Exploring cultures, Anthony Bourdain style

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I will only discuss three of his TV shows and none of the books as I haven’t read a single one. So, it takes a lot of cockiness to write about a person without full immersion in his works. Anyway…

I have been loving him since his A Cook’s Tour years. When I was younger, I watched him simply because of the food. A show was good enough if it involved lots of food, I believed.

Then, many years later, after watching his subsequent shows, this one seems juvenile and sterile in comparison. For me, it feels like it is less about the cultural experience and more about Tony being a cynical and cocky douche. It certainly did not and does not make me feel intrigued by other cultures. But, younger me said, ‘hey, food!’.

No Reservations is not an immediate stylistic departure. The earlier episodes are not that different from ones from A Cook’s Tour. But, they are indeed less rushed, more mature and more compelling. As the show progresses, it has become more profound.

He becomes more keen to point out the darker side of reality. Politics, discrimination, natural disasters, you name it. The Hokkaido episode, which mentions discrimination of the Ainus, is the first time I pay attention to the show’s depth. Before No Reservations, I had never encountered a single travelling show like this (that I know of)!

Not only it increases its thematic profundity, it also amplifies the visual artistry which, again, is a novelty to a show of such genre (again, that I know of). Watching the later seasons feels like watching a beautifully crafted yet underappreciated TV show. It also helps some episodes are tributes to certain films which Tony and/or the crew was/were (a) big fan(s) of. And then, came The Layover

…Which I skipped over and, to this day, I haven’t watched a single episode. I wasn’t aware of its existence until his fourth and unfortunately last show was announced. To this day, I am still uninterested about the premise. But, I will probably change my mind. Probably.

Parts Unknown exceeded my expectation. It seems unsatisfied with its predecessor’s artistry and believes radical enhancement is needed for itself. And radical it is.

In No Reservations, the audio and visuals are utilised to emphasise and accompany what is being portrayed on the screen. Some episodes of Parts Unknown were also crafted in a similar manner. Some.

In other episodes, they are utilised to encourage the audience to start seeing the world through a philosophical lens instead of just focusing on its physicality; combined with the lyrical narration, the show’s audiovisual ethereality really reminds me of magical realism, something that I never expected from unscripted motion picture works!

I know, I know. I sound like a pretentious prick who reads too much into things. But, I am a sucker for magical realism and any similar styles of arts. Considering how metaphysical some episodes feel, you cannot blame me for having such feeling. They do feel magical.

Oh, yeah. The cultures…

I used to depend on media personalities for cultural knowledge. I still do, but not entirely. Nowadays, I try to accept the possibility of them unintentionally spewing stereotypes and misinformation. Even Anthony Bourdain could not escape such criticisms.

I seriously cannot blame him and his peers for making that mistake. They cannot fully escape the cultural outlooks they grew up with and they are dependent on their local contacts who probably possess very narrow frames of mind regarding their homelands. This is what I still can tolerate to some extent.

What I cannot tolerate is phoniness. I hate it when TV hosts pretend to be curious about the ‘exotic’. Sometimes, you can see their oily faces sticking to the masks, revealing their true appearances. As flawed as he could be, Anthony Bourdain was still very honest with what he liked and disliked. Oh, and the way he approached cultural exploration also made him stand out from his contemporaries.

Besides local cultures experts, who may or may not have academic backgrounds, he also had chefs, sailors, farmers and hunters as guests. Of course, having guests of relevant expertise is not unusual. Andrew Zimmern also has people of similar occupations as guests. Rick Steves often has fellow travel guides as guests. But, Tony wanted more than just interacting with ‘food’ and ‘culture’ people.

He also had fellow media personalities, writers (especially crime fiction ones), musicians (especially Rock ones), politicians and members of (relatively) fringe groups in his shows. I don’t think I need to explain why it made sense to invite media personalities, considering he was one.

I am not surprised about him inviting writers as he was a one who also had published both non-fiction and crime fiction books; he would not have a hard time bonding with them and scooping their perspectives on the local cultures.

I am also not surprised he invited politicians. Like it or not, politics can affect every single aspect of our lives, whether directly or not, and that includes foods. Of course, this is purely my thought. Tony invited politicians probably because he was interested in politics in general (he really, really hated Henry Kissinger, by the way).

I am not sure about the musicians, though. While he did have high appreciation of music, particularly Rock, I am still unsure of why he invited them. He probably wanted to know more about the local cultures. Or he probably just wanted to hang out with them. Even though I can’t say for sure, the former is something that I would do if I were him.

I am also not sure about the culturally fringe individuals (again, relatively fringe), like the residents of Christiania in Copenhagen and Molokai in Hawaii state. Maybe, as a former dweller of Provincetown, he felt he would not have much trouble bonding with them. Maybe he believed understanding a mainstream society would feel inadequate and too sugary without the alternative perspectives, a sentiment that I happen to possess.

Whatever the reasons, whether he did it on purpose or not, I have to give Anthony Bourdain credit for giving me new perspectives on how to explore cultures, whether they are ‘foreign’ or my own. Our understanding of a society will be more well-rounded once we utilise different and distinct paradigms.

Of course, as an Indonesian, I have to talk about his Indonesian episodes.

I hate the one from No Reservations. It uses the same ‘Indonesia-is-all-about-Jakarta-and-Bali’ cliche. It does cover West Java, a territory that many foreigners haven’t heard and don’t care about. But, it has to compete for attention with the more internationally-known ones. That’s like making a US episode in which lesser known places like Savannah or Austin have to compete for attention with New York City and Los Angeles.

The only thing I love about the episode is the scene where cameraman Todd Liebler accidentally crashed the piling plates of foods in a Padang restaurant (there is a reason why those areas are off-limit to customers, for God’s sake). The farce is the only reason why I still keep re-watching it.

Even though I think Andrew Zimmern is an inferior host in comparison with his sometimes cringeworthy behaviours and conventional style of communication, his short-lived and little-known show Bizarre World does a better job in portraying Indonesia.

It dedicates two episodes on my country, each focusing on one specific region: Bali and Sulawesi. While No Reservations gives the impression that Jakarta, West Java and Bali are all the country about, Bizarre World sternly communicates the audience how everything depicted on the screen, including the elaborate Torajan funeral ceremony (which I always want to attend once in my life), is confined to certain localities and does not fully represent the entire country! For me, that’s how one should do a foreign travelling piece!

The Indonesian episode of Parts Unknown exceeds my expectation… in spite of the Jakarta-Bali cliche!

The beginning of the episode features having a sumptuous Minangkabau lunch with Desi Anwar, a CNN Indonesia host, and a Dalang (wayang puppeteer). Desi asserted that tasting every Indonesian dish will take us forty years to achieve!

Obviously, such claim is conjectural. But, I cannot blame every individual who knows Indonesia really well for believing that. The country is indeed really diverse and it is often something I bring up when discussing multiculturalism and Indonesian stereotypes with foreigners. The acknowledgement of its diversity really kicks the No Reservations episode in the nut!

Desi also claimed that Indonesians enjoy dishes from other ethnicities, even ones they have grudges against. I am so fucking happy she said that! For years, I have been noticing how we love eating foods of the people we constantly demonise! In the US, it is mostly the Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans. In Indonesia, it is mostly the Chinese-Indonesians.

Not only it exposes more about the insufferableness of humanity, it also exposes human prejudice’s inability to dictate what our taste buds should like or dislike. It sheds light on the deep-rooted universality of food! It probably has something to do with food being one of our basic human needs and our survival instinct compels us to have a taste palate as wide-ranging as possible. But, that’s just my conjecture as someone who never attended a single proper science in his lifetime. Anyway, back to the show.

I am also happy the episode features a historian with whom Anthony briefly talks the 1960’s anti-communist massacre. It is treated by nationalistic Indonesians just like how the crusades being treated by Christian fundamentalists: glorifyingly!

I am not a communist and the idea of living under the rule of communism is as terrifying as living under fascism. But, even if the Indonesian communist party (or PKI as popularly known) was indeed involved in the September 30 movement (or G30S as popularly known), I still cannot find any moral justification for the mass killings!

For one, how do you know every single human casualty involves actual communists? How do you know they were not targeted simply for their Chinese ancestry, their religious beliefs or lack thereof? How do you know the murderers were not purely motivated by bloodlust or the desire to play fucking ‘superheroes’?

Even if every single victim was indeed a commie, how do you know the entire PKI was involved in G30S? In 1965, the party had over three million members. :iterally millions of them! You cannot expect reasonable minds to believe every single one was directly responsible for the violence! But, most importantly, what makes you think you are the ones with higher moral grounds? What makes you believe you, the apologists of the murders, are the good guys here?

Why do I act like I can reason with those people? Years after the fall of the Order Baru regime, Indonesians are still willingly getting deep-throated by its propaganda and we love wearing intellectual dishonesty as a fucking badge of honour! Okay, I need to stop with the historical revisionism tangent.

This is the second reason why I am so happy with the episode. Even though the historical ‘event’ was only being alluded to, the sense of inhumanity is strongly conveyed. I hope this has an effect on the viewers.

A handful of foreigners among them will probably be intrigued by and start researching about it; they will probably realise how supportive western governments and how apathetic most of the eastern bloc ones about the massacre. The Indonesian viewers, the ones with bloodlust at least, will realise how their beloved foreign idol viewed the historical ‘event’ as an example of humanity at one of its worst , NOT one of its best.

I never expected that I would discuss such topic in an article about a TV chef. The fact that I can do so emphasises what I said earlier about his political consciousness. But still, I haven’t got to the best part of the episode: the conversations about death.

Since I was young, I have been told by some fellow Indonesians that ‘death is just the beginning’, which is also how the narrator (who speaks with a ‘sophisticated’ Indonesian accent) puts it. I really doubt it is an exclusively Indonesian belief. But, I like the off-centre approach to cultural exploration.

Instead of focusing on earthly entities, this episode prefer to zoom in on a metaphysical realm which existence is not believed by every earthly being (this goes back to what I said earlier). The theme is fitting as there are scenes depicting Ngaben, the elaborate Balinese funeral ceremony (which I also have the desire to attend). Typically, documentaries include the thematic conversation to compliment the rituals being depicted. But, in this episode, the roles are reversed!

The death conversations take around half of the episode’s duration and the Ngaben scenes appear later on. The thematics is the main dish and its tangible representation is the optional condiment. This role reversal strongly argues how cultural heritage goes beyond its tangibility. We strive to protect it for the sake of its souls, NOT merely for its physicality.

In the light of Anthony’s death, which happened before the post-production process was finalised, this episode may feel eerie for some people. For others like me, it feels deeply poignant. This makes me wonder if he had been thinking about his own death for some times and the conversations was meant to help him contemplating about it.

Okay, I know I am crossing the boundary here. But, I have to be frank about it: that’s what I am feeling and I am confident some people are feeling the same! The fact that the last season of Parts Unknown is considered ‘unfinished’ intensifies the poignancy.

After his death, the Indonesian episode is the only ‘unfinished’ one that I have currently watched. As an Indonesian who has been interacting with foreigners regularly for years, I felt obligated to watch and critique every piece about Indonesia that foreigners assemble. Emotionally, I don’t have the gut to watch the other episodes.

The Indonesian episode is already hard to watch. Never mind the emotionally-fitting theme. The absence of his witty and poetic voice-over asserts there will be no more Anthony Bourdain to tell us stories.

Watching the other ‘unfinished’ pieces means I will have to listen to the harrowing truth over and over again.

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Why do zero tolerance drug policy supporters cross the road?

*puts on the mask*

Why, to destroy the haters with logic, of course!

They want to cross the road, go through the alley of suffering addicts, pass the prison where its inhabitants will be dehumanisingly stigmatised after their release, arrive at the mountainous pile of overdose victims’ corpses and ‘collateral damages’, climb it and scream “ZERO TOLERANCE WORKS!” once they reach the peak!

Because, when it comes to substantiating the superiority of your approach, no method is more compelling than loudly and forcefully bragging about its success amidst the mounting evidence that speak otherwise.

*takes off the mask*


There is no joke here. But, those people sure love to see the lives of their fellow human beings as ones.   

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I oppose euthanasia…

*puts on a mask*

… because it is all about ME ME ME AND ME ONLY!

I have two core beliefs: ‘suffering’ is just a myth perpetuated by anti-positivity crowd AND suicide is inherently wrong! Therefore, euthanasia is an affront to my ‘life-is-beautiful’ sensibility!

Those of you who want to be euthanised are selfish! Who cares if you are sentenced to a slow and painful for the rest of your life? My fragile sensibility is based on truth and morality and therefore, it is more important than your desire to be freed from your so-called suffering!

You have to be so selfish that you willingly and easily disregard truth and morality just because you can’t handle a tiny mishap in your life!

*takes off the mask*

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I oppose abortion…

*puts on a mask*

…because it is my holy duty to create misery among my fellow human beings. I want children to be born to ungodly unloving parents. I want them to be born as children of rape. I want female rape victims to give birth to children whose faces remind them of their rapists. I want women to have their health suffer from risky pregnancies. I want their preventable death to cause grief among their loved ones.

I want them to suffer.

For me, causing misery among my fellow human beings is the best way to reach spiritual enlightenment and advocating anti-abortion is my preferred means of achieving the noble goal.

#prolife? More like, #prosuffering.

*takes off the mask*

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How to win the Nobel Peace Prize

*puts on a mask*

It is simple: all you have to do is to advocate how peace is the best solution for our earthly problems. Just be a famous pacifist!

But, if you are a westerner, there is another path to this accolade: be a war-monger!

Not just any war-monger, but one who justifies his/her violent actions and beliefs in the name of defeating barbarians! When I meant by barbarians, I meant every non-westerner who refuses to suck westerners’ dicks.

Peace is one of the organic values of the western civilisation. I know because the propaganda tells me so; as we all know, indoctrination is always truthful and only brainwashed imbeciles think otherwise. Therefore, every person who defies the west is a violent, peace-hating barbarian and every true-blue westerner must support the violent destruction of those monsters in order to uphold peace!

The innocent casualt….. I meant, the collateral damages are actually a good thing. The more we kill every single individual who shares the identities of those monsters, the better. It advances our journey towards peace even further. It is their fault for being born associated with those barbarians! It is a common knowledge that we can choose which vaginas we are born from.

*takes off the mask*

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: distasteful, menacing and poignant (a late film review)

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A note for those who haven’t watched and want to: I am not going to spoil the plot. But, I am going to describe the film’s general atmospheres which may or may not be detailed. If that’s enough of a spoiler for you, please click away.

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I was conflicted about watching GOTG 2 because, you know, it’s a sequel. Disappointment was what I expected and disappointment was what I got.

First of all, the off-colour humour. Personally, I CAN enjoy it. I’ve even have told far more obscene (and frankly abusive) jokes to my friends. They are also a very useful outlet to vent my anger and frustration. But, unlike the screenwriter (or the producer who probably pressured him), I know the time and place to express them.

The first volume was as comedic as this one. But, the difference is its humour was very clean; violence is the most blatantly adult aspect of the film. Not to mention that Guardians of the Galaxy is marketed solely as action, adventure and sci-fi franchise, NOT risque comedies. As a result, the lewdness is a very unpleasant, in-your-face surprise. The disappointment doesn’t stop there.

Sentimentality. I love it when entertainment works include emotions that humanise the characters. But, I hate it when their portrayals are too skin-deep and sugary, pandering to shallow individuals who can’t see pass the pretence. For me, this practice encourage insincerity and actually invalidates genuine human emotions. Depth and intricacy are needed to add realism and soundness to the emotions. But, despite the distastefulness, it’s not all disappointment with this film.

Apart from the crude ones, there are also cleaner and more refined jokes we encountered in the previous one. Their wholesome nature gives them a much more universal appeal and relatively uncontroversial in any genres of films. The inclusion of the lewd one, however, is both unnecessary and detrimental, both in aesthetic and practical sense. Without the franchise’s trademark humour, I would hate this installment a lot more. But, admittedly, it can also be more superior in other aspects.

Menace. In pop culture, this film included, it usually starts with the introduction of something too good to be true. If something seems that way, it must be perceived as a red flag. There are also a few hints of the alleged ominousness, noticeable to both the audience and the characters. We know something’s off and yet, we don’t know what that is. In the story’s culmination, the truth is revealed…and boy, menacing it is.

The revelation is deeply unnerving for me. Admittedly, not everyone shares my idea of threat to the psyche; what disturbs me in the arts and entertainment may be nothing for you. But, whether you agree with me or not, it is undeniably an unforeseen dimension that conveys darkly ethereal spirit. This element makes a pop film like this more appealing to me.

An infatuation with the sinister force seems odd or even grotesque. But, personally, I find the attraction justifiable. In the arts and entertainment, its is meant to remind us of its existence in our life. When it comes to the notoriously-vivid arthouse films, the audience is ‘forced’ to experience the vile ‘face to face’. Savour the foul taste, no sugar allowed. A bit different case with pop films.

In many cases, they are nothing but sugar overloads. Every inch of the film reel is caramelised by corporate demands. But, once in a while, hints of pungency sip through the sweetness. Overall, the taste is still sweet. But, the subtle foulness cannot be ignored entirely. In the end, you have to admit there are other layers to the taste.

Depth, created by the stack of layers. Without any ‘undesirable’ ones, pop films would be only surface-deep. There’s nothing to offer other than what can be seen with the naked eyes. The pungency gives us a reason to explore beyond what they can see. In light-hearted comedies, it can be a surprise.

The abundance of humour prevent us from expecting the polar opposite. So, its presence (when noticed) juxtaposes with the merry atmosphere we have immersed ourselves into. It is a deep, hidden well of nasty-flavoured yet drinkable fluid, surrounded by vast sugary fields. If you haven’t discovered it, you really don’t know anything about your surrounding environment. In some films, including GOTG 2, the well is not that hard to find.

In this film, the sinister force is visually expressed, making it physically visible to the audience. Admittedly, the imagery is really not that scary. But, for me, it is more than enough to represent darkness. Just looking at it, we know that we are dealing with a malicious being. Not only the well is present, its content overflow to the surface, forcing everyone to face it. The film’s depth does not stop at the ‘taste’. It also extends to the human psyche.

Yes, I did complain about the gooey sentimentality. But, actual psychological depth is still abundant here and it comes in several forms. The soundtrack, for example. Like the previous installment, this one features pop oldies.

I do prefer them over the newer ones. But, having them as soundtracks in contemporary films activates my warm inner self. It makes me nostalgic of the colourful past that I didn’t experience myself; I haven’t figured out how and why this oddity comes into being. Anyway, this is not all about me.

The featured songs also happen to be the main character’s personal favourites. Along with his walkman, they are the only entities that emotionally link him with his childhood on earth. There’s more to this infamously rebellious man-child. But, his past is neither surprising nor mysterious. Overall, not a complex individual. The other characters, however, are relatively so when compared to him.

Crude, lawless, evil. You may think those traits are innate to the characters, that they absolutely define them. When you think you know them well, they unfold previously-unknown facets of themselves; we become surprised and start seeing them in different (albeit slightly) lights. In the end, we find it hard to synopsise them as individuals, knowing how deceptive their facades are. Again, not that different from the previous installment. But, again, there is one aspect of both films in which the successor aces out its predecessors: death.

The first film has a somewhat mature treatment of death. But, being a pop film it is, the portrayal is almost completely trivial. In the second film, the trivialisation also occur…to some minor characters. When it comes to the other ones, their death is glaringly horrifying and inhumane; they are murdered simply because their murderers think, ‘why not?’. In that short yet graphic moment, the film had its joy wiped out.

Those murdered characters aren’t really characters. Their names aren’t mentioned and they’ve got nothing to offer for the plot’s development. We are not emotionally attached to them. But, they are human enough to make ourselves affected by their death. If the attachment is there, we would be made teary-eyed…and that happens when one of the important characters die.

It’s incredible how a film with bouts of mawkishness can also possess emotional profundity. That one character’s death is not laced with sappy dialogues and background music. In fact, the subsequent funeral scene is not that reliant on dialogues. The atmosphere is expressed more through the characters’ body languages, camera angles and, unsurprisingly, an oldie pop song as the background music.

Neither the melody nor the lyrics manifest any embodiment of heartache. But, the latter wonderfully allude to the bonding between one of the main characters and the departed one. The song exudes familial warmth. For some, its inclusion can seem odd for this particular moment. But, I think this works really well.

A simple yet deep song about family, unassuming bodily languages, not a single flowery word being uttered. This moment conveys heartfelt grief…along with tinges of nostalgic joy and hope for the incoming future. There is no self-conceited emotionality, there is only wholesome and warm tenderness.

Tenderness. The film’s best feature and one reason why it still manages to win me over.