Deep into 2019, over a decade since the microblogging/brain-atrophying social media platform Twitter launched, it’s almost a little quaint that a tussle between critics and artists should make headlines. Twitter’s reach is both over- and underestimated, with fewer users than either Facebook or Instagram, but a presence, seemingly never-ending, spent beneath the public microscope with regard to its handling of harassment, hate speech and abuse of power. The young people are sort of on Twitter, right? Stanning their favorite pop stars and such. Loud-mouthed writer people like me are on it, whiling away our hours making inane jokes or getting into arguments about Lord knows what. Really, that’s not a lot of people. Nonetheless, the likes of Lizzo, Michael Che and Olivia Munn all used Twitter to hit back at critics for…some reason. (We creatives, we are sensitive people.)
In fairness, artists will always be defensive of the art they create, and critics will always be defensive of the work they do, and both believe that they are acting in good faith while, when an enemy is codified in such an argument, their enemy is acting in bad faith. Artists may take certain actions to protect themselves at the cost of critics engaging with their work (in a professional context), or they will just write some kind of screed against critics and criticism, putting together a thrillingly weak strawman argument in the form of some grumpy, nasty fellow in a movie. There’s the cruel critic of Birdman, the soulless critic of The Lady in the Water, the caricaturish monster critic of HowardCantour.com. But such a decision—to build criticism in some form, or the engagement with criticism, into the work itself—is certainly fascinating in the digital media age, in a time where the role of the critic operates with precarity (at once dismissed by the public, secureless in employment and inexplicably able to garner “clout” online, if not necessarily health insurance), as it becomes an interesting artifact suggesting how we still engage with both art and criticism.
Jon Favreau’s Chef is especially curious in this case. Just over five years ago, Favreau—who’d had a fruitful acting career but an even more successful directing career helming Iron Man, the first film of what would become the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe—decided to take a break from the big-budget action tentpoles he’d been steering in favor for a little food porno movie about an artistically frustrated chef with a barely functional relationship with his son who decides to start a food truck. Kind of.
Actually, Chef is about a Twitter fight. A bad review, the art of which was a product of artistic stifling, sends Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) reeling. After the review goes viral on Twitter, he starts a fight with the critic, who then calls his bluff. Carl erupts in volcanic fury at the critic, which also goes viral, which costs him his job. While vague recollections about Chef being nominally about artist versus critic may linger in the heads of those who saw it five years ago, it would still sound surprising to most people to describe the film as being about and propelled by Twitter beef.
Twitter’s age was both new enough for the platform to be used in the film as a novelty and established enough for the characters to treat Carl like he’s an ancient boomer unfamiliar with the application. Though seven years old at the time, numbers like 123,845 (how many followers the food critic has) or 20,000 (how many followers Carl has after his meltdown proliferates online) were strong enough to be an early indicator of Twitter’s “strength” as a space in which people could talk (or snark) about art with the critic, the artist and the random audience member.
Chef falls into a healthy lineage of films like Scott Hicks’ No Reservations and Brad Bird’s Ratatouille (both 2007), where haute cuisine is a stand-in for any art that’s caught between ambitious excesses and commercial realities. In these films, chefs are difficult but brilliant, their authorial genius squandered or challenged; that Chef has the tension of reconciling with an audience beyond the critic in a space that has, arguably, democratized criticism itself makes it peculiar in its quasi-prophetic qualities. (Admittedly, it’s a little ripe if Chef is the barbed response to critics after, um, Cowboys & Aliens.)
In the aftermath of Carl’s self-decimation, his tech-literate son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), not only aides in rehabilitating his father’s public image and amplifying the visibility of the food truck, but plays daddy drag while doing it. Logged into the account for his father (that he made), he posts images of where the truck is, creates a Facebook fan page for the truck, posts videos and Vines, all the while inhabiting his own version of his father in order to get closer to his father. Little holographic tweets hover over the heads of customers as Percy plays middleman between artist and audience, the illusion of a barrier between the two melting away like cheese on a Cubano.
It’s that barrier that’s the problem, and will continue to be the problem: what it looks like and how visible, or penetrable, it is. Whatever the platform, whoever the artists, whoever the critic, whatever the art, the increasing immediacy in which these texts and contexts are created is muddying the distance that exists between those players and the game everyone thinks they’re playing.
For Carl, it’s the combination of the review and the tweets, resigning him to thinking about critics and criticism in small-minded, albeit unsurprising, ways. Tail between legs, he tells the critic in the film’s confrontational finale, “You robbed me of my pride, my career, my dignity. I know people like you don’t usually care about that kind of thing, but you should know it hurts people like me. And the people that work with me. ’cause we’re really trying.” Carl sees tweets as clipped throwing stars, poison inked lobs of shade. Tiny pieces of shrapnel. He’s not wrong, per se, but he’s also missing a key component.
What food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) understands that Carl (and maybe a lot of artists in general?) do not is that Twitter is theater, a venu for fairly meaningless sparring where the stakes are low. The film undermines this point by positioning Michel as someone who has little to lose, in a “why would someone big care about the feelings of someone small like Carl?” way. That the film is not helped by the fact that its women are onion paper thin and everyone else strokes his ego, in a gambit to tell him he’s the best chef in the world, surely weakens the credibility of both the film and Carl’s argument that critics are mean nobodies. This, as opposed to understanding that both arts—creation and criticism—are about performance, especially when they collide in certain contexts. The performativity of Twitter is certainly one of its most appealing features: You can be whatever or whoever you want, and the exaggerated way in which you “are” online is not only OK, but encouraged. The fourth wall is always in disarray, and the clarity of when something is real or artifice is frequently opaque, lending the platform a paradoxical freedom and constriction in how and with whom one can talk about art.
Twitter has, in the years since the release of Chef (and Favreau’s projects with Disney, including The Jungle Book and, now, The Lion King) only continued to shrink the illusory proximity between artist, audience and critic. The ambiguities of online dynamics and relationships are even hazier. It’s not unusual to find yourself enjoyably tweeting with a director you admire one day, getting blocked by another director you don’t care for hours later, then getting someone’s fan base swarming your mentions by midnight. (Risk of the worst of these examples is especially likely if you are not a straight white male cisgender critic.) Twitter is a stranger place than it was half a decade ago, a more volatile one. (Would Carl, who is, per Favreau’s biography, Jewish and Italian, get canceled for making Cubanos?) I myself am indebted to the platform for my career as a writer, even though I know it’s rotting my brain.
But a kind of criticism that artists seem to hate to hear can flourish on the platform, and though rough around the edges, it has the potential to continue to push what criticism can look like and whose voices it can include. If the deluge of immediately posted opinions on the Internet is questionable, for some writers it’s maybe about making up for lost time—a rush to try to make room in a space which has long been exclusionary of certain voices. Chef never really crystallizes or refines the function of criticism, that art and criticism are inextricable from one another, and it doesn’t need to, because, for Carl, the people, lined up around the corner, have spoken. In retweets, no less.