Wherein My Friend Destroys Ratatouille for Me

I live in a food loving family.  My wife is in the restaurant business, and she and my son relax over big steaming pots on the stove, fresh bread baked in the oven and pouring over cookbooks.  It goes without saying then that Ratatouille has always been one of our favorite movies.

That is, until dmcallum came along.

I mentioned, in mid-sequitur, about my love of the movie and he pointed out something – if rats are sentient in the movie’s universe, what does that mean for the food that Remy cooks?

Think about it – for anyone who is reasonably thoughtful about food and eating, the concept of eating meat has to be occasionally troubling (one thinks here of  “Consider the Lobster”) if not outright impossible.  But it’s something altogether worse to think of a sentient creature choosing to cook and serve another sentient creature to, what is basically, an enemy.

I am assuming here, of course, that rats are not the only sentient creatures in the movie.  We don’t see evidence otherwise, but there is no logical reason to believe that rats are intelligent, creative and social, but no other animal is.

Now, Remy’s signature dish turns out to be vegetable-based, but at no point is it explicitly stated that Remy restricts himself to meat-free cooking.  I believe that they do serve cuttlefish at some point in the movie, and a cursory check of the tie-in material for the movie lists a Filet Mignon recipe.

So we must assume that Remy is, at some point, serving up some of his cuddly compatriots for the patron’s pleasure.  And in accepting that, as well as reveling in, or at least recognizing Remy’s gustatory pleasures, we must again face our own meat eating.  In the fictional universe, Remy is committing a sort of pseudo-cannibalism for our eating pleasure (or, maybe worse, for his own pleasure in creating).  At what point does the creepiness of such an act bleed over into our real life, where our animals aren’t necessarily as intelligent as Remy, but are certainly as cuddly? And what does it mean that I (and almost everyone else) do not notice this immediately upon watching the movie?  Is it that our own moral blind spot (for us meat-eaters at least) is so large?

Or maybe ‘moral’ blind-spot is the wrong modifier.  I find nothing inherently amoral about eating meat.  But I have two dogs, and I often have to wonder why I find the concept of someone eating dogs to be repugnant, while I myself will willingly eat pigs.  Because, really, what is the difference ? After all, pigs are smarter and cleaner, and are as capable of forming emotional bonds with humans.  If you think about it long enough, you realize there is no difference beyond cultural programming.  And when you realize that there are cultures that eat dogs, that eat people even, then you seriously need to question, what, really is the difference between their culture and your own.

I can reconcile the eating of meat in general, but not in specific – namely, for myself.  If I choose, like Remy, to be deeply conscious of food, then that awareness forces me to see eating Orange Chicken to be fungible with eating, say, my dogs.  And while I still see nothing morally wrong with that – I certainly can’t do it.  Not anymore.  Remy can cook his friends, but I can’t eat mine.

Vegetarianism, here I come (and pray I don’t accidentally watch a Veggie Tales movie).

Can Video Games be Art?

(Or, wherein I beat a dead horse…)

I reread Maus this weekend.  One of the things that struck me, upon reading it again after so many years, is how it would have failed in other media.  The Nazis as Cats, Jews as Mice metaphor works beautifully in cartoon panels.  But I can’t see it working as a movie.  In animation or CGI, there would have been something horribly cheesy or heavy-handed about the visual.  Nor, do I think, would it have worked as a literary metaphor – the constant mental translation it would have created for the reader would have prevented any sort of immersion in the story.

This idea of a serious, intelligent, emotionally arresting and gratifying story being best presented in a medium that was classically considered frivolous brought me around to another idea – Roger Ebert’s now classic assertion that video games can never be art.

Part of this connection was probably due to my recent reading of Brian Moriarty’s post supporting Ebert’s position.  Moriarty and Ebert are both much smarter and well-versed in their respective subjects than I am in ANY subject, so its hard for me to say this – but they failed to convince me.  And Maus is the reason why.  If a comic book can become high-art (Maus won the Pulitzer Prize), then doesn’t that mean a video game might some day too?

Before I should go any farther, I should say that I am not much of a video game player.  I play casually at best, mostly the occasional game with my son.  I used to play video games quite a bit as a kid, but gave up on them years ago.  And up until recently, I would have agreed with Ebert.

But something struck me about Moriarty’s argument, which I would distill thusly: a video game cannot be a work of art in the same way that chess and go cannot be art.  And what struck me was the idea that games, inherently, cannot draw from the narrative tradition – that is, the game part of ‘video game’ is the salient part.

This is part of Ebert’s argument as well – that the malleability of narrative in a video game makes it incapable of communicating to its participants the way that a directed narrative can.  In other words – “Romeo & Juliet” would lack its power, and therefore its ability to be art, if it were a video game, because then you could save Juliet.

This point made me remember Final Fantasy VII.  Final Fantasy VII is beautiful, but it’s not art.  However, there is a moment in the game that makes me think that a video game could someday transcend the medium and become art.  About midway through the game, a player character – Aeris, dies.  Death is, of course, a constant part of video games, and for the most part, lacks in dramatic potential because the character can always load a saved game, come back to life, and start over.

What made Aeris’ death interesting, however, was the inability of the player to stop it.  Many people tried.  But they only way to prevent Aeris death was to stall – to wander aimlessly, preventing the narrative from going forward.  But many players were unwilling to let Aeris die, even if it was a required step to complete the game, because through building the character, they had become emotionally invested in her.

That moment led me to believe there are real narrative possibilities to video games and, more importantly, there are narrative possibilities that exist in the medium that don’t exist elsewhere (or wouldn’t be as effective).  In this, I am reminded of The Godfather, the book, vs. The Godfather, the movie.  The book is pulp, but the movie is transcendent.  Our investment in Aeris is due to the fact that the game requires us to expend energy in her development – to actively engage in her success.  No other medium can create that kind of engagement with its characters – movies and TV are entirely passive.  Reading is active, but nowhere near on the same level.  Theater is the only medium that seems close.

So, for me anyway, the next question is what kind of story would work better as a video game than anything else.  Video games have a few advantages over something like, say, a movie:  people are willing to spend 40 to 60 on a video game.   They can play with interesting questions of fate vs. freewill (could you create a Romeo & Juliet game where Juliet’s salvation seems possible, but never truly is?).   They can play with multiple interweaving narratives, as well as multiple endings.

Finally, then, if it is possible for games to be art, why hasn’t there been a game that can rightfully be considered art today?  My thought here is that video games are a very new medium – only 35 or so years old.  It was 70-some years between the first comic books and the publication of Maus.  Novels took hundreds of years.  Movies took forty-some years.  It’s not that a video game cannot be art – it’s that no video game has become art yet.

Sounds like a challenge.


What was this guy doing?

Leaving my office for lunch today, a guy bumped into me.  He apologized, and I checked that I still had my wallet, and was about to leave it at that, when he struck up a conversation:

“Hey, I saw you leave XXX [my company] building.  Do you work there?”

“Yes,” I said, warily, since on-the-street conversations in Chicago usually result in being hit up for cash.

“I just ask because I recently applied for a job there, but didn’t hear anything.”

“Oh, what department?”

“Oh, um, I forget what they called it.  I was trying to be a developer.”

“Well, I don’t remember of any open spots in my department, so I don’t know who you’d be working with.  Sorry I can’t be more help.”

“No, its cool,” he said with a wave and started to walk off, “oh, hey! Do you have a business card?”

“Sorry, not on me.  Good luck though.”

We went in separate directions after that, and I went to the deli and got a sandwich.  Sitting at the counter, I watched people coming and going, and noticed someone familiar leaning against the column of the office building across the street.

Weird Dude was back.  As I watched, he left the column and walked towards the door of the consulting firm, just as one of their employees was leaving.  Just as he had with me, he “distractedly” ran into the consultant, and then struck up a conversation.  It was obvious he was doing the same thing he did with me.

So my question is this: what was the point?  Was this an attempt to find out about hidden jobs at various companies?  Had he applied at my company and the consulting firm, and trying to find a non-invasive, if creepy, way to inquire about his application?  Was it the oddest approach to building a LinkedIn contact list ever?  What was the goal?  I can’t figure it out.  But I’m glad he didn’t get my name…