A Brief History of McDonald’s in Cinema
Cultural icon and delicious fast-food joint, the golden arches of McDonald’s tower proudly over the gateway to modern Americana. Since the restaurant chain was founded in 1940 in San Bernadino, it has grown consistently and ruthlessly, to the point where McDonald’s has become a synonym both for fast food and for corporate globalisation. Since its expansion in the 1950s, McDonald’s has featured in countless movies, of varying artistic worth, and has embraced popular culture through its Happy Meals and partnerships with major studios.
To consider its true position in cinema history, it’s important to escape the shackles of the company’s own marketing department. Of course, McDonald’s has sewn its product placement seeds all across the world, appearing in hundreds of movies from Big Daddy to Kingsman, though the pinnacle of this aggressive strategy is the historic dance sequence from 1988 E.T. knock-off MAC and Me.
Conversely, there have also been mainstream movies, most notably Super Size Me, that focus on the McDonald’s corporation. Others, like 2012’s Compliance, use McDonald’s as the backdrop for a true-life story. These references are very direct and clear, but McDonald’s also has a more oblique role in cinema history, as the socio-cultural barometer of a changing world.
Perhaps the most famous McDonald’s based sequence in cinema history comes from Quentin Tarantino’s Palme d’Or winning Pulp Fiction (1994). Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta are shooting the breeze in a car between jobs when Travolta’s Vincent poses the questions “Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?” Vincent eventually reveals that they call it a “Royale with cheese”, to which Jackson’s Jules responds, “What do they call a Big Mac?” “Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac,” Vincent answers.
This sequence is telling, not just because it comes from a film that has entered the ‘Modern Classic’ pantheon. Tarantino’s digressive dialogue style often attempts to focus on key popular culture fads, especially ones that are very specific to their time. McDonald’s is a topic of conversation in the 90s because it unifies people’s experiences across the United States, from small towns to big cities. On top of this, Vincent’s line of questioning isn’t merely a comment about globalisation, but is also subverted to become an attack on small-minded Americanism. Jules bemusement at the French names for traditionally American burgers is illustrative of how the implications of the spread of American culture in the 90s were considered with little more than condescension back in America.
Pulp Fiction shares a thematic vein (though there’s little stylistic similarity) with the Weitz Brothers’ 2002 film About a Boy. About a Boy is, in many ways, a searing assault on consumerism – from robotic coffee makers to Sony Walkmans to Countdown – but McDonald’s is used in a somewhat different way. Most of the film’s criticism is reserved for the way in which Hugh Grant’s Will lives his life, but for the first two acts of About a Boy, McDonald’s is used as a metaphor for the failures of Toni Collette’s Fiona, in forcing veganism on her son Marcus.
When Fiona tells Marcus that he has to eat what she eats, he responds “But you don’t let me go to McDonald’s, either.” Fiona, considering this, replies “I can’t stop you from going to McDonald’s, I’d just be disappointed if you did.” Marcus accepts this answer and the issue disappears from view, right until the very end of the film where Fiona, realising that Marcus is his own man and needs to be able to express himself, rewards his scintillating performance at the school concert by offering a trip to McDonald’s. And Marcus declines it, saying “You know, I’m not really hungry.”
Here, McDonald’s is not being used to emblematize capitalism or consumerism, but as a symbol of Marcus moving away from his fragile mother. He refuses that because he has come to accept the idea that the makeshift family he has created from Fiona, Will, Rachel, Ali and Ellie is more important than any notion that could prove divisive. McDonald’s is the antithesis of Fiona’s veganism, but because she’s willing to compromise her ideology for Marcus, Marcus is willing to compromise his ideology for her.
But, for all the tendency to use McDonald’s as a byword for a corporate behemoth, the organisation is still fundamentally aspirational. Whether that’s John Amos’ plagiarising proprietor in 1988’s Coming to America (“Me and the McDonald’s people got this little misunderstanding. See, they’re McDonald’s… I’m McDowell’s. They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs. They got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick.”) or The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort using it as a lowballing motivator (“Now if anyone here thinks I’m superficial or materialistic, go get a job in fucking McDonald’s, cause that’s where you fucking belong!”), McDonald’s represents both the high and the low of American capitalism.
McDonald’s is a cultural icon so diverse that it has been defined by satire (think Squeaky Voiced Teen in The Simpsons), glamorisation, repulsion, anger and desire. But throughout these discordant uses, one thing remains constant: whenever you reference McDonald’s, you are rooting your movie in a real world, beyond the romantic notion of small, independent businesses, where most of your audience already reside.
Also in the ‘Brief History of Cinema’ series: The Male Headband
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