Thursday, February 26, 2009

Elitism and the films of Brad Bird

Excerpted from my post of May 12, 2008
It is important to understand what the word “elitist” connotes. While “elite” stands for the best of the best, the pinnacle of achievement, the word “elitist” carries with it implications of snobbery and condescension stemming from a sense of presumptuous superiority. In other words, people want to be elite; nobody wants to be elitist. From my experience, this is a uniquely American sentiment. I challenge someone to find a non-American equivalent to the rhetorical saying, “What, you think you’re better than me?!” Chances are, if that question was asked in another country, someone would actually answer “Yes” and not feel the slightest ounce of shame or embarrassment if his response was accurate.
There is a certain characteristic about each of us that can be difficult to discuss. It’s not race, gender, religion, or even sexuality (though these are at many times difficult to honestly discuss). No, in America, even the most open-minded and equivocating liberal can get squeamish when discussing the characteristic of achievement. If you are the best at something, you had better keep it to yourself, lest you sound like you are bragging, and nobody likes a braggart. Bragging hurts people’s feelings, and is relegated to the caricatured world of hip-hop.
Well, there is one non-rapper in whom elitism has found a sympathetic voice. His name is Brad Bird, and he is the writer and director of the Academy-Award winning Pixar movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille. These two movies not only are about the elite, but these movies celebrate elitism.
Brad Bird has been outspoken in his support for animation as a tool to express his vision. Listening to him during his interviews on the DVD extras, I easily got the impression that he thinks very highly of himself. What’s more, I couldn’t disagree, certainly not after watching his movies. Bird knows not only knows how to tell a story, he knows what kind of story he feels he needs to tell. And the common thread binding The Incredibles and Ratatouille is the pride one should have in being the best.
In both movies, the protagonists never had to work for their skills; both the Incredible family and Remy the rat were born with their powers and palate, respectively. In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible is frustrated at having to hide his power, and is mad that his super-fast son Dash isn’t allowed to compete in sports. When he objects to attending his Dash’s “graduation” from the fourth grade to the fifth, he exclaims, “[A ceremony is] psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity…” And who is the villain in this movie? A smart, yet disillusioned, inventor, bitter that his youthful efforts were rejected by Mr. Incredible. His master plan is to equalize the playing field by selling his inventions to give ordinary people super powers; in his words, “when everyone’s super, no one will be.”

In Ratatouille, there are two characters that illustrate Bird’s elitist streak: Remy the rat, and Anton Ego, the appropriately named food critic. Both Remy and Ego consider themselves superior in knowing what tastes good. Other movies would have painted Ego as someone who didn’t know anything about what he critiqued and turned him into some sort of buffoon (much the same way Bob Balaban’s critic character in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water was portrayed). But his monologue at the end of the film makes this stuck-up food critic a sympathetic character:
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 their selves to our judgment. 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 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 new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.
It is not too much of a stretch to see that Bird is using Ego to plead a case for himself; Bird is a man of “new talent,” and the world of animation showcases the “new creations” that have the potential to rock even the most stodgy film critics to their core.
Unfortunately, Bird’s films leave out two very important facets of achievement. The first is the potential emptiness that comes from being at the top. At the end of the movie, notice how after Dash easily wins a school race, he jogs off the track with a smug look on his face. Dash is the fastest runner in his school, no doubt. But what would happen to his mentality after winning every race without even trying? What would Dash gain from effortless wins at trivial contests? Second, Bird’s films do not focus on something that I’ve found to be true in all people: that everyone is good in at least one thing if they try. For Linguini, the would-be chef, it’s roller skating. For Remy’s father, it’s leadership over an entire colony. No, not just anyone can cook, but anyone can do something well.

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