The Perfect Cappuccino
Filmmaker Amy Ferraris is obsessed. Having first discovered the cappuccino on a trip to Italy in the early 90's, she comes back to American plagued by one seemingly unanswerable question: in the country that put a man on the moon, why is it so hard to find a decent cappuccino? Her attempt to answer this question takes her on a years-long odyssey... to Italy and back again... from Manhattan to middle America... and it gives her a front-row seat for a clash between corporate America and the individualism at the heart of the American dream. Part memoir and part investigation, THE PERFECT CAPPUCCINO is a smart, witty meditation on what our coffee habits say about us, as individuals and as a nation.
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The next 30 minutes or so went back to the United States and complained that Starbucks cappuccino was really bad. This was probably right. But, why was this so long in a movie that was searching for the perfect cappuccino. Boring and irrelevant.
Then there was some 15 minutes devoted to good cappuccino in the United States at a place called DoubleShot. But this morped into a drama about how this little shop in the middle of the United States was being sued by Starbucks because of their copyright on the name "Starbucks cappuccino. A human interest story but boring again if you were looking to find out how to produce and find "The Perfect Cappuccino".
After a good start, there was very little time spent on the science and art of espresso / cappuccino.
The extras were interesting if you were interested in a description of the strategy needed to succeed at barista competitions. Again, we have to ask: "where was the coffee?"
I just took a better look at the "extras" on coffee roasting and brewing.
The "extras" are more interesting than the movie and are worth 4 or 5 stars.
Definitely watch the roasting one that contrasts the very traditional Italian roaster who works with a wood burning roaster and describes the cracking stages as the "singing" of the coffee with the American Doubleshot roaster in Tulsa who is a modern craftsman trying to get the best out of the beans.
About fifteen minutes into the film (this would be about the time I finished the stiff demitasse of Dominican coffee I'd pulled for myself on the stovetop) I realized something important: this is an intelligent piece of work. The front half of the research was funded by Ferraris' one-year grant from the Fulbright commission to study the history of Italian cafe culture. In the course of the film, she consults with professors of history and literature, representatives from Italy's oldest espresso roasters, former Starbuck's CEOs, and intellectual property rights lawyers. With an MFA from UCLA's film program and an obvious knack for assembling a coherent narrative, Ferraris brings a touch of academic heft to a subject matter that would appear hopelessly superficial in other hands.
Ferraris' penchant for broad contextualizing is manifest almost immediately: it is not long before we realize that the scope of her inquiry transcends the mug's rim, that her search for the perfect cappuccino is as much practical as it is metaphorical. And she doesn't pull many punches either.
In just a few steps, we see the damning juxtaposition between Italy's cafe culture and our own. We bounce back and forth between shots of thick, dense cappuccinos served in pristine white ceramics and soapy, spit bubble hogwash that's been dumped into recycled paper to-go cups. The cause of the deficiency? Americans' toleration of the corporate juggernaut, Starbucks. Her point is a subtle one. It's not so much that Starbucks is bad, predatory, and imperialistic; rather, the fact that any of us actually put up with this raises some serious questions. What does it say about us as consumers that we continue to vote with our money by spending it on subpar slop? What does it say about our palates? our aesthetic sensibilities? our commitment to go-it-alone Americanism?
The film succeeds in that, in a weird way, it gives Starbucks a fair hearing. Ferraris takes a few pot shots at the java giant, but not merely because it's an easy target: the point is that the American coffee retail industry and Starbucks are - very nearly - one in the same. This is cause for some concern and most of the film is spent in speculation about Starbucks' ability to successfully draw in so many people with a product of such poor quality and with the promise of such patently false mantras (individuality! sophistication! community! fraternite! universitas!) It is a call for responsible consumerism just as much as it is a cry for better coffee.
The Perfect Cappuccino also fairs quite well when stacked up against what had previously been the standard for coffee-based film, Black Gold. The latter film tackles the coffee industry from the supply side and, in this sense, Ferraris gives us a balanced counterweight: although she dabbles in economic talk from time to time, she's mostly concerned with what happens to the beans once they get to first-world consumers. This allows the film to be both more uplifting and more introspective. Whereas Black Gold ended so dismally and with so few answers put in place that I had to think twice about ever drinking coffee again, The Perfect Cappuccino ends on a high note with its coverage of the "third wave" of coffee retail pioneered by such industry innovators as Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and Blue Bottle. The great thing about Ferraris' message is that it's personal and immediate: tomorrow morning I can go to Kaldi's Coffeehouse instead of Starbucks and begin to affect a change. And, if I'm lucky enough to have found a local roaster that sources its own beans, I might also be moving toward rectifying some of the problems presented in Black Gold.
If the film lags at all, it's when Ferraris' search for the perfect cappuccino becomes a small cafe owner's fight against a trademark infringement lawsuit instigated by a team of Starbucks lawyers. But even here, the message is handled well. Ferraris makes explicit for us a problematic juxtaposition. There is something uniquely American about the solo guy who can run his own coffeehouse from the ground up. On the other hand, the powerful American business venture is also ubiquitous in the narrative of the United States. While sitting around the cafe with its regular customers and dwelling on this comparison, the viewers slowly realize that the search for the perfect cappuccino is this place - the small, communal cafe with a passionate staff and an appreciative clientele. Having stumbled into java nirvana almost accidentally, a viewer of the film might sum up its moral in a word: authenticity. The perfect cappuccino is equal parts taste, feel, aura, sight, sound, perception, and intangibility. Sounds too hard to pin down? Believe me, you know it when you see it.
I liked the background on Italy, and the baristas there. They are proud of their work. I liked the focus on DoubleShot Coffee Compay, and how he represented David vs Goliath. But I also like Starbucks, and I don't consider them evil. The documentary didn't present them as evil, but did show how they have corporatized coffee.
Overall, this is a passionate look at espresso and mostly cappuccino. I found the whole movie interesting.