Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ratatouille, a Quick Note on Man, Vermin and Food

This recent blogging about animals and animation has made me think of Pixar’s Ratatouille, which mostly takes place in a city, Paris, and sometimes in the sewers. It is not, of course, a feature from the Golden Age. Rather, it is quite recent, 2007, and in CGI. Alas, I don’t have time to give it a full treatment. This brief note will have to do for now.

Let’s start with a passage from Lois Rostow Kuznets, When Toys Come Alive: Narratives of Animation, Metamorphosis, and Development (1994). We’re late in the book, with a discussion of the relations of man and beast in Western thought (p. 140):
The gap between man and beast has not gone unquestioned. In The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (1933), George Boas describes a challenge to this way of thinking [man over beast] in the form of primitivism. According to Boas, the French primitivists were men who not only “looked to their pre-civilized fellows as exemplars of human conduct,” but who sometimes “turned their admiring glances below man and found the true models in the animals” (1). He calls this philosophy “theriophily,” and notes that in this line of thinking “natural” is always superior to civilized (which becomes regarded as overcivilized and effete).
So, in Ratatouille our protagonist is not only an animal, but a rat, named Remy. Rats are vermin. They’re not pets, like cats, dogs, or parakeets; nor work animals, like horses or some breeds of dogs; nor are they game animals, like squirrel or deer; nor fur animals, like beaver, raccoon, or mink. They eat anything, including trash—THAT, I suspect, is why they’re classed as vermin (here we should dip into the anthropological literature on taboo, but I’ve not the time). We hunt them to rid ourselves of them, but we don’t eat their flesh nor wear their pelts.

Remy, however, is no ordinary rat. He’s a gourmet, and he’s learned to cook by stealing glances at a TV cooking show hosted by the great Gusteau, whose motto “Anyone can cook” gets stretched to include at least one rat, Remy. So, a creature culturally classified as a trash-eater is cast as a superior chef.

And this is in a culture inundated with industrialized food production. I’m thinking not only of fast food, with its McMeat, McFries, and McEverying, but also of all the processed and packaged food filling our supermarkets. And of factory farms.

It’s into THAT culture the Pixar tosses a rat chef and sends him into battle against McFood.

But it’s not as though Remy can just stroll into Paris, hang out his shingle, and take the food world by storm. No, he’s got to go underground, literally. He arrives in Paris through the sewer and finds himself looking at the restaurant of his idol.

But Gusteau has died and the restaurant has been taken over by Skinner, once Gusteau’s sous-chef. Skinner wants to become rich by marketing a line of microwaveable McFood under the Gusteau label. Gusteau’s son, Linguini, arrives at the restaurant and is hired as a garbage boy, the very bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. Except that Linguini doesn’t know he’s Gusteau’s son, nor does Skinner. And there’s a young woman in the kitchen, Colette, the only woman in the kitchen. She ends up as Linguini’s girlfriend, and the three of them, boy, girl, and rat, end up going into business with a disgraced food critic, Anton Ego, who fronts them the cash to open up their own bistro, La Ratatouille.

Just how that all works out is a bit complicated, which I won’t go into. What interests me now is that, through a rather improbable bit of circumstance—but no more improbable than a country rat learning to cook by watching TV—Linguini gets a chance to rise above garbage boy and become a cook. A job for which he has no preparation, and perhaps little talent (despite being Gusteau’s illegitimate son). Solution: Remy will guide and teach him.

Just how does THAT work?

Though humans, of course, talk among themselves, and rats as well. Humans and rats do not engage in cross-species talk (which Paul Wells discusses in The Animated Bestiary, pp. 120-121). Remy sits atop Remy’s head, beneath his toque, and directs his movements, marionette like, by pulling his hair this way and that. The human man-child has become the Pinocchio-marionette controlled by a rat, a rat who’s a gourmet chef. Together they vanguish the adult human who wants to submit food to the methods of Fordist production.

Thus we have a story about an animal, Remy, who is superior to a human, Linguini. But he is superior, not in a natural way, an animal way, if you will, but in a cultural way. He has mastered the intricacies of French cuisine, which is no more natural than any other cuisine.

Remy achieves this victory with a vegetable dish that Collette questions Skinner dismisses as “peasant food”—ratatouille, an eggplant-based vegetable stew. But it transports the critic, Anton Ego, back to his childhood when his mother made ratatouille. Yay, mom!

There’s a lot packed into this film.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out the correspondences of motif and them between this film and Dumbo. For starters:
• Timothy Mouse guides Dumbo, Remy guides Linguini.
• Fordism shows up in Ratatouille as the degradation of food, but in Dumbo it’s the production of pink elephants.
• Dumbo is reunited with his mother; Remy gets the girl—quite a switch that, but still, a relationship between a male protagonist and a woman.
My point is that some of the same motifs show up in these very different films. They’re made over 60 years apart; they’re both animated, but by different technology; and they function in very different cultural contexts. Despite the war in Europe and Asia, which America joined shortly after Dumbo was released, Disney looked optimistically toward the future and technology. Ratatouille comes into a world where the environment is compromised and degrading further, and technology is part of the threat.

Ratatouille seeks a return to, not natural food (remember, we’re talking French cuisine), but to, well, food that’s not mechanized. Dumbo, as I’ve argued, seeks reconciliation with the modern, with the machine. In the old movie machines are good, even natural—remember the pink elephants transforming themselves into cars? In the new movie, mechanization is bad.

Now, do I believe all this? Some of it I do, of course. But mostly I’m just making it up. Tossing it into the webtubes for further consideration.

I wonder whether the webtubes meet up with the sewers of Paris?


  1. Agriculture, the production of food, is the earliest and possibly best example of the intersections of culture and technology. The advent of tool use in sowing and harvesting enabled all other forms of technological progress, because mechanizing and organizing farming created more food which allowed us to create more people and thus more culture, and in turn more technologies and more mechanization...

    1. Yes. Agriculture goes back a long way, and is basic.