Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How To Cook Your Life

documentary about Edward Espe Brown, a Zen priest and cook who wrote the popular Tassajara Bread Book, How to Cook Your Life may gently preach about organic cooking—and the bonds shared by eater and food—but gentle preaching is still preaching. How tolerable one finds director Doris Dörrie's film is largely dependent on how much one can tolerate Brown, who likes to recount proverbs learned from his mentor Suzuki Roshi and spout banal fortune cookie maxims while teaching students at Austria's Scheibbs Buddhist Center and San Francisco's Tassajara Mountain Center the finer points of cooking.

Dörrie conveys Brown's guiding belief in the intrinsic, spiritual relationship between people and victuals via the opening image of radishes with faces carved into their sides. The absence of narration and sharply delineated segments—each with a title card decorated with bushels of fruit and/or vegetables—give the film a welcome spryness in the face of Brown's lethargic ruminations on how modern culture has turned food into a prepackaged commodity. Brown doesn't address the global benefits of widespread food production or availability because he's primarily concerned with promoting a laidback Zen lifestyle that only seems feasible on a very small scale. Meanwhile, another interviewee's discussion of "Backdoor Catering"—which is a euphemism for rummaging around in supermarket garbage bins for discarded provisions, which she's subsisted on for two years—says less about developed-world wastefulness than an idiosyncratic desire to live like a hobo. Dörrie clearly adores Brown but isn't afraid to depict him as someone still working out lingering anger issues, and her willingness to non-judgmentally present his flaws certainly makes her portrait more engaging, albeit not completely, especially given her subject's penchant for telling unfunny anecdotes and then chuckling to himself with unreciprocated satisfaction

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