Tuesday, June 3, 2014

COOKING SHOWS!: THE EVOLUTION AND ARTISTRY IN THE INSTRUCTIONAL TV PROGRAM (Yeah, you read the right, we're discussing cooking shows today.)

I just happened to have been watching the day cooking shows changed forever, and I knew it, the exact minute it happened too. It was shortly after Food Network had launched, Food Network TV it was actually called then. It had been slowly growing in popularity because of personalities like Emeril Lagasse becoming the prototype of what-was-then a relatively new pop culture phenomenon still, called the "Celebrity Chefs". Anyway, there was nothing better on, and I figured if I check out the channel, and worst case scenario, I fall asleep or get hungry or both at watching some people cooking. That usually was the channel too for most of it, with a few modern touches to the traditional structure of a cooking show, until I came across, one of the strangest and greatest things I'd ever seen on television, "Iron Chef"!

Now, just so, you guys don't jump ahead of me, this is not a blog bragging about how great "Iron Chef" or "Iron Chef America" or any other international version, but I am making a point here. It's true, I was watching the first time they aired an episode of this Japanese import, it was the first one with Masaharu Morimoto as an Iron Chef, who was actually the head chef at Nobu in New York City at the time, and it was red snapper as the secret ingredient, which I had never heard of at the time. It was dubbed rather unimpressively in English, but was an unbelievably elaborate and ridiculously over-the-top production spectacle for a food show, but more than that, it was the first time people were watching a cooking show, and not writing down things the ingredients with a pen and paper. We're still seeing the effects of this all over the instructional television market, as they struggle with this reality-competition perspective, now really competing with the more traditional style of what we used to think of as shows like these. It's "This Old House" vs. "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" or "The French Chef" vs. "Hell's Kitchen", it's "Chopped" on Food Network vs. "America's Test Kitchen" on Create. Substance vs. style, etc. etc. This really was essentially, the first time people were watching these shows, for entertainment's sake, and not to learn how to cook red snapper or something like that, or how to build a deck, or how to paint a tree. (Although, I must've seen Bob Ross paint a 1,000 paints in my life, do it the same way every time,- I swear I once saw him put a giant tree in the middle of a painting of an ocean, and somehow it made sense, or his voice was so calm or soothing that I presumed it did, but I'll be damn if I can draw a stick figure right.)

I hear people disregard shows like these sometimes, but in a sense, these instructional shows really represent television being used to it's greatest effect. aren't these shows the Murrow-esque ideal of television being a tool to teach us, illuminate us, inspire us, and show that television can truly be more than wires and lights in a box? It's undeniably true that no greater educational tool was ever invented better than television. There were instructional documentaries since the early days of film, but the problem has always been finding a way to keep the audience entertained while learning. Sometimes it's a great character or personality teaching us like Julia Child, or Kermit the Frog even, depending on what the subject it. As we developed the art more thoroughly of filmmaking, the more elaborate we are actually able to create very well-done instructional shows, to not only be good teaching tools, for us to keep track of and take notes. (Although, now we can record and rewind TV now, we don't have to be so rushed to get the ingredients and instructions down, really, these shows should be more popular than ever nowadays) But it also helps us understand complicated ideas more easily 'cause of the visual medium. Physicist Brian Green for instance, has discussed how his "Nova" on quantum physics are truly amazing to him, 'cause he's able to make people understand extremely complex and convoluted concepts in literally minutes, not even, because he has the aide of the visual technologies we have at our hand. Imagine, exercising from a record player (They had those at one point, exercise records, before the Jack La Lane's and Richard Simmons came around, among others.) Or building or learning anything now, without the visual aid that's available, it's impossible. Some things are hard enough with a visual aid. It's amazing Bob Vila taught anybody to build anything. There's plenty of techniques used nowadays to teach us the intricacies of cooking, or simply teaching us about ingredients and foods. Musical cues, multi-camera set-ups, passage of time montages, and these things are complicated btw. Rarely is food on TV, ever actually food to begin with. (A big mac on a commercial, I don't know it is, but it's not a big mac in real life, just a really good prop that looks better than food ever could. Chef's personality, and catch-phrases, those things that can grab our attention- that's the first thing, grab out attention. If you need to call yourself the naked chef to make us turn the channel, guess what, people turn the channel. My favorite of all these is Alton Brown, a Food Network regular on numerous shows, 'cause his technique is actually based in a secret skill that people like me realize but not many others might pick up on. He's a filmmaker. He actually has a film degree. Look it up, he was a cinematographer for music videos for R.E.M. on was Spike Lee's Steadicam operator on "School Daze", but he went back to school to become a chef, when he realized that all his film projects seem to always be about food (Understandable, many of my favorite films revolve around food), and hated the traditional look and style of cooking shows on TV at the time, the multi-camera setups to cover everything, the one kitchen set where everything happens, the close-up, the laid-back vigilant instructions, without any of the entertainment and fun about food, etc. So he went to create his own show, "Big Eats", and you can pick a random clip literally and see the inventiveness, and the film knowledge of his work. Take a look at what he's doing, here, and this is literally just a random clip I'm picking on youtube, btw.

Let's start with how, do you get a camera into a refrigerator, or an oven? With sound equipment running? He's using interesting dutch angles, quick-cutting through his lessons, narratives. A moving handheld, props set up, flying through the air with wires and strings, off-camera assistant, the way he approaches the camera, and doesn't simply talk or look into it, dissolve cuts, tricky production design, he had a whole fridge, basically built to look like an actual fridge, with many ingredients inside, this is complicated stuff he's doing here, (And he does direct many of these) he playing with the dimensions of the frame. Who would put a giant mixer in a foreground shot of a low-dutch angle, severe enough to make the windows in the background look practically on a diagonal from perpendicular, all while he's performing and cooking for the camera. He uses the mirror image in the reflection of a bowl to talk to us at an angle,- if Scorsese did this shit in a movie, we'd be studying it frame-by-frame in a textbook, and we probably wouldn't get a cheesecake at the end. This is incredibly skilled directing work. No wonder he's got a Peabody.

Now most chefs, especially celebrity ones, they don't have that secret talent of filmmaking, but it's certainly able to inspire other entertainment techniques combined with food. The numerous food-based reality shows for instance, like Gordon Ramsay's stranglehold on FOX, or the clear best of these reality shows, "Top Chef", which has the Weinsteins behind them, and the same team that created "Project Runway", among others. Alton Brown of course, started in film, but then essentially went into food first, then used the skills of his filmmaking ability, while most of the others celebrity chefs, especially the superstar ones we see on TV much of the time, they went into food first, most of them long before the idea of being famous for being a chef ever would've occurred to them. So for them, this is idea of combining two art forms essentially that couldn't possibly be more different from another, couldn't be more stranger, but this is where these more entertainment-based elaborate and exuberant cooking shows get their influence, and their popularity. They're not exactly equipped for being the traditional instructional viewing, but then again, even with our ability to control our television viewing more than ever, it's no longer the best way of viewing instructional programs.

That's Youtube, now. You want to learn quickly how to make, build or create something, and the practicality of Youtube, really trumps television on many especially for cooking shows. You can watch all the instructional shows you can in a row, and still not learn how to cook the thing you need to cook that night. (Or can afford to make; not everybody can afford dry herbs, much less, more exotic ingredients. Still though, that's progression and maybe perhaps better, although I'd still appreciate watching talented people show off their talents, even if it's just for fun, and even if it just for educational purposes. Skillful filmmaking and entertaining can help, but even without all the flash and style, if you can't appreciate seeing somebody using their skill to the utmost abilities, even if it produces something you would never put in your mouth, well, that's simply a lack of cultural and intellectual curiosity than anything else, and that's frankly just scary. We can have preferences and favorites and whatnot, but we should be able to appreciate great talent and skill enough to be intrigued by their secrets and the "How do they do that?". At least to me we should, and a lot of people too. As Janeane Garofalo once said, paraphrasing here, just because I watch the Food Network, all day doesn't mean I'm gonna bake a cake.

She's right, it doesn't. And yet, amazingly whether it's style or substance, instructional or competitive, reality or- well, the other kind of reality I guess, either way, we're still pretty entertained by it.
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