How to Cook Your Life (Roadside Attractions, PG-13)

film_cook-your-life.jpgWatching How to Cook Your Life is like spending 90 minutes with a pleasant but unchallenging spiritual leader, and demonstrates why Brown is one of the most successful popularizers of Zen in America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Cook Your Life, a documentary by the German director Doris Dörrie, presents a charming but somewhat superficial portrait of Edward Espe Brown, Zen priest and cookbook author. Most of the film shows Brown teaching cooking classes or expounding his philosophies to adoring disciples at Zen centers in California and Austria, with occasional digressions into the world outside and to documentary footage of his mentor, Suzuki Roshi. In fact, watching How to Cook Your Life is like spending 90 minutes with a pleasant but unchallenging spiritual leader, and demonstrates why Brown is one of the most successful popularizers of Zen in America.

"Pleasant" is an apt description of Brown, his teachings, and this film as well. His favorite topic is the connection between food and life, and listening to his well-practiced speeches has so hypnotic an effect that you barely notice when his thoughts veer from the unremarkable (most people in the modern world are too busy; the commercial food industry consumes a great deal of petroleum; Wonder Bread doesn’t taste as good as the artisanal product) to the bizarre (growing food is really about helping the plants fulfill themselves; cooking stimulates the acupuncture points on your hands).

This is in no way an investigative film; Dörrie takes Brown at face value, presenting him as he would like to be seen. It delves very little into his biography (he claims to have been quite the precocious philosopher, realizing at age ten that Wonder Bread symbolized everything wrong with American culture) and concerns itself not at all with questions which might arise in viewer’s minds, such as: Why are all the students so good-looking? Is Brown’s version of Zen just one more accoutrement for their fashionable lifestyles? Why did the director allow her subject to plug the 25th-anniversary edition of the Tassajara Bread Book (his first big hit in the cookbook biz) on camera? But if you really want the answers to those questions, you probably won’t care for this film, and Dörrie’s approach represents a wise artistic decision as well as honoring the principal that nobody likes a buzzkill.

When the camera meanders away from Brown the film becomes less successful, in part because it magnifies the gap between Brown’s polished presentational skills and those of the other interviewees. The woman who obtains her food from grocery-store dumpsters (which she calls "back-door catering") and other people’s fruit trees provides some comic relief, but the poultry farmer who assures us that all his chickens are happy, the organic farmer fertilizing his lettuce with ground-up turkey parts, and the earnest young man explaining his experiences with slaughtering chickens are just unnecessary digressions from the main attraction, which is the always-pleasant Mr. Brown.

Dörrie displays a sense of humor which provides a welcome balance to her chief subject’s occasional ponderosity, and the use of clever title cards to introduce segments (two examples: "Fiascos" and "The duck and infinity") keep the film moving along nicely. A pleasant but unobtrusive soundtrack and outstanding art direction also contribute to make How to Cook Your Life an enjoyable, if hardly profound, experience. I bet it won’t hurt cookbook sales, either. | Sarah Boslaugh

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