, ,

What is it about supermarket scenes in films and TV dramas? The ones in proper-size supermarkets I mean, not the smaller convenience store or corner shop?

Take Slate Magazine’s “supercut” video above. A stream of clips showcasing the supermarket as the perfect set for life itself, from birth to love and death, with all the madness and movie mayhem in between.

Supermarket spaces in themselves are clearly filmic, what with all those straight lines and geometric perspectives, wall after wall of shelves packed with brightly coloured packages and products, the chiller and freezer units, the fluorescent lighting, everything building up into a mazey grid of aisles and counters.

All those straight lines. I can’t help thinking of Double Indemnity – the bit where Barbara Stanwyck takes off those shades and says: “It’s straight down the line for both of us, remember?” Then again, maybe she and Fred MacMurray meant a railway line.

Then you reach the supermarket’s end of the line: the checkout with its conveyor belt and the beeps of the barcode reader. Or, increasingly nowadays, the longer queue for the self-service “fast” lane with your Unexpected Item In The Baggage Area. The very end of this journey, of this narrative arc, the closure thing if you like (at least for car persons anyway), will be when you reach the outside, the car park, and open then close the boot of your car.

The supermarket in the movies can also act as a grand metaphor for consumer society. The shoppers’ trolleys (or “carts” in the US) seem to dictate the movement and pace on screen, as the characters “skate” through this landscape of brands and commodities, on perfectly flat aisles and to perfectly slow muzak.

It’s always slow, because that’s the pace of a supermarket. Slow muzak is one of those Subliminal Supermarket Tricks to make you spend more, along with sending you on an anti-clockwise journey (until you notice Tesco in Prussia Street is the exception to the rule and you have to go clockwise).

The supermarket is the perfect trolley society. Think of the defeated women who glide around in a robotic trance and almost in slow motion at the end of the original Stepford Wives film. Note how it’s all trolleys – all of the women are subservient to the rhythm of the trolley. Not one of them has a hand basket.

The sinister thing in this horror tale is that on the surface all this is treated as perfectly “normal” – not one of the women seems to be “off her trolley”, as it were.

Then there’s that famous cliché, beloved of rookie movie directors (and TV reports about shopping): using a POV from inside the trolley for that long tracking shot between the aisles. It’s a trolley’s point of view of the world.

But back to the Slate Magazine video compilation. It seems to be mostly drawnn from US movies, in American supermarkets. The supermarket itself and supermarket shopping are treated as a given, taken for granted. It’s as if all the underlying norms and customs and habits of the supermarket are familiar and natural, and always have been, rather than something that is socially constructed over time and has to be learned.

In some movies, though, the social rules break down; supermarkets become problematic, alien and forbidding spaces and experiences, in which the characters get lost in more ways than one.

Here are three such examples. As it happens all three films or TV series are broadly in the secret agent genre…

1. Deutschland 83 (2015)

Deutschland 83 is an espionage drama from Germany in which young Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is sent undercover from East to West Germany at the height of the Cold War. In an early episode he listens to a Walkman for the very first time. He is mesmerised, lost in music. It’s a wonderful vignette.

Or he’s in a (typical West German) supermarket. Again it’s a first-time experience, and he is clearly overwhelmed by the hyperabundance. The straight-line symmetries, colours and repetitions all reinforce this visually. Note how he hasn’t armed himself with a trolley or basket.

Deutschland 83 scene in the supermarket

Obviously the supermarket in this instance comes to embody everything that the West is and has (and by implication its opposite: what the East isn’t or hasn’t). Yet it’s not simply a crude “Western Capitalist Consumerism = Good. Eastern Bloc Shortages = Bad” message. Martin is in a moment that is – as an early feature about the series in The Guardian newspaper puts it – clearly “both ecstatic and terrifying”. All this happens against the equally bitter-sweet sound of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” on the supermarket’s PA.

2. Nikita (1990)

An even more extreme example of being “lost in the supermarket” (sorry, Clash) is from the original French film version of Nikita. It’s hard to avoid spoilers, so let’s just say that after years away from society, young Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is now sort of rehabilitated and has finally returned to “normal” life and a new, um, job in the public service that’s part-time but you have to be on call 24 x 7 (and knowledge of IT, martial arts, lipstick and firearms is essential).

Still wet with paint from renovating her new apartment, Nikita goes for her first supermarket shop. Only there’s one small problem: like Martin in Deutschland 83, she is caught in the headlights, not necessarily ecstatic but most definitely lost. So bad is it that she can’t put a single item in her trolley.

It’s not a language problem per se: after all, she knows French, she can read, she’s in a Paris supermarket. It’s not like being a foreigner in, say, Budapest for the first time and you can’t read the labels or understand the brands and you’ve absolutely no Hungarian, apart from the word “Földalatti”, which you’re told is an excellent type of ice cream. No, Nikita has a very different kind of problem: she doesn’t understand a very different kind of  language, a very global one. She doesn’t understand the language of supermarkets; “the supermarket shop” is not in her vocabulary.

To overcome this particular form of illiteracy she decides to tail and copycat another shopper – a woman who seems to know exactly how to shop without even thinking about it. A native speaker, as it were.

Nikita waits and watches, then grabs exactly the same stuff for her own trolley. But because she doesn’t yet grasp the underlying “grammar” of this language, she piles not just one of each item into her trolley but dozens and dozens of them at a time, such as a gazillion identical tins of ravioli.

That might sound like one of those mad sixty-second “supermarket sweep” games. but it’s a funny, touching little episode and causes much amusement at the checkout where, once again, she doesn’t quite get the etiquette yet. Without spoiling it, it’s fair to say the checkout becomes a turning point in her life.

3. The Ipcress File (1965)

The third and final example comes from early 1960s London, a scene from The Ipcress File. Secret agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is in his local supermarket. It has all the fundamental characteristics of a supermarket: straight aisles, self-service, big brands, wire shopping trolleys, shopping baskets.

Harry is clearly at ease. Unlike Martin or Nikita in those two later films, Harry knows the terrain and its language or rules; he knows how to supermarket shop. But more than that: he knows how to shop with discernment.

From the film’s opening titles onward we’re told that, from his food to his vinyl, Harry is a man of taste. In the era of Maxwell House coffee, Harry grinds his own espresso beans and can whip up a damn fine omelette (OK, the actual hands in the movie doing the whipping are those of author Len Deighton, a cookery writer for the Observer at the time, but you know what I mean).

Yet what’s the very first thing we see Harry’s hand reaching for in his supermarket shopping spree? A tin of prawn curry. A tin, readymade and tiny. Then when he goes for a different item – this time it’s tinned mushrooms, in a larger size – another hand goes for it too. It’s his old boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman).

“Champignons?” the colonel asks. “You’re paying ten pence more for a fancy French label.”

“It’s not just the label,” Harry replies, in a sort of Michael Caine accent. “These do have the better flavour.” See? A man of discernment, despite the Cockney twang and the tiny flat in Notting Hill.

The colonel then plucks various foodstuffs from the shelves, each time picking Harry’s gourmet brain about their culinary value. These items include something called Beef-A-Roni, and a Sixties classic: a packet of dehydrated Vesta Chicken Curry.

(A quick aside: if you follow my “Moss Reid” series you may have come across a digressive chapter about the joys of Vesta in Another Case in Cowtown – or check out this shorter version on the Literary Orphans website).

The Harry Palmer films were a perfect antithesis of the Bond franchise. The filming in The Ipcress File may be stylish and innovative – particularly in how it manages to frame action within a further frame relentlessly, scene after scene, long before this technique became mainstream and acceptable to the critics. Yet many of the flm’s locations are grim and decidedly unfashionable.

Unlike James Bond’s universe which is foreign and exotic and full of casinos and tuxedos, Harry Palmer’s world is local and gritty, and far from the Swinging London that is portrayed in many English films of the decade. In The Ipcress File the universe revolves around wet and grimy railway stations rather than sunny international airports and glamorous jet sets.

So on the surface a supermarket may seem to be in keeping with this, as an ultra mundane setting. After all, secret agents in the fiction of the time would surely prefer locations with far more daggers and cloaks for their meetings and drops. An underground car park perhaps, or that well-worn bench by the duckpond in the Regent’s Park, or the cafe down the street from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

But The Ipcress File was filmed in 1964, when a supermarket would still represent the shock of the new for most characters in the film, and indeed for most cinema-goers in Britain or Ireland.

“I haven’t seen you here before, sir,” Harry Palmer says to the colonel as they stroll down the aisle.

“No, well I don’t really care for these American shopping methods,” the colonel replies with disdain “One has to move with the times, I suppose.”

The supermarket was an imported concept. In North America, supermarkets have  their roots in the 1930s, and they proliferated after the war along with the growth of car ownership and suburban development. In the UK, by contrast, supermarkets took much longer to take off: by 1947 there were still only 10 self-service shops.

In their supermarket scene, Harry and the colonel are in a Safeway. Safeway Inc only opened its first UK store in 1963, less than a year before the film was shot and less than two before it arrived in the cinemas. In short, even in London a supermarket would still be new, rare, bewildering, exotic, alien. It would be a world away from the traditional retail outlet in which (as good old Wikipedia reminds us):

…all products generally were fetched by an assistant from shelves behind the merchant’s counter while customers waited in front of the counter and indicated the items they wanted. Also, most foods and merchandise did not come in individually wrapped consumer-sized packages, so an assistant had to measure out and wrap the precise amount desired by the consumer. This also offered opportunities for social interaction: many regarded this style of shopping as ‘a social occasion’ and would often ‘pause for conversations with the staff or other customers’. These practices were by nature very labor-intensive and therefore also quite expensive. The shopping process was slow, as the number of customers who could be attended to at one time was limited by the number of staff employed in the store. Shopping for groceries also often involved trips to multiple specialty shops, such as a greengrocer, butcher, bakery, fishmonger and dry goods store, in addition to a general store, while milk was delivered by a milkman…

But back to the Safeway supermarket in London and our reluctant shopper Colonel Ross, the old-fashioned stickler type who says he has been forced to “move with the times”. When he absentmindedly takes another jar from a shelf and Harry has to remind him that it’s baby food, it’s clear that all this culinary chatter is a subterfuge, this meeting no accident.

As Harry puts it, “You haven’t come here to talk to me about button mushrooms and birds.” No, his old boss Colonel Ross wants him to spy on his new boss. The colonel even has a spy camera for him, which Harry flashes around in the shop, as you do.

Several times when Harry becomes “impertinent”, the colonel’s trolley corners Harry’s or crashes into it. The action is almost a parody of one of those classic car chase scenes in which one vehicle eventually hems in the other.

At the end of the scene and one final crash the colonel simply abandons his trolley. I dare say he’ll not be back there again in a hurry – and you can forget about the loyalty points.