Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Category: film reviews

Starting Small

It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly in this blog. I don’t want to have a resolution saying that I will start posting regularly from now on, because let’s face it, most resolutions end up as failures as the rest of life gets in the way and attempts at establishing new habits get broken. But, perhaps I’ll start small with bits and pieces of observations rather than starting big with essays encompassing large ideas and perhaps that will make it easier to go on.

Anyways, I wanted to share my latest binge watching: Begin Japanology and Japanology Plus (it’s actually the same program, but the name changed). I discovered this on YouTube because the site began recommending this to me after I had been watching other documentary videos. I love these types of videos because it tells about different cultures through seemingly very simple things like home appliances and umbrellas as well as the more obvious cultural markers like food, literature, and religion.

I have to admit, part of the fun of watching this particular show on YouTube is reading the comments. (Yes, yes, I know. Never read the comments. But I can’t help myself.) It’s usually overwhelmingly positive for the main host, Peter Barakan, who has a very calm, British demeanor. But the commenters have such a hate-on for the host of the “Plus” segments, Matt Alt. It’s probably because Alt’s character is so obviously that of an exuberant American that for whatever reason, fans of the show find too jarring in comparison to the subject matter and the other host. I personally don’t get the hate (Alt definitely has a different style of presenting, but I’ve seen worse), but I do find it amusing that in the comments of the later episodes, the haters reluctantly post that he’s “getting better”. Maybe they don’t want to admit that Alt is growing on them.

Binge Watching

As I’m writing this, I’m binge watching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Currently on season 5. Originally, I had watched the season 1 episodes when they first came out, but after that, things got busy and I was too distracted to watch any television shows. But now with a little bit of lull, I’m trying to catch up on what I’ve missed the past couple of years.

Television shows, in general, aren’t my thing. For one, I don’t have a TV. And more importantly, I’m uninterested in the majority of shows that crop up. (And even if the premise does interest me, I manage to read enough about them to know that they have parts that are too violent, too gory, too disturbing, and too gratuitous for my sensibilities. I’m okay reading about it, because words put a distance between me and the action, but watching it is another thing. I’d have nightmares for weeks.) However, I make an exception for Anthony Bourdain.

I don’t remember how I first came across Bourdain’s previous show, No Reservations. I was probably looking online for food and cooking shows because that’s one of the few genre of shows–I feel–are hard to completely screw up because, you know, food. I came in around season 2 or 3 and stuck around ever since. Bourdain is a bit of a miss for some people because he isn’t as earnest or goody-goody as some other television hosts, but I don’t like him solely because he’s considered a “bad boy” either. There are other bad boy hosts I’m not into because their whole schtick is about being angry and mean. Bourdain, on the other hand, is a bit more cynical and self-deprecating and not afraid of being made the butt of jokes. And aside from that, he seems to genuinely enjoy exploring other cultures and is up for trying anything.

Part of the appeal, I think, is that fact that Bourdain doesn’t hide that he’s a real person who has irritations and quirks and sometimes makes major screwups. Don’t get me wrong, I like other travel shows like Globe Trekker or Rick Steves just fine, but I think they’re targeting a demographic with a different personality. I mean, I can picture Rick Steves doing an interview with Lawrence Welk, but not Iggy Pop. And if Rick Steves decides to go off the beaten path, he’d take a Vespa through wine country. Bourdain, on the other hand, would be totally fine tramping through sketchy places to find some street food. Bourdain has no qualms about digging into the dirty politics, uneasy history, or problematic cultural undertones. Steves and other guides, on the other hand, barely touch on any of this. They either gloss over it or emphasize the Disneyfied, tourist-friendly versions.

Another part of the appeal is that he’s quite aware of the crew that’s also behind the camera and they’re also seen participating in the adventure as well. Other travel hosts studiously pretend that the crew isn’t there. I mean, when you’re traveling doing a television show, acting as if you’re traveling by yourself makes it look fake. For me, the suspension of belief isn’t quite there. Authenticity isn’t just about eating ethnic cuisine at the country of origin prepared by native people. It’s also being true to the conditions of your travel. This is a huge reason why I used his show as an inspiration for one of my NaNoWriMo novels–where I basically took his premise, turned it up to eleven, and made it science fiction, space opera style.

My criticism of Bourdain’s shows mainly rests with the episodes where he’s visiting a famous chef’s restaurant and going all fanboy over his (yes, it’s mostly a male chef with visions of grandeur) avant-garde culinary creations. It’s not really because these restaurants are elite or it’s expensive or that it’s touted as natural and organic and sustainable. It’s because it gives off the impression that this whole sitting in a fancy restaurant eating nicely decorated moss is a stunt. Not the sort of stunt where you jump out of a plane and anything could go wrong, but a staged stunt calculated to elicit a certain reaction with no risk involved. Maybe Bourdain is truly earnest about this new food and not sucking up to these culinary superstars, but I find it the very opposite of what is embodied by the titles No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

Anyways, I do like his shows quite a bit. They’re funny, edgy, and just a little bit outrageous. And at the end of an episode, I usually feel—yes, I do want to try that food or visit that place or talk to those people. Which is a lot better than sleeping through geography class, I can tell you that.

The Grind of Perfection

I first heard about the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, when it was mentioned by Anthony Bourdain (more on him in a future post) on one of his shows. It was only until now that I got around to watching it. Overall, as a documentary, I thought it worked very well. It was visually appealing and the director didn’t get in the way of the subject but it was also edited in a way that was quite focused. As a viewer, I came away with the appreciation that there are people out there who are obsessed with trying to obtain perfection in one thing although I don’t agree with the methods and philosophy behind that desire.

This isn’t about sustenance. It isn’t really about art either. Despite all the talk about creativity, I found very little of that here. The apprentices aren’t encouraged to experiment. They’re forced to perfect techniques. Sure, there’s food, but that’s incidental to Jiro’s quest for The Ideal. Jiro comes across as a stern, not particularly likeable person. People admire him for his skill with sushi, call him a master, given him Michelin stars. But his personal interactions? He’s dismissive of his own parents, his classmates call him a bully, his kids didn’t even recognize him when they were younger because he worked so much, and even his customers are nervous when they go to eat at his restaurant.

There’s a bit of pathos for his sons (especially his oldest) who seemed to be coerced into going into the sushi business despite their dreams for going to college and pursuing other occupations. A sympathetic critic remarked that Jiro’s sons have a tough road ahead of them since their father has reached such heights. They would have to be at least twice as good to be seen as their father’s equal. Even if they were equally as good, people (particularly other Japanese people), would still see them as inferior.

The more Japanese people I meet, the more I realize that their talk of being rebels or being different has a completely different point of reference than anyone else. Being a rebel means that they dared to deviate from their expected path by just a tiny bit. To a non-Japanese person, this sort of deviation is like saying you want to wear the brown socks today rather than the black ones you’ve been wearing for the past year. To outsiders, they would still appear to completely seeped in cultural traditions. Jiro “rebelled” by going into sushi rather than something a bit more practical, but otherwise, he seems like the typical workaholic Japanese man who doesn’t talk about his mother or his wife and is making his sons follow in his footsteps. Work is everything. Everything else is nothing. As the title to the documentary implies, even when he’s resting, he’s dreaming of work. He explicitly states that if he cannot work, then he is worthless.

Maybe it was in the way that this documentary was framed, but the subject came across as someone who would be rather difficult to get along with. I can see why other chefs would admire him. He has worked hard to achieve his distinctions. No one’s going to argue with that. But something still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Perhaps it’s the glorification of something that appears mindless and repetitive. Maybe my view of that marks me as a philistine, but I don’t particularly care. Pursing perfection is fine, but dedicating every waking moment of your life to it? I guess that’s where my notions of living a happy, productive life diverges from the film’s message.