Vermin and critics

You know I love Pixar. One of the things that Pixar do supremely well is to make up new, self-contained worlds existing parallel to the real human one. And while Pixar’s animations have an extraordinary depth of humanity, the humans in the films are nearly always the menace to the fictional world. In Monsters Inc, kids are infectious agents who have to be confined and cleansed. In Toy Story, the toys are painfully vulnerable to their owners’ changing affections. And it’s the same in Ratatouille: humans threaten the rat-heroes with poison, guns and gibbets. When gastronomically-gifted rat Remy forms a bond with aspiring chef Linguine, the human world still menaces, in the form of a grasping head chef and a baddie food critic Anton Ego.

Anton Ego(Image © Disney/Pixar.) Wait, the villain is a critic? It seems almost churlish for a movie-making team who have had a conspicuously (and deservedly) smooth run with reviewers to make an assault on critics (Ratatouille hauls in a stupendous 96% fresh rating on the Tomatometer), but there you are. And not only is Ego a critic, but he’s a vociferously negative critic who rediscovers pleasure in a moment of Proustian bliss, then issues a long and thoughtful mea culpa before giving up criticism for creation:

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 themselves to our judgement. 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 a new talent, new creations. The new needs friends…

This is a description that marks critics as inferior to what they criticise. They’re parasites on culture. They’re feeding on the detritus. They’re vermin. They’re like rats, and maybe in a film where the emotional denoument is in the reconciliation of the human and the rat, treating criticism as an inferior species of culture deserves a little more inspection.

There’s a really nifty short film in the extras on the Ratatouille DVD called Your Friend The Rat which explains that the spread of the rat was parallel with then spread of humans. The two species thrive in the same habitats. The omnivorous rat flourishes on a human diet. In other words, we wouldn’t hate rats nearly so much if they weren’t so bloody similar to us. And maybe critics are the same, scooping up the crumbs and dirt of the “average piece of trash” and turning it into something good.

Criticism isn’t just what Ratatouille pretends it is – a hanger-on of the arts. It’s a craft of its own and it can be done well or poorly, but for most average pieces of trash, a good going-over by a strong critic in a fine fury is the best available fate. A railing Victorian bigot like Dr Cumming would have made nothing of any value at all, if he hadn’t given George Eliot ocassion to slam his sermons for their “smattering of science and learning.” “platitudes,” “bigoted narrowness” and “unctuous egoism.” The most interesting part of Big Brother every year is Charlie Brooker dismantling the show’s mechanics in Screen Burn. And, while a self-indulgent kicking is unwelcome, it’s not any more despicable than the sort of writing that piles mewling approval on top of success and pretends that championing the biggest and the boringest is a work of passion.