This is the first edition of a semi-regular feature at Lakeland Local, in which our self-important blogger provides his teeming masses of readers with vital insights into his tastes.
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.”
It’s not every cartoon reaches its climax with a luminous Peter O’Toole monologue concerning the nature of criticism, art, and the uneasy relationship between the two, as a cross-cut montage of romanticized Parisian life unfolds on the screen.
In fact, it’s exactly one.
I remain amazed that any major studio, even one so bold and enlightened as Pixar, greenlighted Ratatouille. I make myself smile by imagining writer/director Brad Bird’s pitch, which must have occurred about the time of the silly Freedom Fries Francophobia that swept the U.S. circa 2002: “No really, it’s about rats. Rats that cook. In France. There won’t be any fart jokes. Or many big laughs. I think kids really want to sit quietly as we explore the power of the creative spirit, the classlessness and racelessness of art. Oh yes, and haute cuisine. And we’ll call it Ratatouille, a word nobody can spell. Think of the lunch box potential.”
To which some executive said, “Uh, OK.”
And it worked. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but Ratatouille made money. Probably not Finding Nemo– or Cars-type money, but enough to justify its existence. My wife and I took my little boy, who was then 4, to see it in the theater. And he sat still throughout and never seemed bored, despite the lack of cackles one might generally expect from a cartoon. In this sense, Ratatouille reversed the formula of most successful animated films, which slyly sprinkle smart, adult inside-jokes into child-friendly slapstick and storylines. I’m convinced that Bird aimed Ratatouille at adults, kneading in enough vivid color, inspired action, and yucky ratness to keep kids interested.
For my money, it’s the best animated film ever made, by a wide margin. It has deep, intelligent things to say about family, friendship, loyalty, and living, and I’m not even going to talk about any of that today, though it’s worth talking about.
More than likely, you’ve seen Ratatouille already. It’s not some obscure subtitled film, after all. So I’m not going to recapitulate all the action and plot here. Bottom line: Frustrated provincial rat named Remy develops peculiar talent for language and cooking, fights with Dad and rather enormous extended rat family, relocates to Paris, and manages to team with a talentless teen named Linguini to revive a struggling restaurant. But I do want to focus on that climactic monologue, and O’Toole’s sublime turn as super-food critic Anton Ego, both of which help me frame my new feature here at Lakeland Local.
Ego has the power to destroy a chef with a flick of the pen. He once dropped the epithet “Monsieur Boyardee” on some poor cook he ruined long ago. Years later, he can reread that line and chuckle with malevolent, but professional, appreciation. A pleasure, I’m a little ashamed to say, I recognize. Ego only has about 10 minutes of screen time, but he shows up at key moments as the putative villain of the story, poised to destroy Remy and Linguini’s ambitions. Villains always get the best lines, and Ego doesn’t so much steal the movie as make it something else, something much deeper and compelling than it might have been.
The key moment comes when Ego arrives to have his review meal at Remy’s resurgent restaurant. This occurs just as the rest of the kitchen staff discovers that Remy the rat has been secretly manipulating Linguni from under his chef hat. Panic ensues, and Ego waits with a bureaucratic sneer – notebook in hand, peeking imperiously at a stopwatch. But Remy knows something about Ego, something Ego himself doesn’t know, or has at least forgotten. Remy decides to serve him ratatouille, a sort of stew, a “peasant dish,” as a skeptical cook says. Remy fancies it up, using lovingly sliced and arranged vegetables, and Linguni brings it out. (The movie continually draws and displays food in beautiful, minute detail.) Ego raises an arch eyebrow, with a hint of incredulity, and dips into the dish with his fork.
This entire meal preparation has played out over several minutes, with Ego’s wait while the kitchen fights chaos heightening the tension. But as Ego takes a bite, the action cuts instantly to a small house somewhere in the French countryside. A little boy, looking bookish and awkward, stands in the doorway sniffling in what looks like humiliation. It’s Ego as a child. He’s been picked on, or beat up, or otherwise made to feel small. It’s not explained. Another quick cut, and his mother lovingly places a bowl of ratatouille – not fancied up – in front of him. Comfort food. He laps it up. The whole sequence probably lasts five seconds. Then it’s back to the restaurant, where we see Ego drop his fork, which falls in slow-motion to the floor. End of scene.
I love that scene. It’s completely unexpected, yet completely consistent with the characters, the plot, and even the title of the movie. My dad once told me that really good food, in its own right, can change your mood. I’ve had that experience once, at a small restaurant in St. Augustine owned and run by a chef who sadly later killed himself. He was an artist, a tortured one I guess. Like all successful artists, he knew instinctively how to tap something in the humanity, experience, and taste of his customers. Remy, somehow, as a rat, knew from his own humanity how to touch Ego’s humanity. I think that’s probably what art does when it works. It bridges the truths of our varied and individual human experiences. It helps us learn about each other and realize that we are not alone.
And yet, truth can be exceedingly painful. There’s a reason so many artists, like the doomed chef, struggle emotionally. Not everyone thinks they want their truths bridged, and frankly, many would-be artists who try aren’t particularly good at it. It’s an act of bravery to produce something that lays bare truths about yourself. Even if it’s good, it will probably be ignored or misunderstood or mocked. If it’s mediocre, well… As Ego says: “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations…” And yet we keep creating.
After learning Remy’s story, Ego returns to his quiet, lonely Parisian apartment and writes out his review. He confronts his own comfortable gutlessness in using his talent to shred up those who would offer their own, even if it is lacking. The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. And he embraces the chance to take a risk for Remy – after all, he is recommending food prepared by a rat – in service of the new, the strange, and the beautiful.
Here is the entire two-minute masterpiece of filmmaking:
One of the key points to Ratatouille’s success is how straight it plays the absurd premise of the story. In that sense, it’s almost like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where we explore how the world would respond to a man’s sudden transformation into giant cockroach or beetle. In Ratatouille, a rat, with the help of his massive extended rat family, takes over the kitchen at a high profile restaurant to serve Ego after locking a health inspector in the freezer. As Remy tells the story at the end, of course they let the inspector out. Of course, the government shut down the restaurant. Of course, Ego got tossed out of his job on his butt for backing gourmet rat food. You can almost hear the filmmakers say: What do you think this is, a Disney movie?
But Ego buys a new place for Remy to cook, where he himself dines every night, wearing a beret and playfully bantering with Linguini and Remy. “Can I interest you in dessert?” Linguni asks. “Don’t you always?” answers Ego. Asked what he wants, Ego looks into the kitchen and catches Remy’s eager eyes. With giant grin, he says: “Surprise me.” It’s the last line of the movie.
I have spent quite a bit of time here at Lakeland Local criticizing the creations, beliefs, and actions of others. When I’ve seen those things as harmful, cruel, or dishonest, I’ve tended to discuss them with, well, let’s call it aggressive irony. That isn’t going to change.
But I like things, too. And I want to try to demonstrate that a bit more. I’m no Ego. I don’t think I’m quite as mean. And I know I don’t have anything approaching the power to wreck somebody’s career or give a key boost to the new. Frankly, the new is generally pointed out to me by somebody else with more time and energy to search for it. But I like it when that happens. And hopefully, “Stuff Billy Likes” will convey that sense to any of you who read. I’ll focus on music, books, speeches, vacuum cleaners, whatever. Hopefully, I can either share something cool you might not have heard of, or suggest new reasons to enjoy or admire well-established classics.
I hope I’ll occasionally surprise you.