Playing With Food Gets Absurd (and Gross) in ‘Flux Gourmet’

Writer-director Peter Strickland discusses his movie's wholly unique approach to sound, vulgarity, and fart representation.

Playing With Food Gets Absurd (and Gross) in ‘Flux Gourmet’
Image:IFC Midnight

Flux Gourmet, the new movie by writer-director Peter Strickland (In Fabric, The Duke of Burgundy), follows an avant garde sonic collective who takes playing with food very seriously: They amplify and manipulate the sounds of cooking to create aural collages. It is based on a true story, or at least a real band—Strickland’s own Sonic Catering Band, which formed in the ‘90s and reunited to create the collages heard in Flux Gourmet. The movie presents this way of sculpting sound as a bonafide genre, as the nameless group we follow take up residency at an institute devoted to boarding artists who work specifically in culinary performance. The idea is weird, but Flux Gourmet extrapolates it so that, as Strickland told Jezebel during a recent phone conversation, “the absurdity of it becomes normal in the end.”

That isn’t the half of it. Power struggles abound, both within the group (whose members are played by actors Asa Butterfield, Ariane Labed, and Strickland mainstay Fatma Mohamed) and without; Jan Stevens (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie) runs the institute and attempts to meddle in her residents’ creative process. Meanwhile, while the collective is intentionally making sounds with their food, in-house documentarian Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) is making unintentional ones with his body. Stones suffers from a condition that gives him painful gas—several voice overs in Greek detail the lengths he goes to in order to conceal and stop his farts—but whereas other movies play flatulence for comedy, in Flux Gourmet it is no laughing matter, by Strickland’s design.

Flux Gourmet is classic Strickland—reminiscent of his and others’ previous works but truly unlike anything that’s come before it. He talked to Jezebel about his creation, his feelings about farting representation, and his as-yet-unmade film that takes place among gay men in pre-AIDS New York, Night Voltage, which he was having trouble getting off the ground last time we talked, in 2019. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: In your director’s statement, you say that Flux Gourmet originally started as a “satire on artists and their complex relationship with the institutes that fund their work.” Did experiences making films inspire your commentary on that relationship?

PETER STRICKLAND: I think every filmmaker has had to sit at those tables where someone is telling you to delete things. Someone sitting next to you just stealing all the cookies on the table and not helping. I wasn’t really interested in making a vendetta film where I’m going to get revenge on financiers. If I look at the film, the character that comes out the worst is actually the artist [Mohamed’s Elle]. She’s machiavellian. I saw my job not as some kind of grudge bearer, but as a referee to just be invisible in those meetings and not take sides. I guess my job is to be both compassionate and horrible to all my characters.

My job is to be both compassionate and horrible to all my characters.

The movie presents sonic catering as a genre or a mode. And from what I can tell, the Sonic Catering Band is one of the only groups to make the kind of sounds depicted in the movie. Is there an actual scene, or is this an extrapolation of your work in that band applied to this movie to make a kind of realistic fantasy?

I would say the latter. I mean, I guess I did that too with The Duke of Burgundy, where everyone’s into bondage. When you take something which is considered niche and make it somehow universal in that world, the absurdity of it becomes normal in the end.

It allows for these characters to have completely rational conversations about this medium that is kind of bonkers.

There were a few people doing it. Matthew Herbert was doing [an album about food, 2005’s Plat du Jour]. The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, but they were slightly different because they were using vegetables as percussion. We never played with food. We would just cook food and record it and document it. It was a very different approach. John Cage was dabbling in it at one point. Aphex Twin used a [food] mixer once. I wouldn’t call it a scene, but there have been examples of that kind of thing before.

When you take something which is considered niche and make it somehow universal in that world, The absurdity of it becomes normal in the end.

Did your band, like the one in the movie, contend with the question of whether the flanger altered sound too much so as to divorce it from its source material?

Yeah, that was very much something we were always grappling with when we began the band. We would drench everything in effects because it was so new to us. You got these effects units and you just played like a kid in a sweetshop. But then you realize you’re kind of masking everything. You’re losing that connection with it. So much of the surrealism of what we did was purely about context, not about effects units. Just taking a very domestic everyday activity and putting it into an audio setting. I mean, that itself was surreal. I think later on when [bandmate Tim Kirby] played me people like Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, and Francisco López—people who are not afraid of letting sounds be what they are and just exploring natural acoustics—that gave me the confidence to let go of effects units and just focus more on the micro textures of cooking. But, you know, I still love effects units. It is always this tug of war you have in your head of how far do you go with these things?

In your director’s statement you talk about being frustrated with cinema’s ignorance of allergies and intolerance, and that here you’re presenting farting in a noncomedic context. Why were you concerned about that particular type of representation?

I just hadn’t really seen much done about it. They’re two separate things. We have the autoimmune thing, and one of many symptoms is flatulence. But the other thing was the allergy thing. The only filmmaker I could think of was Ari Aster with his first film [Hereditary] where someone has anaphylaxis and he takes it seriously. Usually it’s played as a joke. I’m not saying ban those films, but I find it strange that when someone is on the verge of dying, that you turn it into a joke. I thought, “What if we do seem a bit more serious?”

In regards to flatulence, it obviously has a very rich history with comedy and frat-boy humor. Again: absolutely fair enough. But to me it’s all about context. And if someone is really suffering—and it’s not just celiac, it could be Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome—why don’t we see if we can give it some kind of dignity, perhaps? Just to be very candid and open up a conversation. I think there is a way to do it without being vulgar, even though I would argue that this film does, with that scatological scene [in which Elle appears to eat from Stones’s stool sample as part of her performance], get quite vulgar. But that’s the character more than anything. It’s not me as a filmmaker, because we find out she’s using chocolate mousse anyway.

I find it strange that when someone is on the verge of dying, that you turn it into a joke.

I appreciate your spin—it does initially seem like maybe this is just another jokey movie about farting.

To me, there is a world of difference between being at school and having a well-timed fart on purpose. That’s great. But again, when you’re dealing with symptoms of something more sinister… It’s not just flatulence. The whole idea of hiding bodily discomfort, people are doing it all the time. Hiding things from the world. One shouldn’t have to be so coy about it. There are ways of being elegant about these things, but at the same time, I think society’s too preoccupied even when it comes to periods. You see adverts with blue liquid on these liners. Especially in Britain, we’re still quite Victorian. If we’re dealing with bodily things, whether it’s flatulence or sex, it’s always some kind of coy giggling, carry-on type of humor around it. Who am I to tell people how they should react to these things? I guess I’m just trying to offer another perspective.

That said, there’s only one audible fart in the whole movie.

I’m still in two minds about whether we should have done that or not. When we were editing, we thought, “There’s nothing at stake.” I think if you just had that one moment where it does happen, I think maybe you’re with him more. I guess it’s like [Strickland’s 2012 movie Berberian Sound Studio], where there’s no blood in the film at all.

When you talk about the vulgarity of the movie coming from the character and not you, I wonder about your writing process. Do you turn off your conscious self and become a conduit? Is there a way to separate the vulgarity on screen from your actual existence?

I don’t know! In that scene, I think my way to kind of separate myself from the actions was to reveal the hidden chocolate mousse behind the tape delay unit. It wasn’t like Salò—you know it’s chocolate mousse. I suppose that was my get-out-of-jail card there.

I don’t want to hang up without asking you about Night Voltage. Is that project any further than it was when you were promoting In Fabric?

No, it’s even further in the distance. It’s actually the 10th anniversary this year of having the film picked up by Film4. Film4 were the only ones supporting it. But their money’s not enough. No one else would touch it. So I’ve been talking about turning it into a book, but as a screenplay for an unmade film.

We’re trying. Tristan Goligher’s still producing it, but we’re hitting a brick wall. It’s just an expensive film to do because it has, you know, clubs in New York, so you’ve got a lot of people, a lot of period costumes, and now you’ve got the added issue of pandemic with testing all those people and distancing and so on. No one will give us the money. Or they’ll give us the money if we have an A-list actor. We tried many A-list actors, nobody wanted to do it.

I understand why people don’t want to do it, but I reached a point where I just want people to experience it, whether in written form or as a film. And even if it comes out in book form, it can always get made later down the line. I did a short film just now—I finished it last Friday—which is kind of like a hint of Night Voltage. I’m hoping that we’ll get around festivals.

I mean, it’s tough. It gets tougher and tougher. I imagine it’ll get even harder now with the whole cost of living crisis. So yeah, the will is there for me to do it, but I’m even more in doubt than I was last time.

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