Film Review: The Automat

a young Mel Brooks in an automat

The concept of automats might seem alien to generations born in towns and cities now full of cafes and restaurants, but those of a certain age will remember a time before gastropubs, KFC and McDonalds. There’s something very Tomorrow’s World about the concept of a restaurant where you selected your food and drink from vending machine. As a child only experiencing this via television shows and films, it seemed almost magical. For much of the twentieth century they became ubiquitous across northern industrial America.

The first automat was opened by Horn & Hardart in Philadelphia in 1902. Inspired by technological advances in Berlin, they became the most popular automat chain across the country. They were places where people from all walks of society came to eat, talk and mix. Their demise was heralded by rising food prices, social change and the advent of fast food restaurants. Lisa Hurwitz tells their story in her new film, The Automat.

With a host of famous talking heads, including Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell, The Automat charts the rise and fall of a phenomenon which wept the country from the viewpoint of people for which these dispensers of freshly-made food still hold fond memories. While the subject could be dry, Hurwitz isn’t afraid to tamper and play with normal documentary conventions. Which helps make The Automat both and informative and entertaining experience.

The Automat screens at Film Forum, NYC on 11 February.

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