Posted by Jay Livingston
“Ratatouille” opened to universally great reviews, and it’s a delightful film. The more important question for Hollywood, though, is not whether a film is good but whether it will make money. No, not just whether it will make money but whether it will make a lot of money. “Ratatouille” had an opening weekend gross of “only” $47.2 million, and people at Disney already felt they had to spin the numbers to rebut claims that the movie was a disappointment.
The “trades” (I love using show-biz lingo) were comparing it unfavorably with “Cars,” Pixar’s 2006 summer movie and a big money make. But besides the financial comparison, the two films also provide an interesting cultural comparison. They exemplify the “culture wars,” the red-state blue-state divide.
“Cars” embodied the Nascar red-state mythology, not just because of its obvious theme (stock car racing) and setting (the American Southwest) but because of its moral: the triumph of American small-town virtues (friendship, community) over egotistical self-fulfillment and achievement.
“Ratatouille,” by comparison, is downright unAmerican. I imagine Disney-Pixar was taking a chance even with the title, a foreign word unknown to many Americans, and most of those who do know it probably can’t spell it. On the other hand, what could be more American than “Cars”? The movie is set in France, a country US patriots were boycotting not so long ago (remember “freedom fries”?). As for the virtues of bucolic settings, the rural life shown at the start of the film has little to recommend it, and our hero, the rat Remy, quickly winds up in Paris. And this movie loves Paris, a city which has long been, in the American imagination, the antithesis of down-home American virtues and values. Paris is tempting because of its sensuality (“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?”) but ultimately evil.
Even the basic concept of the film must seem foreign to the red-state mentality. It’s not about a manly pursuit like driving fast; it’s about cooking. While other films may extol just plain folks who eat plain simple food that nobody made too much of a fuss over in preparing, “Ratatouille” dismisses such an attitude as unworthy. Food is something that requires attention, both in the cooking and the eating. And the film takes frequent jabs at the American way of eating. It makes Remy’s rival (the evil chef Skinner) all the more repugnant by having him promote his line of micorwavable frozen foods – burritos, pizzas, and other things you’d find in many American freezers. Even worse, he has his people working to produce a frozen corn dog.
The attack on American bread is a bit more subtle – a didactic speech by a female chef giving the audience a lesson in what makes for good bread: a crunchy crust. The slap at our preference for squishy bread (Wonder) is so obvious she doesn’t need to say it out loud.
Despite this unAmerican aura, the film seems to be “doing well,” and the grosses from the weekend will probably look encouraging. I take these numbers as a sign that things are changing in America, that good food, even good European food, is not something that happens only on the coasts. Remember the Republican attacks on Democrats in recent elections as “brie-eating, chablis-drinking” pretentious snobs? But stores in the heartland are selling brie and chablis. David Kamp is probably exaggerating in calling America The United States of Arugula, but apparently a lot of Americans now at least know what arugula is.
In fact, the red-state blue-state division may be less an accurate representation of reality than a convenient stereotype dreamed up by politicians and the press. Like any stereotype, it may be a useful shorthand with some truth to it, but like other stereotypes, it can also make real-life contradictions harder to see. Not so long ago, a caffe latte was an exotic drink reported on by adventurous tourists returning from Italy. Now, every kid in Iowa and Wyoming has grown up with Starbucks. The drinks have been Americanized (a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup makes the espresso go down), but now latte and cappuccino are as American as pizza.
Maybe the next time you stop in at Flo’s Café in Radiator Springs, the menu will feature ratatouille.