A.O. Scott is a chief film critic for the New York Times and is the Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University. His book is Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott. The movie that changed him is Ratatouille. And don’t worry if you haven’t seen it; we’re gonna give you all the details to follow along. But if you have, get ready to re-live this Pixar classic.
But before we get started, a special shout-out to our Minneapolis friends. We’re doing a live recording of This Movie Changed Me with artist, activist, and Minneapolis city council member, Andrea Jenkins. We’ll be at the Parkway Theater on Sunday, September 29th talking about Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Malcolm X. You can get your tickets at theparkwaytheater.com and use the promo code “MovieFriends” to get 20% off.
[music: “Losing Control” by Michael Giacchino]
The first time I saw Ratatouille, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was seeing a rat cooking in a kitchen. It’s something that, you know, if you’ve ever lived in New York City or any major city in the U.S. — Minneapolis included where I currently live, you fear rats. And yet there is something so delightful and extraordinary about watching this rat create his masterpieces.
[music: “Wall Rat” by Michael Giacchino]
The main rat in Ratatouille is Remy, and he’s voiced by the comedian Patton Oswalt who also loves food, so watching him explore Remy’s creations is especially lovely. Remy wants to be a chef in the tradition of the great French chef, Gusteau. And he realizes the only way he can accomplish this is by working in Gusteau’s kitchen in Paris.
[music: “Cast of Cooks” by Michael Giacchino]
So Remy infiltrates the kitchen. He goes in and starts to observe all the other chefs that are working in there, and starts to pick up tricks of the trade, and then also starts to correct certain recipes that are being created in that. Ultimately changing the way that the food tastes in the restaurant.
[music: “Abandoning Ship” by Michael Giacchino]
One person who starts to notice the changing food in the restaurant that Remy is cooking at is the food critic Anton Ego. It’s a very appropriate name because he believes that he knows the best food when he tastes it. He believes he knows how to tell everyone else about the best food and he can really close down a restaurant just based on his reviews alone.
[music: “Abandoning Ship” by Michael Giacchino]
One of the things that Anton Ego realizes in Ratatouille is that it’s become harder and harder for him to find food that he loves, food that moves him. But he’s still hoping and searching. And that relationship between critic and creator — between Anton Ego and Remy — is something that really resonated with movie critic A.O. Scott when he first saw Ratatouille, and it ultimately ended up changing the way that he approached his work.
Ms. Percy: Well, I’d like to take you back in time for a minute by asking you to close your eyes — it’s like a meditative exercise — and for ten seconds, I want you to think about the first time that you saw Ratatouille, and think about where you were and how it made you feel. And then, once the ten seconds are up, I will chime back in.
So what memories came up for you just then?
A.O. Scott: It’s funny, because I saw it, for the first time, in my capacity as a reviewer for The New York Times, so it was at an all-media screening, which is basically a sneak preview where they have some of the rows taped off for the press. And right from the beginning, which I think is often true of the better Pixar movies, you’re just in this world, in this imaginary world that, even before you know what’s going on in it or what the story is going to be, has a kind of clarity and makes sense, in a way. And it was really only toward the end of the movie that I began to really get excited about it on an intellectual level, because I thought, “This movie is about art and creativity and criticism.” It’s a movie that, in the guise of being about a rat who learns to cook, is about all of the things that I care about and am interested in, and is going very deep into the reason that I do what I do.
And I love the fact that there’s the critic, whose name is Anton, which is a version of my own name, Anthony, Anton, Antoine, Tony, who —
Ms. Percy: And then, “Ego,” his last name. [laughs]
Mr. Scott: … and Ego; well, no shortage of that [laughs] in this profession …
Ms. Percy: Exactly. [laughs]
Mr. Scott: …but who is set up, in the movie, to be misunderstood. And one of the things — not to get too self-pitying or dramatic about it, but critics often feel misunderstood. There’s often a feeling that what we do and what we’re trying to do is just not really — not only not appreciated, but also, just fundamentally not — people just don’t get it. People say, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to ruin everybody’s fun?” “Why don’t you like food?” they say to Anton Ego, because it seems that he doesn’t. He’s holding things to these impossibly high standards. Everyone else wants to go out and have a good time, as people do at the movies, and here you are, finding fault and passing judgment and taking the wrong things too seriously in the wrong way. And I think that the movie ends up being an appreciation and a defense of what Ego does; what criticism is; why it’s important to the arts and to artists, in a way that I hadn’t come across, certainly, in any other movie.
When there are critics in movies, they usually are buffoons or villains or just bad guys. And you could understand why filmmakers, who’ve had their own experiences with critics, [laughs] would be inclined to see us that way.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Would lash out?
[music: “Kiss & Vinegar” by Michael Giacchino]
You write about it so beautifully in your book, Better Living Through Criticism. You write about Ratatouille, and actually, you shared this wonderful reflection on Anton Ego. You describe him as someone who “approaches food with a rigor and reverence more likely to bring him pain than pleasure,” and you also quote a scene from the movie, where an innocent diner asks him, as you write, “Don’t you like food?” And Anton Ego says, “No, I love food.” And you talk about the emphasis on that word, “love.” You say that it “evokes religious devotion rather than romantic longing or erotic pleasure. And that love, which exists on an ideal, platonic plane, produces a steady diet of disappointment in the actual, secular world of ordinary eating.”
And I think what you’re getting at there is this thing that is misunderstood about critics, which is that it’s because you love what you’re talking about so much that you take it so seriously. And I wonder if, at that point in your career, when you saw this movie and you saw Anton Ego, if it changed your approach to your own work in any way.
Mr. Scott: I think that it did. And it was one of the reasons that I went on to write that book …
Ms. Percy: Oh, wow.
Mr. Scott: … which is a kind of an attempt to defend and explore and define and just to understand what criticism is — not necessarily what the job of a professional critic is, but where the activity of criticism comes from, because — we all judge. We all compare. We all analyze. We all interpret. We take these experiences that we have that are meaningful and powerful to us, but often very confusing and mysterious, and try to hold them up to some scrutiny, try to initiate a conversation about them, or try to just figure out how we feel about them.
And what I thought about with Ratatouille was that, in suggesting that the origins of criticism, for Ego, are love, and then, later on, in that amazing flashback scene, discovering the origins of that love —
Ms. Percy: Where he’s transported back in time because of the ratatouille that Remy makes him.
Mr. Scott: Exactly. Remy makes him this ratatouille, and it’s one of those great little Pixar short-films-within-the-film, where you discover — and this is a kind of magical thing that happens, that Remy didn’t even necessarily know it. He made the food which is the primal comfort food of Anton Ego. And so all of this longing, emotion, memory, childhood experiences; the sensation of falling off his bike and skinning his knee and then being comforted by stewed eggplant and zucchini — which is kind of an interesting thing to give your child, but whatever, that’s France. The art — that is to say, Remy’s cooking — awakened those feelings in him. And then, his job was to give some expression to that experience in a way that wasn’t personal, that wasn’t revealing that experience. He doesn’t do what some critics nowadays might do, which is, tell the story of his mother’s ratatouille …
Ms. Percy: Yeah, his own personal connection to it.
Mr. Scott: Right. But he puts that in there. He puts that into the review, and of course, then, he gets fired from his job, because it’s — this is a meal cooked by vermin, and the place gets shut down.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Literally, a staff of rats are cooking the food.
Mr. Scott: Yes. But it did really get me thinking about the relationship between artists and critics — because I think it’s a fascinating one between Remy and Ego in that movie — and what they are to each other, and how critics serve the cause of art. So it certainly did affect the way I thought about it. I can’t say it directly changed my practice as a critic, but it did, I think, affect my attitude toward what I do and, in a way, my theory of it.
[music: “Anyone Can Cook” by Michael Giacchino]
[music: “Ratatouille Main Theme” by Michael Giacchino]
Ms. Percy: As we’ve been hearing A.O. Scott affirm: Movies change lives. And we want to know how they’ve changed yours. Subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll send you our weekly reflection question along with instructions on how to share a voice recording of your response with us. This week’s question is “What movie inspired you in your career?” As an added bonus for subscribing to our newsletter, we’ll also enter you in a drawing to receive your very own copy of Ratatouille. Visit onbeing.org/tmcmletter and subscribe today.
[music: “Souped Up” by Michael Giacchino]
Ms. Percy: It’s so fascinating to me — you were saying, often, in movies, critics are portrayed as villains. And I have to say, when I first saw this movie, I didn’t see Ego as a villain, but I definitely didn’t really see him as a sympathetic character. But he really is the core of Ratatouille in so many ways, Anton Ego. That beautiful line that you quoted in your New York Times review of the movie — “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere” — it is so central to the understanding and joy of the movie, and it comes in this form of a character that, on the surface, is supposed to be unlikable.
Mr. Scott: And I think he seems — because he is very forbidding — the way that Peter O’Toole does the voice; the way that he’s drawn, almost as a kind of vampire figure; he lives in this dark, coffin-shaped apartment —
Ms. Percy: [laughs] He looks like someone who never eats, by the way.
Mr. Scott: Right — who never eats and never smiles and is just completely sour.
But he is the person in the movie who explains and, in a way, vindicates Remy — this idea that Ego is — he has very high standards, but he’s free from snobbery. That is, he needs everything he eats to prove itself on its own terms. So he’s not thinking about, “Well, what is the reputation of this restaurant?” because Gusteau’s, of course, is coasting on its reputation and serving pretty lousy food. And the customers who keep going in and eating this lousy food are, in a way, seduced by this reputation and are missing what’s really going on and have maybe lost sight of the real possibilities of quality and innovation and creativity that still exists in cooking. And it’s Ego’s job, it’s the critic’s job, to be the radar that detects those things. And I take that to mean anything that comes along that is exciting, challenging — that fulfills some of the possibilities of creativity; of human or, for that matter, of rodent creativity. The job of critics is to discover that and to be able to make a case for it, for the public.
[music: “Special Order” by Michael Giacchino]
Ms. Percy: I love the way you — when you talk about the kind of danger that can happen, as a critic, in becoming cynical as you get older. And it really strikes me, in that last line — the line that Anton Ego says after he’s been transported back in time to his childhood, after he’s bitten into the ratatouille, where he says, “I can’t remember the last time I asked the waiter to give my compliments to the chef.” He’s gotten to a point where he’s so jaded and so cynical that even being able to recognize this love in the work is hard. And I just wonder, as your role — your role as a critic, but also, as a human being — how this movie has continued to change for you as you’ve gotten older, and you’ve watched it more often.
Mr. Scott: Well, I think — I’m glad you bring up that line, because I think that that’s a very important one, which is that whether you’re talking about food or about movies, you’re talking about, inevitably, about commercial products. You’re talking about things that are bought and sold and produced for profit. And that’s certainly true — Pixar is part of the Walt Disney corporation, which is growing by the minute. But when you’re a critic, it’s important to be aware of that and to keep an eye out for the compromises. And this is something that Skinner, the true villain of the movie, the guy who’s taken over Gusteau’s restaurant, certainly represents, which is the corruption of art; because Skinner knows that there’s a brand, that there’s the Gusteau brand and that people are gonna buy it, whatever’s in it, so that he can water down or sacrifice the creativity and the art. And that happens a lot in movies; I don’t need to tell you. There are a lot of movies where you see how commercial imperatives keep a lid on, or extinguish entirely, the real creativity and artistry that you’re looking for.
But you have to keep yourself alert to it and not give up on it. And what I often hope is that if I reach a point where I can’t find the new, or give up on finding it, that I’ll have the good sense to step away, because I think that is a betrayal of the ethic of criticism if you decide that all of the good work, all of the important work, all of the new, is old, is in the past, is not in front of you. Then, I think, actually, criticism can become harmful and can become stultifying.
Ms. Percy: And then you lose the love you had for it, the love that you had for the work.
Mr. Scott: Right. Or it’s only nostalgic. It’s only “Well, movies were great,” because everyone —
Ms. Percy: [laughs] “This one time period — this is when they were great.”
Mr. Scott: Right; “this one time period,” which always coincides, almost always coincides with the late teens and early 20s …
Ms. Percy: Yep, no coincidence. [laughs]
Mr. Scott: … which, of course, because you were young; you were going on dates …
Ms. Percy: You were finding out who you were.
Mr. Scott: You were finding out who you were. Everything was new to you; you had strong and passionate opinions; and, of course, everything was — the world was made for you, in a way. And then, you get into middle age and beyond, and the world isn’t “for you” in the same way. But you don’t need to blame the world for that.
And I think that the great role model for me, among critics — and not only for me, for a great many film critics — is Roger Ebert, in that regard, because he never — he was always looking ahead. He was always excited when he walked into the screening room, and the lights went down. He was with — he always had the hope or the expectation of seeing something that he hadn’t seen before. And he kept that kind of faith right up to the end. So that, to me, is the great example of how to keep the critical spirit, which is a spirit of openness and of love, alive in yourself.
[music: “Le Festin” by Camille]
Ms. Percy: A.O. Scott teaches film criticism at Wesleyan University and he’s also a chief film critic for The New York Times. His book is called Better Living Through Criticism.
Walt Disney Pictures and the Pixar Animation Studios produced Ratatouille, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. The movie’s soundtrack is off of Walt Disney Records and composed by Michael Giacchino, the man behind the music for Up, Coco, and The Incredibles.
Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about the Marvel gem, Black Panther. You’ve got a week to watch it before our next conversation, and lucky for us, it’s currently streaming on Netflix. Prepare yourself — Wakanda is calling.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy, and I’m going go make the food that reminds me of home: arepas with poached eggs and a side of avocados. And lime juice on top of course.