word on the street is Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking In Progress is a little on the boring side. these are the reviews, mostly secondhand, that i have been encountering since i viewed the film, and i am thinking that this may be precisely why i enjoyed it as much as i did. in fact, it may also be why i might consider it a “good documentary” as opposed to “such a documentary,” which is how i feel about Kings of Pastry.
if you recall, my main complaint about the latter is that it is foremost a tale of human drama, of triumph and tragedy, and singleminded devotion to an ideal; not an exploration of pastry as a craft, an esoteric set of manoeuvres and the traditions, institutions, appetites and desires that give them meaning.
i also thought that it was clumsy and ugly.
but it is exactly this foregrounding of human drama, and its articulation within a narrative arc, that is absent from El Bulli: Cooking In Progress. the film is not an exposé, nor an exhaustive “how do they do that” procedural breakdown, but it is nonetheless very much about the work of El Bulli. El Bulli in process, not solely in progress, as the title declares.
of course the double meaning of “Cooking In Progress” is apropos – Ferran Adria conceived of El Bulli as an avant-garde restaurant (or did, until it closed), and was explicitly concerned with advancing the field. “Have we done this before?” echoes throughout a creative process that is simultaneously concerned not to succumb to the allure of the merely novel. whether Adria/El Bulli succeeds in avoiding the trap of cooking that is clever yet devoid of substance is not for me judge, as i never have and never will eat at El Bulli, but the director, Gereon Wetzel, manages to capture and communicate this tension in subtle but effective ways. the film may almost be said to be a technical drama, lingering over the careful deliberations of Adrià’s creative team, their experiments, discussions, and negotiations, both with each other and with the ingredients that they are transforming. there are no talking heads in Cooking in Progress, no confessions, no expository dialogue to break up the (slow, deliberate) “action,” which takes place over the course of the three acts.
following this, we return to Cala Montjoi, the site of El Bulli, where preparations begin for reopening – the training and organization of the staff, the assemblage and fine-tuning of the menu. finally, we see the restaurant in progress, although only in a very restricted fashion. rarely do we see the patrons in the act of enjoying their food; they arrive, take pictures, revel in the aura of the establishment, and while they eat, we retreat to the kitchen, where dishes are constructed, expedited, and perpetually re-evaluated. it is in this passage of the movie that we have perhaps the least sense of time – are these the services of a single night, a week, a month? suddenly the season winds up, the staff begins to close the restaurant down, and the film ends on exactly the note upon which it opened. it is a but a cycle. and we realize that what we have been watching is an exploration of the routine – it is not a tale of genius or mad science, the spectacular fancies of high gastronomy, but of the routine work that goes on behind the glittering and often quite challenging facade.
if there is a climax to the film, it is one that can only be identified retrospectively, like, “oh, i guess that was the clincher.” in one late scene, at the end of a seating, Adrià mutters (to whom? no one? does it matter?) something to the effect of “We’re still doing okay” (i apologize for the lack of a direct quote, but you may take solace that it was certainly something equally mundane, and translated already, so don’t get too hung up) which as the movie ends shortly after, one realizes is the resolution of whatever dramatic arc the film has accommodated, as well as a summation of Adrià’s own personal mission as a chef with El Bulli. indeed, the majority of the emotional tenor of the film is provided through the handful of subtle exchanges between and amongst Adrià and his team. scenes where one tastes some preparation, a dish or component thereof, and in the moments of silence that follow, one begins to feel the egos at work, the economy of creative energy, authority, ambition, all in a protracted stare. but there is something in how these are played (or how they are presented), that the result is less often melodrama (there is no chilling canned string section or Law & Order knell to signal the import of the situation) than it is an awkward sort of comedy that i think ultimately lends the movie a lot of its charm.
for all the behind-the-scenes action, however, the actual functioning of El Bulli remains somewhat opaque. we see some of what goes into the mystifying dishes of almonds and olive oil, tangerine and ice shards, mint dust, whatever, but a certain mysterious quality is retained intact. it gives the interested party just enough to see how the spirit is enmeshed with the instrumentation, without becoming bogged down in technical detail. thusly is the mystique of the restaurant allowed to persist.
i expect that this measured, unsensational approach to the documentary may not be for everyone, but i myself found it quite refreshing, in the way that one doesn’t leave the theatre feeling like one has been told a tired story by way of a cinematic machinery at pains to proclaim its unvarnished verité. in a strange way, Wetzel manages to give life (a human life) to a subject matter that, like Adrià’s denatured creations, could seem quite cold and unapproachable, both alienated and alienating, but does so without resorting to the broad, garish, strokes of documentary bathos.
at 108mins, the film runs a little long, and near the end i found myself growing a little antsy, but that is no great flaw. i suppose i can’t say much more than that the El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is interesting if you are interested, although i didn’t think i was, really, until it turned out that i am, rather. ha.