Blade Runner is set in the nearly unrecognizable Los Angeles of the year 2019, where glowing neon and flying cars have replaced palm trees and wide boulevards. The film is visually indebted to Italian futurist architecture, French science fiction comics, and Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, but perhaps most of all, it takes aesthetic cues from the king of Americana himself, Edward Hopper. Ridley Scott even cites Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks as a major source for the set design in the film. Though Hopper’s influence can be seen throughout Blade Runner, it is perhaps most apparent in the scene in which Deckard (Harrison Ford) stops into a noodle bar in Chinatown amidst a torrential downpour. He is quickly whisked away by Officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos), but for the few moments he sits in peace eating his steaming bowl of noodles, we get to see what the diner in Nighthawks would like in a retrofitted, dystopian future. Blade Runner is a film with an incredible production design almost unprecedented in its vision and scope. The diner scene certainly isn’t the most memorable or elaborate, but it is safe to say that film would feel a little less complete without it.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was Martin Scorcese’s second film after the decade-defining success of Mean Streets. It remains his first and only film with a female lead and perhaps subsequently, one of his least violent and least well-known films. It also happens to be one of his most humorous, emotionally nuanced, and romantic. When it was released, many dismissed it as a “woman’s film,” a genre that unjustly connoted all the fluffiness and inferiority that romantic comedies do today, but it nonetheless gained acclaim for its brilliant performances, simple story, and the burgeoning auterist flourishes of Mr. Scorcese.
After the death of her husband, Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, takes off with her son Tommy with the hopes of relocating to her hometown of Monterey, California. When their funds run dangerously low, Alice is forced to stop in Arizona for work. She gets a job as a lounge singer in a dive bar in Phoenix but an abusive relationship with the owner quickly forces her to continue on to Tucson and accept a job as a waitress at a diner called Mel and Ruby’s Bar-B-Q. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore brilliantly brings to life the colorful comings and goings of the diner and the daily joys and hassles of the women who work there. Though Alice eventually falls in love with one of her customers, a rancher played by Kris Kristopherson, the most memorable part of the film for me is its portrayal of the relationship between the three waitresses. The scenes were filmed in an actual diner in Tucson, located on Main Street, but it has since been closed.
The roadside diner is beloved by many, especially the stoner, who relies on comfortable, low-profile, 24 hour food establishments to fill his or her greasy food fix whenever the craving may strike, which is usually quite often. In this respect, it makes perfect since that the stoner epic Pineapple Express concludes in a diner, where Dale, Saul, and Red discuss the previous day’s events over the traditional bacon, eggs, and coffee. Like a group of hung-over friends after a night of heavy partying, the three blood-encrusted boys rehash the fights, police chases, and murders of the night before, ending with a heartfelt declaration of their love for each other. At one point, Red even wonders if he is on the verge of death or just very stoned, prompting Saul to feed him a friendly bite of yogurt. Now a classic of both the stoner and the bromance genre, Pineapple Express is laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout, but nothing quite tops the comedic brilliance of this final scene. The scene was filmed at the Rock Store, located at 30354 Mulholland Highway in Malibu. Once a hot springs resort frequented by silent film stars, the Rock Store is now a diner and a popular hang out for bikers. Though it is famous as a hub for biker culture, the Rock Store welcomes all, from celebrities like Harrison Ford and Jay Leno to locals trying to escape the city to avid movie buffs looking to eat breakfast at the cite of one of their favorite films.
Though the mockumentary may be a bit familiar and perhaps even overdone these days, when This is Spinal Tap premiered in 1984, the entire concept was still revelatory and new. Spinal Tap may not be the first of its kind-it is predated by the Monty Python Beatles-spoof The Rutles and Woody Allen’s Zelig-but Rob Reiner’s brilliant send-up of a British rockstars set the bar for the genre very, very high. Say at about 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. As the band, known for hits like “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm,” travels across America to promote their new album “Smell the Glove,” they are forced to confront the fact that they are quickly fading into obscurity. After a string of canceled gigs, a radio announcer who places them in the “Where are they now?” file, and the unwanted arrival of the lead singer’s girlfriend, the boys stop at a roadside diner to discuss various ways to re-enliven their tour and gain a new fan base. Their ideas include introducing new costumes based on the signs of the zodiac and more memorably, bringing back their old number Stonehenge, which features a giant replica of the famous monument descending onto the stage as a group of dwarves merrily dance around it. Unfortunately, when Nigel draws up the dimensions on a napkin, he confuses inches with feet and the resulting replica is no bigger than the dancing dwarves. The scene was filmed at Season’s restaurant in Cleveland and has since closed.
The 1970s were the Golden Age of New Hollywood Cinema. It was also arguably the Golden Age of the classic American road film. Some of the most definitive films of the sub-genre were released during the decade, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Wanda, Badlands, and Duel, to name but a few. However, the reigning king of them all is Two Lane Blacktop, the 1971 cult classic directed by Monte Hellman and starring James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as a driver and his mechanic who race across the United States in their beloved 1955 Chevy. Along the way, they pick up a young blonde played by Laurie Bird (at a diner, of course), who comes along for the ride, inciting a tense, unspoken jealousy between the two men. From its music to its fashion to its famous musician co-stars, Two Lane Blacktop is pure 1970s cinema at its finest, enhanced by several memorable scenes in road side diners. Unfortunately, the only one of these still open is Mary’s Cafe, where the Girl first climbs into the backseat of the Chevy, located 7136 North US Highway 89, just northeast of Flagstaff.
Preston Strugess’ 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels is a screw-ball comedy, a road film, and one of the greatest movies ever made about making movies. In it, the famous director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) disguises himself as a hobo and sets off on a cross country journey in pursuit of true suffering, something he believes is a requirement for creating an artistic masterpiece. Not far into his journey, he wanders into a roadside diner where he meets a beautiful nameless blonde played by Veronica Lake who is also trying to escape Hollywood, only this time as a failed actress. After ordering him ham and eggs and offering him cigarettes, the two get to talking. Unaware that she is chatting with a world-renowned director of comedies, she tells him, “The nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to laugh at his jokes.” Later on in the film, after a failed attempt to ride the rails together, the pair stops at another diner and out of the goodness of his heart, the man behind the counter offers the two famished travelers donuts for free.
Quentin Tarantino immortalized himself as a true auteur from the moment his first film, Reservoir Dogs, opens on a group of men chatting in a diner about the meaning of Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, asserts that the song is about an incredibly vulnerable girl who finally meets a nice fella, while Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself, maintains that it’s “a metaphor for big dicks.” When it comes time to cough up some green for the tip, Mr. Pink, played by Steve Buscemi, refuses on principle, sparking a heated debate about the ethics of not tipping automatically This seminal scene was filmed at Pat and Lorraine’s at 4270 Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is still open today. Later on in the film, Freddy, played by Tim Roth, meets up with L.A.P.D chief Holdaway (Randy Brooks) to discuss his plans to go undercover and infiltrate the crime gang as Mr. Orange. This scene was filmed at Johnie’s Coffee Shop and Restaurant, which is used occasionally for movie shoots but is closed to the public. Cue the world’s tiniest violin. You can catch another glimpse of Johnie’s in movies like Big Lebowski and American History X, also mentioned in this blog. Tarantino would choose to open his second film, Pulp Fiction, in a diner as well, with Tim Roth returning as one-half of the thieving couple nicknamed Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.
Coffee, cigarettes, and a comfy, casual diner. In 2003, Jim Jarmusch decided to make an entire film out of the combination. Consisting of 17 short, black-and-white vignettes shot over the course of eighteen years, Coffee and Cigarettes is a retro ode to the conversations that unfold among people as they sit together and indulge in some of their favorite addictions. The cast is basically a long list of cool, famous people, including Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina, Jack and Meg White, Cate Blanchet, RZA and GZA from the Wootang Clan, and Bill Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray, but the real scene stealers are Jarmusch’s beautiful shots of steaming mugs of black coffee and slightly rumpled packs of cigarettes. Coffee and Cigarettes definitely isn’t for everyone. It can feel boring, overly talky, and excessively hip, but for any film lover who thinks diners are pure American cinema at its finest, it’s definitely worth a watch, just not if you are trying to kick a caffeine or nicotine habit.