Last night I watched Ratatouille, the excellent Pixar film featuring a rat (who is an excellent chef) and his adventures in a Paris restaurant. It also features Anton Ego, a critic of devastating reputation. Although Ego is used by the writers to satirize the role and cult of critics (as if his name wasn’t a clue) he actually has two moments that redeem him and critics generally.
When he sits down to write his review of the restaurant, that could destroy or make a career, he pauses for thought, then pens a review of unmitigated praise, that starts with these words:
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 probably 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.
This is salve to anyone who has ever felt the brunt of the critics’ scorn (and felt the nagging fear they may be onto something). But for me, an equally magical moment occurs some minutes before this scene, when he is served the titular dish. One mouthful and his mind shoots back to his childhood and memories of his mother cooking him dinner in a beautiful bucolic and fleeting scene. We discover Ego’s drive – he wants food that feeds his soul. He is bitter because he finds it so rarely.
I think all the great critics – of food, of theatre, of art, of literature, hell, even sport – are trying to find their equivalent of that mouthful of food that goes straight to their soul. And I believe audience members too want that, though perhaps they are not so mindful. But when they receive it, they know. I believe that because that is my experience when I go to the theatre, a film, pick up a book, or watch TV. Yes, much of that may be purely entertainment, fluff or time-filler, and excellent as examples of such. But I also need those shots to my soul. They may be irregular, but they must keep coming. Continue reading Soul food: a fourth letter from a voluntary exile