Anthony Bourdain: Windows to the Stomach and Soul

 

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My introduction to Anthony Bourdain was with the first ever episode of No Reservations. It took place in France, and thinking back, it was as morbid a foreshadowing of Bourdain’s mental issues as one could ever think up, to the point where I shudder remembering the details of it as I write it here. Belying the jovial title of the episode, “Why The French Don’t Suck”, the episode is incredibly dark for something meant to explore the joys of a country’s culinary delights. But it was meant to be dark. It was an introduction into exactly what kind of chef and yes, storyteller, Bourdain was.

It wasn’t enough that “Tony”, as many people including strangers call him, was a celebrity chef and obsessed with discovering new foods in new lands. He wanted to teach us about it. Us, the stubborn, closed-boxed, isolationist, snobby, and anti-cultural Americans who make a sour face at almost anything that doesn’t fit into the embarrassingly small mold of what we consider “good eats'” (shout out to one of Bourdain’s best friends, Alton Brown). This required being much more creative than your average foodie. How do you get children to eat food they scoff at? Make it a story, play a game, distract them with anything, literally anything else. No Reservations became a revolutionary show because it was as much a food show as it was a TV-drama. What crazy place is Tony going to get into trouble in this time? Who are the interesting people he’s going to meet in this country? It was like watching Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones was a drunk, wise-cracking uncle who also worked as an executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles.

Anthony Bourdain was not one to make a soft and welcoming entrance. In his first ever TV episode, he succumbs to several hallucinations after having drips of pure absinthe and bites of pitch black blood sausage in a barely lit dim basement bar called “Cantada II”, and sleeps being haunted by demons in the same hotel room in which Oscar Wilde stayed during the time of his death. The camera shifts side to side, the lights flicker, and Bourdain wonders himself, trapped in the bed, in an echoey voiceover, whether he too will live his last waking moments here.

The episode was a remarkably artistic and weighty beginning to a show dedicated to food and culture. Every episode thereafter became the chapter of a narrative, with Bourdain as the central character charting his way through countries and meeting people who had their own stories to tell. The camerawork and editing on the show was as important as the food and conversations. Unlike many food shows where I mostly long to see perfectly seared scallops or thin white noodles resting in a steaming broth with crisp pork bellyBourdain’s shows were unique in their ability to captivate me with everything outside the contents of a plate or bowl. I wanted to know the people, I wanted to watch him in a canoe sailing down the Amazon, I wanted to see him speaking to a local Burmese activist about political turmoil.

The entertainment factor for Bourdain was as much about the story he wanted to weave regarding a country as it was about the food. In an episode on Iceland, a tourism commercial for plays, with a narrator speaking in romantic terms about the beautiful sunsets and lush golf-courses and incredible docks and seaside restaurants. As soon as the commercial finishes, it cuts to Bourdain inside an ice cave in the middle of a blizzard freezing his ass off and chattering his teeth. Bourdain always strived to be relatable, that was his thing. He was in a different land, surrounded by things very different from those that we have in America, and he acted not as a tour guide for us, but an ambassador.  He always had a great reason why we should step outside of our enclosed boxes, regardless of whether it was comfortable for us or not.

Americans naturally have a hesitation and skepticism towards things we aren’t used to. Whenever Bourdain talked about food, he would address it the same way a guy tasting a burger at your local pub might. Simple but effective terms. He had a bitterness and disdain for many food critics, considering their approach to be elitist, cryptic, and worst of all, inauthentic.  They dressed in designer clothes and sat behind a table and daintily picked at and picked apart a dish going into their textbook terminologies for what flavors complement one another and what weird French word describes that particular taste between sour and tart that English has no equivalent for. Bourdain sat in a streetside hut. Plastic table. Plastic chairs. Cold beers. Across from the freaking President of the United States, and shoved all sophistication and decorum to the side, slurping noodles obnoxiously from a hot broth bowl with pork belly. “This is killer”, President Obama says. The only analysis one could ever need to suddenly crave a good bùn-cha.

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Bourdain’s tireless desire to get Americans to understand a world they, for the most part, shut away from, went much further than cuisine. He knew that food was intrinsically tied to history and politics of a nation, and thus, and most importantly tied to its people. Tony never minced his words when visiting developing countries which the United States utterly destroyed with its murderous foreign policy campaigns. His castigation of Henry Kissinger is well-documented. From No Reservations to Parts Unknown, it was clear that Bourdain’s shows aimed to recognize humanity above all else. To recognize the destruction we experience and the spirit that endures. His episodes in Libya amidst the Benghazi fiasco, Myanmar amidst the Rohingya pogrom, and Turkey amidst the mass protests of Erdogan’s re-election balanced the reality of a tumultuous political fire with the fire that cooked lip-smacking local foods and a fire within the nation’s populace that upheld their hopes.

It was incredibly ironic that a show like Parts Unknown was on CNN, because it sought so hard to tear down every wall of mystification that cable news programs put up when speaking of other countries and cultures. There wasn’t a reporter with a microphone poorly explaining in oversimplified and theatrical terms why the country was in a state of unrest. Instead, it was regular people, sharing food during iftar after a day of fasting who spoke about their personal experiences and beliefs in the direction of the nation. They were having a conversation not a debate. They didn’t always agree with each other, and we, at home, didn’t always agree with them, but everyone listened, and everyone shared a meal.

When I watched Anthony Bourdain, I got the sense of a person who was deeply devoted to the idea that food would make the world a much smaller, and better, place. He understood very well the political and social divisions that existed between countries, but he also knew that food was one of mankind’s cardinal pleasures. No Reservations and Parts Unknown are two of the most incredible shows I have ever witnessed because they held the food show to a higher standard. Anthony Bourdain challenged himself to teach us and challenged to learn and believe that wherever in the world we may be, we will find someone just like us, and if we’re lucky, it will be on the side of the road, sitting in plastic chairs, at a plastic table, with a cold beer, and eating something that’s killer.

 

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Small Stature, Powerful Punches – Aki Kaurismäki’s THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

 

 

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The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

There is a term in boxing called “pound-for-pound” whereby a boxers rank is determined by his physical achievement in relation to his size. The best pound-for-pound fighters do the most with the least and while their stature may be small, the power and heart they exhibit during a fight outweigh it. If there is a stylistic equivalent to a pound-for-pound fighter in movies, I can’t think of a more fitting title-holder than Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Since the beginning of his career, his cinema has been defined through a simplicity in style, dialogue, and emotion that is delightful and rich for some, but distant and opaque for others. It features lighting that can best be described as sparse and dialogue that is curt and aloof, most of it to comic effect, but also revealing deep insights into the character’s lives and emotions. I spoke much about Kaurismäki before here, and why I felt his movies not only do the most with the least, but why his idiosyncratic style is difficult to absorb at face value and not as easily digestible as his Western European counterparts, but yet, behind the coy and jokey design his films are draped with, he is a filmmaker with immensely bold and important ideas.

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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

Much like another 2017 film, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless which uses a parent’s divorce and missing child as an allegory for life under Putin, Kaurismäki utilizes a refugee story and a businessman’s redemption to channel politics, economics, and culture within Finland.

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Khaled is a Syrian immigrant, whose first appearance in the film is at the opening series of shot, with him slowly peeking his head out from under a pile of coal and casually walking away, caked in soot. His journey to Finland was anything but clean, and in one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, he recounts the entire journey to a Finnish immigration officer. “I didn’t choose to come here” Khaled simply says at the end. He is looking for his sister who is the only family member left alive after a bomb massacred the rest of them in Aleppo. “ISIS, Kurds, Syrian government, USA, Russia, Hezbollah… it could have been anybody.” Many monster movies in Hollywood fashion the tagline “Whoever wins, we lose.” Khaled, and many other Syrians live that reality every day, and it’s not cool or exciting to watch. This is probably the most a Kaurismäki character has ever talked in one setting, but it indicates the importance Kaurismäki hold for the words of refugees, and for the director to break his style of undescriptive dialogue for this character, speaks volumes about his moral compass as a filmmaker.

While Khaled tries to find his footing with no money nor identification, the other central character in the film, a cold business investor named Wikstrom, who is recently divorced, buys up a restaurant and its staff with a large sum of money he won in high-stakes poker. He is incredibly savvy in the business world, and cutthroat as well. We realize from the beginning, after they arbitrarily come across each other on a deserted road in the first 10 minutes and promptly part ways without a word, that both Khaled and Wikstrom are destined to meet up once again. The dichotomy of these two characters is that between an established, wealthy national citizen and someone who has just arrived and is scraping by. They also represent the old and new visions of the director with Wikstrom’s restaurant venture providing the light-hearted brevity we have come from know and love of Kaurismäki’s cinema, while Khaled is the cipher for a new path of political commentary he is embarking upon.

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Wikstrom knows the lay of the land when it comes strictly to business, but he is not savvy to the political climate of the nation. When his workers ask for a high salary, he retorts they will get “union wages… whatever they are.” He is also easily duped by them in a hilarious sequence where the front-end host sweet-talks Wikstrom into a couple of extra Euros. He then steps out and signals to the other two employees a look which says “yeah, he’s a sucker” and the waitress promptly goes in to pinch a few easy bucks from him as well. Wikstrom’s uptight business attitude belies his vulnerabilities to dealing with people, and contributes to his complexity as a character and sets up for his encounter with Khaled.

That Wikstrom would find Khaled sleeping near the dumpsters outside his restaurant, get into a fist fight with him, and promptly offer him a job may be a naïve idealist dream, but it does make one thing clear, Kaurismäki refuses to brand people in his films as good or bad. In fact, the only characters in the film who end up being one-sidedly evil (because that’s the only factual and realistic way to portray them) are the Neo-Nazis who tussle with Khaled several times throughout the movie. In a comedic film, the presence of these figures feels like a jolt to the system. Kaurismäki’s inspiration here seems to come from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In that film, the Jewish barber is inherently a comedic character, but in one sequence, he is being lynched at a streetlight by Nazi sympathizers. It’s a terrifying scene because it is sandwiched between comedic hijinks. Even the event itself is poised as a “funny bit” with the Nazi’s not being able to tie the rope properly and Chaplin falling down and bonking one of them on the head. Kaurismäki recreates a similar mix of terror and comedy when the Nazis follow Khaled outside near an alley and attempt to pour gasoline on him and light him on fire when a homeless man smashes a beer bottle on one of their heads and sends him for a loop.

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Racism themes are treated in Hollywood with tear-jerking patronization and an ironic silencing of actual minority voices by posing it as a “both sides issue”. They are also hilariously considered brave and moving and are automatic awards hogs, like Martin McDonaugh’s disgustingly bad Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kaurismäkis is a welcome antidote to the trivialization of these important topics, and his ability to create moments of such great power and emotion, and an unmistakable clarity in right vs wrong, from unassuming and often detached characters and situations inherent in his style is what makes The Other Side of Hope a remarkable achievement and the must-see film of 2017.

O.J. Made in America

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OJ: Made in America positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson. As a black kid from the projects turned football star turned American icon, he was the living, walking, and talking embodiment of the American Dream, and exhibit A for proof that capitalism worked. A man whose figure in the American pop culture diaspora was so magnanimous, it defied definition. As Jay-Z put it, “Not a businessman, but a business… man.” However, all of this was shattered through a court trial that ended up finding him innocent, but fallout that rendered him an outcast of American society. In this, Edelman paints an America comprised of two sides that were always at odds in the fight for O.J. Simpson. A white America who embraced his rise and turned un-apologetically to relish in his fall, and a black America who felt neglected by his apathy towards their social struggle yet embellished in the opportunity to use his trial as a means of social justice. As a documentary, a piece of visual media, it turns its lens in every direction and points it back at us in 2016, facing a similar racially fractured situation which all but intensified post a seminal verdict in the court that is the American presidential election. It points it back at its own storytelling form, the overexposure of an individual, a normalization of his dangerous behavior, a treatment of him as a victim of unwarranted harsh criticism rather than recognizing his actions as inviting and justifying it.

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The social and cultural shifts of American history through time shape and are shaped by its most powerful citizens. Race relations brewed through O.J.’s life, even if he tried his hardest to avoid them. We perceive race as a binary entity. You are either racist or you are not. However, like most ideologies or worldviews, it exists in a blended spectrum that makes it harder for us to judge, and dangerously, harder to detect or realize. Many instances in O.J. Made in America showcase blatant examples of racism. Use of the n-word, beating of black individuals by police, direct violence against blacks by whites. However, there is also deeply rooted systemic racism that the documentary taps into and it is revealed not only in the laws and policies of the nation, but in the everyday lives of people, perhaps unwittingly. As they say, the system isn’t broken, it’s meant to work this way and it ingrained itself in the American psyche to the point of second nature… subconscious reaction to visual signals. Mark Cuban mentioned in an interview several years ago that if he was out at night in the city and saw a black kid in a hoodie he would feel the need to go to the other side of the street(1). We don’t know where such a mental reaction originated from and that’s exactly the issue. Preconceived notions on race are omnipresent in American media as well. In OJ, majority of the violent news footage is consisted of black individuals in urban areas attacking and being “handled” by police officers. These biases exist in everyone and they exist to different degrees. They existed within the rich white circles O.J. Simpson surrounded himself with and then was discarded from once they couldn’t use his stature to their benefit anymore. They existed within Johnny Cochran and his team, who used race-baiting tactics to overcome hard evidence and let a murderer go free. They existed within Simpson himself, who claimed he “never saw race” yet, upon seeing a commotion outside his mansion following his chase down the highway remarked to a white police officer “what are all these n—— doing here?”

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The subject, OJ, of Ezra Edelman’s documentary is amended with a predicate: Made in America. Here lies the power of the story. Where the onus is placed on a culture, a nation, and a history that perpetuated the rise of such an individual, and tore itself apart amidst his demise. The idol worship culture, where the concept of a person being bigger than a person, exists for better or for worse. We elevated Bill Cosby as an all-time comedian. We elevated Tom Cruise as a charismatic screen-stealing superstar. We elevated Donald Trump as a money-savvy outsider who could plausibly lead the most powerful nation in the world for four straight years. Through interviews and news clippings Edelman shows us how our (now social) media-obsessed culture feeds into the mythos of ultimate success and power. We say that America is the place where winners go. You’ll never become as successful and as wealthy and as powerful anywhere else in the world as you can in America. Well, that sword comes with two edges. Capitalism is always coupled with materialism. Fame is always coupled with greed. Power is always coupled with corruption. Only in America could an O.J. Simpson be made. We all made him because we all fed into his myth and his lie. The greatness of O.J. Made in America is in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Something to think about for the next four years.

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Norte, The End of History

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Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)

A disclaimer to start off:

I have personally become disillusioned with the American critical stance of films having to have a certain time-frame of “watchability”. I don’t get that. To me, a film’s “length” being indicative of its watchability only really depends on the seriousness of the filmmaker. If there is, in the filmmakers judgement and intellect, truly a necessity for the runtime he has allotted for his film, then I leave that to his discretion. The nonsensical argument that a movie lasting more than 2 or 2 ½ hours is one which is poorly edited is a myth, and it’s a myth which has ruined films like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, forced Tarantino to chop Kill Bill into two parts, and made the 4 ½ hour version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King be restricted to DVD instead of where it really belonged: in the theater. Yet, evidence exists everywhere of films with lengthy run-times that have gripped me far more and relentlessly than even 90-minute features.

One of them, Lav Diaz’s 4 ½ hour Norte, The End of History is in a word, incredible. Incredible to behold in not only its cinematic scope of location, camerawork, and time, but equally in the density of its core, packed with so many discussions of socio-politics, religion, and the fight between immorality, innocence, revenge, and love so jam packed one after another with so many ideas and insights into the film, that its 4 ½ hour runtime doesn’t feel even a millisecond “too long”. There wasn’t a moment of this movie which made me check what the time was, on my watch or my phone. I was glued. From the opening scene discussing a provocative conversation of nihilism, dictatorship, we are automatically drawn to the upstart law student Fabian, who’s radical ideologies, Marxist level of disdain for the economic and social state of his nation, The Philippines. This may not seem riveting to the average film-goer, but I am a sucker for philosophical discussion, especially one in which fervor and anger take central stage, because it displays the passion for socio-politics that I think everyone in every country could benefit from in a knowledge standpoint and one of inspiration.

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Diaz is clearly speaking to the effects of the nation on its populace and in turn, the reaction of its citizens throughout the film. While Fabian’s disillusionment leads him down a dark and horrifying path of self-hatred, poor construction worker Joaquin and his family (wife and 2 kids) lead a life of quiet desperation, going about their daily chores, living hand to mouth, not saying much because they don’t have the power nor the energy to do so. The two threads that made up the quilt of Norte are weaved in the winding lives of Fabian and Joaquin. The distinction between their two lives is important, the former a brilliant prodigy of the law student praised by his teachers as an “outside thinker” and the other a low wage worker at the bottom of the totem pole, a mule of the economic system. As Fabian commits a gruesome murder, one sparked by both a sense of righteousness and blind hatred, Joaquin is the one who bares the brunt of the blame, a perennial scapegoat of the corrupt, a “disposable entity”.

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The irony at face value of course is that in his Raskolnikovian guilt and shame, Fabian lives in his own prison outside of the bars, while Joaquin in jail is shown to grow as a person and his kindness succeeds in winning over even the coldest of hearts. But Diaz’s commentary goes a bit deeper than this, as a 4+ hour film should. We realize that Fabian’s existence as a disillusioned youth was his prison, and his murder was already a murder committed behind bars. For him, the Philippines itself was the prison, a nation which, from the beginning of the film itself, was at the precipice of complete hopelessness according to Fabian, one where every transgression deserved a murder, every political lie deserved torture. His anger at the socio-political turmoil which surrounded him infiltrated his mind and ignited the fire of a young would-be dictator. One teetering between the heart of a good kid wanting so much better for the people of country (he gives up all his saved money to Joaquin’s wife for her to keep and raise her kids with), and a madman who’s helplessness in the grand scheme of things leads him to violent insanity.

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To me, Diaz’s ultimate message in this film was that the oppression and neglect of a ruling government can be directly related to rise of violent and immoral individuals. The lack of power, the lack of solutions, and the continued boiling anger of a population can produce a Fabian, and it can also hamper a Joaquin. There is unforgiving heartbreak, death, rape, and torture which is peppered throughout the film, but none of it is disingenuous, or manipulative, or politically preachy. It is showcased as a happenstance of life in a country where Diaz clearly believes so much to be morally wrong. A country where the populace is devoted to God, where Jesus and Catholicism and priesthood are such a prevalent part of the culture, yet, Godless acts seem to occur, without much mourning.

Readers know from a few of my previous articles, that I am very averse to labelling a film a masterpiece because I always feel like I’m short-changing the power of that word. We use it so loosely (just like everything else today) and freely that I feel the need to be even more strict with my usage of it to counter the complete liberal abandon with which it is being flung around nowadays. But I thought about it, I pondered it, and I spent the better part of the last month letting Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History sink in. I am at a loss for another word to describe my experience with this movie. Masterpiece, it is.

(Suffice to say, I will be watching more Lav Diaz in the coming months, starting with From What is Before…. Stay tuned!)