Friday, November 17, 2017

Jeremiah Tower

I caught Anthony Bourdain's company's film "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" (it's playing in Bourdain's usual slot on CNN as an extended episode of "Parts Unknown," if you want to record a rerun or search for VOD).

I enjoyed the film. I don't know Tower, and never tasted his food, but we have a degree of separation (my buddy, director Les Blank, was close to Alice Waters in that era - in fact, he's briefly referenced in the film - just before a shot of him twirling around with Alice - as "a film guy"). And I savagely panned Tavern on the Green, where Tower eventually wound up for a few months, before it was fashionable to do so. I'm sorry he apparently missed that article, which dissuaded at least one restaurant veteran from hiring on there. 

The friend who recommended this film described it as "sad and infuriating": "He certainly was (is) very talented but there's a serious disconnect somewhere."

For those who haven't seen it yet (I wouldn't sweat the following minor spoiler), Tower had a lonely, loveless childhood, and faced decades of relentless opposition and disrespect as he tried his damnedest to conjure style, quality, and celebration. Having played an important role in the creation of New American cuisine, he remains underrecognized and appears, at age 74, to be embittered and diminished (though it may very well be that they just shot and edited the film to make him seem that way).

In my view, the greatest human tragedy is to face sustained adversity without being transformed - without coming away with some lozenge of wisdom. Regardless of appearances, the universe is not grinding us into pulp. It's trying to clear our windshields and unfurl our clenchings...if we'll only let it. If we'll simply release to What Is.

Most never do. They endlessly re-tighten their grip on tired and useless impulses and delusions, and the friction wears them down to a joyless stub. Even among those who do surrender - who accept the universe on its own terms - it's often done mutteringly at first, as a sour act of disillusionment. Only later do they fully release into a clearer, more equanimous and open-hearted surrender, hearts cracking open. That's where this is all leading. You can go with the flow, or you can scream, over and over, "This shall not pass!" I have trouble understanding someone who'd choose the latter for 74 harrowing years.

Creative visionaries are treated the harshest, not because the world fears and loathes vision and creativity (though it certainly does), but because such people have been prepared for deeper, harder lessons. Travails and agonies are like finishing school; the toughest and loving-est of "tough love". But from the (probably skewed) impression one gets from this film, Tower appears to have endured hell without claiming his reward. No brass key!

He remains worked up over his legacy and his place in things - The Grand Story of Me, which is precisely what finishing school aims to reveal as empty drama. It's never about the doer, or even the done. It's about the doing. If you can reach old age, having gone through all Tower has gone through, without that realization, and clinging to memories of disappointment and ill-treatment, that means the travails were for naught. And that's very sad, indeed.

As I wrote here:
There are people whose lives have been a never-ending stream of undeserved calamities, and while such people often wind up broken and embittered, they may also wind up illuminated.
...and as I wrote here:
We're so adept at immersion and identification with storylines that we easily lose ourselves. Our problem as a species is that we immerse so deeply in the drama (especially the parts that seem deadly serious - the grisliest, saddest, most turbulent storylines) that we forget we're the ones who signed up for this. The solution is to try to wear it all much more lightly, and to remember that the rollercoasters are merely rides (we waited on line!), not oppressors.

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