Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan


Even sitting down to a meal can be a work of art.

(2020) Documentary (Greenwich) Jim Denevan, Marcus Samuelsson, Deval Patrick, Damani Thomas, Jane Rosen, Catherine Panip, Hans Haveman, John McCarthy, Linda Butler, Sean Baker, Dina Brewster, Matt Lackey, Paul Kulik, Nion McEvoy, Danika Markegard, Jason Weiner, William Fox, Randall Graham, Andrew McLester, Tish Denevan. Directed by Patrick Trefz

 

It is true that art can come in all shapes and forms. It is also true that art can be found sometimes where you don’t expect to find it.

Jim Denevan is an artist. His canvas is nature. He began by drawing geometric shapes and patterns in the sand. His art is extremely impermanent; the tide and wind can wash it away in moments. His art, however, is no less beautiful for that; there is a kind of elemental magic in it, as you might find from a shaman conducting a ritual, or a sorcerer constructing a spell. Either way, his work has a powerful effect on the viewer.

Denevan also has a passion for food and eating, and he felt that we as a species needed to get closer to the sources of the food we eat. From this sprang his organization, Outstanding in the Field. Outstanding in the Field conducts these elaborate events where tables are set up in specific, exact ways, generally in places where food is sourced – farms, ranches and orchards. Local chefs are called in, sometimes some fairly well-known ones, who prepare a menu and then supervising the preparation of the meal. Jim acts as a kind of a host and facilitator, making sure that things are set up properly so that the guests have the kind of experience he envisions. Sometimes things go like clockwork (rarely) but most times they don’t; windy conditions means place settings are blown all over hither and yon; rain can cause the event to be relocated indoors; beach-set Outstandings can end up with waves crashing into guests.

But Jim perseveres and does these hugely popular events year after year (for those interested in signing up for a future event, point your browser here). The film shows smatterings of various events, interspersed with some of Jim’s art, drawn on beaches, deserts or in fields. Mostly we’re hearing from farmers, chefs and former guests who sing the praises of the event, as well as a few art curators who sing the praises of Jim’s artwork. That’s to be expected.

My issue with the way that the filmmaker chooses to make his film is that he shows brief clips from a variety of Outstanding events from all over the world with almost zero detail about the event itself. I think it would have been far more interesting to see how one event was put together, from the menu planning to the set-up to the execution. Then, we could have gotten more of a feel for the experience. The way it’s done is more like flipping through the pages of a magazine article without stopping for more than a few seconds on any page and expecting to gain an understanding from that. It doesn’t work. I could have gotten as much information from a list of past events run by the organization.

We also don’t see much about what drives Denevan to make his art until the very last 20 minutes or so when he begins to talk about the mental health issues of his family and how it affected him. It’s pretty intense stuff, and seemed to be included as an afterthought, but it is really the most illuminating segment in the film. Yes, I think Denevan’s endeavors are worth a documentary, but it feels like we just skimmed through the surface here rather than doing a deep dive into either his life or his art. A little more effort and detail might have made this a better movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows how hard and food can collide.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker goes skipping from event to event without a whole lot of detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a frank discussion of mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three of Denevan’s brothers were diagnosed with schizophrenia within the same year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: ;As of 9/26/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Song of the Butterflies

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El Bulli: Cooking in Progress


 

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Chef Ferran Adria conducts his restaurant like a symphony

(2011) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Ferran Adria, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Eugeni de Diego, Aitor Lozano, Katie Button. Directed by Gereon Wetzel

 

About a two hour drive outside of Barcelona on a picturesque cove called the Cala Montjoi sits the best restaurant on the planet. It is small and unassuming, seating only fifty at a time. You do not order off a menu; meals last approximately 4 hours and are taken up by 35-40 courses. No, not full plates – more like a lot of little tasting plates, some no more than two or three bites.

The food that was served there was magic, a symphony of texture, taste, form, and appealed to all of the senses, not just taste. Flavors that shouldn’t have gone together blended like they belonged that way all along. Unexpected surprises would dot the meal like little bombs going off.

With only 50 seats, the demand to get into the restaurant was intense. Two million reservations were received annually for the season – yes, the restaurant was open only six months out of the year. The other six months, Executive Chef Ferran Adria and his team would repair back to Barcelona in their lab where the team would come up with new ideas, new creations for the coming year.

Every facet of the meal is examined, from the cocktails to the pastries and nothing that is normal or usual is considered. In fact, Adria snaps at his right hand head chef Oriol Castro “Don’t bring me anything that doesn’t taste great.” Adria is not generally the one executing the creations; he is more of a creative overseer and it is his vision that guides everything.

He is constantly on the phone, being summoned by one chef or another to sample the creations and he gives his feedback. He argues with Oriol who is as passionate as Adria is in his own way. The two go back and forth but at the end of the day, what they come up with is amazing.

When it comes time to re-open the restaurant, there is a small army of chefs and servers (nearly one chef per diner, one of the reasons the restaurant eventually closed its doors in July of last year, apparently for good). Watching Adria orchestrate all of this is like watching a general execute a battle plan. The complexity is amazing but when it works in harmony, is something beautiful.

This German documentary was recorded in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, including the off-season while the restaurant was closed. It’s a good looking documentary, what Anthony Bourdain sometimes calls “food porn,” as the filmmakers lovingly dwell on images of food being prepared and served.

However, there are almost no interview segments here; we are strictly flies on the wall, watching the process without getting any insight from those in the process. Who decides to make a cocktail with hazelnut oil? How many times is a dish prepared before it’s presented to Chef Adria?

We hear none of that. We simply observe so in many ways the documentary violates the spirit of El Bulli; it appeals to a single sense, that of the observer, the voyeur. It is watching without understanding and that is much like eating without tasting.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting look at the creative process. Adria and Castro have an interesting dynamic.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat dry and doesn’t give you much more than an idea how the process works; you never really get into the minds of those doing the creating.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing here that you couldn’t share with the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: El Bulli operated at a loss from 2000 onward. During that time Restaurant Magazine named it the #1 restaurant in the world an unprecedented five times.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are decent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Food Fight

FOOD LOVERS: The dishes here look incredibly strange – and incredibly delicious.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Grey