Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 06:49:11 PM EST
Crosspost to Feral Scholar Friday Film Review
Fast Food Nation (2006) directed by Richard Linklater, written by Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater, starring Greg Kinnear, Luis Guzman, Catalina Moreno, Ashley Johnson, cameo appearances by Ethan Hawke, Avril Lavigne, Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson. A fictional film based on a non-fiction book, Eric Schlosser's investigative-journo best-seller of the same name.
I really wanted to make a documentary. It seemed very logical to do that. I spent a year and a half trying to set up a documentary. None of the options felt right to me. I was worried about signing over rights to the book. In every case, there was some sort of network behind it. The networks all had connections to the fast food industry. Even PBS. McDonald's is a big sponsor of Sesame Street. I didn't want to see sharp edges smoothed over.
I think fiction can sometimes get closer to the truth than a documentary. The point is not for there to be some political message at the end. This is a drama but it's about human beings. They feel like people you care about. I was on a book tour in Texas and met Rick Linklater, one of the finest directors of my generation. We started talking about it. I came to see that if he wanted to do it, I'd love to see the film made by Linklater based on my book. He works outside the Hollywood system, and the film would be financed entirely outside of the Hollywood system. Rick and I first started meeting in spring of 2002. I didn't sign over the rights for another two, two-and-a-half years. I just didn't want something that was a sell out to be made. --- Eric Schlosser
wrote Fast Food Nation
initially as a series of investigative articles for Rolling Stone
in 1999. Re-edited into book form
in 2001, it became a best seller
(and predictably drew the ire of the corporate food barons (see Wikipedia article cited above). Linklater and Schlosser then collaborated on a screenplay for a film that would be a curious hybrid of investigative journalism, documentary, and fiction.
The movie version of FFN is not a PowerPoint presentation like Al Gore's climate change film 'An Inconvenient Truth.' It is not a "testimony by talking heads" film like the brilliant Canadian documentary 'The Corporation'. Nor is it a traditional social documentary in the tradition currently represented by, say, Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald. It has the look and feel of a mid-budget documentary, but the scripted dialogue of a serious play or screenplay, wrapped around a core of facts, statistics, and muckraking investigation from Schlosser's nonfiction book. It is perhaps best compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or other "issues novels" in the tradition of Dickens... a tradition whose roots -- I speculate without expert knowledge here -- may go back as far as the mediaeval morality play if not further.
As with most "issues drama" there are moments when this viewer, at any rate, becomes aware that a character has been detailed to recite for us a set of facts or statistics from Schlosser's research; but on the whole the writing is good and the Altmanesque "intersecting lives" ensemble cast and directorial style works well. The story, such as it is, follows three sets of protagonists whose lives intersect in Cody, Colorado -- where a giant CAFO (confined animal feeding operation, or feed lot) and meat packing plant are located.
The first set of protagonists we meet are undocumented workers from Mexico, being smuggled across the border [the initial working title of the film was "Coyote"]. Much of the dialogue is in Mexican Spanish with subtitles. Our attention is drawn in particular to three young immigrants, two sisters and the husband of one sister. Other colourful characters appear in passing but these three will become central to our story.
The next set of protagonists are the whiteboy executives who run a fictional burger chain called Mickey's (obviously a shallow CYA pseudonum for the most famous fast food chain of them all). One in particular, Don Anderson (played as engagingly naif by Greg Kinnear) is detailed to go and sort out a spot of PR trouble: there are rumours that the beef in Mickey's patties is contaminated with E Coli. As Anderson quips to his wife, "Rule one in business: don't kill the customer. It's really bad for repeat sales." Anderson travels to Colorado in his shiny SUV to have a look at the meat packing plant, just as our vanload of undocumented workers is arriving in the same town to find jobs at the plant. He arrives by day as a tourist, driving through the mind-boggling expanse of feedlots, getting out to look bemusedly at a few nearby cattle; they arrive like freight, dumped at a seedy motel and then (selected men) taken to the plant's side door by night and marched in without ceremony.
The third set of protagonists are high-school-age American kids, mostly Anglo, working at the Mickey's in Cody. From this demographic the camera settles firmly on not-quite-credibly photogenic Amber (Ashley Johnson), a straight-A student and obedient, productive Mickey's worker. She, Anderson, and the young immigrant Sylvia will be our Candide characters, their naivete coming up against the brutal realities of corporate food production. The other juvenile characters will remain undeveloped, mere bit parts (though they have theor moments, they are the sketchiest and least engaging roles in the script).
The plot is predictable given the facts the film has to present. Of course there is contamination at the plant. It's the inevitable consequence of the accelerated pace that cranks out frozen burger patties at 40 cents per pound. [Bruce Willis has an excellent cameo part as the thuggish regional Mickey's purchasing agent, explaining with a fine line in neoliberal rhetoric why E Coli is not a problem, and neither is the exploitation of undocumented labour; his monologue would be a satire of Tom Friedman except that it's too nearly a direct quote to be real satire.]
Linklater shows us the realworld meaning of that accelerated pace as the line foreman bullies, hectors, threatens his workers to keep up with the line or be fired on the spot. We can see for ourselves the weight of their protective gear, the sharpness of the knives, the complexity of the task of separating raw meat accurately into grades and getting the right graded chunks onto the right conveyor belts; we feel the humiliation of being bawled out by the bully foreman for sending one small chunk of beef onto the wrong belt. The novelty, the alien-ness of this footage reveals how far American popular culture has drifted from contact with industrial production. When was the last working-class character in a major movie who wasn't in a public service job? Why is it that the inside of one of the few major industrial activities left in the US -- factory food -- is such a mysterious and science-fictiony setting? The shock value of FFN is the measure of our collective ignorance and denial.