Parts Known & Unknown

A Brief Commentary Review of
Jeremiah Tower:
The Last Magnificent

A Film by Lydia Tenaglia

Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
This film was Mountain Shadow's selection for April, 2017, and a Bay Area premiere.

While neuroticism has been associated with a host of negative outcomes … and even some positive outcomes, creative thinking doesn’t appear to be one of its correlates. There’s so much we still don’t know about the creative mind, but what we do know suggests that being highly neurotic is not the magic sauce of creativity. One can be creative in any field. There are a heck of a lot of uncreative artists and a lot of creative accountants. And for the most part, the relationships between neuroticism and creativity are pretty weak.  Nonetheless ... 
- from “The Myth of the Neurotic Creative” by S.B Kaufman, The Atlantic (2-29-16)

 The popularity of Anthony Bourdain’s well known series Parts Unknown is all about revealing people and places as yet undiscovered. But what about the first well-known “celebrity chef” who, to this day, remains an unknown mystery?  The answers are not to be found in some secret recipes, but in a study of one extraordinary man’s unique personal gifts and baggage.

Jeremiah poster.jpg

We see it often enough to the point of almost expecting and accepting it: Artistic neuroses, compulsions and obsessions, with a sort of tyrannical perfectionism wielded like a cleaver. Ah, we say, but the result presumably makes it all worth it. But at what cost, with the sad, hidden, lonely places that result for the genius-artist?

The toll taken can also result in confrontation, conflict and estrangement, of course. “When there’s something wonderful to be done,”  JeremiahTowers at one point opines, “if you’re not there with me, then get the f*#@ out of the way!” There is a reason the publicity poster for this biopic is a graphic depicting a dining fork with a middle prong extended like a finger ...

Like an in-depth psychological profile, this film is actually more about Jeremiah the person, than an historical documentary about any gastronomical delights created. It all begins with a ruminating prelude to the story about to unfold. Walking among some ancient ruins, Jeremiah Tower himself delivers a soliloquy that almost sounds like its half-confession, half-epitaph: 

“I have to stay away from human beings, because somehow I am not one. Everything that is real to me is hallucinations to others. The hardest thing about life is having to face the terrible reality that every day is not to be like one’s dreams and hope of what some future day might be. Let the flesh grow old, crumble. What are my great expectations, and what have I done?”

Reminiscences of Tower’s earliest years are told through character re-enactments, mixed with old photographs and home movies. In a formative early one, he relates a memory as a young boy on a beach, wandering off by himself while his parents are oblivious to his absence. His self-discovery concludes with the realization, “I’m on my own here. I better take care of myself.” Later he comments, “You know the worst thing that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t an orphan.” One is left to assume the second half of that observation that is left unsaid, “but I might just as well have been, and I might have been better off.”

The one thing his parents did bequeath to their neglected son, however, was an indoctrination into a certain kind of elitism, and what constitutes “first class.” As a consequence, of course, everything else forever after that is just, well, second best.  And that includes the difference between cooking your supper merely to eat, and an almost orgasmic experience of culinary delights.

For Towers, it was his dream creation; a “café society where everything” he says, “is charming and perfect.” After Chez Panisse, that place for Towers was his aptly named Stars restaurant in San Francisco. But when the ground shook, and the crowds faded and circumstances changed, the Last Magnificent simply disappeared.

In his latter years – after he reappears and has tries unsuccessfully to resurrect his own former prominence by resuscitating a notoriously ill-fated New York restaurant – Jeremiah Tower finds himself alone once more. He finds himself gazing out his high-rise apartment window, watching a bulldozer raze an adjacent building to rubble.

As if returning to the place he once began -- or never really left -- he’s surrounded with only a few remembrances he stuffs in a duffel bag of personal belongings, and a prized painting by the post-impressionist painter, Augustus John (1878-1961). It’s a portrait of one of the artist’s illegitimate children, in whom Jeremiah Tower sees his own reflection. 

“So now I’m leaving New York,” he concludes with a little winsome cynicism. “Maybe I’ll write a book, “How to Be a Well-Mannered Idiot.”

Whether intended by the filmmaker, or not, a motif woven throughout the film is the presence of water. There was that indelible childhood experience on a beach, which he relates in his later years; as if the scars from that early wound were still fresh. He relates cruising the seas on great ocean liners while riding an unsophisticated car ferry (that serves warm Coca-Cola instead of fine champagne).  He describes how his thesis project was rejected when studying architecture at Harvard; designing an entire underwater city.  The film ends as it began, away from other human; and literally swimming with the fishes of the deep.

Since ancient times, the waters of the deep have symbolized the mysteries of the unknown abyss. The one dubbed the “Last Magnificent” has paddled off again; somewhat known, and largely still unknown. jb