Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Into The Fire

[Following is a post in which I flat out deify Anthony Bourdain. It really is disgusting.]

I am crazy tired, and totally overwhelmed with life but I just wanted to say a few words about Anthony Bourdain's latest episode from his critically acclaimed show, No Reservations. This week's show - Into the fire - has been described by MSN simply as the one in which "Tony accepts the challenge to return to Les Halles for work during his old Tuesday double shift." TV.com offers a slightly more substantial synopsis and includes something about Bourdain's "skills in the kitchen, his love of New York and his life as a chef" and while both these descriptions are correct, they merely skim the surface of what I thought was the GREATEST meditation on American society that we are yet to see on cable television. It was... immaculate. I mean, there it all was in that cramped NYC restaurant kitchen - race, class, immigration, wealth, labor, alienation, identity, community, the (ubiquitous yet mostly unattainable) "American Dream," the even more American anxiety/fantasy of youth - all of which I want to delve further into at a later time. But really, if anyone has ever doubted Bourdain's place as an all-around-authority on everything and anything about the human experience and how it is tied to and expressed through food, this is definitely the episode to watch. 

And what did I expect really, the guy has examined everything from his family's roots/routes to something as seemingly banal as 'obsession' with such brazen cynicism and outright belligerence that can sometimes distract the less reflective watcher. This, I guess, is the trick to good writing (if you can consider TV shows to be the modern novels - an argument that has been made for the Sopranos and I think should be extended to include such gems as Bourdain's show). Surely, that Bourdain can bring so much to the table without making it look like a mouthful (pardon the pun), makes him an incredibly skillful story-teller.

In an interview she gave a while back about David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, my own obsession, offered the following:
"There's a kind of superficial layer of him, which if you can't be bothered to think any deeper, it just seems, 'Here is some wise guy, with his wiseass stories.' And that's not true. But the problem with readers, the idea we've been given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principal is, 'I should sit here and be entertained.' And the more classical model is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has the piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don't know who they probably couldn't comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and the artist gives you. That's an incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It's an old moral, but it's completely true."

Of course an adherence to this structure of reading bestows a lot of credit to the reader (or viewer in this case) - which can (and should, to some extent) be taken as an indication of my own vanity. But I think Smith hits the nail on the head by calling on us readers/viewers (re-viewers?) to be more invested in what we consume. And I would have to assume that Tony expects his reviewers to be just as critical of his experiences as he is - which is why, at the beginning of this episode, he tells us that this endeavor was inspired mostly by the negative feedback he had gotten from doing the show. That Bourdain reacted to the harsh criticism of a reviewer so radically can only be taken as encouragement to follow this "unfashionable" model of engagement. 

This is not to say that he blindly heeds what popular expectations would dictate - if anything, the instinct to indulge his reviewers is time and again tempered by his atypical perspective (see Egypt without the pyramids) that tends to avoid the cliched trips that are often favored by the Travel Channel. Plus, what Smith has said here of Foster Wallace* can certainly be said of Bourdain - while he is known for his biting comments and wry humor, there is a lot about the man that we don't really comprehend. I can only hope that as he continues to expose us to these rarely seen sides of his personality (his self-beratement is legendary, and admirable especially when you compare it to the blatant self-absorption of other celebrity chefs), we will be open to the same deconstruction he so valiantly puts himself through. 

*EDIT: I realize that likening the very alive Bourdain to the recently deceased author borders on morbidity, but I think the two share enough in terms of style and status within popular culture to make this a worthwhile comparison. Plus, I couldn't resist pulling Zadie Smith into the conversation.

6 comments:

Theresa said...

Wow. Well said.

Iman said...

Thanks, I adore him and this episode was truly amazing, so it was easy to fawn over.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a bunch of hopefully pretentious bullshit.

Iman said...

Fair enough.. most of my writing is nauseatingly sentimental.

R said...

I just came back to say... I came here the other day, and you sent me over to Anthony Bourdain's blog, and, well, I may soon be jostling with you for room at that altar.

Iman said...

Haha.. that's great. I'm happy to have passed the Bourdaingelium.