Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Is it imaginable that a documentary might provide no context? Fiction can, and usually does, abstract from reality, and lifts figures out of social and political situations (this may be why film studies scholars are often so political - they want to reinscribe Hollywood characters into politics and some kind of social situation), but it seems the job of documentaries should be to inscribe human beings into the world they live in. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the new documentary about a celebrated sushi chef,  is all beautiful abstraction. The main subject, the titular Jiro, hardly seems to exist in Tokyo: he floats above the surface of the city on escalators and subways, making his way to his restaurant (one of the most popular in the world - if you want a reservation for 2013, make it now), a solitary figure above a bustling metropolis. We get little familial context: we don't even learn that his wife is still living until the final ten minutes, and his sons are felt less as family than as business partners. The movie's philosophy is bound up in Jiro's demand that the sushi only be filmed during its window of deliciousness, that rare moment in which Jiro's food is at its most succulent. These frames of fish are some of the most beautiful images I've seen in any documentary, but they don't bring me any closer to Jiro, and maybe that's the point. The movie wasn't quite what I was expecting: Jiro is not a tyrant, and you get the feeling his sons, compelled away from college to join the sushi trade, could nevertheless walk away if they wanted to. In the end, at the heart of this strange and lovely film is a contradiction: Jiro, the rebel who absconded from his parents to learn the art of sushi, ends up shaping his life around the most exacting and rigorous set of norms imaginable, all in the pursuit of genius.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

4:44 Last Day on Earth


It's the end of the world in  4:44 Last Day on Earth, and Abel Ferrara ain't bluffing. As the diegetic newscasts inform us, the world is going to end at 4:44 on a Wednesday, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Ferrara keeps the explanation for the impending cataclysm, or indeed of humanity's foreknowledge of it, foggy, although both capitalism and gross negligence of environment are clearly to blame. For Ferrara, the struggling artists roaming around their loft for most of the film (Willem Dafoe, playing a Ferrara surrogate named Cisco, and Shanyn Leigh, his painter-lover Skye) are a microcosm for the community of humanity that will be lost when the film is over. That Ferrara defines "humanity" with "artists" is no mistake: everyone else outside this closed community in the loft, save for one Chinese takeout delivery man, is kept abstract. "We're all in the same boat," Dafoe says at one point, but neither he nor Ferrara ever seriously believe this. In Ferrara's rapture, only the bohemians and Marxists will rise to the heavens. This film is probably the closest Dafoe has come to reprising his role as Christ since Scorsese's Last Temptation, given how fervently Ferrara defines righteousness in the frame of his character's beliefs. Cisco is a Skype-connected, Buddhist, aging-hipster monk, and his sacred texts are not only videos of the Dalai Lama (playing on one of several widescreen televisions arranged around the apartment, something of a contradiction of the character's claim that he's all thumbs when it comes to technology), but also Al Gore, Nelson Mandela, and Joseph Campbell. (As a measure of how closely Ferrara identifies with his protagonist, these names are all earnestly thanked in the end credits). The movie may be Ferrara's ultimate, if not most masterful, moral vision (to quote the subtitle of Brad Stevens' beautiful book on the director): even with the end nigh, Cisco battles a drug addiction that finds him having to make a moral choice between smack and the love of Skye. As with all Ferrara films, 4:44 is unwieldy, a visionary lyric framed in a DIY, low-rent package. This is its appeal.