Friday, January 09, 2015

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and "Tim's Vermeer": a brief two-fer review

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is a 2011 documentary film by David Gelb. It tells the story of Jiro Ono, proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 3-Michelin-star sushi restaurant that seats only ten people and takes reservations at least a month in advance for meals that cost, at rock bottom, around $300 a person. According to one food critic whose insights feature prominently in the film, that $300 meal might last only fifteen minutes for someone not committed to savoring every morsel. The movie also tells the story of Jiro's two sons: Yoshikazu the elder and Takashi the younger. The younger son has already left the fold and owns his own sushi restaurant; Yoshikazu, the dedicated elder son, works in his father's shadow and knows that he will one day take over the business. Much is made, in this documentary, of the relentless pursuit of perfection, hence the film's title: Jiro is obsessed with his craft. His restaurant is but a tiny thing, located underground in a subway station, but it serves as a little laboratory devoted to the concocting of greatness. Gelb's film is an engrossing and beautiful documentary; it's well worth watching, especially for all the lovingly filmed sushi.

In a similar vein, we have "Tim's Vermeer," a 2013 film that, in its own way, is also about the pursuit of perfection. Produced and directed, respectively, by magician duo Pen and Teller, this movie is also a documentary. It focuses on Pen's friend Tim Jenison—an inventor, computer nerd, and graphic artist—who has been fascinated by the question of how the 1600s-era Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer was able to paint in such a photo-realistic manner. Jenison hits upon a theory: Vermeer took advantage of his era's interest in optics to create a mirror-and-canvas system that allows the painter constantly to adjust his colors so that they blend perfectly with reality. The technique needs to be seen to be believed, but it truly does work, and this despite the fact that Jenison admits at the outset that he's not a painter at all. With extreme patience and care, Jenison replicates Vermeer's The Music Lesson over the course of seven grueling months. As a sort of parallel plot, Jenison shares his theory with British authors David Hockney (an artist) and Philip Steadman (an architecture professor), who both believe that Vermeer had mechanical help in creating his paintings. Jenison's hard work is seen, by both men, as vindication of their instincts.

Although both of these documentaries, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and "Tim's Vermeer," are, in their own ways, about the pursuit of perfection, they also differ significantly in that Jiro's story is one of brute-force repetition and inhuman concentration on his craft: there are no shortcuts in the making of perfect sushi. "Tim's Vermeer," by contrast, is about whether Vermeer himself might have used a shortcut to achieve visual and aesthetic perfection, and the answer seems to be strongly in favor of "yes." Of course, Vermeer is no less creative, and no less a master, for having used mechanical aids, but it should be noted that Pen and Teller's documentary generated some controversy because it incensed certain Vermeer loyalists who couldn't stomach the notion that Vermeer might have "cheated" by using more than the human eye to create his masterpieces. No such controversy dogs Jiro Ono, who is an undisputed master of his craft.

Ultimately, I think both movies are worth your while, and seeing them one after another is a good way to put yourself in a state of high mindfulness: both movies call you to notice, and to value, the little things in life. Jiro also gives a piece of advice that I haven't followed, but probably should: "Never complain about your job."


1. A review of "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage.
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photos of my students giving you the finger (gonna mosaic out the fingers).
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.
11. A stupid dialogue with one clueless student.
12. A post that dishes (nothing too terrible) on a friend of mine.
13. A mopping-up post that dumps all the rest of the Pohang photos from last year.
14. A review of "The Lunchbox," starring Irrfan Khan.


No comments: