Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ratatouille 2: Fordist Artistes in the Kitchen

Ratatouille 8 Ratatouille

Sure, I left out a lot of things out of my first note on the film, deliberately. After all, it was only a quick note. Still, within two or three minutes after I put the DVD on I realized that I’d missed a thing or two within the even the limited scope I set for that post. And then I watched the whole thing.

Some Points of Interest

Here’s some things I picked up, with brief comments. These are some of the features I’d give attention to if I were to undertake a fuller analysis, which I may do some day. But not now.

Imaginary Gusteau: Remy is guided by a hallucinated Gusteau, the legendary chef who believes: “Anyone can cook.” So, Linguini, the bumbling garbage boy, who is Gusteau’s illegitimate son, is guided by Remy, the rat. Remy is guided by Gusteau (imaginary). We’ve got a triple-decker vs. the double-deckers of Dumbo and Pinocchio: Dumbo and Timothy Mouse; Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket.

Stealing: Remy worries about being a thief. It’s a motif in his conversations with his brother and his father. It comes up early in the film and gets repeated. Later, when Collette tells Remy the backgrounds of the kitchen staff we learn that they have shady pasts.

Poison Checker: Once Dad discovered Remy’s sensitive nose, he made him poison-checker with the clan. That is, Remy was given a Fordist gig, and it’s depicted that way in the film. More on Fordism later.

Inner Workings: Not only does Remy control Linguini’s actions, but they have to work out a system of communication for doing it. This is very different from Dumbo and Pinocchio, where Timothy Mouse and Jiminy Cricket simply talk to their charges. No special mechanisms needed or revealed. So, we get to see the inner workings of this communication system, but also the inner workings of the kitchen.

Family vs. Calling: Inner conflict for Remy, family (the colony) vs. vocation (calling). But none for Linguini. He may be a bumbler, but he’s not really conflicted about his position in the world. Remy is. Neither Timothy Mouse nor Jiminy Cricket are conflicted. But in the crunch, the rat colony helped save the day. Dad recognized that cooking was important to Remy and so offered to help. Dad to Remy: “We’re not cooks, but we are family. Tell us what to do, and we’ll get it done.” By sets up a production system in the kitchen with the rats doing the work and Remy supervising.

Concluding Montage: A point about story craft: In Dumbo, a newsreel leads to the end of the film. In Ratatouille, Ego’s review, read over a montage, leads to the end. That is, both films lead to an emotional climax that, alas, leaves plot threads dangling. Emotionally, there’s no need to do anything but wrap things up. Both films do that quickly. What other films/stories are like this? Do they have anything in common other than this device?

Fordism in the Kitchen

The first thing to be said about Fordism is that it is about work: what people have to do for a living. It requires the rationalization of a process by breaking it into small component tasks, each of them quite simple. That allows them to be done quickly and efficiently by workers with relatively little skill and training. As a side effect the work is also boring and unfulfilling. It’s not something you’d do unless you were being paid to do it.

Early in the film, less than three minutes in, Remy—who narrates a voice-over—tells us that his sense of smell had become so finely tuned that he could detect the ingredients in food without having to eat it. His father was not impressed: “So, you can smell ingredients. So what?”

Then Remy detected rat poison on an apple core Dad was about to eat. Now Dad’s impressed. So he gave Remy the job of poison checker. The rats would pass before him in a line, giving him a sniff of their bit of food. He’d tell them whether or not it was safe. Boring.

Ratatouille 1 poison checker

He’s got an assembly-line job. To be sure, it’s a line with only a station of one. But he’s on the line. Anyone can see that, and many can empathize with him as they either have or have had similar thankless jobs.

Later, after he’s been through the sewer, made it to Paris, and into the kitchen at Gusteau’s, the imaginary Gusteau puts him though his paces as he shows his knowledge by identifying the various workers in the kitchen. Here they’ve spotted Linguini, the garbage boy:

Ratatouille 2 kitchen survey

Remy, the rat, tells Gusteau, the imaginary mentor, that he’s a nobody. Gusteau objects, he’s part of the kitchen staff and therefore not a nobody.

What we’re seeing, of course, is division of labor, not merely seeing it, but attending to it as a significant object of knowledge. Why? That is, why in this film? What work’s it doing?

It’s not quite assembly-line labor, though. There’s a bit more skill involved like, well, like animation. Later when she’s telling Remy about the kitchen staff, Colette reveals that each has an exotic past. That is, each is a ‘between the social cracks’ person, a misfit, an artist. But also a rat.

At the climax, when Remy has to prepare dinner without his staff, which walked out when he told them that all his talent was in his little rat friend, Remy’s old clan comes through and we really see Fordism in the kitchen, with tasks broken down more finely than in the ordinary division, and distributed across many more laborers. The breakdown isn’t spelled out for us in any detail of course, but we see that it is there.

Here the rat workers get a wash, something of a rite of passage, even a baptism:

Ratatouille 3 group wash

Remy assigns the teams to their stations:

Ratatouille 4 team 6

And off they go:

Ratatouille 5 to stations

Here we see Remy directing the action at one station:

Ratatouille 6 directing the action

The whole scene goes quickly and is relatively brief—I’ll bet it’s shorter than the clean-up scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is otherwise similar.

It is, shorter. But there’s an issue of how you measure them. I measured the scene in Snow White from the beginning to the end of “Whistle While You Work.” Running time: c. 3:18. I started measuring the Ratatouille scene from the point where we see the “wash hands” sign. If you end it when Collette returns to the kitchen and Linguini embraces her, which is when all the frenetic action ceases to be shown on-screen, it runs c. 1:37. If you measure to the point where Ego is served it’s 2:40.

There is, of course, an exception. Collette returns to the kitchen. After suppressing her impulse to retch upon seeing it overrun by industrious rats, she prepares the meal for Anton Ego, the food critic, and Skinner, the old chef. She works, of course, under Remy’s supervision. Directly under his supervision; Linguini is busy waiting tables.

As the film ends, Remy has his own kitchen in a bistro called La Ratatouille. It’s funded by Ego and fronted by Linguini and Collette. And his old rat clan has a nice dining room up in the eaves:

Ratatouille 7 rat dining room

They’ve become civilized, a separate society beside and within human society.

What’s Happened?

Perhaps we can think of this as a myth of the so-called creative class, as it’s now called, with the rats being the creatives. Remy is the chief creative. By forming an alliance with sympathetic humans—the son of a chef who himself has no talent and a critic who can write by not cook—he creates a reasonable, if hidden, place for himself in human society, that is, the society of ordinary working folks, and for his family and friends.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to develop a comparison with Dumbo. Some points of comparison:
  • triple-decker vs. double-decker protagonist, as mentioned above;
  • both are set in workplaces that most people see from the ‘front of the house’ as a place where they are served (restaurant) or entertained (circus);
  • explicit assembly-line in the kitchen in Ratatouille vs. the implicit evocation of assembly-lines through Dumbo’s repetition of elephants and their transformation into cars in the Pink Elephants sequence;
  • humans are much more prominent in Ratatouille, with the Linguini-Colette story being parallel in importance to Remy and family.
For extra-credit, discuss the two films in the context of their times. Does it make sense to read some of the differences as expressions of differences in society?

And then there’s the matter of aesthetics. Very tricky. Ratatouille is very pretty, and it’s longer and more complex. But think of the tent-raising scene, the frolic in the bath scene, and the crows, all in Dumbo. There’s nothing comparable in Ratatouille. Why? Is CGI ill-suited to such work? Or is it the Pixer’s not yet figured out how to do it?

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