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Film Review: Fast Food Nation

by DeAnander 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


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.

[more...]


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Sounds like something to check out!

Almost completely off-topic comment: today I wasted my time watching the new Bond. Actually it wasn't that bad at popcorn-muncher level (take it metaphoricaly, I never eat in a cinema), but I was greatly annoyed by the geographical liberty they took. They showed wonderful Czech landscapes, cities and trains -- as stand-in for all things Montenegro...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 07:05:54 PM EST
I noticed that, too. It's ironic, because the early Bond films were famous for their on-location shooting.
by asdf on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 08:06:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What was the giveaway? Just that it didn't look mediteranean in any way, or did you recognise the cities, or already the Czech Pendolino train?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 04:10:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are certain similarities with certain popular (even for Amerians) hotels.

by asdf on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 11:35:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
great review, stunning writing, fantastically relevant subject.

all the fonder from your long absences...

we need more films like this, and this review made me want to see it very much.

i'm curious to see if mm's new flick about the disease industry will make as many waves as his last one.

whew if upton sinclair couldn't change mass behaviour, others need to keep removing the wool of denial off our collective eyes...

so glad to see they are stepping up to do this very valuable work.

hope to see your quantity of diaries increase, as quality is always there in spades!

ta very mooch

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 08:11:34 PM EST
So here goes ...

  •  Don't eat fast food - including the "upscale" chain resturants.

  •  Buy organic meats.  You only need 4 ounces (104 grams) of animal protein per meal.  Eating less means you can eat better, and save money to boot.  Bio-Dynamic farmers, if they follow the rules, have specific rules about animal treatment, feed, and living conditions that are only 1,000,000% better than the agri-industry confinement operations.

  •  Fill up with vegetables and fruits.  They're good for you.

  •  Support Your Local Farmers! Locally grown food is better for you, the farmer, the environment, the local economy.  We purchase lamb from a local raiser at an average cost of $4.50lb versus $13.50lb at a regular market.  Yeah, we buy 50lbs or ~23 kilos at a time but we pay less and the raisers get 200% more from us than they do from the meat packers.

  •  Support Your Local Food Co-op!  If you don't want to go through the hassle, and it is, of finding a local farmer your local Food Co-op has already done it!  More expensive than buying direct but how many people want/need 500lbs/227kilos of beef in the fridge?    

  •  Supermarket chains are Evil.  Hyper-Markets are the Spawn of Satan.  Purchase from these sources and your primary and secondary sexual characteristics will fall off.  It's true.  Sad ... but true.

The Agriculture Industry (ag-biz) gets away with the outrages documented in FFN because nobody cares.  Enough.  The only enough the ag-biz recognizes is money.  

Stop buying their shit and they will stop producing it.  


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 11:31:43 PM EST
I hope my region will get there someday where I have this many choices. But unfortunately, most of the "bio-food" sold here was produced and packaged in Austrai or further West, the transport of which eliminating the environmental benefit. While most local farmers not working for agrobusiness and selling at markets (there is one market just a short walk from my home) don't care about the bio thing.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 04:08:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Germany is a hard case to crack.  Germany is never going to be able to feed itself given the population density and land use patterns.  On the other hand the EU CAP of rewarding feed crop agriculture over horticultural cropping works against increasing the total potential (food value per hectacre) of what land is available.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 10:56:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
DoDo is in Hungary.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 11:16:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Apologies DoDo!  

for some reason I thought you were living in Germany.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 12:01:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have lived there in the past (and, well, I could say I live there virtually by cultural connection).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 12:47:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As Migeru said; and Germany is actually on the forefront of switching to organic produce within the EU.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 11:35:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The last time the CAP was modified, the (Green) minister of the then Schröder government lobbied for such a re-focus of the CAP subsidies, an initiative blocked by France (among others).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 11:36:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe I can contribute a Germany rant:

While it is true that there is a great (and burgeoning) interest in and market for organically grown foods, there are also a whole lot of people who just want the cheapest possible meat.

And it seems like they've been getting what they pay for: this year there have been a whole lot of cases of meat packers and wholesalers relabeling past-date meat and selling spoiled meat. I'm too lazy to hunt up all instances right now (and besides it way too near my dinnertime) but in this one instance alone the authorities confiscated 5.5 tons of tainted meat. At, say, 200 grams a portion, that's... hugely gross.

And this year is not the first time this has happened.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 02:13:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Some (most of the few I heard of before getting bored checking yet another news of Gammelfleisch-Skandal) of those sold to restaurants and Döner joints, though.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 07:19:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can't even remember the last time I bought fast food from one of the big chains.  I did order a pizza last week from a little joint down the road, but I'll be damned if I'll hit a McDonald's or a Burger King anytime soon.  If I'm going to eat poorly, I'll eat pub food.  (It's cheaper, anyway.  And it's much better, tastewise.  Plus, McDonald's doesn't have Guinness on tap.)

I must confess to shopping at a grocery chain -- Sainsbury's.  And I shopped at a chain -- Publix -- when I lived in the states.  The co-op store in Tallahassee was too expensive and too long a drive, and I, frankly, didn't see what the fuss was all about when I tried the food from it.  The coffee was terrible.  I didn't see the difference in the meat, fruits or vegetables.  It was pointless to fork over an extra £5-10 for groceries simply for the sake of buying from a co-op.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 05:56:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I must confess to shopping at a grocery chain

Ya send someone to college.  Ya buy them the textbooks.  And then what do they do?  They eat the pages.

Sigh

Don't blame ME when certain vital parts of your ... parts ... start falling off.   :^O

I don't know the market in Florida but I suspect either (1) the Co-Op was badly run or (2) the label 'Co-Op' was an advertising gimmick for a regular supermarket chain.   The "Fresh Market" chain in NC, eg.  

You can generally tell a fake Co-op from a real one by asking to join.  


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 10:45:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It was pointless to fork over an extra £5-10 for groceries simply for the sake of buying from a co-op.

You send someone to college to study Economics and they can't see the consequences of their dollar votes beyond their onw pocket.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 11:16:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't blame ME when certain vital parts of your ... parts ... start falling off.

Believe me when I say, AT, that the food should probably be the least of my concerns.  My own clumsiness will kill me before my food will.

It wasn't a chain.  We did have a Fresh Market store, though, -- very big with the yuppies working at the legislature and bureaucracies -- and that, too, was ridiculous.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 01:27:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Plus, do we have any clear evidence that the food at these co-op and/or organic stores is any better than the stuff at large chains?  By all means, let me know, but I've yet to see it.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 01:28:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Three types of evidence are available.

Evidence is available by looking at the chain of organic certification(s.)

Evidence is available by a recent study, conducted in England, comparing the nutitional quality of milk in the 1940s, IIRC, and the nutritional quality of milk in 2006.  The decline was so marked the British Milk Industry - whatever they're called - attacked the recent study as flawed.  

Other evidence is the resistence transfer factor of anti-biotics.  Animal feed has tetracycline added to promote feed-weight gain and, over time, human intestinal flora and human bacterial pathogens have developed resistence.  We know the higher the ecological niche of a predator (like us) the the higher the concentration of the dose of enviornmental toxins.  I submit, tho' I know of no studies, use of agri-chemicals in crops must also follow this pattern; support for this submission is obtained with the observation no evidence has ever been successfully presented our species exists outside, in whatever sense, the global biosphere.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 12:04:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This would probably be a good time to point out that I failed chemistry in high school, and that I barely passed biology while learning nothing.  You have to explain these things to me as though I am an idiot, because -- let's be honest -- I am on this particular topic.  You might as well have written that in Arabic.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 02:42:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Give me a couple of days and I'll put it in a diary.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 09:13:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]

McDonald's doesn't have Guinness on tap.)

It does in France. (Not Guinness, but good beer)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 03:52:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This would probably be a good time to point out that I failed chemistry in high school, and that I barely passed biology while learning nothing.  

somehow one gets the feeling this may be true of all too many economists...  :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Dec 10th, 2006 at 09:45:19 PM EST


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