The Work of a Critic Is Easy?

When Pixar  announced that their entry into the already over-crowded litter of critter movies in 2007 was to be about a rat, to paraphrase Hermione Gingold in THE MUSIC MAN: “I was reticent. Oh, yes, I was reticent!” Even with Pixar’s credentials, how could they pull off a film about vermin? But RATATOUILLE served up a smorgasbord of sights and sounds, topped off by Michael Giacchino’s delicious score.

That RATATOUILLE was the frontrunner for the Oscar for Animated Film was a given, and Giacchino’s score nomination was a well-earned surprise. But it was director Brad Bird’s delicious screenplay that proved to be the most satisfying nomination for me. I’d venture to say he and his fellow nominees–Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco–received that nomination for one scene in particular.

The nasty food critic Anton Ego, played with jaded weariness by Peter O’Toole, after years of thumbing his nose at the French restaurant Gusteau’s, goes back to see what all the fuss is about. In a rare bit of introspection, he sums up his review–and his life–in one of the finest pieces of screenwriting I have ever heard. It bears repeating in full.

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.

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 about fine cooking 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, 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.

Accompanied by gentle strings, accordion, and mandolin playing the score’s memorable main theme, the scene touched me in a way I was not expecting. I got tears in my eyes then, and I still do each time I watch this scene.

I keep a copy of Ego’s speech taped above my desk to remind me of exactly where I stand in “the grand scheme of things.” I feel my job as a writer, and certainly as a reviewer, is to give my readers just a taste of what a composer has to offer, not all seven courses, and encourage them to sample the meal themselves. This is why I write. This is why I return to film music over and over again, “hungry for more,” to experience the old and the new and share them with you.

Dig in!

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