Monday, March 4, 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb 2011)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is highly regarded so completely out of proportion to its actual very limited accomplishments that it's tempting to review the reviewers.  But let's put that off until later.  The film itself, in case you don't know, is about the elderly but still working sushi chef of what is regarded as one of the top sushi restaurants in the world.  Of course that's a substantial topic but the film only sometimes touches on that.  Instead it's a puff piece, filled with raves and shot in glossy ad style.  There are shots of sushi (complete with identifying labels) that are aesthetically identical to any McDonalds or Hardees commercial.  Come to Jiro's Place!  We'll have a grand time!

A bigger problem is that director Gelb doesn't seem to have started with any solid idea about what to do.  There's behind-the-scenes sequences, historical recaps of Jiro's life, on-the-streets atmosphere shots, a more verite-styled bit where Jiro visits his home town and so forth.  It doesn't blend well and none of it is followed through.  It's almost like Gelb kept thinking "Oh let's put this in as well".  Never mentioned (unless I completely missed it) is such important information as how much a meal costs (about US$380 according to other sources), that these often last about 20 or so minutes, or other details.  Instead we're treated to stories of how hard Jiro still works and how demanding he can be.  One assistant made egg sushi 200 times before Jiro deemed it acceptable.  Even assuming the story is true and not some off-hand number it falls very clearly, as do the similar stories, into a familiar Orientalism of hard, repetitious training under a master.  None of this, of course, has any bearing on whether the sushi is in fact "good" - countless cooks and artists work very hard for many years and still produce mediocre work.

It's also unclear who Gelb thought might be the viewer.  At first he seemed to assume basic information about sushi so that I thought the film was more for connoisseurs, even if they're wannabes.  But as it became clear that the film is really just a promotional piece for something almost none of us will experience it also became clear that Gelb wasn't very interested in much that would make this a documentary.  What's the point of one of those TV-ad shots of sushi labelled "O-toro"?  There's no explanation, it just looks nice.  Why show only bits of the sushi process?  Why treat Jiro's claim that the rice should be body temperature as any kind of insight?  There's a sequence towards the end where Jiro explains that for women he makes the sushi a bit smaller or that for left-handed customers he puts it on the other side.  I guess we're supposed to think this is an insight into his world-class wisdom but the thing is that this is exactly what any decent sushi chef does, just as they often pack the rice differently for somebody eating with fingers rather than chopsticks.  It's like watching a documentary on Thomas Keller where he explains that when cooking a steak he will season it.  Yep, just that pointless.  There's also a bit where an on-camera critic compares Jiro's meals to music and then we're treated to a sequence where he explains this while we hear a classical piece and watch parts of the meal.  Only problem is that it's complete nonsense.  There's nothing resembling musical structure about the meal's progression and since Gelb's father was manager of the Met surely he knows this.

Oh, but let's get to the reviewers.  On Rotten Tomatoes Jiro Dreams of Sushi rates a remarkable 99% which should be a red flag that they're not really watching the film.  Just taking comments from the site (in other words there's a possibility some are out of context but I'll just live with that) how about starting with Stanely Kauffmann who claims Gelb "wouldn't need filmic embellishments to keep his viewers alert".  Guess he slept through the slow and fast motion parts, ignored the glossy shots, skipped the posed portraits of the restaurant staff staring at the camera.  Rich Cline says Gelb takes "a minimalist approach that matches his subject matter" so he also apparently missed the variety of styles and extravagant shots.  This isn't a Wiseman film after all.  Perry Seibert states it's "a movie worthy of Jiro himself" which doesn't quite make sense but then many of the reviews seem to be aiming for such hazy praise.