Film Corner, Hot Docs 2015 Edition: Love between the Covers and Foodies

by Diana Miller

Welcome back for a special installment of Book Corner (temporarily rebranded as Film Corner), an irregularly scheduled feature that reviews sociologically engaging works from outside the academy. Toronto recently hosted the 2015 Hot Docs documentary film festival, which previews many of the insightful and culturally relevant documentaries that will emerge onto the Canadian market in the coming months.

Love Between the Covers and Foodies provide an insider’s view of two different culture industries, one well-established (romance fiction) and one nascent (elite food blogging). Both films achieve an impressive level of access to high-profile actors and normally unseen spaces. Love takes us into editorial meetings, cover shoots, and pitching sessions at romance conventions, asking how the modern romance publishing industry works. Foodies follows elite, jet-set food bloggers into the kitchens of 3-star Michelin restaurants where most of us couldn’t even land a reservation, and on gastronomic trips around the world to eat at the globe’s top restaurants.

Both films largely let the subjects speak for themselves and analyze their own experiences rather than using voiceovers or fact-filled title screens to construct a strong directorial viewpoint. The minimalist directorial voice is much more successful in Love than in Foodies, primarily because the subjects are highly articulate, thoughtful, and informed about the state of the romance fiction industry. The film starts with a paradox: romance is by far the most profitable genre of modern fiction, but romance authors are among the least-respected writers. In addition to directly addressing sexism in the romance industry, the novelists that director Laurie Kahn interviews make some great sociological critiques about the constructed nature of genre, conventions, and reader expectations; Nora Roberts says (paraphrased) “if I read a mystery and didn’t find out who the killer was by the end, I’d be pissed. Is that formulaic? No, it’s a reader expectation. So why is it formulaic when characters in a romance live happily ever after?”

The subjects in Love—mostly romance writers, but also publishers, assistants, and fans—touch on an entire gamut of social issues surrounding romance publishing: sexism, stigma, getting established as a new author, the rise of e-books, what readers do with romance novels, how authors interact with readers, the expansion of the romance market to accommodate infinite niches and subgenres, tension between art and commerce, and more. This film feels like a welcome update to Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, with the focus shifted away from readers and toward writers and the publishing industry.  

While the light directorial touch works well in Love, Foodies would benefit from a stronger directorial voice. By the end, it’s still unclear whether the filmmakers intend to critique the 5 jet-set food bloggers that they profile, or simply document their existence. There are certainly benefits to simple description. Jet-set food bloggers are a small and emerging group with a growing influence on the field of fine dining; yet, most of us know little about who they are or what they do.

Still, Foodies ignores some important (and, frankly, low-hanging) analytical and critical points. The bloggers come across as largely unaware of or unconcerned with the broader culinary field within which they’re situated—except as this affects where they want to eat next. They don’t ask themselves (nor do the filmmakers seem to ask them) what it means to be a self-appointed critic, how they establish and defend their legitimacy as tastemakers, or who their audiences are. The only analysis of the context in which elite bloggers are situated comes through shots of a few chefs complaining that jet-set bloggers have no formal food education and don’t actually know very much about food, yet still wield enormous critical power.

Foodies also drags a bit, due to multiple drawn-out shots of subjects staring silently off into space while waiting for their food, or pausing in contemplation after taking a bite. At times, it was as uncomfortable as sitting across the table from someone who’s eating while you’re not. Love, on the other hand, is appropriately paced and quite watchable.

Love is a great choice for cultural sociologists in general, either for classroom use or background information on the romance publishing industry. Foodies might work in the classroom as well, but I would recommend it only if the instructor is prepared to foster significant critical discussion and ask the questions that the film doesn’t.

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