© 2012 by James Clark
In coming to terms with the hyper-critical disclosures of Bresson’s Pickpocket, as perched upon the rewards of mastering a lucrative craft, my thoughts often drifted back to an early-childhood discovery the bite of which still impacts. Knowing, from family experience, only about 9 to 5 weekday employment (and the outsider dramatic shift work of the likes of police and retailers), I would be in awe, on weekend excursions with my grandmother, in noticing office buildings sometimes disclosing, in lighted windows, people toiling at their desks. (A review of that otherworldly agenda still makes waves for me when passing office towers around midnight and beholding dozens of cabs at the ready for the homeward trek of workaholics within.) Whereas policing and shop keeping were easily factored into mundane perception, there was about that glowing terra incognita an aura of exertion quite out of this world. (From our place, I often marvel in some vague kinship, when, if wakened in the middle of the night, I notice people working on through the darkness, at architect, advertising, animation and other such firms in full view of our windows.)
There is a moment in the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), which inadvertently corresponds with the extremity of Pickpocket, and catches up once again with work phenomena my family never touched. The proprietor of a renowned (Michelin three-star) Tokyo sushi bar, Jiro Ono, recalls with typical deadpan bemusement, that, on a very rare morning when there was an interruption of his 5 a.m. wake up and departure routine (playing out to an after 10 p.m. return), his two young sons were perplexed on seeing a strange man in their mother’s bed. (Showing an incisive taste for piquant understatement, he observes, “I wasn’t much of a father.”) Whereas reformed felon, Michel, does head toward being a dutiful father to Jeanne’s present child and probable others to come, a figure like Jiro—just in showing us how he works—indirectly tears into that centre of compromise’s stolid bids as to “getting ahead,” as if he were a strip of tuna going under a very sharp knife. As such, the initiative of Jiro Dreams of Sushi finds its truly remarkable sphere of discovery in a presentation of “purity” (primordiality) giving a very sharp point to the rehab-preoccupied detective’s outcry, “That turns the world upside down!” Director David Gelb’s visit to the octogenarian, now become legendary amongst gourmets worldwide, becomes in fact a measuring of resolute energy that does pose a threat to the everyday world. “What defines deliciousness?” is how the undomesticated chef ushers us into what’s really on his menu.
Remarkable, then, is the panoply of seeming contradiction comprising the lift-off, so candidly put on display for us, by what the Japanese government has declared to be “a living national treasure.” The filmic vein of this close encounter with unique and problematic riches has been keyed upon the gaunt, mottled, puffy-eyed, skin-headed ancient, paradoxically performing with spare, relentless, youthful efficacy and poise. A major adjunct of this motif is the quite bizarre juxtaposition and confluence of blue-chip seafood ingredients with their breathtaking sensual sheen and the ten-stool, unadorned little bar located at an orifice of a subway line. Most of the film’s action takes place across the counter in prosaic light touching upon far from Italian implements. (Treatment of sheets of seaweed, for instance, takes place on the floor, in waving the curing wrap over a little grill, at first glance not far from the fixings of a hobo-camp.) But peppering this odd choreography is the master’s communication to us regarding the largely hidden point of his magic, to wit, “You must dedicate yourself to master your skill.” And, though couched in the no-nonsense register of the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of the restaurant game, there is, about the current of homilies issuing from this oracular businessman, a negotiation of challenges from wild nature as compared with those of maintaining satisfying cash-flow. (Several times, during his remarkable monologue from out of a scene of silent bustle, he insists upon being indifferent toward money, with the physical nature of his establishment, his attire and his being frequently shown unassumingly riding to and from work on the subway to back that up—in addition to the audaciously [far from Michel’s phoney “audacious”] austere tenor of his formative principles.)
Just as he didn’t miss a beat during that report about ignoring his children, he elaborates upon the exigency of dedication to skill with emphasis upon ruthlessly unsparing concentration. In homing in upon the Zen-like factors that make him tick, he touches upon more, rather unnerving, toughness pertaining to his own children and children in general. “People are too soft with their children. Kids need to be kicked out of the house [at a very early age].” He mentions his own parents showing him the door when he was all of nine years old, from which shock to catch on with a sushi bar one year later and then to never leave the métier. The one disruption of his perfect attendance had to do with a stint in the army during World War Two—an episode rather hastily addressed by a whiff of cryptic pride in serving the motherland, and a snap of his battalion. Then he rejoins the thread of tough love (as a means to predominance) by specifying how he finally connected with those hitherto confused kids at his place. “I was even harder on them than I usually am with staff. I would tell them, ‘I do these things because I think you’re worth being trained by toughness.’”
Although there is a striking correspondence between a stop-motion moment of Jiro and his chef-clad troops and that full-frontal gaze coming out of 1943, the weave is remarkably complex, and doubly so for a documentary format. “Never complain about your job… Success comes from repeating the same thing every day…” An apprentice recalls having to present a small feature of the menu more than two hundred times before being allowed to put it into play, the breakthrough reducing him to tears. Jiro and his older son—who is to inherit the business—look on impassively at the display of such lavish personal sentiment. The son tells us he once wanted to be a Grand Prix racing car driver, but didn’t have access to the necessary funds. (He tells us this on one of his daily excursions to obtain the catch of the day—a task Jiro had covered for decades, until a heart attack when he was 70 induced him to delegate the boy [in his fifties] to take on that function. This is the only glimpse we get of an impulse to break ranks—significantly in the distant past.) We observe him at a gigantic depot where massive tuna are auctioned. There we meet the crème de la crème of Japan’s tuna dealers, exuding the same extremity we derive from father and son. Examining many instances, with a high-beam flashlight and a blade to cut away a bit of flesh, this expert, like a trusted scout on the periphery of the operation’s headquarters, declares that he only accepts the tiny percentage of the meat that is indubitably superior. “If there is nothing in the catch that meets my standard, I gladly do without.” Later we look on while a rice dealer visits the big little restaurant. He, too, expresses the ethos that if you are serious about quality control in a slovenly world you can’t be shy about stepping on some toes. “The Hilton wanted me to provide for them. But they wouldn’t know what to do with the product I carry, which requires the highest skills to bring it to life, to elicit the unique architecture of flavors.”
From out of this crack unit, it is not a big surprise they kick ass. What is a big surprise, and an unforgettable cinematic revelation, is the collateral manufacture of up-to-the-minute logic. Another of Jiro’s favorite axioms is, “Fall in love with your work.” The business of “deliciousness” entails freeing, at almost incredible toll upon depths of sensibility, rare and potent harmonic ranges of taste; but the trajectory of this commercial success takes upon itself sensuous challenges far more difficult than that. And, as such, it justifies the use of the suspicious-seeming term, “love,” and it makes entirely plausible why an eighty-six year old would work sixteen-hour days virtually every day. (He’s on record as hating holidays.) Whereas virtually all of the hands-on production emanates from his son and the other underlings, Jiro presides over the singularities like a very low-key orchestra conductor, sampling a gesture once in a while, and undemonstratively riding the crest of possibilities, as if in a dream of “constant improvement.”
In savoring Gelb’s preparations along these lines, two distinct but closely related factors have to be dealt with: the sensuous, sculptural little gems in their antiseptic purity; and the range of a vastly impure world history with which they have to do, by way of “constant improvement,” constant enrichment. Gelb’s camerawork captures in high-resolution close-ups the sublime constructs, paying tribute to nuances of color, texture and composition, as placed (with dynamic sheen) upon a silken tile service. One such revelation includes Jiro’s edict, “Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.” We see this parade of gastronomic marvels strutting its stuff before paying customers just once, and the squeals and sighs bring to mind the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day. At the end of the meal, Jiro is out in the not fabulous foyer of his temple, trading smiles and bows with the pleased (as always)—but not particularly transformed—diners. Such completeness—Jiro has given us a study of his discovery that “lean tuna” can, with help from genius, deliver the essence of the meat more profoundly than “fat [or sweet] tuna”—is allowed to run up against far less regal precincts, to an upshot of stimulating disturbance. The son rides, every day, a clunker of a bicycle to the produce centres, through a sea of perhaps inedible but teeming and mutely importunate fellow citizens. (The camera-work in such cases is raw and deflating.) A former employee pays his respects to the Jiro phenomenon, but he vaguely maintains that all is not as comprehensive as it should be in that tiny kingdom. A sushi bar proprietor himself, he can’t resist anticipating grief for the heir to the throne, who would have to be “four times as good” as his father to be recognized as his equal in the public eye. The younger son, who also has been spat out of that School of Hard Knocks, runs his own place where he lets testimonials from his customers maintain that his efforts are “more fun,” “more modern” than what you’d get at the old man’s hangout. On a rare day off Jiro and his partner/son visit the august figure’s place of birth. He’s of course accorded great fanfare; but the interplay with figures from the past is less than brilliant. Several seniors recall he was a bully in his brief stay in school and the neighborhood, and Jiro gets quite an uncharacteristic laugh over that. In glorious sunlight upon robust foliage they tramp through a graveyard, and Jiro notes, “I don’t know why we’re here. My parents never did anything for me.”
Gradually we come to realize that, from a concentration upon transcendent dynamics and the rewards of one sphere of its material complement, Jiro’s warrior heart has cleared out for itself a redoubt recalling those amazing survivors of Japan’s military defeat, soldiering on in deep jungle where life’s messy problems are reduced to a gratifying simplicity. He and the boy touch upon the looming extinction of the tuna—victim, in large measure, of the worldwide sushi craze as prompting indiscriminate overfishing. This passage is illustrated by reams of cheap, ill-prepared, plastic-wrapped dinners. A naive habitué of such compromise was, early on, shown trying to find the take-out menu and being smoothly shooed away like a ridiculous bug. He could have been Michel, in Tokyo rather than London.
Bresson wants us to concentrate on the nightmare (that could be spun to comedy) represented by such lethargy. Unable to butcher such enemies, Jiro effectively expunges them from that part of the world he has come to rule (a world issuing forth numerous pilgrimages to his headquarters). That stance would speak to Bresson’s case that his loutish cast of characters constitute a cosmic rather than social dilemma.
We could leave the matter at that, for now. But there is an associative film worth a peek, anyway, to underline not merely rigors of the task but the variety and pitfalls of countering measures. Another instance of a distinguished writer lifting a middling filmmaker, the film Babette’s Feast (1987) is ostensibly the handiwork of Danish director, Gabriel Axel; but we wouldn’t be talking about it without the decisive input of writer, Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen (1885-1962). And it wouldn’t be cropping up here if she were not a rare and supple exponent of patience with the bad and the ugly. “To be lonely is a state of mind, something completely other than physical solitude; when modern authors rant about the soul’s intolerable loneliness, it is only proof of their own intolerable emptiness.”
We’re on the barren Jutland coast of Denmark in the mid-nineteenth century, and we meet a couple of handsome young women intent on “good works” in the spirit of their father, a preacher, who dresses in ferocious retro, sixteenth-century icy white, crystalline wafer collars as seen in Rembrandt-era paintings at the less-traversed rooms of art museums. On having his unsurprisingly frigid songstress child repulse a French Opera star looking for a special spareness in Jutland—“I love silence and the sound of waves”—the pundit and leader of a pious little clan of hyper-ascetics delivers her official goodbye and listens in the street for the interruption of his singing—indicative of his painful shock—which prompts him to break into a sour grin. Sometime later, into this retreat for those thinking to use their fulsomely acknowledged errancy as a stairway to heaven, a French woman, Babette, makes her way, with a letter of introduction from the singer, to the now middle-aged and fatherless sisters (she needing to go into exile from civil strife that was the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War). She works for them, without pay, as a cook, introducing to the girls some simple and savory fare, the essentials obtained, by her charm, at very low cost. (True to their calling as upholders of the legacy of a man they revered but could never fully emulate in his dead-heartedness, they had lived on a meagre diet of cod, prepared with neither gusto nor care.) The puny flock becomes even more tediously childish and fractious in their advanced age, and Babette steers clear of them.
Then she wins a French Lottery draw (the lifetime investment in which comes from an admirer of her former glories in Paris), plunges all 10,000 francs into a celebratory dinner, ostensibly for the girls and the geezers, in their homage to a spiritual leader whose ho-hum legacy hasn’t a hope of outliving his daughters’ devotions; and, for once, enlightenment rears its unwelcome head. “I’d like to prepare a French dinner.” The girls had taken her in because she would have perished otherwise, but her Gallic sparkle induces a thaw in them that somewhat obviates their rigid charity. On hearing that she wants to pay for the annual affair that usually comes with the local, barely digestible tossed-off-mush, the sisters are disturbed that predictability might go down the tubes. “It comes from my heart,” Babette insists. They relent; but on her return from a homeland that now stands as merely a food and drink depot, they are painfully disoriented by the heavy cargo of foodstuff—including a live calf, a live giant turtle, and a cage full of gently singing quails. Nothing, however, knots their knickers like the massive load of wines and liqueurs. They go into near-panic, and call a meeting of the ludicrous arbiters of equilibrium (unable to stop babbling testily about former thefts from each other and extramarital slip-ups). Apologizing that they’ve unleashed a “Witches Sabbath” upon God’s good friends, they are met by self-satisfied assurances that nothing on earth could ever make them rock. It will, the disciples maintain, be a phalanx of cold-bloodedness dousing whatever hellish flames that foreign devil might try to kindle. “Not one comment will pass our lips”—this from a clique as tone-deaf and stupidly garrulous as Michel. “Jerusalem, our heart’s home” they chant, getting into the spirit of the farthest reaches of the founder’s atavism.
So it looks like a bust coming on; but there are offsetting factors. First, there is an unexpected guest, the nephew of a wealthy semi-invalid who, though a follower, eschews the Sturm und Drang of the stalwarts. Her escort, now a General whom we see inspecting himself in a mirror and then scowling and muttering, “Vanity, all vanity… Satisfied your ambition… to what purpose?” would bring to the table some equalization against the local garrison. He had once briefly courted the non-singing sister, then sized up the distribution of power in the family and finally announced to the girl, “I shall never see you again. There are things in this world that are impossible.” He had added, flashing his own bona fides in a battleground of bathos, “Someday, I will cut a brilliant figure in the world of prestige.” Then there is Babette’s track-record as once the most brilliant chef in Paris, whose powers had languished in exile but were about to revive with a vengeance and bring to the front a level of sorcery that would come close to shooting out all the lights.
The evening of wild abandon begins with the exorcists cranking up a mantra about their dead leader’s being a great one for “kindness to the poor and weak, the starving child.” Tuning that out, the General silently asks himself, “Could my years of victories end in defeat?” A lugubrious half-answer to that comes when, at the culmination of the meal, when the old lady, bedazzled in her own way (as was everyone else) by a heavenly dining experience, indicates that her energy has run dry, he (who had savored the cordon bleu preparations and exquisite wines with authoritative and wag-deflating sophistication, as recalling this touch at a Paris restaurant [Babette’s, in fact] where a companion of his, a French General, declared of the chef, “She is the only person on earth I would draw blood for”) leaves without once attempting to acknowledge, let alone contact, the soul mate/artist behind this illuminative singularity. He does, though, as induced by the epiphantic depths Babette has evoked, speak briefly and with heart to his former beloved. “I’ve been with you. I shall be with you every day that is granted me. We will touch at every dinner, not with our bodies but our souls… In this beautiful world of ours, I see that all things are possible.”
The (now legendary) dining sequence presents a standoff, as if the sumptuously provided table were a fortress under siege from a kitchen artillery unit directed by Babette. (Her young nephew from France handles the entire ordinance, in the capacity of a waiter.) The bloodless holdouts (bucking each other up with crude battle cries like, “Not a word about the food… Remember, we have lost our sense of taste… Our master declared, if the harbor were closed he would walk on water”) are soon stunned, by the culinary artistry, into a world of perception their cowardice had massively suppressed for close to a century. Their voices, keep up a peevish patter; but their faces and bodies are enlivened as if in a dream. Babette’s only acknowledgement that she’s dealing with virtual hopelessness, but that there is an opportunity with regard to the military outsider, comes as the entree is winding down—(to the server) “Fill the General’s glass whenever it’s empty.” Here he recalls that the chef at the Cafe Anglais (the name being a neat, if gratuitous, chauvinistic dig) “had the power to transform a meal into a love affair.” (This, while the stockholders recall their General’s order [which, until this night, they couldn’t begin to fulfil], “Little children, love one another.” And still they rant on, “Reject any speech of food and drink.” But the sisters say nothing, and their smiles are this-worldly.) As the strange battle winds down, the pious prating adopts some rare sense—“…mercy and truth are met together.” The General’s driver, who had assisted Babette in some heavy lifting in the kitchen and who had been treated to the enchanting fare, says, “Thank you for a nice evening ,” and leaves to effect the departure. The crotchety investors join hands at the well right outside, under a starlit night, and we are struck by unimagined gracefulness in their little dance. “The sand in our hourglass will soon run out,” they sing, “May we find our true home;” and we realize Babette’s art has pitched them so far as to make them glimpse the zesty bearableness of the imminence of death. “Eternity is nigh…” Babette calmly, and rather sombrely, drinks her coffee in the deserted kitchen.
What, exactly, has she done? In from the dance, the sisters tell her, “That was indeed a very good dinner;” but their faces tell her much more. She tells them, to clear up their misapprehension, “I’m not going back to Paris. All I knew there is dead… The money’s gone…” They exclaim, “You did all this for us?!” She admits, “It was not just for you that I gave all I had… I did it for myself.” They conclude, “But you’ll be poor [along with us] all your life.” She reaches back to a field of intimacies she knows will not reach them, but has to be exposed at this important time for her. “I was able [when at the Cafe Anglais] to make them happy when I gave my very best…An artist is never poor… Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist. ‘Give me leave to do my very best!” The sister whose beloved had just left the building, enthuses, “In Paradise you will be the artist God meant you to be. You will delight the angels!” She embraces Babette, whose smile runs to something other than angels. A candle goes out, and we are left in the dark about Babette’s pyrrhic coup. What has been put into play, however, is the case for taking seriously middling souls. Bresson’s films maintain (viscerally) that such errancy as he so precisely delineates will never cease, and will thereby comprise an essential claim upon that output of inspired intentional harmonics that nature craves.
Jiro and Babette are suffused with an imperative to, above all else, meet that claim and in so doing taste the vast nourishments of creativity. (The symphonic structures of the linked courses of Jiro’s magic were a means of his scaling such heights; and Babette’s last ditch heroics—a Symphonie Fantastique–dovetail with his glories.) But the ways of embracing those treasures are massively complicated by a surround monumentally indisposed to their intensities and rigors. Dinesen gives us a Babette impressively mindful of this unforthcoming skirmish zone. (Babette’s husband and child were murdered there, and, perhaps, her tolerance for that form of presumptuousness has been broken to the point of resignation to benign doldrums as against life-long migration.) As such we must consider ourselves fortunate to have engaged such a superb correspondent to Bresson’s mordant paradox. (That much said, our second marvellous gift is the eminence of Jiro, inasmuch as his seemingly reckless and heedless and extremist energies may comprise a valid holding pattern within a stage of world history far more adoring of poison than the vectors of power can accommodate.)