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Is edible cinema a tasty new way to enjoy films?

17 May 2012

If your idea of edgy cinema snacking is mixing sweet and salty popcorn in the same carton, look away now. If you're an arthouse purist who thinks the auditorium is no place for a competing soundtrack of rustly packaging and wet mastication, definitely look away now. For hot on the heels of 4D, scratch & sniff and dress-up cinema comes the latest immersive cinematic experience, and this time it's comestible.

Last Sunday, the Electric Cinema in London's Notting Hill screened Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth for a sold-out edible cinema night. The concept is simple. Harness the power of taste, smell and texture to create a more evocative cinema experience. In your seat, you find a tray of numbered cups and parcels. During the screening, in the style of a dolly bird parading the scores at a boxing match, an usherette holds up corresponding numbers indicating what to open when. It's good fun and went down a storm with the (estimated at least 50% hipster) audience.

But does edible cinema really enhance the film viewing experience? Or is it just another silly gimmick that distracts from the picture? It is not the first attempt to use food in cinemas to activate the senses. In his Mission Impossible TV series last year Heston Blumenthal tried to "reinvent cinema food" by matching a menu to a screening of the film Perfume. The audience were treated to such delights as fermented fish paste (for the fish market scene) and an edible sperm shake, complete with pump action dispenser, (for the orgy scene). They were transported all right. But they were also somewhat repulsed. The prudes.

Edible cinema marks an altogether more palatable attempt to use taste, smell and texture to add another dimension to film. As a visual feast, laden with creepy sound effects, Pan's Labyrinth an excellent choice of film for the multisensory treatment. Andrew Stellitano, the food designer behind the menu, says: "It's a film I've always admired and watched many times. It was really interesting to break it down into key moments to enhance with food and aroma. I was interested in finding places where I could subtly direct the audience to mimic actions of the characters. Flavour is definitely evocative. It's exciting to think that by pairing film and food we can potentially bring the film closer."

In the opening scene young, innocent Ofélia and her sad, pregnant mother are transported through the forest to their new home. The first of the screening's eight tastes, burnt woody aromas of pine-scented popcorn, transports you there too. When Ofélia's mother is prescribed a sedative we are prompted to reach for a pipette of medicinal-tasting gin-cocktail in unison. This is where edible cinema worked best, when the audience experience tastes, smells and textures evocative of those the characters are experiencing and as a result you are swept along in the moment.

Other morsels worked to highlight certain parts of the film. The words "in a united Spain there is not a single home without fire or bread", passed me when I first saw the film; but now, thanks to innocent-looking sweet shortbread biscuits embedded with firecrackers of hot chili, they are seared on my mind forever.

The food worked less well when the screen/snack link is tenuous. A rock of sugary, Kendal mint cake-style "chalk" just made my teeth hurt. And the food proved distracting during high-tension scenes. Ofélia's encounter with the nightmarish Pale Man (who for some ghoulish reason keeps his eyeballs in his hands) should be edge-of-the-seat horrifying. The effect just isn't the same when half your brain is looking for the signal to eat a carbonated elderflower and malic acid Muscat grape. However delicious that grape may be.

Edible cinema's creators are quick to point out this is an experiment and not for everyone. Still, it's sure to have some people rolling their eyes. After all, can't we just sit and enjoy a film any more? Must we always be searching for the next novelty like spoilt children with attention disorders? And doesn't scrabbling around for snacks distract from the film itself? Polly Betton, the experience organiser who collaborated with Electric Cinema to create the event, says: "I was most concerned with making it interesting. I don't think you want to please everyone with this type of thing. There are plenty of opportunities watch films without any distractions. Having said that, the next event will see the eating experience more carefully embedded into the film, with more ambient aromas and few extra tricks."

One thing you can't argue with is that edible cinema is experimental and creative. And cinemas must experiment if they are to find experiences to offer that can't be easily recreated at home or pirated. (And what was the leap into 3D if not that?) Is edible cinema an exciting experiment? Or a pointless novelty? Personally I'm in the exciting experiment camp (oooh, just imagine feature films designed with their own menus). I will definitely try this interesting experience again. But then I'm like a cat. Once I've been fed somewhere, I'm forever coming back.

What do you think? And what films would you like to see a matching menu for?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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