The Mill Valley Film Festival inhabits a rare “goldilocks” zone within the cinematic universe, with the smart good fortune of arriving as summer turns to fall and Hollywood gears up for Oscar gold. The festival manages to snag more than its fair share of prestigious premieres weeks or months before they become available to the rest of us, attracting the attention of A-list stars willing to spend a couple of days being feted in tony, upscale Marin. (Twenty-sixteen is no different; the festival guest list includes Amy Adams, Nicole Kidman, Gael Garcia Bernal, Aaron Eckhart, Julie Dash and Ewan McGregor among dozens of glittering others.) Most likely, part of the fest’s draw is the food and wine on tap in a region famous for — well — food and wine.
In a fitting pairing, this year’s festival features a small selection of films detailing the exploits of international celebrity chefs and restaurateurs. Anyone who has viewed even a small number of food documentaries knows that the genre has developed a very strong sensual style of its own. One doesn’t just take a camera into a kitchen and uncover magic in the making. Food preparation doesn’t often look that appetizing. There is an art to the lighting and presentation of the process that has been refined since the mid-1960s. Now we find ourselves in an age where the glories of food are regularly celebrated in dazzling cinematic style. All three of the films featured in Mill Valley’s culinary sidebar present their subjects in sumptuous detail. They are gorgeous and absorbing, illuminating activities and slices of history, while expanding ideas about what constitutes nourishment.
In Lydia Tenaglia’s Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, the very personal struggles of a legendary celebrity chef are delicately exposed. The film is almost like a therapy session, a journey into the subconscious motivations of a complicated man, beginning with lush reenactments of childhood trauma. Tower, the son of wealthy Brits, spent much of his life traveling the world first class — with his family and without them. Apparently, the boy was left to his own devices in luxury liner cabins and four star hotel rooms from a very early age. He even lived for a time alone in a hotel suite until his parents realized that neither had enrolled him in school. While these adventures included (often inappropriate) sexual encounters, they also locate Tower’s love of food inside the kitchens of the world’s most exclusive establishments. The young Tower seems to have eaten his feelings and later on would express his affection for friends through a kind of regurgitation (that sounds awful, I know) in the kitchen. He recreated from memory the dishes of his childhood in an attempt to conjure those early feelings of comfort for himself and his guests.
Tower is, and apparently always has been, a capital-R Romantic; an overwhelming sense of melancholy hangs over the film. He seems to have been born out of time, carrying deep inside a longing for a lost aesthetic age. Most BAB readers will know the outline of the chef’s history. Having graduated from Harvard (his interest was in underwater architecture), Tower’s family promptly cut him loose financially. In search of a job, he ended up at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in 1972. At the time, it was a struggling hangout for Alice Waters and her crew, described by one character in the film as a “hippie, drug-ridden explosion in a playpen.” Gorgeous old film footage captures a sense of wild abandon and innocence at the famed restaurant.
Tower brought his ideas about food from a lifetime of travel to Chez Panisse and within a few years helped put it on the map. This being Berkeley in the 1970s, the endeavor is described as something of an orgy — sex, drugs, love, food, creation, companionship, drama and more sex. The relationship between Waters and Tower included enough heat to create a legend, spark a food movement, and unfortunately ended in a very public feud. (Saint Alice is silent — at least within the confines of this film — on the subject.) Tower continued his rise and became the celebrity chef of San Francisco in the 1980s, opening the world-class Stars as a hangout for famous characters high and low.
But at some point, Tower dropped out of sight and went into seclusion. Once ubiquitous, synonymous with the California cuisine he helped to create, the enigmatic chef moved on. The Last Magnificent attempts to solve the man’s mystery, but only generates more. Tower is more than once described as having a “locked room inside.” The film cracks open that door just a little, but every explanation seems too simplistic. How can we really know the unknown forces that drive those who change the world?
Equally sumptuous is Leslie Iwerks’ Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, a loving portrait of the doyenne of New Orleans cooking. It is interesting to view this film next to the one about Jeremiah Tower because it illuminates the importance of healthy collaboration between a smart, creative restaurateur and the chefs who create the menu. Where the partnership between Waters and Tower became complicated by unknown and still unexplained tensions, Ella Brennan’s success is based on her ability to unlock culinary creativity within the magnetic personalities she has ushered into the spotlight.
Brennan was pushed into the career she would spend the rest of her life pursuing by her eldest brother. One of six siblings in a very tight clan, Ella became involved in what became the family business in her teens, when the Brennans decided to take over a famous New Orleans nightspot. The Irish clan soon found themselves in direct competition with the city’s famous French restaurants and struggled to define themselves. They decided to put their signature on breakfast, added alcohol and ushered in a new era of creativity for a previously ignored meal.
The film gorgeously moves through the family’s early years in the business, opening and establishing one amazing restaurant after another in New Orleans. Ella’s philosophy is summed up in her younger sister’s statement, “[Running a restaurant] is like show business. You do two shows a day. At five o’clock you brush your teeth, put your lipstick on, have a scotch and do the whole thing again.” Ella Brennan lead her family through multiple incarnations and eventually ended up reviving Commander’s Palace, where she would introduce chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Jamie Shannon to the world.
Similar to Jeremiah Tower, no detail of the food experience takes precedence for Brennan. Both characters are driven and exacting. Brennan’s success can be attributed to her personable application of hospitality, which she developed early, and to her ability to spot talented chefs, encouraging each to express his own unique vision in the kitchen. Food is entertainment to be sure, but for Brennan sharing a table, even with hundreds of people a night, is powerfully connected to home and family.
Finally, the third film in the Mill Valley Film Festival’s food trilogy is Peter Svatek’s Theater of Life, which documents chef Massimo Bottura’s innovative program to eliminate food waste at Expo Milano 2015, a world’s fair held in Milan, Italy. Inspired by the expo’s theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana was named world’s best restaurant in 2016, converted an abandoned theater into a soup kitchen.
Renowned chefs from around the world turned each day’s spoils — food headed for the trash bin (most particularly day-old bread) — into gourmet meals for the homeless. Through the effort we come to know the issues faced by the beneficiaries of these amazing dishes. The cast of characters is large, including international food stars, a parish priest, poor and disabled Italians and African refugees, who all meet at the tables of Bottura’s Reffetorio.
The first two documentaries in this series present lovingly crafted histories of characters who have had a tremendous impact on how we eat and — most importantly — how we think about food. Theater of Life provides an important way forward with a philosophy for managing our precious resources and channeling thought and talent into the feeding of a greater portion of the population. Why should fine dining be limited to the elites when so much food is going to waste? Why is healthy food a luxury? Why are the lessons Tower, Brennan and countless others have taught us about the nature of food still only understood by a precious few? Theater of Life shows how the consumption of good food actually does more than feed the body; it opens the mind and nourishes the soul.
The Mill Valley Film Festival runs October 6-16, 2016 at various Marin County locations. For tickets and information visit mvff.com.