product review

Conquistadors of the Useless?

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as mentioned, i recently watched Lutz Hachmeister’s THREE STARS, the 2011 documentary about the worlds of nine Michelin-starred chefs from around the world. i went into it hoping that it might match the artfulness, understatement, and what i have called the “technical drama” of Gereon Wetzels’ El Bulli: Cooking in Process, but unfortunately it really didn’t. it’s overlong, poorly paced, and ultimately boring. on one level the film spreads itself too thin, tries to show us too much by following so many characters, and the end result is that we don’t really get an in-depth portrait of any of the chefs, of their practice, their inspirations, their philosophy. it is as if the film cannot quite decide whether it is more about the chefs or more about the Michelin star system – a distinction which one might not think need be made, but as a viewer one becomes conscious of a need for greater focus. the film has a confused and erratic feeling, as if the director had not taken enough time to think about what he wanted to do, or why at a given time we are being shown what we are seeing.

most of the shots of the cooks at work feel disjointed, and are often sparsely subtitled, so we miss much of the dialogue amongst the kitchen staff and their activities remain as obscure and un-illuminated as had we never been granted this “behind the scenes” vantage point. although the fact that we never really get any sense about what is so special about -these- chefs is perhaps important to the overall project, if only (as i suspect) accidentally so. at one point a chef (i think it was René Redzepi of Noma) states that no one really knows what separates a 2-star restaurant from a 3-star restaurant, and this casts an interesting light over the entirety of the films proceedings. you see all of these incredibly devoted, talented chefs throwing themselves into their work, both motivated and refusing to be motivated by the pursuit (or maintenance) of their 3rd star; it is not so much that they are chasing the third star as that they are haunted by it, by its elusive and almost arbitrary character.

so you don’t know why they’re special, and they don’t know why they’re special (or why they are or are not recognized for their specialness), and this contributes to an overall feeling of meaninglessness about the proceedings. and frankly you start to wonder why you’re even watching. you’re not learning all that much, and the chefs themselves seem mostly to be a pretty unsympathetic lot. they are tired (they -look- tired) and in many cases seem trapped in the world in which they operate, with little sense of proportion, which may be inevitable when one ties up one’s life with the production of gross luxury. to be sure they share an admirable if slightly maniacal devotion, their sacrifices for their work are real and tremendous, but somehow the trope of giving one’s blood  and sweat to ‘make other people happy’ and enliven the deep human connection that is forged in cooking for and feeding another begins to seem distorted and almost parodic when one is reminded that this is all about turning out 3oo$ meals that require reservations months in advance.* and when Redzepi’s earnest declaration that “No one is making the money they deserve to make” (paraphrase) is book-ended by scenes of Jean-George Vongerichten contemplating his upcoming real estate development from the roof of the Trump Tower and another chef drifting on his yacht, the rupture of sense and meaning is pretty much complete. (it’s like Fitzcarraldo if the end result was to serve reverse-engineered dodo eggs to Brian Mulroney on his dirigible.)

so while i don’t think that Three Stars is  a good movie, the more i think about it, the more i find interesting the ways in which it is bad. we are drawn in by the allure of the esoteric and exclusive world of high end chefs, only to find it a pallid, confused, and meaningless place. it is as if the movie tricks us into realizing that what these people do is actually not important, and we are not interested**, by the metatextual force of its own accidental inadequacy as a film.

* to be clear, i am not opposed to the existence of such meals per se, it is only the pretence of nobility that i find highlights the absurdity of the situation.

** the irony is that some of these people actually are pretty interesting. Redzepi and the Arzaks in particular, as well as Olivier Roellinger, who is probably the most interesting and sympathetic character in the film – a French chef who shortly after earning his 3rd star closed down his restaurant and effectively turning his back on the whole system, on the grounds that he was basically just too tired. his perspective on Michelin, on being a chef, and his overall bearing are a refreshing addition to the film, and it would have been nice to spend more time with him.

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