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.
No film better depicts a changing America than Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road film about a pair of counterculture “long-hairs” who ride their Harley Davidsons across the highways of America in search of true freedom. With a production history as outlandish and drug fueled as the journey depicted in the film itself, Easy Rider roared onto the screens in 1969 and ushered in a radical new era of American filmmaking. Easy Rider was one of the first films to portray the counterculture in all its glory, use a soundtrack consisting entirely of rock and roll hits, and feature rising star Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.
The travels of Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), and George Hanson (Nicholson) take them across the scenic byways of the American South and Southwest, stopping at gas stations, campsites, communes, hot springs, police stations, and diners along the way. When the three stop at a small café after a long day’s journey, they find themselves simultaneously harassed and seduced by the patrons inside. A police officer sitting at a nearby booth declares, “What the hell is this? Trouble makers?” while a group of young women giggle in titillation and discuss which of the men each of them likes best. As the three dirty hippies take their seats, the comments increase in both volume and severity. One man says, “I think we ought to put them in a cage and charge admission to see ‘um,” followed by another who remarks, “They look like a bunch of refugees from a guerilla love-in.” On top of it all, the waitress neglects to serve them any of the refreshing Coca-Cola and delicious handmade pies the sign outside advertises. Eventually, Wyatt, Billy, and George decide it is in their best interest to leave an establishment to which they are so obviously unwelcome. The diner scene might not be the most memorable in Easy Rider, but it perfectly encapsulates the cultural tension boiling between the established order and the longhaired, free-spirited hippie renegades who threatened to throw it over completely. The diner scene was filmed in the town of Morganza, Louisiana, about 50 miles outside the state capital of Baton Rouge. However, the diner, which was once located on Gayden Road, was torn down, leaving only an empty field and staircase behind.
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.
From its opening scene, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet works to uncover the dark, disturbing world teeming beneath the cheery surface of American suburbia. It makes sense that Lynch would chose the all-American diner as the meeting point where Jeffrey and Sandy hatch a plan to unearth Lumbertown’s dirty secrets. After Jeffrey tells Sandy his scheme to break into Dorothy Vallens’ apartment, she responds by saying, “You can tell me any plan you want, but its not going any further than this diner.” Of course, if this were true, we wouldn’t have a movie. At the time of filming, “Arlene’s Restaurant” was actually the New Hanover Human Resources office but now, you can grab a coffee at Port City Java at 402 Chestnut Street in Wilmington, North Carolina. David Lynch might be a bit obsessed with diners, as they play prominent roles in Mulholland Drive and the television show Twin Peaks.
Three of the most iconic scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s seminal masterpiece Pulp Fiction take place in diners. The most memorable, of course, is Jack Rabbit Slims, the 50s-style diner where Vince and Mia dance the twist. Described by Vince as “a wax museum with a pulse,” Jack Rabbit Slims is a delightfully campy distillation of mid-century American memorabilia. The waiter staff dress up like famous icons from the era, including Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, and James Dean, the booths are fashioned out of classic cars, and everyone drinks overpriced milkshakes and vanilla cokes. It is a blown-up version of quintessential American diner, and it is, alas, totally fake. The largest chunk of the film’s budget-$150,00-went to crafting the set, most of which was filmed at a vast Culver City warehouse.
However, movie pilgrims and Tarantino worshipers can visit the other famous diner that bookends the film, the Hawthorne Grill, located on 37th and Hawthorne in Los Angeles. In the opening scene, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny discuss the genius of choosing to rob a restaurant instead of a bank or liquor store, comfortable in the knowledge that they will catch patrons and employees alike “with their pants down.” In the end, it is Pumpkin and Honey Bunny who end up with their pants down when Vince and Jules happen to be eating at the diner at the exact same time. Jules quotes the bible and allows the couple to leave, albeit penniless, before he and Vince exit the diner to the tune of “Surf Rider” by the Lively Ones. The Hawthorne Grill was selected for its Googie Architecture, a style of futurist design that grew up out of California in the 1940s. Highly influenced by the Space Age and the growth of car culture, Googie architecture features slanted or curving roofs, geometric shapes, and the ultra modern use of steel, iron, and neon. Because Googie architecture is most strongly reflected in diners, coffeehouses, gas stations, and motels, it is frequently featured in classic road films and LA neo-noirs.