“The Automat” Reminisces About A Forgotten Piece of American History: Film Review

Restaurant concepts where the consumer interacts primarily with technology to receive high-quality cuisine have been touted as rather recent developments in the restaurant/fast casual industry. However, as demonstrated in Lisa Hurwitz’s delightfully informative documentary, The Automat, these ideas actually came into fruition at the turn of the 20th century in the form of Horn and Hardart’s automat cafeterias.

For those who may not be familiar with the concept of an automat, they were opulent cafeterias where one’s homestyle meal was purchased by putting a couple nickels in a elegant vending machine and the coffee spewed from a bronzed dolphin spout. While the actual history of the automat as detailed in the film is fascinating, Hurwitz takes the narrative one step further by juxtaposing the restaurant chain’s past to American history as a whole.

Hurwitz’s film explores how the prevalence of “Slot Machine Lunch” (as it was dubbed nack then) coincided with the societal shifts of the early 20th century. For instance, the first Automat in the United States was opened in 1902, a period during which the industrial revolution was in full swing. The explosion of the automat’s popularity in the 1920s paralleled the dramatic rise of women in the workforce and immigrants arriving in New York City. Even their eventual downfall in the mid to late 1900s reflects the classist capitalist sentiments that proliferated in the post World War II society.

These connections are dissected even further in The Automat though the intricate use of archival footage and photos. Hurwitz showcases how automats were depicted in Hollywood movies, art pieces, and talk shows to demonstrate that even though Horn and Hardart automats were only operating in two cities (Philadelphia and New York City), they had a massive cultural resonance in their hayday.

While there are occasional moments in The Automat where the waxing nostalgia becomes repetitive, the enthusiasm and fondness exhibited by the film’s eclectic subjects makes it impossible not to continue watching without a smile on your face. More than just a cafeteria, Hurwitz’s documentary on the automat reveals the auspicious idealism that surrounded the industrial revolution, akin to the sentiments that often surrounded MySpace in its early days. While we may never see that kind of naive optimism in a major business again, hopefully someone at least finds a way to make the perfect cup of coffee like Horn and Hardart used to.

The Silver Lining

The Automat‘s use of talking-heads is unparalleled in this year’s current crop of documentaries. Mel Brooks’ (Blazing Saddles, The Producers) substantial involvement in the film, which includes a fantastic musical number called “At The Automat” that is an ode to the crooner days makes The Automat a must watch for any Brooks fan. However, there are several additional interview subjects that appear in The Automat that elicit the kind of dumbfounded reaction that is typically reserved for cameos in superhero movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home. To say much more would be spoiling the surprise, but to hear such influential figures reminisce about the past is enchanting.

The Automat releases in New York City at Film Forum starting this Friday and in Los Angeles on February 25th.


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