Monday, August 27, 2007

Perspective on Anton Ego and Critics

Anton Ego

In the movie Ratatouille, Peter O'Toole provides the gravelly voice for food critic and antagonist Anton Ego, whose scathing review for Gusteau's restaurant caused Gusteau to lose one of his 5-stars rating, and caused the chef to die of a broken heart.

(I'm smiling as I type it, because it's so cheesy but also funny.)

When Anton Ego first dropped in at Gusteau's restaurant, where Alfredo Linguini is gaining some fame as a chef to be reckoned with (with the help of Remy), there was a battle of wits between Alfredo and Ego:

Anton Ego: You're a bit slow for someone in the fast lane.
Linguini: And... you're thin for someone who likes food!
[Crowd gasps]
Anton Ego: I don't LIKE food, I LOVE it. If I don't LOVE it, I don't SWALLOW.


It's an exchange worth a few snickers, but it summed up Ego as a food critic who in his exacting pursuit for food excellence may have forgotten the simple pleasures of food itself. More on this later.

When Ego finally comes to the restaurant to dine and to hopefully to hammer the nail on the coffin of Gusteau's restaurant, he asks for "An order of perspectives." The waiter of course has no idea what Ego was talking about, so Ego just drolls that HE, Anton Ego, will provide the perspective. The chef will just need to give him "his best shot."

What little Remy decides to serve was a dish of ratatouille ― a surprising choice because it is a provincial dish ― not what you would expect to serve to impress a high-powered food critic who can make or break you.

This being a Disney/Pixar film, of course the poor farmer's dish of ratatouille was spectacular; the first bite brought Ego back to his childhood memory of his mother and her ratatouille. When I was watching this scene in the cinema, I was reminded of M.F.K. Fisher and why she writes about food, and how it all fits.

What little Remy served was exactly what Ego had asked for: perspective. What Ego finally wrote is moving and quote-worthy:

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. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.

I draw your attraction to Stephanie Zacharek’s review for Ratatouille, specifically her response to Anton Ego's review:

Near the end of the picture, Ego has a speech that begins with a statement about the uselessness of critics, about the way they live for the experience of slapping things down instead of creating anything worthwhile themselves. The speech winds its way around to a more complicated revelation, about the importance of finding beauty and wonder in unexpected corners of our world. Still, I suspect many professional critics will take Ego's speech as a slap on the wrist, and people who hate critics -- you know who you are -- will feel they've received some juicy vindication.

But for me -- a person who writes about movies but doesn't make them -- Ego's speech rings completely true, and I can't read it as Bird's way of cutting down critics, of painting them as evil creatures who must be reformed. If anything, I wonder if he doesn't feel a kinship with them. Criticism, done right, isn't about destruction; it's about the pursuit of pleasure and delight and surprise, the seeking of both sensation and meaning, and sharing it with as many people as you can. At the end of "Ratatouille," I felt nothing but gratitude for the joy that Bird and his very large team -- doing work that I know is painstaking, time-consuming and extremely difficult -- were able to give me. Sitting down at the keyboard later, to work out the meaning of that pleasure, is my job. But the deep happiness I got from the movie itself is still my truest reward. I'd gotten the last bit of juice from every grape, and I couldn't ask for more.

Zacharek is one of my favourite film reviewer, and the main reason I still visit Besides her wonderful turn of phrase that marks her as a writer playful with language, her reviews consistently exude warm and personal engagement and joy. When I read her reviews, I sense a woman still in love with her job as critic — the antithesis of a jaded, elitist Anton Ego. Reviewers like Anton Ego do exist real-life. They have lost perspectives, forgetting the importance of joy in their jobs. They approach it with a kind of gloomy self-importance, symbolised by Anton Ego's coffin-shaped office. Sometimes, it takes a return to simple pleasures, like a ratatouille dish, to re-awaken their senses and why they came to their calling in the first place. But then again, isn't this true for everyone?

I find it interesting though, that in a moment of self-reflexivity, in the middle of a film review, Zacharek takes the time to address the role of her own role as a critic: "Criticism, done right, isn't about destruction; it's about the pursuit of pleasure and delight and surprise, the seeking of both sensation and meaning, and sharing it with as many people as you can."

That, I believe, is Perspective.


Anonymous said...

oh wow! i love that little exchange.

this looks hilarious! :D

darkorpheus said...

The character of Anton Ego was wonderfully fun. I didn't know who did the voice at first but it was very deep, and sombre. Gravelly. In a fun way.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Criticism, done right, isn't about destruction; it's about the pursuit of pleasure and delight and surprise, the seeking of both sensation and meaning, and sharing it with as many people as you can."

Good Lord, that is wonderful!!!

I am looking forward to seeing Ratatouille...probably wont' be until DVD, but it does look good.

darkorpheus said...

Carl Yes, isn't that wonderful? And isn't the purpose of sharing part of the reason a lot of us blog?

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