How To Prep Cook Your Life

“My movie” is coming soon! First though, the trailer: You will see it if you’re seated early to see “Into The Wild”, Sean Penn’s true story about the slightly disturbed idealist kid (maybe a modern Holden Caulfield) who wanders into the Alaska fastness and perishes from starvation ….

Picture a fun, thought-provoking foodie flim juxtaposed with the more somber feature. Pure dead brilliant my Scots friend Jen used to say. Can someone tell me why a “trailer” precedes the release of a feature film? Isn’t that putting the caravan before the donkey?

Last summer I was drafted as an ‘extra’ in Doris Doerrie’s “How To Cook Your Life” – a portrait of Zen buddhist baker Edward Espe Brown. Please inspect the post entitled “Let The Record Show That on Oct 8” . If you have a swift computer, it will be a proper trailer, otherwise, just a talkie. Consider it an amuse-oreille). I attended three private viewings in Ed’s living room, having tucked into a sumptous potluck group nosh but they didn’t prepare me for the film’s power.

Maybe it was the audience. Mill Valley Film Festival patrons sit silently, cine-zen at mindful attention! In rushed a late arrival, plopping heavily into the last empty seat. My new neighbor, oh glee. She was carrying a huge tub of popcorn–obviously her dinner. As the opening credits and first peaceful scene unfolded she munched away until a gong sounded. Then, realizing her noise was the only noise in a theater with 300 mute viewers, carefully laid the tub down before her feet, straightened up carefully and re-arranged her pose.

Something special was occurring…

Wait’ll she figures out I’m in the movie!” my monkey mind chattered, barely acknowledging the quiet of the warm, dark theatre until I re-focused on the pretty snail crawling over the facade of the Austrian monestary and settled into my comp seat (thank you Ed and Meghann). Right.

I loved the bubbly saxophone score, a lovely counterpoint to the age old wisdom of the Buddha being practiced both in cool Austria and Hades-esque Ventana Wilderness. Ed described tasting his first home made bread at his aunt’s house, clearly a pivotal moment to a boy raised by a stepmother whose idea of home made bread was the Pillsbury dough cylinder opened by bludgeoning a counter edge with it.

Not much footage passes before Brown is caught irritably shaking a vinegar bottle with an unremovable top, and whinig about how “it shouldn’t be this hard!”

Audience explodes in laughter, probably half of them trucked in from Green Gulch Zen Center six miles away, but the other half is surprised to see a short-fused ‘master’ and it’s a relief to howl sympathetically over the mini-hurdles that even a master with forty-years zen practice deals with in modern life. Note to self: if you are always unhappy, no matter where you go or what you do, it might be you. Ed: “When there is a little piece of shit on your nose, wash your face (chuckle)!”

Doerrie travels with him from Austria to California, spends time listening to different students discussing chicken-killing, serving the poor, perfecting slicing technique. All the while, concentrating. “When you are cutting the carrots, cut the carrots.” The head chef at Tassajara says to the camera, ‘we think we’re cooking the food all this time, but the food is cooking us”.

All that practice, offering one’s best effort, and after a life time one can truly be said to be ‘well done’ even if this is exceeding rare.

Prodigious amounts of food in various stages of preparation clobbers your eyes at hundred times life size, and you damn near smell the yeast, the fresh herbs and breathe in the baking bread. Also the sweat running down the student’s necks…and another platoon is conscripted into the Salivation Army. We see footage of huge-girthed Americans in the process of becoming the very hamburgers they consume…commentary counterpoint, and the evidence of no obese zen acolytes…
‘whaddya think of all these shaggy hippies that come to you?’ Ed recalled someone asked Suzuki-roshi, shown in original black and white 1960’s footage.
‘You all seem enlightened…until you open your mouths’.

Hearing the venerated Japanese founder of the SF Zen center speak about uniqueness, background noise, is illustrated with wit by filmmaker Doerrie who permits the viewer to make most of the connections.
My three minutes approaches…the scene is headed: Waste. Ed quotes Dogen, saying that food must not be wasted, every morsel as precious as one’s own eyesight…Voice over: ‘am I precious? Am I worth protecting?” Visual: pastries all getting the final loving tweak before being shoved in the oven…then it’s a city scape, with a resident street fellow saying, “I eat a little of what I find, an’ if I don’t get sick in fifteen minutes, I finish it…

And then there I am in my prisoner jump suit voice-over: “I haven’t bought groceries in three years, except Dr. Bob’s chocolate ice cream which is eight bucks a pint..” as I’m gleaning blackberries from a hedge…

Telling viewers (in a conspiratorial whisper, very ironic considering that these very neighbors will hear about this through the grapevine)..” THESE people don’t share their apples” – Charlie’d asked last year and the old woman declined to let him pick the overhanging fruit–“they’re the only ones on the block that voted for Bush…maybe there’s a connection between willingness to share and politics” (shrug)…huge guffaw goes up, I blush invisibly in my seat…

The ultimate scenes in the movie for me: Ed describing his youthful impatience with the inefficiency of the ritual of preparing a minimeal for the Buddha statue, slowly presenting the food, then turning away and expecting no thank you’s etc… as a way to learn not to expect gratitude from the recipients of one’s mercies…

And the teapot scene. Tears well up and spill slowly down his closely viewed profile, and he’s saying:”I used to see those pots when we were having a class…they were old beat-up pots that had not been treated particularly well, and they were still so willing to serve…so plump, so ready. And I thought, ‘if they can do it….so can I…”

Glistening eyes reflected the screen light when I snuck a peek back behind me…a quiet beautiful sadness communicated the only way a fine movie can do it, by captivating you, and slowly peeling back the layers…until you are so exposed yourself that the message (there were many) nails you in the heart.

I would describe the beautiful bouffe that took place afterward but you must wait.
Suffice to say that when the lights came up, Ed came up front and fielded a half hour’s worth of questions
‘Do you think this movie will change your life?”
“I don’t know”…

But I do. It already has. He has gone round the corner a second time. The first being when Tassajara Baking was published in 1973.
When Ed answered the last question and added hastily “Thank you for coming, blessings” we arose , stretched, filed very slowly out search of earthly nourishment.

~ by jacquiephelan on October 11, 2007.

One Response to “How To Prep Cook Your Life”

  1. [...] from Heaven It’s midnight here in Fairfax…over in the city there was Yet Another Showing of the upcoming movie, “How To Cook Your Life” by Doris Doerrie, a German film makeress of distinction. A [...]

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