Dir. Brad Bird
In their October, 2008 edition Sight & Sound magazine published a series of essays at the heart of which was the question “Who Needs Critics?” In editor Nick James' article he argues for an increase in honest criticism noting “we live in a culture that is either afraid or disdainful of unvarnished truth and of skeptical analysis.” True, this sound like an indictment of the populous rather than the preacher but James makes it clear that film critics are as much responsible for their own decline as are their readers (or lack thereof) and the industry they make their living off of. Fast forward to February, 2010. In that issue the magazine published a review of the most recent Twilight film, New Moon, which concludes by defeatedly asking “why do we bother?” As New Moon, Avatar and a slew of others proved this year, the 'critic-proof' blockbuster is going to be watched despite any amount of serious critical abuse. So why commit to writing about them? Though far from its central theme, the notion of critics' responsibility to their audiences is explored poignantly in Ratatouille, one of the few critically lauded and commercially successful films of the decade.
Though his role in Ratatouille is understated and representative of Pixar's classic “mirror antagonist,” simultaneously representing the internal struggle of the protagonists while allowing for a conventional tension-release narrative structure, food critic and vampirical (note: thanks for the word choice Alanna) antagonist Anton Ego proved an unexpected contrast to Pixar's history of inflated villains and a telling insight into the world of criticism. Ego represents the finest in cultivated taste and the contradiction that taste often neglects new experience. Though certainly a throwback to a time when the printed word held greater meaning, Ego's epiphany at the hand's of Ratatouille's central protagonist, Remy the rat, is no less important. In a moving flashback to his childhood we see Ego in a rural French cottage on the edge of impoverished tears. His mother places before him a bowl of the titular peasant dish. We watch as solace emerges from behind his weary face. The moment reconciles the fundamental contradiction latent in providing objective critique of a fanatically adored art. The predominant complaint against critics, especially those at Sight & Sound, has always been that they are emotionally and socially detached from those who would be reading their reviews. In pursuing their medium so devoutly they have alienated themselves against those who watch films for the sheer pleasure of the moving image. The critic is too often looked on as one who has lost the ability to enjoy the simple pleasures of their passion.
So, is a review of New Moon superfluous in the same way that a gastronomical review of Olive Garden is? Yes and no. Pleasure comes in many forms in both food and film. The tastes of both are certainly lowest common denominator at best. However, it is Ego himself who admits that bad reviews are fun to read and write. Certainly a professional film critic may have a harder time candidly pointing out how truly awful the Twilight films are due to the advertising interests of certain third parties, but this circumstance can permit or perhaps even encourage a twisted re-reading of the narrative. Same with Olive Garden. Instead of asking “who could possibly enjoy this?” perhaps ask “why is this particular cuisine so popular?” What does it say about our culture? Though certainly anyone who is truly interested in anything, be it food, film or otherwise will not wish to spend much of their time toiling in the endless banalities of the low, they must not, under any circumstances, dismiss the possibility of pleasure and surprise at any juncture.
Which leads directly into what Ratatouille is actually about. Epitomized by Chef Gusteau's mantra “Anyone can cook,” the film suggests that, try as we might, we cannot always predict from which corner of any occupational universe the “next great thing” will come from. Admittedly, the film is Pixar's most fantastic to date, calling for a suspension of disbelief so great that were the film not so rigorously sequenced it could have quite easily fallen into the realm of hopeless cinematic kitsch. Despite its premise (a rat wishing to become a cook and the human marionette who aids him), at its heart the film is quite pragmatic and almost painfully honest. Diagramming the xenophobia still prevalent in modern France (see: Jacques Audiard's A Prophet), Ratatouille's acute sense of melancholy stems directly from a prevalent social issue aggressively addressed through cinema. Though occasionally expository, the film unfolds beautifully. Pixar's animation team captures all the delights of the City of Light, allowing even the sewers of the famed Parisian rats to appear vaguely impressionistic. The film draws it's influence from the country's rich history of films that fall between the art house and the cineplex, utilizing an irregular structure but appropriating certain criterion from popular genre films (see: the film's ingenious chase sequence and the numerous illusions to Rififi and the caper films of the 1950s). Containing perhaps the least over simplified conclusion in Pixar's history, Ratatouille is a film dedicated to its social conflict and driven to deliver an answer rather than a not-quite-comforting-enough pat on the back.
So what does all this mean in terms of the film critic? With the film's central themes of identity and place within a cultural system, the bottom line is that we must expect great things but not to expect them to come from certain preordained regions. The film purports that by choosing a career (chef/critic) or an identity distinct and different from those we live with (human/rats) that we are instinctively closing ourselves off to a portion of humanity that may truly surprise us. Sadly, the film brings to light that this sort of behavior in society is not only accepted but encouraged. The ultimate difference between a critic like Nick James and a film like Ratatouille is the difference of intent. James wishes to wrestle back some of the prior importance of the professional critic in order to raise international cinematic standards in audiences. Ratatouille gently suggests that a professional critic is just a person with a passion that all too often gets the better of them; that their social position and projected self-importance can easily overshadow the subject they profess to loving. In other word the critic can become more important than the food/film/et al. As to which position I commit my loyalties, I will submit myself willingly to this closing ambiguity: I'm just a man with a movie blog.