Ratatouille Rightly Skewers Critics

As an entertainment critic (which is a fancy way of saying "freelance writer," which, in turn, is a similarly fancy way of saying "lightly employed househusband"), I deal largely in more-or-less unaccountable opinions. I'm rarely called to answer for my slings and arrows (or praises, for that matter), a rather common condition when you spend the bulk of your professional energies writing about famous folks you'll likely never meet. I can be as vicious, as effusive, as superlative as the mood that strikes me, with little to no consequence, and I get paid for it. Moreover, get enough of us purported "taste merchants" saying the same thing about a single film or series (perhaps merely one or two of us, if they're visible enough), and maybe (just maybe) a few of those on-the-fence folks find the excuse they need to decide whether they'll give it a shot.

Heckuva gig, hey?

Depends who you ask.

One of the more interesting moments of Pixar's Ratatouille, out next Friday (and which, incidentally, I happily recommend), comes near the end: an austere food critic, voiced exquisitely by the inimitable (and inexplicably Oscarless) Peter O'Toole, considers his own ultimate usefulness, concluding that critics, in general, don't contribute anything real to the world relative to even the worst of the artists/creative types/rodent chefs on whom they commonly pass judgment.

It's an eminently discussable (and none-too-inadvertently pointed) assertion, one I'd long had bouncing about in my own head and, perhaps surprisingly, one with which I at least somewhat agree. I suppose I just never expected to see it stated so nakedly in an animation.

Wait a second, though. Are we really such no-account hacks, we critics? Is the adage true: those that can, do; those that can't, teach; those that can't and have souls eternally blackened and consumed by hateful, gnawing bitterness ... review?

Hmm.

Well, sure: I'd love to make a movie.

I do think that, for the most part, anyone who bares her or his innards for the sake of expression or art is performing a far more vulnerable, far braver, far more interesting act than someone who sits back and tosses knee-jerk blandishments or potshots. And "far more vulnerable, far braver, far more interesting" generally = far more artistically valuable, in my book. But there's room for a bit of crossover. A good review, though it may piggyback, may also employ creativity, expression, artfulness, even courage.

And failing that, criticism isn't worthless. A reviewer's barest goal, as I see it, is to personally evaluate the success of a work, based on its own apparent intentions. In the very best cases, maybe someone smiles or is entertained, or I'm able to share something I love, or I steer someone toward something they enjoy, and might otherwise not have found. For me, a review doesn't really have to be all that brave or artistic if it serves one of those purposes. In the worst cases, ego or weakness may cause me to speak thoughtlessly or cruelly, or hurt someone to whom I'll never get to apologize. I try not to venture there too often, wittingly or otherwise. Sometimes, I fail.

At any rate, though, I can recall a seemingly endless list of the memorable films, books, dishes, songs, and hand-wrought images I've encountered. Reviews? Not so much. There's maybe a point to be made there. Put another way: there aren't too many folks out there who help pay the rent by yay or naying the self-indulgent, late night ramblings of sleep-deprived bloggers. And thank God for that.

Those guys are the real punks.

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Brian Villalobos lives in Austin, Texas (practically), and writes on all things pop culture.

[email me]