What: Kings of Pastry
When: Friday, May 7th @ 11AM
Where: The ROM theatre
How: The film is sold out for the screening so you’ll need to show up AT LEAST 1 hour early and stand in the rush line. It’s during the day so it’ll be free for students if you can get in. HotDocs keeps a set of tickets for press (like me), so once these are unclaimed (15 minutes before the film) they’ll start to let the Rush line in — bring something to sit on and to read!
Every year, HotDocs selects a few documentary gems, which later become great successes (like Helvetica from 2007) and seeing them at HotDocs before they are known is always a pleasure. The trick, however, is finding these films beneath the large mass of films by neophyte directors with inchoate ideas and the ridiculous notion that documentary filmmaking is merely the art of pointing a camera at anything “real”.
So far, I’ve seen two big winners at this year’s festival: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Kings of Pastry and the great Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine. Kings of Pastry plays again this Friday at 11AM at the ROM: it is RUSH only so show up early (no later than an hour in advance if you want to make sure you get into the movie) but it is worth the wait.
Kings of Pastry is about a group of sixteen chefs who are finalists for the MOF (Meilleurs Ouvriers de France) competition, a French competition for pastry chefs to show their cooking prowess and earn the very prestigious striped collar. Kings of Pastry focuses on three chefs: we watch them prepare for the competition, revise their pastry inventions, and finally participate in the competition.
The process by which these chefs craft pastries is utterly fascinating: a feat of structural engineering. A delicious dessert is a prerequisite for success but by no means a guarantee; presentation is equally important. One of the challenges of the MOF competition is to make a sugar sculpture, which, by nature of the material, is extremely fragile, meaning the MOF candidates must be very inventive (and careful) to ensure that their pastry is structurally sound and does not break when moved. Structural integrity is This also an issue for every other pastry, and the chefs achieve this by carefully planning and considering, at minimum, the ingredients, the thickness of materials, and the cooking time required.
Perhaps even more fascinating than the structural engineering behind these pastries is the iterative design process – yes, design process – that these chefs undergo to arrive at the perfect pastry. In one scene, we see five different versions of the same puff pastry, each with different arrangements, as one of the chefs tries to decide which pastry he wants to present at the competition. Each participant must make a large wedding cake sculpture, and the one chef we follow most closely designs and redesigns the cake many times, largely in an effort to ensure that it can support its own weight.
Although Kings of Pastry chronicles a competition, it does not feel forced or scripted and it does not follow a formula like American Idol, to use a crude example. Hegedus and Pennebaker focus on the story behind making the pastries and the art and dedication that goes into this trade, with many mouth-watering shots of these gastronomical works of art, which is absolutely mesmerizing. Last year, Nora Ephron made another movie for the epicure, Julie and Julia, about the trials and tribulations of two ambitious chefs and featured many delectable shots of gourmet French cuisine; Kings of Pastry does an equally good job of photographing food and celebrating the epicure culture, though it focuses on the story behind that special food group, dessert that has its own separate compartment in everyone’s stomach. Kings of Pastry, like Julie and Julia, celebrates the art of cooking and it’s sure to leave you craving an incredibly fancy French pastry dessert by the end of the film.
Steven Soderbergh’s film, And Everything is Going Fine, is a continuation of Soderbergh’s obsession with the actor/performer Spaulding Gray. Soderbergh made Gray’s Anatomy in 1996, which was an eighty-minute film version of one of Gray’s monologues. And Everything is Gone Fine is essentially a mash-up of old recordings of Gray’s various monologue performances interspersed with the occasional personal interview (between, presumably, Soderbergh and Gray) and television interview.
Spalding Gray is a fascinating storyteller who uses stories from his own life as fodder for – or, rather, exact material for – his stage performances, which usually take the form of ninety minute monologues. Soderbergh cuts together a myriad of these stories to give a fairly good and broad picture of Spalding Gray the storyteller and the man. The intent behind the interviews seems to be to try to establish, if it is even possible, what the difference is between Gray’s stage persona and his day-to-day persona. Gray tends to be very blunt and candid in his monologues, discussing everything from his mother’s suicide to his explorations into homosexuality. This begs the question: are there any stories that are too personal for him to tell? Unfortunately, this idea is somewhat inchoate and not very well explored, which makes the film somewhat unsatisfying.
I also felt that the film dragged a little bit and I was looking at my watch by the one-hour mark. This may be largely because the film was almost entirely non-stop interviews with or monologues by Spalding Gray: no family members, friends, or co-workers were interviewed to give different perspectives. Granted, Gray’s monologues are engaging so this approach is not wholly flawed. Nevertheless, I found that the more I heard Gray speak, the more interesting and damaged he seemed to be, the more sympathetic he was, and yet, simultaneously, the more he became unlikable. Gray had a difficult life, which may help to explain some of his hurtful and cruel actions towards the people he was most intimate with, such as cheating on his wife repeatedly. But the more details I discovered about Gray’s various indiscretions, the more repulsive I found him, the less interested I was in hearing his point of view on sex, love, and death: his favourite topics.
I should probably note that I am an extremely big Soderbergh fan. I have seen all of his films – with the exception of Gray’s Anatomy and the unwatchable Full Frontal – and Soderbergh is a really creative and innovative director and storyteller. It is, therefore, no surprise that And Everything is Going Fine looks like it has been made by a pro, even with the many VHS-quality scenes. The film is well-paced, well-cut, and thoughtfully put together. This is also Soderbergh’s first documentary. He knows how to tell a story but perhaps has not fully mastered this medium yet. Nevertheless, some of the best documentaries were made by filmmakers who did not start in documentary filmmaking (Sydney Pollack’s Sketches of Frank Gehry, Wehrner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World) because it takes a filmmaker to understand how to tell a story on film. Documentary filmmaking is more than just filming real people and real thing; telling a story and doing so with good cinematography is essential. Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine is a flawed but good film that tells a good story and I look forward to future documentaries by Soderbergh.