Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fastidious, expensive & completely controlled

Last year I wrote a piece on this blog detailing my top ten documentaries, according to where I had them ranked on Flickchart. I then listed my next ten as honorable mentions, making 20 total.

Nowhere on this list of 20 was a film by the great Errol Morris, a fact indelicately pointed out to me by a commenter on the Flickchart blog, where the piece was reprinted. He wrote: "No Errol Morris? No Herzog? Do you really like documentaries ... or just nice film posters?" (The presentation on the Flickchart blog is heavy on the artwork).

I felt a bit annoyed by this accusation that I might not be a "real" documentary fan if I didn't cherish Morris' work more than I do. But that set me to thinking about why I don't love his work. After all, I do consider him "great" -- he's probably one of the finest and most accomplished documentarians we have.

I've seen five films by Morris, two of which (The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid) I've seen since writing that post. In fact, The Thin Blue Line (1988), his masterpiece, would certainly make that list if I were making it today. But neither Tabloid nor the other three (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and The Fog of War) would.

It's his 1997 film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control I saw first, and I still consider it representative of what he's trying to accomplish as an artist -- or not accomplish, as the case may be. You'll be disappointed to know it doesn't feature loose women with day-old mascara smudged across their faces. It's actually a portrait of four eccentric experts in four unusual and unrelated fields: a topiary artist, a lion tamer, an expert in mole rats and a scientist who makes bug-like robots. It's probably no surprise that Morris sees himself in these passionate pursuers of their respective crafts.

It was this film that introduced me to Morris' trademark style. The prototypical Morris film relies heavily on beautiful camerawork that's outside the box, including unusual close-ups and angles, and interview subjects talking directly to the camera. Morris' films also rely on a lot of slow-motion and a lot of what you might consider B-roll, an indulgence I interpret to indicate his preference for presenting beauty over his preference for presenting truth. He also employs a score almost constantly, usually one that's fairly reliant on a dominant instrument like the violin or the piano.

So while it's possible to find yourself wrapped in a certain spell as you are watching the beauty of Morris' craft, I'd argue that this beauty may be skin deep. Even when his subject matter is not frivolous, such as the modern history of the U.S. involvement in foreign wars, it seems like it exists primarily to serve his aesthetic sensibilities. And that's why none of Morris' films had yet penetrated their way into my top 20 at the time I wrote that piece.

Okay, how does this all relate to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which I saw last night as the back end of a double feature with Richard Linklater's Bernie?

Simply put, I thought director David Gelb was doing his best Morris impersonation, right down to using a Philip Glass score. (Morris used Glass in at least three of his films.) And that's why I'm not compelled to wax rapturous over Jiro, even though many critics have, and even though it is, without a doubt, an excellent film of which a great documentarian like Morris would be proud.

Specifically, I saw Fast, Cheap & Out of Control everywhere in this movie -- even though those terms apply even less to the craft of making sushi than they do to the four crafts highlighted in Morris' film.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a world-renowned sushi master whose restaurant is located in a Tokyo subway station and can seat only ten customers at once. Thanks to a tireless dedication to his craft (which has included making apprentices of his two sons), his restaurant has received one of the highest ratings for any restaurant in the world, and customers book reservations months in advance. A 20-piece meal starts at 30,000 yen, or $300. But no customer ever leaves unsatisfied, in part because Jiro has mastered his palate and technique over the course of 75 years of maki sushi.

Gelb's film is absolutely beautiful, which shouldn't surprise you, since I'm comparing him to Morris. There are any number of mouth-watering shots of a hand depositing a freshly cut roll on the marble slab off of which it will be eaten, glistening with the sauce that has just been brushed on its surface, drooping ever so slightly as gravity starts to have its effect on the buoyant concoction. My words pale in comparison to the beauty of these images.

But is that all they are? In fact, is that all Jiro is? Just a bunch of beautiful shots of raw fish? Where's the meat, as it were?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is only 81 minutes long, but it feels like it could be 20 minutes shorter. The problem is that there's not much of a narrative. The conflict, to the extent that there is one, is that Jiro's 50-year-old eldest son is essentially waiting for his father to retire so he can assume the position of sushi master at his father's restaurant. After all, his younger brother, who is not duty bound to follow directly in his father's footsteps, has already opened a successful restaurant across town.

Gelb faces a bit of a problem in that he is limited by the culture of his interview subjects, who are all quite traditional in their ways. Because filial piety is such a highly regarded trait in Japan, neither son is going to say the remotest thing negative about his father. What's more, any negative feelings they have toward one another are similarly repressed. So there is not, naturally, going to be any drama springing from these interviews.

Instead, we have what amounts to a loving montage on the process and dedication involved with the creation of great sushi. In many ways this is a joy to watch. In some other ways, it leaves a person hungry, as it were.

I imagine that those who disagree with me would say this, and they would have a good point: There is drama in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it's just not the kind of open, unfiltered drama you might get in other documentaries. Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu, may not tell the camera of his frustration at still being only an apprentice to his genius father at the age of 50, at least not with his words. But it's there, in nearly imperceptible looks and glances, perhaps all the more powerful for the fact that it must go unspoken.

And this is why I hesitate to even write what may be construed as a "negative" piece about Jiro Dreams of Sushi. After all, if it seemed drawn out, that could have been because it was my second movie of the night and I started it at 9:45. This is a very good movie, and you should see it.

But if you have the same hesitations about Errol Morris that I have, just know that coming in.

No comments: