Friday, March 11, 2022

The Automat

Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat, currently playing at Film Forumis an oral history of a venerable institution that once fed l0% of Philadelphia’s population. It does for the evolution of cuisine what Studs Terkel did for labor in Working. Horn and Hardart was fast service but not fast food. You may remember the Art Deco palaces with their dolphin spigots and chrome knobs and yes the magical windows behind which the primal scene gave birth to a hot dog nestled in a bake bean casserole. The restaurant chain had a storied following which included the notoriously thrifty Jack Benny who once threw an opening night with famous stars of the stage and screen arriving in tuxedos and gowns. Some of the movie’s cast of characters Colin Powell, Carl Reiner and Ruth Bader Ginsberg have passed on like the institution they memorialize in the film, but Mel Brooks holds court along with Elliot Gould and Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame (who keeps a picture of the automat in his office) creating a kind of meta-documentary in which the watering hole of their youths become the jumping off point for new routines. Brooks, for instance, laments not possessing the talent of the cashier of his childhood who could reach into her stash and pull out 20 nickels without having to look or count. The movie even has its own automat historian who wrote his PhD on the subject. He opines on the provenance of an institution which provided tasty but modest priced food (one of the reasons for the decline of Horn and Hardart was the demise of the 5 cent cup of coffee) until, in l991, the curtain went down on the last one, located at the corner of 42nd and Third.

 Read "Diasporic Dining: Fast Food Inc." by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and watch the animation of Erotomania

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