Thursday, March 2, 2017

Film review: Crafted

Crafted explores three groups of artisans who either make food or tools for making food. It highlights the artisans’ passion for their craft and their mutual focus on the human connections facilitated by their crafts. It also happens to be sponsored by Haagen Dazs.

Crafted is a fascinating film in many ways. First, it’s sponsored by Haagen Dazs and directed by Morgan Spurlock, a filmmaker most know from Supersize Me. Second, it’s brief. So brief, in fact, it could fit into a half-hour time slot on television with room for commercials. Third, it creates an unusual sense of temporality.

Spurlock is a natural choice for Crafted. His reputation is for relevant, timely films, and Supersize Me established him as a food-conscious filmmaker. Making a film focusing on the hand-crafted artisans behind food production is a perfect counterpoint to Supersize Me and the dangers of fast food for a company looking to position itself in the next big thing for food.

The makers profiled by Spurlock include Luke and David, the bladesmiths behind Bloodroot Blades in Georgia, Cortney and Nick from Bar Tartine in San Francisco (now closed in favor of MOTZE), and Yuji Nagatani of Nagatani-en in Iga, Japan. Cortney and Nick are the chefs of the group - while cooking features heavily in some of the scenes from Iga, Yuji Sensei is not himself a cook, though he is very clear that his business depends on making connections to those who cook.

The film opens and closes with forest scenes from Georgia, the home of Bloodroot Blades. Luke’s and David’s journey began as hobbyists making a limited batch of knives to support the costs of the hobby. After a serendipitous blog submission, their business exploded. Their knives contain recycled materials and items with personal value to the customer, assembled with a “hodgepodge of traditional and modern methods.”

Yuji Sensei, on the other hand, is the descendent of generations of potters in Japan. His kiln was built in the 19th century, and he still makes pottery in much the same way. Like Bloodroot Blades, Nagatani-en’s pottery is explicitly tied to history. Yuji Sensei says, “It is important to value what is good in the old but you also have to create value for today.”

Like both Bloodroot Blades and Nagatani-en, Nick and Cortney of Bar Tartine explicitly connect their business to a nebulous “past”. They describe their cuisine as fusion, searching for recipes “made by a grandmother” with “soul”. Their process, depicted in butchering and making feta cheese, can only be described as serendipitous. If you’re someone who wants your chef to cook with measurements or precision, you may find it concerning. Bar Tartine is full of aging and fermenting dishes, allowing Cortney and Nick to develop the restaurant’s signature flair.

While watching Crafted for the first time, not knowing that Haagen Dazs commissioned it, the food focus really stood out to me. When the “Commissioned by Haagen Dazs” message played before the credits, though, it certainly made sense. The film is a masterful piece of marketing by the ice cream company, even though the brand isn’t introduced until the very end. It also underscores the extent to which mass-produced enterprises are exploiting the obsession with handmade goods.

It’s important to note that each of the groups of artisans featured are also pursuing their craft as a full-time profession. David and Luke are the only ones to describe their transition from hobbyists to professional craftsman. By contrast, Yuji Sensei is the 7th master potter of Nagatani-en. Each also describes their work as more than just a vocation, of course. The craft is also a way of life.

Nick describes Bar Tartine as more their home than the place they sleep, and he and Cortney debate whether they “push themselves hard” or are merely busy, deciding ultimately that they push themselves. Their work is all-consuming, and they consider themselves lucky to be able to build their lives around it.

Crafted follows the structure of its artisans’ days, beginning and ending with soft light and relative quiet. David and Luke chop wood and light their equipment; Cortney and Nick run to Bar Tartine (the viewer wonders whether they shower on-site - checking the health inspection reports, one finds no violations); Yuji Sensei joins in the morning exercises with his workers. This morning time is the mise en place of the film, grounding the viewer in the artisans’ worlds. For David and Luke, it’s a very earthy feel, while Yuji Sensei lives and works in a multi-generational community. Cortney and Nick are part of a city waking up, the splashes of color and activity that define their food.

The film’s early grounding proves important for contextualizing how the artisans view themselves, and the time and place of their work. They all view themselves as nexuses - tradition and modernity come together through their work.

“Value what is good in the old but you also have to create value for today.” ~Yuji Sensei, Nagatani-en

Yuji Sensei is the culmination of generations of potters. When economic downturn struck and Nagatani-en struggled, he returned to traditional products to stay in business. Cortney and Nick search for recipes and ideas likely passed down through oral traditions, and David and Luke blend a mix of traditional smithing with new techniques and materials, like repurposed car parts. To each, the craft is something that exists beyond its practitioners. It connects them across space and time, and they feel empowered by its practice.

Of course, with such a short film there’s little time for actual community. David and Luke say they’re part of a community of artisans, such as the friend who made David’s cello, but none actually appear in the film. The employees of Nagatani-en are the closest we get - otherwise, the bulk of the other people in the film are customers. This remains the most interesting yet unfulfilled moment for me - I am left wondering what their communities are really like. How do they communicate? Where and when do they teach and learn? How does community shape the practice of the craft?

Crafted is incredibly well-made. It feels trim, with no useless elements, though I wouldn’t describe it as a film full of explanations. It leaves you wanting more, as any good piece of marketing (or food) should, but poses more questions than it answers. I would love to visit each of the artisans myself, watch them at work and spend a day in their shoes. Crafted is a window into a beautiful, relaxing world that I can’t help but want to be a part of.

1 comment:

  1. I do believe "nebulous past" would look fantastic on a t-shirt. :) More comments in GCraft.