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Film Review: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Culture Issue: May 2017
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At the beginning of the documentary "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," which opens in the Valley Friday at Harkins Shea, the handsome old title character pads around what appear to be ancient Mexican ruins with a funereal look on his face, morosely contemplating the failure of the world to live up to his standards of perfection. But Tower is not a disillusioned political or religious idealist, not a diplomat whose plans for world peace have been ignored.

No, he’s a celebrity chef. Indeed, as explained by Anthony Bourdain, executive producer and one of the film’s many talking heads, he’s arguably one of the original celebrity chefs, a founder of “California Cuisine” (locally sourced ingredients prepared in cultural fusion, a la California Pizza)—starting at the legendary Alice Waters eatery Chez Panisse in Berkeley in the early ‘70s, and continuing with his own self-consciously swanky Stars in San Francisco in the mid-‘80s.

The director is Lydia Tenaglia, a producer of Bourdain’s TV shows. She provides an intriguing and seemingly pretty comprehensive portrait of Tower: his haunting rich-kid memories—abetted by some evocative re-enactments—from an encounter on a beach with a strange man to opulent but lonely meals at fancy hotels, to his Harvard years studying architecture, his glamorous heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to his mysterious withdrawal, and his even abortive comeback attempt as executive chef at Tavern on the Green in New York in 2014.

The title refers to his self-conscious emulation of Lucius Beebe, who wrote about food for Gourmet and The New Yorker and styled himself as an old-school dandy.

Other than in the broadest possible terms—a restless perfectionism, a touch of existential ennui, and a streak of good old vanity—I’m not sure we’re given a clear sense of what makes Tower tick; while we see that he ended relationships over feeling slighted, none of the talking heads seems able to pin down exactly why he dropped out of his career. But the movie is still watchable and amusing, full of choice details like Tower’s account of his gesture to ‘60s-style campus radicalism, crafting a Molotov cocktail—in a Dom Pérignon bottle, of course.