Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Rat Who Cooks. A God Who Cares

Yesterday E. and I went to the AMC 16 in Emeryville to catch the 7:05 showing of Ratatouille, the Pixar movie in which a rat -- he reads, he aspires, he has large neonatal eyes -- becomes a master chef. It is a movie with great charm, obviously scripted by someone immersed in Bay Area foodie culture and filled with details (a passion for saffron; a sauce for sweetbreads) that must have eluded all the kids who surrounded us in the auditorium, having dragged to the show, or been dragged by, the adults who sat beside them.

The laughs in the audience seemed mostly from those adults, bass and contralto, not the thin tenors or shrieking sopranos of the tykes. But as I laughed I worried: What is the point, the subtext, of a fantasy suggesting rats can cook, and desperately want to? Where does reality impinge? How to tease out the allegorical implications? Here's an odd thing to say about so beautifully a conceived fantasy world: I’m seeing it and not believing it. Other popular cartoon features are unambiguously anchored in reality. Shrek and his donkey pal come direct from kid life on any schoolyard. I hardly needed to squint. Baby Dumbo flapped his ears and soared, and that dream is so common that, in fact, we actually dream it.

But a rat cooking haute cuisine and not only cooking but embraced and celebrated for that ability? I found myself filled with apprehension, even dread, as if the cartoon were some kind of gritty noir. I was afraid for the rat, thinking the filmmaker might suddenly realize that the fabric of plausibility was shredded, that only tragedy could redeem it and that it was time for the a King Kong ending:

‘T was fois gras killed the beast.

And I’m thinking this even though I’d read the reviews and knew, of course, it must have a happy ending, and not just for the children. People should pay me to go to their movies, so ferociously do I take my suspension of disbelief and carry it far afield. It's a cartoon, and I had trouble accepting the happy ending.

Speaking of which, last week I sampled another fantasy, the new TNT series Saving Grace, with Holly Hunter as a drinking, swearing, fornicating Oklahoma City detective who is on the road to hell, or so the story insists, when a tobacco-spitting redneck angel materializes to get her straightened out. You have already read that the angel chews tobacco, a habit praised in tones that suggest that is not only novel but also daring, possibly trend-setting.

Nah, it's just cute.

If the angel at first seems as country as a Baptist revival, he’s pure bland Universalist at bottom, since he makes clear he succours the nearly doomed the whole world over, fronting for each and every religion that has a god on its books. And I think he works the Buddhists, too, though I could be wrong.

I resisted this premise. I love Holly Hunter, pinched little down-home voice and all. Seeing her drink, swear and fornicate -- there is splendor in her onscreen fornication and a nice amount of skin -- draws me like a low moth to a dirty flame. But, aha, the point is she’s sad for all the jolly booze and sex. That’s why we are supposed to be glad she gets her angel. She needs an intervention.

(I think in Canada everyone has an angel as part of their National Health Service, though sometimes you have to wait for a month or two. That's a joke.)

We learn she was molested by a priest. She was indirectly the cause of her sister getting blown up in the Murrah Building. She needs something. At minimum she needs to cheer up and take her vitamins. Or a good spanking. Or a good man. Or even a good woman -- why not? What she gets is an angel who is intent on ....

Not sure what he is intent on. What intrigues me in this series other than the irresistible Ms. Hunter is what we will discover to be the necessary specifics of her redemption, just what she is going to have to give up to make her, god and the angel (not in that order perhaps but in what order I’m not sure) happy. Will she have to give up drinking? Cursing? Being rude to people? Fornicating?? Or perhaps just adultery since she’s sleeping with her cop partner, who is married?

So, two things draw me in. The most important is that Holly Hunter is a sexy mess, a 49-year-old sexy mess, which is congenial to imagine. I’m going to cut any show in which she appears a lot of slack. Second thing is that the premise is intriguing for someone from my religious background and has come to doubt. God really is in the details. Just why is she going to hell? Is it what she does or that she does it to excess? Or that it brings her no joy? It got God interested in her. So what are God’s rules?

I have read several reviews. One reviewer said maybe you can regard the angel as an illusion, created by her as a way out of the mess of her life. Well, that doesn’t seem to be true, given internal evidence to the contrary: The angel has angel DNA! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. But, skeptic that I am, in spite of that I do not need, nor do I want, to interpret away the essence of the show, to refuse to accept the angel as real in the show's particular universe. One of the pleasures of fantasy is that sometimes its pleasures are deepest when it asserts what we cannot possibly believe, but the appeal of which we understand even as we understand the dangers of the illusion. We have faith in the fiction, as it were. We trust and obey.

Except. Except. Why would you want to imagine a rat cooking for you even if you do see it wash its little paws?


Marianaria Sra. bibliotecaria said...

I really really tried to like that film, but an instinctive aversion to rats in kitchen (mice too -- all rodents. Add insects. Or whatever ant are) kept getting in my way.

It probably didn't help that I'm not really a foodie.

I saw it in a not-very-filled theater, and don't recall any kids particularly laughing it up. But then, most of the adults weren't either.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Could this be an only in coastal California movie?

Marianaria Sra. bibliotecaria said...

I think it's a foodie movie, which covers more areas than just coastal CA.

A rave review in the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that some people connected with the movie took cooking classes for something like two years -- maybe three -- to get the kitchen moves right.

I guess that makes it really popular with chefs?

....J.Michael Robertson said...

In short, an excuse to play in the kitchen while they were "making a movie." Pleasant.

Banjo said...

The scene where the rat takes the curlers out of its fur -- while ironing! -- was jaw-dropping. I'd like to see an explanation of how Pixar pulled that off.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

And the answer is: a spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility. I'm surprised you didn't know that.