that has spared no expense, Malcolm, Sattler and Grant express their gravest concerns with some of the finest and most quotable dialogue in a Spielberg film. Hammond realises he only has the blood sucking lawyer on his side who eyes are wide with dollar signs. The lack of discipline in the attainment of Scientific knowledge is Malcolm's main concern delivering the classic denouement,

"yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should"

For an audience who still have their heads spinning from the wonders of the brief glimpse of the dinosaurs, it's a real bump back down to Earth moment.

Dominic Holder
My name is Dominic Holder and I like to promote the beauty and wonder of Cinema in my writing. I spend a lot of time promoting the power of Cinema as a tool of well being to anyone and everyone. I love all kinds of films but in particular I am a devoted fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel. My love of Cinema stems from a trip as a 4 year old to local cinema in Bolton to watch a Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back double bill, it was the first in a series of life changing moments, I knew from the moment the Imperial Star Destroyer engulfed the screen at the start of A New Hope I was hooked. Thankfully nearly 40 years later I still get excited and still find escapism and happiness within this wonderful medium.

You can follow me on Twitter @DomHolder and read some of my reviews on Letterboxd
You can read more of my blogs on Film at www.dominicholder.wordpress.com
You can also read Dominic's last top 10 post - The Best Opening Scenes


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