BURNT, the Western

My book “see my book” and this blog talk about how social narratives influence our lives often without our knowing it. I talk about how the hidden narrative is perhaps more true and authentic than the “cover” narrative which, though ostensibly real, is in fact the false simulacrum.

So, having seen the new film, BURNT, I thought I would show you an example of this and what I think is the mythic narrative that underlies its action. (I apologize for any story revelations for those who have not yet seen it.) How do you make a movie about preparing food and keep it interesting and strong? Make it as a Western? The American Western is a genre that has been around for 200 years and has been absorbed into American mythology and its culture. BURNT employs a vast array of Western genre components; in plot and structure, it is a Western.

BURNT begins with the protagonist lost in a “40 day” trek into the wilderness to redeem himself after falling from grace and his pinnacle of success as a top chef. Only when he has shucked a million oysters is his spiritual penance satisfied, and he is pure again and ready to renew his search for the reclamation of his soul and his “top gun” status at the head of chefdom. Once purified, he goes on the quest for his supportive “posse”. The hired “guns” who will help him regain his top status again. This is the classic “Magnificent Seven” plot where once assembled, the group will rise again and conquer. As usual, in his search for former colleagues, the hero finds them each lost n their own personal fallen cul-de-sac, and they welcome him, their redeemer. Once assembled as a team, they are ready for mutual redemption and a rise to the top of the pack once again.

The Hero and his henchmen re-establish their power perch i.e., a new kitchen, but in a moment of hubris, discover that their old methods have become outdated during their hiatus, and newer tricks and skills must be learned. Think, the Wild Bunch. Reoriented, they are ready again to regain their status by defeating all other pretenders. BURNT has the requisite other top chef who has taken over the crown in our hero’s fall from grace. Their respective kitchens must go mano e mano. They must meet “in the street”. This is the juice of the movie and the main central plot in Act Two. The Pretender is vanquished. We see his moment of defeat and humiliation as he destroys his once proud restaurant.

In the meantime, there are several classic Western subplots. There is the Girl! The former sweetheart who was also lost in his first fall from grace. She reappears during his second coming, and discovers that in that process, he has meet Girl Number Two. There is the subplot of the sycophant “partner”. The Gabby Hayes role. Most Western and male heroes (see even Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) (Holmes and Watson) have their male subservient counterpart. The latent homosexual component is always assessed by the literary crowd, but it is never open in the classic narrative itself. Except in BURNT. Our protagonist’s partner, his financier and owner of the restaurant, is openly gay and openly in love with his chef. Welcome to modern times.

There are also other Western tropes, the tangential enemies that reappear….guys from the “other gangs”. In this movie, they are some drug thugs that are owed money by our hero. They threaten and beat him, but he will not be diverted from his path. And finally, there is the pivotal Western cliché. During our heroe’s first heroic success, he was helped to that success by an older mentor who shares his skills and teaches his pupil all he knows, because he sees in his pupil the ability to ascend and succeed even beyond the mentor’s status. Siegfried has been found. The moment always come when the mentor hands over his coveted pair of six guns to his pupil and successor. It’s the phallic pass through. In BURNT, that moment comes when his first girlfriend, who is the daughter of his mentor, reappears briefly to accept that she has lost him to his new and better love, and in that totemic moment, to hand over to the Top Chef, his mentor’s culinary knives. They are wrapped ceremoniously in their leather sheaf (holsters) and lovingly handed over to the Inheritor.

From that point on, you only have the wrap up. He is on an undisputable path and return to greatness. (His only competitor, the previous humiliated Number One, now has a scene in which he articulates the fact that our hero is without peer and he and others can only sit at his feet and learn from him and be taken to heights they could not have achieved on their own.) (I will not get into the Christ parallel here, but that too is a narrative that could be found in this movie as well)

The movie ends with complete Redemption: The Top Restaurant in London, a Michelin star, the girl and the respect of all. A happy ending to what is in fact a very good movie. Good direction, good photography and good acting. Bradley Cooper once again shows his outstanding acting chops……….but he only got the part because John Wayne was dead.

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