Thursday, October 17, 2013

“Spinning Plates” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw “Spinning Plates”, a documentary about the restaurant business.


When three restaurants around the country are followed over the course of a year, will each one succeed despite various challenges or will they be forced to go out of business?


Alinea is a restaurant that is located in Chicago and is widely considered by experts to be among the best in the world. Much of its success is attributed to Grant Achatz, Alinea’s classically-trained chef, who previously worked under Thomas Keller at the legendary French Laundry. Being the creative type who enjoys pushing the envelope and challenging customers who visit this pricey establishment, Grant has mastered what is known as molecular gastronomy – preparing and presenting different types of foods in an extremely non-traditional manner. But will Grant’s health prove an issue as he and the manager attempt to open another restaurant?

Breitbach’s is a family-owned restaurant in the hamlet of Balltown, Iowa. It has been around for a century and a half, having been handed down from one generation to another. This restaurant is always a busy place, especially during the holidays; over the many decades of its existence, it has evolved into more than merely a local business – it is a public house, a town center where members of the community gather during both good times and bad. After a gas fire burns the place to the ground, the citizens of Balltown and surrounding areas take up a collection to restore what they feel is “their” restaurant – but only 10 months after being rebuilt, there is yet another devastating fire that once again destroys Breitbach’s. Can – or will – the family rebuild twice within a year?

La Cocina de Gabby in Tucson, Arizona is literally a mom and pop outfit – Francisco is the manager and his wife Gabby (the restaurant’s namesake) its chef. A poor, hard-working couple, they spend more time at their business than at home – not only do they have family pitching in to help out, they also have to bring their three year old daughter to work every day because they cannot afford the daycare service. But daycare is not all they can’t afford – falling behind in their mortgage payments, the family is in danger of the bank foreclosing on their house. Will Francisco and Gabby be able to turn their business around significantly so they won’t lose their home?


Prior to the screening, our instructor pointed out that one of the challenges with which documentarians are faced is the dramatization of their subject matter.  Since all movies need to have a three-act structure, how do you present a documentary in such a way that it will face a turning point at the end of its second act so you will have a climax to your story at its conclusion? Documentaries that lack this can be a little bland to watch, but they are at least factually accurate and truthful. With documentaries that do have this structure, however, you may never know if the turning point was manufactured to manipulate the truth or if the filmmaker simply got “lucky” (to the detriment of their subjects) and stumbled upon an actual crisis.

In “Spinning Plates”, it appears as though we may possibly be seeing a mix of the two, to one degree or another. With Alinea, the crisis to which we are introduced actually occurred a couple of years in the past – as a result, when we watch the documentary, we are already aware of whether or not the subject has survived (at least, to an extent). Similarly, with the turning point that happens for Breitbach’s, the filmmaker basically telegraphs the ending to the audience before the resolution is reached. For Gabby’s, their climax is not tipped off quite so obviously as the other two restaurants, but it doesn’t take Kreskin to predict how their tale will turn out based on what we’ve seen up to that point.

Another problem I had with this documentary was with how sympathetic some of the characters may or may not have been. The owners of Gabby’s are nice to a fault – they are both kind, sweet, sincere, humble, simple people. But neither one of them appears to have terribly good business acumen. The Breitbach family is proud of the longevity of their legendary restaurant – but if it was located in a larger town with more competition nearby, would it still be just as successful? For me, Grant of Alinea was difficult to root for, even after his health issues are revealed. Yes, he’s a dedicated husband and father and he survived a tough upbringing, but he comes across as so infatuated with himself and the “art” of his food creations (which seem less like meals and more like science projects) that he borders on the obnoxious.  While Gabby’s is concerned with mere survival, Alinea’s obsession is more to do with how many Michelin stars they will earn. 

 Spinning Plates (2012) on IMDb 8.1/1038 votes 


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