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There are many heroes to which one might compare chef Jeremiah Tower. Over the seven decades of his life, he’s lived the plots of as many novels. He’s Tadzio in Death in Venice, Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited, Jean des Esseintes from A Rebours, the yabyum-playing bandicoot Japhy Ryder from Dharma Bums, Icarus, Dionysus, Odysseus, and Job. Because he so restlessly travels through the library rows, it makes sense Lydia Tenaglia’s new documentary The Last Magnificent feels more like If on a winter’s night, a traveler... than The Lion in Winter. Like every tower, Jeremiah is made of an accretion of stories but rarely are each as disparate and dramatic as his.
Though undeniably artful, the documentary is also agitprop. Its raison d’etre is clearly to reestablish Tower as the true founder of California cuisine. Founder here used rather than father since the claiming of that mantle implies the forceful seizure of it from Alice Waters, the chef generally credited with its birth. (Executive producer Anthony Bourdain essentially said as much during a Q & A last year when I first saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival.)
As it happens, back in 1972, Tower was at Chez Panisse too and whereas Waters was content that the place was more cultural than culinary, Tower marshaled his aristocratic upbringing, considerable talent, and personal charisma to spur the place to real greatness. From the freewheeling free-speech free-from-technique chaos of the kitchen, Tower turned Chez Panisse into something extraordinary. First, he gazed to France, recreating the menus of Escoffier and Careme as if the techniques could transform the ragtag team of beatnik cooks into professionals. (It did.) Then, he said “stuff it,” and rebent that gaze towards the bounty of California. Just how forward thinking, or perhaps sempiternal, his vision was is evinced by the fact that the menus -- here shot in tender hi-def caress — could have been written last week or in ten years, as long as the big one doesn’t hit before then.
As related — not for the first time, but quite succinctly — in the film, Waters and Tower were lovers, briefly. Tower loved many, perhaps too many, and at some point, love cracks when it’s spread too thinly. His departure wasn’t solely a lover’s quarrel, more a matter of poor co-parenting. But regardless, in the crack-up, he was cast from Berkeley and ended up in nearby San Francisco. Later, when Alice Waters published her first cookbook, in which her failure to properly credit Tower and to claim his menus as her own still rankles Tower today, the split became irrevocable and quite bitter.
At this point, because his stories are so interesting, one could simply relate them, but John Birdsall really did write the definitive piece on that nearly two years ago. So instead, I’ll simply note that this pattern of rise and fall is repeated with alarming oscillations in the life of our hero. Tower seems to both achieve more and lose more, more often than most. Tenaglia admirably and briskly moves through these episodes with the assured hand of one who has turned the peregrinations of one man into Emmy-award winning television. (Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins of Zero Point Zero are the long-time producers of Bourdain’s work, all the way from No Reservations — remember that? — to CNN’s Parts Unknown.)
Perhaps counterintuitively, the documentary is at its best when the storylines are left unthreaded. For instance, in the relation of Towers’ childhood, a sort of super luxurious Dickensian tale of swaddled neglect, it becomes clear that Tower was molested as a very young boy by a man as his parents blithely partied. “He showed me his lizard,” says Tower, not without fondness or at least ironic remove, “and I showed him mine.” By including the anecdote, of course, Tenaglia is saying something but she doesn’t moralize nor does she ascribe to the incident some sort of traumatic power — as is so often the case done — that we are meant to understand animates Tower’s entire journey. Unlike, say, HTML code, keeping the parenthesis open doesn’t break the page, it brings it to life.
Had all this been told in the past tense, with the well-spoken well-placed well-regarded talking heads of Batali and Waxman, Bourdain and Reichl, the southern drawl of James Villas and a host of Tower’s friends, The Last Magnificent would be a tidy, competent and, as the New York Times says, diverting story. (Diverting, I think, is an underminer-y neg since from what is the documentary diverting?) But about two-thirds of the way through the movie, there’s a call out of the blue. In a measure of how well-chronicled Tower is as a forgotten figure, John Birdsall was actually there when the call came in. Tower was taking over Tavern on the Green.
One needn’t have an overly long institutional memory to note Tavern on the Green is a shitshow. It is still a shitshow. It’s a shitshow that has New York taxpayers on the hook, but that’s a different story. And a shitshow that prima facie is a shitshow, made clear by the fact the operators — two Philly creperie owners David Salama and Jim Caiola —have no business running such a high-volume restaurant. Tavern on the Green is where chefs go to fail, and Tavern on the Green is where Jeremiah Tower goes.
Tenaglia tells me this development came as a shock, that he had kept that card close to the chest. Artistically and structurally, it totally fucks with the flow of the movie like some sort of last-minute wrench in a Top Chef challenge. Tenaglia does a tolerable job trying to fold the new developments into the storylines but you can just tell it’s forced. The structure, hitherto, had been a beautiful, studied juxtaposition of past and present, relying on evocative recreations of a young Tower, archival footage, and poetic old man-amongst-the-ruins imagery. This third act, however, takes on, as it must, a much more documentarian spirit.
Paradoxically, Tower’s hubristic comeback — he fails, miserably and predictably, at Tavern — turns The Last Magnificent from being something good to something truly magnificent. It’s like a sax solo gone wrong, where the wrong note is riffed on and turned real. Tower had been established as enigmatic and unpredictable, and here, in real time, we see him as enigmatic and unpredictable. We — the viewers and filmmakers both — may have settled in for a reverent resurrection of a forgotten soldier, but it turned out Tower wasn’t dead yet. He wasn’t anyone’s to resurrect after all. Tower always has more stories to add on.
Rating: 5/5 Stars