BLUTARSKI: ZERO POINT ZERO

As our final episode of NO RESERVATIONS approaches, I’ve been asked to write a top ten list of personal favorites. That’s hard to do. It’s been a mixed bag—and deliberately so. Travel and food shows necessarily tell more or less the same story:  somebody goes someplace, eats and drinks a lot of stuff, comes to some kind of conclusion (rightly or wrongly) then goes home. My partners and I—a rotating band of cinematographers, producers, editors and post production people—have worked very hard over the years to mess with, expand, undermine and subvert that basic narrative and the conventions that go with it. Sometimes we succeeded.

In a 140 episodes of NO RESERVATIONS, there have certainly been shows that I regard as failures. Some, like PUERTO RICO, were entirely our fault—where through bad choices, inadequate preparation, sheer lack of understanding of our subject, we ended up giving short shrift to a place that deserved better. GREECE was a disappointment. CHARLESTON overlooked the amazing Sean Brock, probably the most important (then still emerging) phenomenon in the South—who was, unforgivably, literally right under our noises during the whole shoot. The weak SOUTH PACIFIC and MARQUESAS show was the result of pure bad luck. One scene after another went by without anything useful or compelling recorded. One day after another passed with each intended scene turning out to be something other than what we’d hoped. Two full days where nothing worked. That we were able to cobble together shows at all in cases like these was always a triumph of great camera work and great editing (technique) over content. Sometimes it was a close run thing.

Responsibility for some failures rested entirely on me. They sucked because I sucked. BERLIN should have been a good show: great producer, great shooters, great fixers, great city. But for no good reason at all, I just wasn’t “into it”. And the show reflected my unhappiness and my unwillingness at the time  to even try. The disastrous AT THE TABLE—a lunatic attempt at a one-off talk show format—was an absolute shitshow. I’m obviously no good at a talk show format—and clearly shouldn’t have tried. Bad idea. Wrong host. Bad show. When you let down a lot of talented people who work their asses off to make you look good—there’s a price. In my case it was appropriately universal revulsion.

Some disastrous shoots, through the sheer weight of misadventure turned out, like SICILY, to be good shows. Though not in the way we intended. The scenes that were supposed to be “great” ended badly—but the ones for which we had low expectations (the caper farmers in Pantelleria) became magically real, spontaneous and fun. ICELAND was certainly improved rather than hurt by running into a blinding blizzard—and a general overlay of depression and darkness. A near life-ending rollover on an ATV in NEW ZEALAND, however uncomfortable for me, became instant comedy gold.

Maybe the best single example of this was the ROMANIA show, where absolutely everything was fucked up beyond all hope or recognition: wrong fixer (the inexplicably addled Zamir), unfriendly populace, officials looking for backhanders, and guides with other agendas who did their best (in the hope of portraying their country in a desirable light) to ensure that absolutely every genuine moment was quickly smothered under a thick scrim of artificiality, falsehood and staginess. It was a nightmare to shoot. An utter failure on all our parts—and yet it became a timeless classic of Travel Gone Wrong—unintentionally hilarious. It may have made all of us Public Enemies in Romania (and the subject of scandal and speculation in their national press)—and it may have been terribly unfair to the country and to the many Romanian expats who tuned in, looking to see something beautiful of their beloved homeland…

But it was an accurately gonzo—if unflattering— account of what it’s like to make an utter failure of a show, a masterpiece of incompetence on our part—and misguided good (and bad) intentions on the part of some of our hosts.  It was at the same time our greatest failure as professional travel and food television producers—and our greatest success as technicians—and absurdists. We might never be able to repay the good people of Romania for our offenses against their national pride; but no small number of them recognized at least the worst of their country. I can assure you, by the way, that what we DIDN’T and could NEVER have included in the show would have been even more painfully hilarious. To this day, in the hours after a shooting day, veteran crew members sit in hotel lobbies around the world, and tell the young ones about what really happened there. 

But, of course, there were bright spots too. Shows of which I will always be proud. Favorites, both personal and professional where everything (or most things) came  together.  

HONG KONG, particularly the scene where a third generation noodle maker practices his craft, rocking painfully and disfiguringly on his bamboo pole under the faded photos of his parents encompassed everything I believe to be good and true about people who choose to make food the very best they can. It was a beautifully shot and edited sequence— one of our very best. If our show is principally in the business of celebrating cooks—wherever they may cook—and in whatever circumstances—then this was as good an example of our work as we could ask for.

VENICE was where we were really hitting a golden period for cinematography I think. Using film lenses and adhering to a stylebook shamelessly lifted from works like DON’T LOOK NOW and COMFORT OF STRANGERS, we’d do things like wake up very early in the morning to shoot in Piazza San Marco—intending to make the usually crowded Venice look empty and haunted. It’s an example of a show that came out just as we’d planned, looked and sounded like we wanted it to, and it also had the advantage of being filled with great characters and food. A lot of attention was paid to color balances (in scenes like the painter’s studio) and to the music and it paid off big time. 

I’m happy with all our VIETNAM shows—probably because I’m always so ludicrously happy to be there. I could just watch the B-roll from those shows all day. Everybody who works on the show seems to feel the same way. It’s a good place to work, a good place to eat. A good place to be. 

MONTANA. Which opens with the great American author and poet, Jim Harrison reading from his work would have been a proud achievement for that alone: Jim Harrison is in it. That’s enough. But it’s also where I started to look at those parts of America so different than my own—cowboy country, gun country, red-state, Palin bumper sticker America , with a genuine  affection I’d previously only felt for Vietnamese and South Americans and Europeans. Like the Asian rice farmers and ex-guerillas I tend to over-romanticize, the cattle ranchers and hunters I met there, though as far from me on the political spectrum as could be, were caring, generous and proud too. I started to feel—and hope I captured—the beauty of their lives and what a lot of us who live in the bubble of big city, East Coast America are missing—not just about these places, but the people who live there.

SARDINIA was a risky show, because it was so personal, and I had a whole new Italian/Sardinian family looking over my shoulder—and more perilously—I had chosen to include my wife. I anticipated some angry blowback from fans. But my wife’s father’s family in the mountain towns of that incredibly beautiful island were the best “fixers” any one could have hoped for. The cinematography was incredible. And the editors, in spite of the fact that I was sitting in their laps for much of the cut and making their lives miserable, responded with a beautiful and heartfelt love letter to what is for most people an unfamiliar culture. Warm and fuzzy and family friendly was NOT what fans of the show had been led to expect of me. But I was grateful for the opportunity to be a Dad on camera. It paid off in a good story and good show—and as an honest reflection of the facts.

ROME Is probably my favorite show of all of them. My proudest achievement. Why? Because it was so suicidally stupid. Because no one wanted it. Because everybody thought it was a bad idea to do a show in Rome—that most beautiful and colorful of cities—in black and white.

As a purely creative enterprise, we did it anyway, shamelessly and very painstakingly doing the exact opposite of what we had established we were good at: Instead of run and gun hand held cameras and fast editing, we shot stationary, with film lenses. Instead of no lighting and barely acceptable sound, we lit as if in a studio, made frequent use of subtitles. Instead of wearing whatever clothes were clean that day, I, for the first and only time,  actually bought wardrobe. Shamelessly aping films like LA DOLCE VITA and L’AVENTURRA—which we were pretty sure few of our audience had ever seen, we tried to paint a nostalgic, romantic, heavily stylized ode to another side of Rome. It was the most self indulgent, deliberately reckless venture to date and it looks gorgeous. We fully expected to be pilloried for it. But we didn’t care. In the end, it was shocking to us that so many people ended up appreciating it. As a hand crafted labor of love, I think it stands alone, a testament to all the incredibly talented people who worked on it. It all started in a hotel lobby, with cameraman Zach Zamboni suggesting that he and his colleagues were “so damn good we can make food porn in black and white”.  The question that always hung over the planning of every episode being, “What’s the most fucked up thing we can do?” 

EL BULLI. It was the most important restaurant in the world—in its last days. And the greatest culinary artist of this or last century, Ferran Adria, had agreed to open his life and his kitchen to us. So it was important to get it right. We threw everything we had at it. Every camera, every technical innovation—every creative idea we could come up with. We got the right guy—the best guy— Jose Andres—to come along and show us, through personal reminisces, what it all meant—and why it was important. We tried to show where the brothers Adria came from, give a sense of the relentless wind on the coast of Catalonia—and what effect that might have on a person, day after day, night after night in a (then) mostly empty restaurant in the middle of nowhere. And we captured a precise moment in history that will never happen again.  Everybody who worked on the show felt enormous responsibility to our subjects—and brought their very best game. EL BULLI is gone. But the show we made depicts a Ferran, a menu, a never-to-happen-again establishment—as they were.

The pig slaughter and boucherie in the CAJUN COUNTRY show is a personal favorite. It starts with a prayer. And it’s a scene I’m most grateful to the network for—for leaving it alone. Pretty disturbing stuff to see a pig shot close-up to the brain. It’s ugly, and painful. But that’s what happens when you take a life for your dinner.  And somebody, somewhere does—every time you order a pork chop. The beauty AND the ugliness of a meat we all love and take for granted was nicely delineated, I think—a savage slaughter, a lot of blood—and a community coming together, cooperating in an enterprise that was both joyful and a sacrament of sorts. It showed where dinner comes from—and what it requires—and also, what it can be. We always work extra hard whenever we shoot in New Orleans or Louisiana—to do right by them—as they have been egregiously failed by so many others. That’s always foremost in our minds when we visit. Also, we love the place ferociously. 

CLEVELAND: Harvey Pekar. Harvey Pekar. We wanted to celebrate and step inside the life of Cleveland’s greatest chronicler in the style of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. It took a lot of work and pre-production to do that. But I’m very proud of the result. Not least because I believe so fervently that the late, great Pekar was a uniquely American, wonderful and important man whose life deserves celebrating and remembering. Ruhlman, Michael Symon, Marky Ramone and the entire extended Pekar family made it a very special hour,  and in many ways, shows what we did best—cover ground nobody else does with genuine affection and respect for subject. We worked very closely with Pekar’s longtime artist Gary Dumm to be able to “step inside” frames of a graphic novel—and were lucky enough to arrive in Cleveland in the middle of a snowstorm, a factor that (in spite of what some local boosters may have thought) only highlighted the bittersweet gorgeousness and faded grandiosity of that most beautiful of cities. My love for Cleveland is absolute. I may not love it for the reasons some might like—but I love it just the same. I am honored that Harvey, may he rest in peace, liked the show. 

Our last in a series of HOLIDAY SPECIALS was a high watermark of sorts. It has always been my belief that the pursuit of excellence in television is impossible if one does not regularly seek to cause terror and confusion at one’s network. In this respect, the show was a smashing success—setting a new standard for unasked-for weirdness.

You can imagine how happy some at the network were to hear Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman parodying themselves on a flickering television screen, while the network’s sweetheart, Samantha Brown, playing herself as a crazed, vengeful, alcoholic and homicidal shut-in, pumped a bullet into my leg (spraying blood on a stuffed kitten) between pouring schnapps into a bowl of Frooty Pebbles.  Norah Jones sang about poop, the band Fucked Up sang Jingle Bells—the whole show was ugly, squalid and magnificent. Christopher Walken cooked octopus! We didn’t just bend the rules, we killed them dead—then went to the funeral and shot the mourners. The notorious “Krampus segment”, censored by the network, went on to become a stand alone YouTube sensation. Do check it out. 

The 2006 BEIRUT show obviously holds a special place in the memories of all who were involved. Like the war that broke out around us, it happened unexpectedly. Those of us trapped in that heartbreakingly troubled city never expected there to even be a show—but we kept shooting anyway, and the footage that was artfully put together afterwards told a story we are all very proud of. I learned—in a way I’d never had to learn before—how terrible, terrible things can happen to good people, sweeping up the good and the bad together. That experience changed those of us who were there. And it changed subsequent shows. We never, from that point on, forgot how arbitrary life and death can be, and how harsh life can be for the people we leave behind when we head safely home with our cameras.   My daughter was conceived the day after I was evacuated from Beirut—a fact that has given me a lifelong love for the US Marine Corps—and connected me to that city (and this episode) in a special and very personal way.

It could be argued that for the last 8 or 9 years, Travel Channel has allowed me to make 140 wildly self indulgent home movies that only a few very close friends and directors of photography could be reasonably expected to enjoy. That it’s worked out for all of us remains a mystery for which I’m very grateful and proud. 

I’m also grateful to the staggering line-up of chefs and cooks, the famous and the not at all, who’ve been kind enough to appear on the show over the years: I doubt any show has ever had such a line-up of talent. They all took time they did not have to let us see what it is they do—how—and to the extent that we were capable of explaining it: why. 

See you all at the next rodeo.