In Stanley Tucci’s cult film, Big Night, two Italian immigrant brothers from Abruzzo own a restaurant called Paradise, situated on the New Jersey Shore in the 1950s. The older brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is a superb chef, but he’s a perfectionist who steadfastly resists his customers’ preference for Americanized Italian food. The younger brother, Secondo (Tucci), is the hapless restaurant manager who tries to appease his customers’ expectations while wrangling with Primo’s culinary exactness.
When a woman wants a side of plain spaghetti next to her risotto, Primo refuses to make it. Secondo begs him to do what their customer wants, but Primo sniffs, “No. She’s a criminal!”
Primo believes he knows what true Italian food should be like and how it should be served. He demands that his customers choose from the menu as it has been prepared, with no adjustments, and to trust him that his meals are utterly magnificent as is. His motto is, “To eat good food is to be close to God.”
But despite Primo’s astonishingly good food, the Paradise is failing. Customers prefer to go to Pascal’s, a flashy Italian joint around the corner, one that serves Americanized Italian food and allows them to customize the menu any way they like. Secondo begs Primo to be more like Pascal’s, beseeching him, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”
But the perfectionist won’t change. Referring to the food at Pascal’s, Primo says, “Do you know what happens in that restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! The rape of cuisine.”
As a consequence, the future of the Paradise Italian restaurant looks bleak.
I’ve been thinking a bit about this film lately because the brothers in Big Night represent two approaches to life – the purist and the pragmatist. Each type has their contribution. But each type also has great weaknesses. Let’s look at each of them.
PURISTS LOVE IDEAS
Purists are inspiring, but they are arrogant. They think they know what’s best for others.
I’m thinking of the objections of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to the recent domination of Marvel superhero movies. When asked what he thought of such films, Scorsese said, “I don’t see them. I tried, you know. But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.”
The backlash was pretty strong, with MCU fans coming out swinging in defence of their favorite movies. But to me Scorsese sounded like Primo from Big Night. He’s a purist. Cinema is a sacred place to him. There are rules. He went on, “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Scorsese grew up going to the theater to see great post-war Italian films like Bicycle Thieves and Open City. Italian neorealism explored issues like poverty, oppression, injustice, and the desperation of ordinary Italians trying to rebuild their lives. Scorsese found the whole experience of moviegoing to be immersive, emotional, captivating, and at times overwhelming. And he wants you to have that experience when you see a film.
So, no, you can’t have a side of spaghetti with your risotto. You have to see a film in its entirety, on the screen, in the cinema, as the director intended.
Other purists include Steven Spielberg, who has tried to ban Netflix releases and other films distributed through streaming services from Oscar contention, and Christopher Nolan, who simply refuses to believe that streaming services could replace the theater experience. He railed against Paramount’s decision to upload their whole 2021 slate of films directly to their new streaming platform.
Like Primo, all three of these filmmakers create astonishing banquets, feasts for our senses, and they don’t want the experience adulterated by being viewed on a small screen or interrupted by viewers taking toilet breaks or scrolling through Instagram when they should be watching. But like Primo, they might end up being on the wrong side of history. As writer Harry Stein said, “The sorry truth is that in this most pragmatic land, the purist is generally his own worst enemy.”
PRAGMATISTS LOVE PEOPLE
Then there are the pragmatists. They are customer focused. They love meeting people’s needs. But by nature they are compromisers.
In Big Night, Secondo just wants to serve his customers what they want. He understand them. They don’t have a refined palate. They don’t appreciate the intricacies of a delicate Venetian rice dish or the richness of slow-roasted Abruzzese lamb. They don’t get that Italians break the meal into distinct antipasto, pasta, and farinaceous products, followed by a main course. They just want spaghetti with meatball sauce.
Pragmatists like Secondo resist the idea that diners should submit themselves to a chef’s vision. They believe the kitchen should live up to the customer’s tastes and expectations, not the other way round. They don’t want tasting menus and chefs dictating how you eat, preferring to give the freedom of choice to the regular diner.
In filmmaking as in Italian cooking, business interests clash with artistic aspirations. Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg might want you to see their films on a big screen and in one sitting, but these days even devoted cinephiles opt to view movies on their 72-inch flatscreens with home surround sound. There, they get to choose how many sittings to watch the film in and what else they want to do while it’s screening.
Netflix, Disney and Marvel get it. They’re just giving the people what they want when they want it. And when you think about, if there are two artforms that should be popularized and control given to their consumers it’s food and film — sustenance and story.
CAN THE PURIST AND THE PRAGMATIST UNITE?
The clash between Primo and Secondo becomes elevated in the final act of Big Night, resulting in harsh words and what looks like the severing of their relationship. Secondo is dispirited. The restaurant is broke. Primo seems resigned to returning to Rome to work in their uncle’s restaurant.
The following morning, Secondo silently cooks an omelette in the kitchen of the Paradise. Primo enters hesitantly, warily, uncertain of the reception he will receive. But Secondo silently divides the omelette between two plates, handing one to Primo. They eat without speaking, their arms around each others’ shoulder.
Whatever else they are, Primo and Secondo are brothers. Nothing can break that bond.
I wonder whether the purist and the pragmatist need to learn to see themselves as siblings, not rivals. The executive chef at Del Posto, a four-star Italian restaurant in New York, thinks so. Mark Ladner is one of the city’s finest Italian chefs and thinks of himself as a bit of a Primo, but has said, “I respect both sides of the conversation.”
Despite his sophisticated menu, Ladner says, “We still have people who expect spaghetti and meatballs. And after years of fighting against it, I realized I like spaghetti and meatballs as much as the next guy, and there’s no reason not to sort of play with this tongue-in-cheek interpretation of some of these Italian American classics, because they’re classics for a reason.”
Any business, any artform, needs to find that sweet spot where pragmatism overlaps with idealism. Too much of either one destroys itself. While maybe not the best exemplar of his own words, Richard Nixon was right when he said, “Idealism without pragmatism is impotent. Pragmatism without idealism is meaningless. The key to effective leadership is pragmatic idealism.”
I was thinking about this with the church in mind. For centuries the church was run by purists. They knew what a church service looked like and they delivered it according to their exacting specifications, whether it was in Latin or 17th century English. The preferences of the congregation were immaterial. Each worship service was a masterpiece, even if the common churchgoer failed to appreciate all its intricacies and complexity.
But these days it feels like the pragmatists are in charge. Services have to be more user-friendly. Sermons should be shorter and punchier. The music should be contemporary. I remember Rick Warren telling us that when he planted Saddleback Church in Orange Country, he surveyed the locals as to what they didn’t like about church and then created a Sunday event that had none of those things. Rick Warren is the liturgical Secondo.
More recently, everything has needed to be delivered online for easy consumption. Church has become plug-and-play. And while Christopher Nolan bemoans this happening to cinema, very few church leaders seem to care about it happening to worship.
Unchecked pragmatists embody what has been called the modern cult of spontaneity, the school of thought that fetishizes fast action, instinct, and reflex and shuns those who take the time to think things through. The cult of spontaneity takes some of its cues from the anti-intellectual movements which have long plagued our culture. It praises action, speed, results. Isaac Asimov once said, “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Responding to such anti-intellectual pragmatism in the church, Fuller Seminar president Mark Labberton says “Evangelicalism is in a very problematic place.” He believes that the “cultures of many churches and denominations or networks will often deprioritize a transformative life and focus more on cleverness and shiny objects. The caverns that exist between the mind, the heart and the hands of many Christians reflect the church’s failure to disciple people deeply and holistically.”
Labberton says theological education should return to providing “formational education for diverse Christian leaders.” That means “measuring and retuning ourselves to be aware of the personal formation of our students and to provide the knowledge and formation needed on the ground to best minister to those God is calling our alums to serve.”
“The whole of the Scriptures need to inform a pastor’s life and vision,” he continues. “In this particular season of the church’s internal and external crises, I feel like we should never be more than five minutes away from reading the Gospels. Our central identity comes from the life and ministry of Jesus, not the forms, structures, strategies, budgets and technology of our ecclesiastical industrial complex to which we have yielded.”
But idealism, especially religious idealism, can be frozen by inaction. The key is to bring the Primos and the Secondos together, to unite the Mark Labbertons and the Rick Warrens, to fuse the purists’ love of their craft with the practicality of the people-oriented pragmatists.
In other words, to serve both the polpette al sugo and the meatball sub, but to do so for our customers’ nourishment not just their pleasure.