Sunday, July 08, 2007

The View from the Tank: Ratatouille (2007)

[Spoilers Below]

Brad Bird and his relentless efforts to impose his ideology on America depress me. I should explain.

Long-time and weary readers of the Octopus may remember a review here from long-ago of Bird's The Incredibles. In that review, I was exercised about what I saw as the sinister anti-meritocratic bent of that movie:
Many reviews for The Incredibles have applauded the movie's message, which has been interpreted as a refreshing criticism of the tyranny of mediocrity that somehow holds back gifted individuals. I was somewhat confused reading the glowing endorsements of the movie's message . . . .

I thought the message of The Incredibles was deeply troubling. The family of superheroes in the movie, the Parrs, is naturally gifted with their superpowers. . . . As the mother tells the son, Dash, at one point: he's special, and he has special powers -- “it's in your blood” she tells him.

In contrast, the villain in the movie, Syndrome, is a normal, ungifted human who wanted to be Mr. Incredible's sidekick, but was rejected. The interesting aspect of Syndrome is that though he is a normal human, with no superpowers “in his blood,” through dint of his own inventiveness and labor, he creates tools and machines to give himself powers equal to the naturally gifted superheroes. . . . Syndrome, of course, is bested by the real superheroes in the end, and put in his place. He learns that he should never have tried to become more than what he was - he should have accepted his place in the natural order of things and simply watched the superheroes, wonderful by inheritance and luck, from the sidelines.
The Incredibles very explicitly sought to attack -- in the vehicle of an entertaining animation -- the idea that we can all be equal. The villain Syndrome's "evil" plan is to endow all humans with tools to give them superpowers: the terrible outcome -- from Bird's point of view -- is that when everyone is super, no one will be. God save us from such radical equality.

Ratatouille is, in some ways, the flip side of The Incredibles. One of the key themes of Ratatouille is that an artist, or genius can come from anywhere; as the late Chef Gustau says over and again in the movie, "Anyone can cook". Indeed, this is the title of Chef Gustau's best-selling book. However, the very point of the movie is to emphasize one reading of this motto over another: Anyone may be (by virtue of innate talent) a great cook -- however, we can not all become great cooks. In other words, as the food critic antagonist in the film Anton Ego sums up: "Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

The hero of the movie is a rat named Remy, who is born with extraordinary gifts and culinary talent. He apparently needs little to no training. He does not simply follow recipes (which he learns to read, being a rat much more highly advanced than the other rats in his colony), but through his innate, untrained (and unearned) genius, simply improvises fantastic dishes. Remy's talent apparently comes from nowhere. His brother lacks any of Remy's natural gifts of acute smell and palate, and -- pointedly -- intelligence, and is perfectly satisfied to eat garbage as the other normal and ungifted rats do. Remy's father believes rats should stay in their place, and reminds Remy that "food is fuel" -- and nothing more. Remy is the diamond in the rough, the uber-rat surrounded by the horde that seek to pull him down (much like the superhero child in The Incredibles was not allowed to race against the other normal kids).

The flip side of Remy is Linguini, who is (unknown to him at the beginning of the film), the son of the famous Chef Gustau. However, Linguini has inherited no talent or genius for cooking from his father. Indeed, much unlike The Incredibles, the talent is not in his blood. With this character, Bird perhaps attempts to make his ideology somewhat more palatable through a modification; he is saying, in effect, "See, the point is not, as in The Incredibles, that the geniuses and most talented among us simply inherit their gifts." Yet, Bird's fetish for genius remains: Linguini is not a genius or super-talent though he is the son of Chef Gustau. He has no talent and is "hopeless". Remy has not inherited his genius from his family, but, nevertheless, he has genius -- untrained, unlearned, not worked at, simply there. Some people simply have it, some don't. This is, at bottom, the same inisidious message of The Incredibles, just with the particularly offensive (and absurd) "it runs in the blood" message inverted.

As in The Incredibles, Bird has it out for those who are not born geniuses or supertalents who attempt to work their way to greatness. He shows us the other cooks in Gustau's restaurant, who are all adequate enough, and work very hard, but will never achieve greatness because they lack the innate genius that Remy was simply born with. A clear example of this is Collette, the female cook (Janeane Garofalo) who tries to help Linguini learn to cook. Collette works very hard, works to hone her technique, and takes a disciplined approach to her work: she labors at cooking. Her downfall, of course, is that she is not an innate genius. She works to "follow the recipe", a mantra she tries to impose on Linguini (and Remy, who is hidden in Linguini's hat), but Remy, innate, natural genius, cannot be constrained by the rules and discipline of little people. As a born genius, he is beyond constraint, beyond rules. So, of course, Remy throws out the recipe, and creates, out of his pure genius, fantastic products. Collette worries about keeping a clean station, of using proper chopping technique, about the boring details of getting the proper produce; Remy simply works his magic.

It's hard to see how someone even moderately awake to the messages of Bird's movies cannot fail to walk out of the theater feeling dispirited -- unless that someone is a great, innate genius or talent. If you have not been gifted with innate talent at the thing you love (cooking, music, art, literature, sport), if you have not been born with greatness, then what is the point at trying? Why work hard to improve yourself? You're just another drone. Continue to eat garbage and stay with the herd. You are either born with it or not, right?

There's no getting around that the movie is beautifully, amazingly, rendered, the storytelling is great -- it is a superb movie; indeed, the movie, in a way, works to prove Bird's point: he is a genius, others are not. Should we be celebrating that? These are, at least technically, kids' movies. Is this the message we want kids to take home: struggling at math? Why work hard to get better? You're not a genius. Not great at tennis? Why work hard to catch up to the other kids? You're not a natural talent. This message, as I said, depresses me. But perhaps that's just because I am not a genius of any sort.


Toddy said...

Sheesh Grigs. And I used to get mad at my wife for reading Vogue and Vanity Fair and coming away depressed.

Let us face it: where we are born and to whom we are born are nearly the sole definers of talent. That alone is the great luck. If one happens to overcome those odds, well, they are the both lucky and genius.

Dylan said...

Nature vs Nurture, always an interesting topic. Especially the idea of instinct.
nature vs nurture
Tabula Rasa