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Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Director: Dori Berinstein
Cast: Carol Channing, Kaye Ballard, Marge Champion, Phyllis Diller, Loni Anderson, Bob Mackie

(Dramatic Forces; Tribeca Film Festival: 29 Apr 2011; 2011)

A Matter of Taste

Director: Sally Rowe
Cast: Paul Liebrandt, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Eric Rupert, Frank Bruni

(Rowe Road Productions; Tribeca Film Festival: 29 Apr 2011; 2011)

Special Forces

After viewing Dori Berinstein’s gaga documentary, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, it’s hard to imagine that the world is not a better place because the 90-year-old Broadway legend is in it. With her wide mouth and wing-like eyelashes, rough sandpaper voice and a killer knack for the gag, she’s a star in every sense of the word.


Born to Christian Science parents and raised in San Francisco, Channing recalls catching the performing bug early. She was delivering copies of the Christian Science Monitor backstage in a theater, only to become transfixed. “The safest place in the world to be,” she says, “is center stage.” She’s gone on to find this safety in a variety of places. The clips of her numerous talk show appearances throughout the years shows both her quick wit and fearlessness (her Bennington education visible underneath the ditzy blonde routine).


One interviewee calls Channing an old-time vaudevillian, both on stage and off. Others emphasize her kindness and grace, demonstrated in conversations between Channing and her husband Harry Kullijian (the two were childhood sweethearts who reunited over half-a-century later in life) or in scenes where she takes her entire chorus from a 1994 revival production of her signature musical, Hello Dolly!, out to a movie: she insists on serving each of them individually from behind the concession stand.


As easy as it is to be charmed by Channing (during a post-screening Q&A, Berinstein revealed she was friends with her subject prior to making the film), this perspective gives the documentary the feel of a tribute reel. Unlike her excellent documentary, Show Business: The Road to Broadway (2007), this film lacks much critical distance. Instead, it provides plentiful anecdotes about Hello, Dolly!‘s various productions, told by friends and colleagues, testifying to Channing’s superstardom. It’s possible that Carol Channing’s celebratory tone has something to do with her unique status as Broadway’s clown princess. “Nobody ever says, ‘Get Me a Carol Channing type,’” points out designer Bob Mackie, “There aren’t any.”


Another documentary at Tribeca looks at another sort of star. Paul Liebrandt is as dedicated to his craft as Channing, but shows precious little regard for niceties. The subject of Sally Rowe’s perceptive and entertaining extreme-foodie documentary, A Matter of Taste, Liebrandt’s a British wunderkind with floppy black hair and a Napoleonic sense of his own greatness. He reports that he works 18-24-hour days, seven days a week, and admonishes one of his chefs for coming in tired after a late night with a date, arguing that girlfriends come and go, but their work in the kitchen has meaning. “It’s a monk’s game,” he says. That said, Liebrandt has a steady girlfriend who apparently puts up with the demands of his life.


Rowe looks back briefly at the start of that life, when Liebrandt was something of a wunderkind on the New York dining scene: in 2000, at age 24, the film reports, he became the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from the New York Times for his work at Atlas. In December 2001, the persnickety Liebrandt has left Atlas over menu disagreements. The film finds him at a village bistro called Papillon where his boundary-pushing molecular gastronomy is an extremely odd fit, as city residents after 9/11 were craving more familiar comfort mood. Liebrandt swam against the tide, conjuring new wave combinations like eel and chocolate or foamed calf’s brains and foie gras. His inventiveness won him publicity, but the restaurant struggled, and a few months later, Rowe finds him slinging burgers and fries, giving Eeyore eyes to the camera like any good, aggrieved, ahead-of-his-time artiste.


The film briefly tracks Liebrandt’s stint at Gilt, where he landed after some years in the culinary consulting business (during which time he worked for a gourmet marshmallow company). Expected management difficulties follow, as well as the dreaded two-star Times review, this time from Frank Bruni, whom Liebrandt brushes off as too comfort-food-obsessed to get what he’s on about. Rowe smartly uses that grievance to set up Bruni—interviewed here along with chefs like Thomas Keller—as Liebrandt’s nemesis for his next great challenge: the 2009 opening of adventurous downtown eatery Corton.


The latter third of A Matter of Taste presents Liebrandt as slightly older and more media-savvy, backed by restaurateur Drew Nieporent (Nobu). He alternately pumps up and shreds his kitchen staff, and calls his cooking “the culinary equivalent of the special forces.” The spectacle makes for an unfortunate personal transformation but an engrossing film. Although it indulges Liebrandt’s Gordon-Ramsey-like ranting (some more examinations of his outer-limits dishes would have been welcome), the build-up to the all-important Bruni review is aptly tense, showing the spy-like maneuvers the critic goes through to avoid his reservations being noticed ahead of time. Rowe translates the passion of the true believer to craft her own remarkable invention.

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Rating:

A Matter of Taste

Rating:

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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13 Jun 2011
By dipping in and out of chef Paul Liebrandt's experience, the documentary maintains an unusual distance from its compelling subject, and also reveals the environment that produces him.
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