Friday, July 6, 2007
A Feast of Cinema
Over the last twelve years, Pixar Animation Studios has maintained a consistent level of quality in their movies. Though I haven't fallen in love with all of them (e.g. A Bug's Life, Cars), their "disappointments" are usually good enough films in their own rights, and are only labelled considered minor efforts due to the high quality audiences and critics have come to expect from them and. Pixar has become renowned for combining visually unique animation styles with accessible, yet genuine stories that are all but lost in the majority of Hollywood moviemaking. Pixar's repertoire therefore represents a celebration of innovation and tradition, a fusion that manifests in different ways in all of their movies from the great to the good.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Brad Bird's Ratatouille is consistent with Pixar's standard of quality filmmaking. However, its status as a Pixar production may actually work against itself. An average viewer has certain expectations of a Pixar/Disney film in that its oriented towards children, is animated (often associated with children in the American mainstream), and features talking animals (again, associated with children's films). Make no mistake, though; this is a brilliant movie. Not a brilliant Pixar movie. Not a brilliant animated movie. A brilliant movie. So brilliant, I contend, that I would proclaim Brad Bird as one of the really unique voices in American cinema.
At one of my favorite blogs, My Five Year Plan, Brendon Bouzard has written a brief account of the movie that succinctly surmises why this movie is so good. In this short piece, Bouzard takes note of the film's visual style, specifically its "filmness". He writes:
"Here’s another thing to geek out about, animation nerds: if you were ever bugged (as I sometimes was, especially in A Bug’s Life) by the extreme deep-focus cinematography of computer animation, your worries are over. Ratatouille’s greatest formal innovation might be the incredible way it articulates focus as a storytelling element into popular computer animation. Its execution here is flawless, perfectly mimicking the depths-of-focus one might expect from various lensings used in the film, and adding yet another layer of stunning false indexicality to draw a viewer into the narrative."
Bouzard's comments strike the perfect chord in light of the stalled dialogue concerning digital cinema. Ratatouille, despite being purely digital, nonetheless exhibits a real love of the art of filmmaking: the cinematic staging of actors and mise en scene, the simple beauty of composition, the depth-of-focus in how the camera "captures", and the shear viscera of movement. This movie is not over-edited, but rather enjoys its "filmness" despite not existing as "film". Interestingly, Bouzard was responsible for some of the finest writing I've come across about another film which blends the photographic with the digital: Miami Vice. In different ways, both Vice and Ratatouille represent crucial works in the advancement of the medium of digital cinema. They each acknowledge and romanticize their photographic origins and properties, but which actively pursue new syntactical approaches to how we see cinematic images and construct the world of a film in our memory.
There are moments in Ratatouille so visually arresting and yet challenging at the same time. Its images do not exist for the spectator to become a passive recipient of information. These images actively involve the viewer in the construction of the "world" of the movie, which (in my mind) is closely connected to a movie's affective abilities. As we process the visual, auditory, and narrative information, we construct a knowledge of the cinematic space occupied by the characters and action. Too often, this aspect of film viewing goes unrecognized in criticism, but I maintain that the construction of cinematic space is crucial; specifically, how a viewer makes sense of a moving image and constructs a relational memory of its elements. This is no doubt an intricate process that I couldn't even begin to lay out in precise detail, suffice to say that the film exhibits a joy for movement and cinematic space that takes advantage of its digital and analogic properties. The end result is a film with so many memorable moments, images, and feelings that is both incredibly subtle and accessible to all viewers.
Its richness is found in moments both large and small, from the rich detail of the film's rainy opening shot, to the sweeping majesty of Paris when it is first revealed. Amazing detail went into the construction of every aspect of this movie; its tones of atmosphere and feeling come through in every scene and every shot. Some of these can be easily noticed and described. Others need to be enjoyed to be understood.
Apart from the details of the film's form, I simply marvel at how Bird, his animators, and actors gives life to the characters and narrative. The central relationship of the movie, between Remy, a rat who loves to cook, and Linguini, a clumsy amateur chef is brought to such poignant life. Yes, the structure of the film dictates that this relationship undergo conventional patterns of conflict, but the beauty of their relationship is in the small exchanges between them. One such example is immediately following their intial awkward meeting, when Linguini has the assignment of getting rid of Remy. Watching their budding relationship, the expressiveness of the eyes, the awkward speech and movements of a flustered boy without direction, and the vulnerable body motions of Remy, I was reminded of the births of so many memorable relationships in cinema, in particular Eliott and E.T. or between Chaplin and the bling girl in City Lights. Something so naive is captured in nuances of the characters' eyes and faces against the lonely backdrop of riverside Paris.
Ratatouille is full of moments like this. In the thematic background is an earnest inquiry into the nature of identity. Remy's basic conflict of his desire to interact with humans and engage in the very human art of cooking is in direct contrast with what his family, in particular his father, believes. The film does not so simply side with Remy and paint his family as buffoons who need to grow. Remy sometimes sees them as such, sometimes validly, sometimes invalidly. The whole movie deals with the notion that perception is often determined based on social context and one's own positioning in relation to that which is perceived. Remy's father has good reason to keep away from humans, yet Remy (in a moment of defeat and conquer) claims that "nature is change," before walking away from his father. When asked where he was going, Remy says, "With any luck, forward."
The above description may paint a picture of a movie that speechifies or condescends with messages about embracing those different from you. (I would expect that too if I hadn't seen the movie!) Incredibly, the films instead serves up these conflicts and ideas in subtle ways, allowing the viewer to feel them and ponder them. There are dimensions to all of the characters, some that go completely unnoticed by other characters, even viewers. Even the seemingly elitist critic, Anton Ego, is revealed to be much more complex than others (even himself) allow themselves to see. This thematic note is the center of whole film, and it strikes a resounding chord.
I wish I could recount all of Ratatouille's treasures. But I think I'll turn it to A.O. Scott, in his excellent review serves up the best possible conclusion to a reflection on such a masterpiece:
"Remy and Mr. Bird take a stand in defense of an artisanal approach that values both tradition and individual talent: classic recipes renewed by bold, creative execution. The movie’s grand climax, and the source of its title, is the preparation of a rustic dish made of common vegetables — a dish made with ardor and inspiration and placed, as it happens, before a critic. And what, faced with such a ratatouille, is a critic supposed to say? Sometimes the best response is the simplest. Sometimes “thank you” is enough."