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The Automat - Documentary Review (Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2022)

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by Nicholas Gordon (subscribe)
Freelance writer based in Sydney.
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The rise and fall of a unique restaurant chain
Director Lisa Hurwitz's entertaining documentary centres on a quirky slice of last-century Americana. Horn & Hardart Automats were restaurants without waiters and menus. Instead, you went to a huge wall of glass cabinets, inserted coins into slots, turned a knob, and took out a plate of food (everything from roast beef sandwiches to apple pies to baked beans; coffee came out of a dolphin-head iron spout). You then ate your meal in a large, elegantly appointed dining room, often sharing the table with a stranger.

This restaurant concept was hugely popular and despite only operating in New York and Philadelphia, Horn & Hardart Automats were once America's largest restaurant chain. The Automat tells us all this in an engaging and light-hearted way. A lot of that has to do with Mel Brooks. A life-long Automat enthusiast, Brooks steals the show early, telling Hurwitz what he would do if he was making the film, later relating his first visits to Automat as a young boy, and then closing the documentary with an Automat-related song written specifically for the film.

Brooks isn't the only famous face featured. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell and Elliot Gould appear, telling childhood tales of the excitement of visiting the Automat. The big-wigs are joined by former employees of Horn & Hardart, family members of the founders and Automat historians (yes, really).

Through these interviews, we learn of founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart. Inspired by an eatery that employed a dumbwaiter system that they came across in Germany, the pair opened the first Horn & Hardart-branded eatery in Philadelphia in 1902. It took a while to refine, but eventually, the food-in-cabinets system came into being, proving both popular and profitable. Expansion in Philadelphia led to breaking into the New York market.

And New York was where the Automat really took off (and the film largely focuses on the Big Apple). Fitted out grandly, with marble-topped dining tables, elaborate brass fixtures and soaring ceilings, Automats were low-budget places with high ideals. This point is stressed heavily in the documentary. It didn't matter who you were (or as Colin Powell points out, what race you were), you were welcomed in the Automat, and through low prices, quality food and pleasant interiors, everyone was treated the same way.

But it couldn't last and after reaching the peak of their popularity in the 1950s, poor management and the decline of neighbourhoods surrounding the restaurants proved a turning point for the Automats (the very last one closed in NYC in 1991). Fast food began its march across the country, often taking over old Automat locations.

Hurwitz's documentary, built around a subject so niche, needs to captivate from the start. And it more than does. A combination of great storytelling and the fact that it never takes itself too seriously makes for an entirely watchable film. Mel Brooks isn't bad as well.

The Automat is screening online as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2022. The film will be available to stream throughout July. Find more information on the festival's official website.
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Why? For Mel Brooks.
When: 1/7/22 - 31/7/22
Where: Screening online from July 1 to July 31
Cost: Various packages available
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