What Do Food And Film Have in Common? #3: “Layering”

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“Layering” happens when one element is placed over another so that we experience them separately and also together over time.  Both film and food use the technique of layering to provide a dense and revelatory experience that pushes us beyond a one-dimensional and simplistic way of experiencing the world around us.  Think of the many layers of textures and taste in a breakfast taco and compare that to films that superimpose images one over another.

Houston is a new feature by Bastian Günther that relies on the layering of images, one over the other, to create its view that today’s corporate, commercial, global economy is vapid.  The film is visually stunning, due in no small part to the use of found old camera lenses that refract light magnificently and during important scenes flood the screen image with multi-colored beams and spots.

Shooting completely on 35mm film, not digital as is mainly the case today, Günther worked with cameraman, Michael Kotschi, to first find the lenses (Europe and LA) and then use them to capture light and layer it over the image to give certain scenes added dimensions of meaning.  The movie is about Clemens Trunschka, a depressed headhunter from Germany travelling to Houston to hire a high-ranking executive.  His trip is a miserable failure.  What enriches the film’s fine writing and directing and helps make it go beyond the expected “blame global corporations for our troubles” films is this use of layering.  When I saw the lens flares, spots and beams (and there are a lot of them in this film) I found myself considering other questions about how natural elements are always at play with humanly-constructed ones, and that light is pervasive.

A second layering technique Günther uses is superimposition.  HoustonLayering1sml

Not to worry, he stays very far from clichés and pointless artifice.  When he overlays certain images over others, they make sense individually and together to advance the movie’s point that we are all bundled up with money, technology, a corporate economy and we are trying to make our way through this stuff.  The film is really intriguing, and every shot is there for a reason. I often wonder if only independent filmmakers are capable of making films that are so visually rich.  Well probably not, but it’s interesting that the Houston premiere of Houston was hosted not by a commercial venue but by The Southwest Alternate Media Project, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and the Houston Film Commission.

“Layering” is a culinary term that describes how one flavor or texture  is placed over another to create a dish that besides being delicious, is rich, multifaceted, complex.  Chef Hinnerk Von Bargen, Faculty at the Culinary Institute of America and author of the book, Street Foods, explains that “everything is assembled, sometimes at the last moment, and you first detect each individual flavor, then it gradually comes altogether, but not in a homogenous way.”  He points to French ratatouille and German braised cabbage as dishes that develop phenomenal flavor as a result of layering.  A very familiar example is a hamburger where the lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle are layered over the meat and the bun is layered over that.  Chef Von Bargen says that even the sesame seed on top of the bun is a layered flavor and texture element that helps to nuance the eating experience.

Papas con Huevo 3
“Papas Con Huevo” taco employs the culinary technique of layering flavors.

“Papas Con Huevo” taco is a perfect example of successful layering.  In this taco, the potato is first layered with a crisped surface, this accomplished by sautéeing, which changes both the color and the taste of the potato.  Egg is layered over that.

The flour tortilla has two layers, a softer inner core and a thin, crispy surface leaf that develops when cooked properly.  In the picture you can see that the surface leaf is bubbling out.  Honestly, I sometimes cannot wait for the taco and I just eat the tortilla as is. I advise my friends to never think of a tortilla as a “wrap.” That understanding of the tortilla is simplistic, one-dimensional, and ignores the several taste and texture dimensions that are a result of layering.

It’s obvious, of course that placing the “papa con huevo” inside the tortilla is creating yet another layer of complexity.  And when you finish the taco with a layer of red salsa, oh my goodness, you have created a taco that is rich, multifaceted, and perfectly delicious.

“Layering” helps both film and food become art forms that are dense, complex and beautiful.


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