Finding Love in the Strangest Places
Volcanoes? Ramen bistros?
Film reviews by Marc Glassman
Fire of Love
Sara Dosa, director, co-writer, co-producer
Starring: Katia and Maurice Krafft
Miranda July, narrator
One of the finest documentaries of this or any year, Fire of Love has just about everything one wants in a film: love, exotic locales, fate, celebrity culture, the media and, of course, death. The story of the star-crossed lovers, the Kraffts, is one for the ages. Born within four years of each other in Alsace, the two were so fascinated by volcanoes that they studied them in university. The brilliant pixie-sized Katia Krafft became a geochemist while the charimsatic Maurice was a geologist; as in every other aspect of their lives, their scientific professions complemented each other. Katia preferred to document volcanoes through photography and prose while Maurice loved video and film and media appearances. The two met on a park bench at university, married, and were inseparable for the rest of their lives.
As Sara Dosa’s sprightly, compelling documentary shows, theirs was a uniquely French ménage à trois: the Kraffts loved each other and volcanoes. They spent their honeymoon on Sicily’s Stromboli island, the home of a volcano that has been alive and erupting for over 2000 years. For over 20 years, they travelled the world, documenting volcanoes through books, films and widely sought-after TV appearances. The Kraffts were stars in France and the scientific community. More and more, they studied what is called pyroclastic surges—eruptions of ash and gas—that can cause massive deaths in civilian populations if they’re not spotted early enough. At the same time, the Kraffts were intense risk-takers; they went where other volcanologists wouldn’t go, right into the heat of danger in the deadly grey volcanos, which eventually caused their demise on Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991.
The most extraordinary element in Fire of Love is the footage of the volcanoes. The shots are literally to-die-for: the Kraffts took crazy risks to get photos and film shoots that no one else would try to make. It made their books and docs so worthwhile, and, in death, it has made this film into something truly unique. As a doc habitué, I have attended over 500 pitch sessions in which filmmakers try to sell their projects to seasoned commissioning editors. At Hot Docs, I attended the session for Fire of Love, which included a short sizzle reel of Krafft volcano footage plus the story of their doomed love. It is in my top five of best pitches I’ve ever seen as Sara Dosa’s team skillfully persuaded a panel of veteran professionals to back the film.
When the Kraffts met, the revolutionary fervour of the Sixties hadn’t worn off. The two were photographed at a demonstration against imperialism and capitalism and Maurice acknowledged that their pursuit of volcanoes and science was their way of rebelling against the status quo of the times. When one thinks back to that era, what songs would they have heard? “Light My Fire,” by the Doors, “Burning Love” by Elvis, “Fire,” by Jimi Hendrix, and a completely different song, also called “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Would those hits about love and flames have influenced the young Kraffts? Who knows? At any rate, for lovers of classical music, the appropriate song for the love-struck doom-laden couple is obvious: the Liebestodt. For a couple from the Alsace, nothing could be better.
Come Back Anytime
John Daschbach, director, cinematographer and editor
Featuring: Masamato Ueda, Kazuko Ueda and their community at Bizentei
A ramen restaurant can become much more than a place where people come to eat soup. If you own such a bistro and have the right personality and your product is great, you can create something extraordinary. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world—Lagos, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Toronto, Tokyo—you can create a community of disparate peoples who find a place where they have their best conversations, feel their finest thoughts and are as happy as they’ll ever be. And, in all humility, what transpires will be a surprise to all including the owner but it’s still dependent on the service—making t-shirts or dresses, selling books or cards, making cakes or stews—being the best there is, for your city or perhaps your country.
Such a place is Bizentei, an absurdly small ramen soup bistro in Tokyo where Masamato Ueda has presided over a wonderful space for decades. A bad boy when he married the beautiful and talented Kazuko, Masamato did the Japanese version of “pulling up his socks,” transforming himself from a charming dissolute into a brilliant cook and a welcoming host. Much of John Daschbach’s intimate documentary on Ueda and his bistro Come Back Anytime focuses on the habitués at Bizentei, a mixed group of men and women, mostly middle-aged, who have spent the past 10 to 20 years eating, drinking and forming their most important relationships there. For much of the film, Daschbach holds back that two of Bizentei’s regulars met and married thanks to the bistro and Ueda’s help—as well as his terrific ramen. Though the duo represents the romantic extreme, it’s clear that conviviality and friendships have ensued at the bistro.
Daschbach takes us out of the restaurant to show where Masamato harvests the crops which help to make his ramen soup so extraordinary. In his countryside garden, he grows bamboo shoots, garlic and vegetables—and he clearly enjoys his time as an organic farmer. At one point, he takes his favourite customers to an orchard, where they help him to pluck pears. It’s all properly mixed together, the natural food and Masamato’s habitués who willingly spend their time in fields with the man they call the “Master,” the chef who has transformed their lives with his marvellous cooking skills and charismatic friendship.
Has the relationship between the Ueda family been perfect? One suspects not. While Masamato has become a great chef and host, Kazuko raised their daughters mainly by herself and has become, latterly, a painter. Who could she have been otherwise? No one will ever know but it’s clear that her support in the ramen bistro has been fundamental in Masamato’s success.
What about the food? Come Back Anytime is a wonderful food film. Even if you don’t love ramen, the noodles that form the base of soup, you won’t fail to be impressed by the elements that make Masamato’s recipe so appealing: a mixture of pork, chicken, soy, bamboo shoots, noodles, tofu and vegetables that becomes overwhelmingly appealing. Some call the homey intense and loving formula to be the equivalent of North America’s chicken noodle soup. It’s better than that, of course, but let the statement stand. Eating ramen is like going home for Japanese—and that’s enough for me.
Come Back Anytime is a lovely evocation of a place and a time and a community in Tokyo. It’s a profile of an extraordinary man and his brilliant wife and friends who have made his project so intensely worthwhile.