I SMELL EMMY

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When the Emmy for Cinematography was announced, longtime Zero Point Zero cameraman, Morgan Fallon was up and out of his seat like a shot. He’s a strapping guy of well over six feet, and he took off down that aisle like a wide receiver going out for the long one. He bounded up the stairs—only slightly ahead of his colleagues, Todd Liebler and Zach Zamboni—and grabbed hold of that statue like it was it was the neck of a chicken, the last one on earth, and he was hungry. Very, very hungry. Shortly afterwards, he was followed up on stage by Chris Collins,  Tom Vitale, Lydia Tenaglia, Sandy Zweig, Sally Freeman, Josh Ferrell, Diane Schutz—and me. We were, all of us, very, very happy. I have, even now, no idea what I said up there. I’m pretty sure that at very least, my fly wasn’t open.

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Afterwards, there was the Governor’s ball, followed by many, many drinks, followed by the consumption of more beverages in Mr. Vitale’s room at the Chateau Marmont. I have no recollection of anything untoward occurring from that point on. In fact, I have no recollection of anything at all. Any suggestion that I had anything to do with the dead rodeo clown found in Mr. Vitale’s bathtub is spurious speculation. He was still alive when I left. 

“It’s an honor simply to be nominated” is, I think, what you’re supposed to say at such awards ceremonies. But we wanted those fucking things. We wanted to win. We wanted trophies—tangible, physical, heavy metal objects—that we could fondle and gaze at admiringly, later, in private moments. 

I slept with mine. I say that without shame. I propped it up on the pillow next to me in bed, and slipped, happily into unconsciousness, rising the next morning to feelings of validation and general well being.  Also a sizable room charge for assorted power tools and take-out sushi that I’m pretty sure I didn’t order. 

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This week on PARTS UNKNOWN, we examine the question of what it might be like to live a dream. Many of us, no doubt, perhaps after reading Hemingway or other romantic accounts of expat Americans who find themselves in a Europe of fantasy—of old buildings, delicious foods, omnipresent wine, unfamiliar but elaborately beautiful rituals, traditional music, incredible scenery. What that might be like?

My veteran cinematographer, EMMY award winning Zach Zamboni grew up in rural Maine and lived, until recently in New York City. But not too long ago, he met the woman of his dreams and relocated to Granada in Spain, marrying into a Spanish family, learning Spanish, and immersing himself in the daily life of his adopted new home.

It is, as far as I can tell, an enviable situation. Everything—from breakfast through amazing (and substantial) lunches, accompanied by much wine, long afternoon naps, promenades through ancient streets, has a magical quality. A feeling of otherworldliness, only enhanced by the fact that it takes place in the shadows of the absolutely awe inspiring castle complex, The Alhambra. Nights are often spent bouncing from bar to bar, sampling the extraordinary variety of tapas—again accompanied by much wine. Later, on certain nights, one can listen to flamenco in the gypsy dwellings carved into the hills. 

What’s that like? A second act like that?
Zach explains—as we take a look at Granada and the surrounding area through his eyes. We always like to be able to look at places through an individual’s perspective. What makes this episode very special, is that with Zach, we are not only looking at a very old, very beautiful world through fresh eyes—but that we are looking at it through the eyes of a particularly gifted cinematographer. Zach’s visual poem to the mysterious Alhambra is a uniquely wonderful bit of filmmaking we are all very proud of. 

Colombiana

I’d thought my unconditional love for Colombia was well established there. I’d visited for speaking engagements. I’d made a giddily enthusiastic episode of a previous series in Medellin and Cartagena. I’d waxed poetically and often about how well I’ve always been treated, how thrilling it is to see how far the country has come from its bad old days. I’m a fan of its people, its music, its food and its disarmingly injured pride. But coming out of the remote jungle village of Milaflores, I made a mistake.

I tweeted a photo of myself, standing under a shade tree, surrounded by young Colombian military recruits. My old friend and Top Chef colleague, Tom Colicchio tweeted right back: “ Too soon.” – connecting the appearance of machine guns with the then recent Newtown massacre. I tweeted back that “this what it looks like in FARC country.” Of course, I meant, “territory recently controlled by the FARC”—the very unpleasant Marxist guerilla group who’d been terrorizing Colombia for decades with kidnappings assassinations—and worse. They operate hand in glove with the cartels—essentially shaking them down and providing them with protection—in return for funds. And indeed, not too long before I arrived at the dirt airstrip, merchants in the small town are said to have accepted payment for basic goods and services with coca paste.

Now, Miraflores is swarming with army and police. The FARC, by almost all accounts, have been beaten back significantly. The phrase “FARC country” was not, however, interpreted as intended—as meaning an area, a neighborhood, a territory once under FARC control. Not in Colombia. Colombians were outraged. “I do NOT live in FARC country” and “how come you glorify those bastards?” were common responses. The twittersphere blew up with pissed off, deeply offended Colombians, reading second hand reports of what I was believed to have said. Many misidentified the young soldiers in the photo as being guerillas. Our fixers and drivers were very, very unhappy—in the uncomfortable position of being closely associated with someone (me) who was (for the next couple of days, anyway) widely thought to be a FARC sympathizer. Things bled into the print media and it was a tough couple of days. It was a clumsy, ill worded and foolish thing for me to have done.

Colombia is NOT, for the record, “a FARC country”. Far from it. As I should well have known, the struggle between the FARC, the cartels, and various right wing militias has been deeply felt by nearly every Colombian family. Opinions—even perceived opinions—can have consequences. Just about everybody you talk to—even in a present day Colombia that is much, much safer and secure—has lost someone to violence from one side or the other.

Colombia—more than anyone—has paid a terrible price in lives for the world’s seemingly bottomless appetite for cocaine—and for the greed of a relative few. And if you ever wondered “how come they don’t get a handle on things down there”, all you need do is look at the place. The country is huge. It is about 70% sparsely populated (and gorgeous) jungle, mountains and coastline opening up onto both the Caribbean and the Pacific. It is ideologically divided. And it has neighbor problems. Venezuela next door has been all too happy to provide safe haven and even covert military assistance to the FARC. Panama’s Darien Gap offers some of the world’s most impenetrable jungles. Colombia has been very successful in recent years in its war on cartel and FARC related violence. But the ludicrous futility of any fully successful “war on drugs” is apparent with a single look out of a plane window. In spite of all its painful history, Colombia is emerging as what SHOULD be a vacation wonderland. Have I said yet how beautiful the place is? It’s incredible. It’s fun. And yes—it’s safe. Every day, more so. Cartagena has some of the most beautiful colonial architecture you’re likely to find anywhere in Latin America. A great bar scene. Amazing food and architecture. Medellin is a modern, sophisticated, enormously enjoyable place to spend time—as far from its image as a murder capital as you can imagine. And people are heartbreakingly welcoming and happy to see visitors who have come to their beautiful country for something other than to talk about narcos and violence. Cali is a party town to rival Miami. The beaches along the coasts are as unspoiled as your wildest fantasies. And yet many people still don’t go.

I would urge you to put aside the stereotypes. If you want to find bad people in Colombia, you can surely find them—as you could in New York or Los Angeles. But nowhere have my crew and I been treated better or with more kindness and generosity. I’d bring my family on vacation there in a heartbeat. And hope to soon. As I said before: Colombians are proud. Let them show you what they are proud of.

That said, this week’s Colombia episode of PARTS UNKNOWN marks another great moment in Bourdainian stupidity. Faithful viewers of my previous program on that other, less good network, might remember my previous misadventure on an ATV. You’d think I would have learned from that experience, a long barrel roll down a sand dune, wrapped around a few hundred pounds of metal and machinery. I was very, very lucky to have emerged from that experience with limbs and skull intact. That maybe I’d be smart enough to realize that maybe off road vehicles were just not for me.
No.
In Colombia, I saddled up once again—and as you’ll see—managed to fly off the seat, drive my head straight into the ground (helmet-less, of course), and (my producers insist) somehow succeed in running over my own head. Though I was “out” for a brief micro-second there—I remember bounding to my feet, unwilling to be embarrassed by the glaringly obvious: I should have worn the helmet they offered. I should have driven more carefully. I probably shouldn’t—given my record—been driving the damn thing at all. Comedy Gold.

K-TOWN

“What, exactly, is ‘parts unknown’ about Los Angeles?”

It’s a fair question that cuts right to the heart of what we’re trying to do.

Of all the locations on earth, Los Angeles has probably appeared on film or tape or memory card more than any other. In fact, making Southern California look like somewhere else has been a primary concern for filmmakers since the beginnings of Hollywood.  My partners at Zero Point Zero production and I have shot in LA before. Twice.

So, where the  **** do we get off trying to shoot something “new” about Los Angeles?

A few years back, fresh off the success of Kitchen Confidential and new to the ways of life outside the kitchen, I found myself staying at a hotel in West Hollywood where the kitchen staff were fans. They were also Korean. And in the course of events, I found myself accompanying them to places that I—though I’d been to LA a few times—had no idea existed.  Even though LA was newly in the grip of some of the country’s most restrictive anti-smoking laws, every place these cooks brought me were packed with young Koreans, drinking soju, eating and smoking at the same time. Many of the places they brought me—in what turned out to be a fairly drunken bounce from one place to another to another—first denied being a business, then, on what appeared to be the basis of my wrong ethnicity— denied me entrance, only admitting me after being shouted at in Korean by my posse of cooks. Interestingly, many of these businesses continued serving alcohol long after what I had previously believed local ordinances permitted.

The next day, I didn’t remember getting home but I did remember what I’d gotten a glimpse of the night before: another world—existing right under the noses of another one.

So, I thought, for this episode, we’d try to shoot Los Angeles entirely from the point of view of people who grew up in Koreatown. We’d shoot this most over-photographed of cities as if no one BUT Koreans—and their immediate neighbors (Mexicans, Sri Lankans, Filipinos…) existed. As if the Hollywood sign,  the Hills, the movie industry,  and white people in general just…never happened. In our episode, K-Town would be Center of the World.

I thought about recent discussions with my friends, the chef and author, Roy Choi—and the artist, David Choe, about the effect the LA riots of the early 90’s had on their world view and that of their families. As I know many Koreans—and because all of them seem to suffer from some dark,  unarticulated burden—an unspoken  pressure to be something other than how they see themselves. I began to explore the Korean concept of “han”, an existential sense of pain and rage that is said to pass from generation to generation and wondered how I might discuss that in the show. 

A window into the soul of the Korean American? Nah…I wouldn’t go that far.  At very least, this episode will be a window into some VERY delicious Korean food. If you’re not hungry after this one—there’s no hope for you.

Film nerds might notice our shameless rip off of the “look” Michael Mann gave to the driving interiors in the film “Collateral”.  Or they might not. This episode also marks our first use of a “drone-cam”, a small, remote controlled , flying helicopter-mount for our cameras. 

Onwards!

Yes, this is happening. 

Yes, this is happening. 

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. 

A continuous dribble of stuff we're thinking about and think you should know about.
-Tony