2017 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Three – SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS
There are few films that are better suited to the Milwaukee Film Festival than the U.S. premiere of SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS. Milwaukee, and Wisconsin as a whole, has a tremendous drinking culture, albeit the craft cocktail is a little more upscale than most of Wisconsin. Old Fashioneds don’t really count, albeit their origins are alluded to in the film. So, it was with great anticipation that I joined a packed Oriental Theatre crowd on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
One of the very finest virtues of SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS is that it’s an expansive travelogue. It sets down in Munich, home of the bar of Charles Schumann, New York, Paris, Havana, and Tokyo as it explores just what makes a good bar and how that reflects the local culture. Ernest Hemingway is brought up on more than one occasion, and we get a real taste of the ins and outs of setting up an exceptional bar. There’s particular focus on what makes a great cocktail, from earliest history to the modern variations with craft ingredients and professional care. There’s insight into the the design of a great bar, from low lighting to the respect of the privacy of the patron to be alone and just enjoy his finely crafted cocktail with the bartender offering insight and empathy as needed.
It’s a fairly great travelogue, as you note the subtle differences around the world. Cuban bars, of course, emphasize rum drinks. New York bars appear to be more hard drinking. And, the Hemingway daiquiri connects bars from New York to Paris to Havana. Each locale is shot with great love and care, and every bar looks like a place that you’d love to visit.
More than a travelogue though, the film pays great respect to the craft of the bartenders around the world. A highlight of every sequence is when the bartenders mix their signature cocktail. You note the efficiency and precision of every movement as people show off their craft. In particular, the subtle variations in how cocktails are shaken is given much emphasis. The craft of bar tending truly crosses international boundaries. And, the bars chosen for the documentary are some of the best.
Where the film comes up short though is through the focal feature of Charles Schumann. He’s a great mixologist and bar owner, but the qualities that make him great at both those things don’t make him a great cinematic focal point. Schumann is a person that listens first, a great quality for someone behind the bar, but that makes him somewhat of a reactive personality on camera. There are many scenes of him traveling silently from bar to bar, keeping his counsel to himself, which keeps you at arm’s length to him throughout the film. The craft of bar tending is always fascinating, but you have to wonder if there was a better central character to SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS than Charles Schumann himself. As much as it tries, the film never really penetrates the exterior barrier of Charles Schumann. And it never really answers the implicit question in the premise, why does Charles Schumann want to travel the world visiting different bars?
That failure to penetrate to a deeper level leaves SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS a fun but somewhat frustrating experience. There are hints at a debate of deeper issues, Schumann is challenged by a female bartender on his feelings on females behind the bar, and the film bows out respectfully before the debate is fully engaged. A full portrait of Schumann never really develops, and he’s rarely challenged on his views. That lack of drama and stakes is felt throughout much of the latter half of the film when you really want it to be about something deeper than crafting a good cocktail. Alas, as informative and good looking as the film is, SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS never steps it up to any real layer of depth. It’s a good time at the movies, but perhaps there’s a better movie lurking in the basic material.
SCHUMANN’S BAR TALKS will be showing once more at the 2017 Milwaukee Festival on Wednesday, October 11, 2017 at 6:30 pm at the Downer Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online at the Milwaukee Film Festival website or at box office locations at various venues. The 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from September 28 to October 12, 2017.