Everything old is new again

I saw the forgettable but reasonably charming food movie No Reservations (2007) in an airplane last week, and again tonight because my daughter brought it with her on a DVD labeled Ratatouille (2007) when she came home for Thanksgiving (I liked this version better, but more for the winking bank-shot references Pixar excels at – the classic for me is the Boston accent of the lobsters in Finding Nemo – and animation wows). Somehow, the romantic leads had become French, the cute kid a cute rat, and the whole thing moved to Paris, but everything else was pretty much in place: the young man who defrosts the ingenue just gets an Italian mother instead of an Italian cuisine resumé. Even the ratatouille on which the plot hinges comes up red, white, and green!

It turns out the recipe is traceable to a German movie called Bella Martha (2001) where, yes, the romantic lead is Italian (No Reservations explicitly credits itself as a remake). The more Italians I get to know the more impatient I get with this Northern stereotype of them as uncomplicated joy-living children of love and nature, put on earth as an antidote to Germanic-Anglo-Saxon inhibition (even E.M. Forster, a humane and insightful writer, was guilty). Barzini put paid to this nonsense more than forty years ago, but some myths are too cuddly (and condescending) to die, I guess.

The other striking meme of movies like these is the need for the authors to tie themselves in knots to refute fundamental facts of the context. Ratatouille is totally entangled in the contradiction between the philosophy of its eminence grise that “anyone can cook” and the plot’s dependence on the fact that, no they can’t!, and the idea of cooking as an enormously refined, specialized, and competitive elite enterprise, not to mention the reality of rats in the human world. Finding Nemo had to “sivilize” the sharks into a twelve-step program that would obviously lead to their starvation; The Lion King just dances around what lions actually eat, namely most of the rest of the cast. Willing suspension of disbelief is one thing, but ludicrous upending of the structure of the natural world is maybe pushing it.

I wonder to what degree Pixar and Castle Rock realized they were plowing the same field at the same time. Will the foodie become a standardized genre like the western with versions, contra-foodies, and the like? Will kids be asking for aprons and toques for Christmas instead of cap guns? Who will be its Sergio Leone and its Eastwood?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.