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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.


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Thinking Too Big? or Too Small? or 'Hearts & Minds'**

by DeAnander Wed May 31st, 2006 at 08:21:17 AM EST

Proposals to reform energy generation and reduce demand are often rejected as excessively Utopian or radical.  But at the same time most informed participants in the problem-solving effort admit that such plans fall far short of what is really needed -- even in the versions that are critiqued as excessively radical!  Many plan-proposers hope to use a "camel's nose" or "wedge" effect, i.e. get people used to moderate changes of emphasis without violating anyone's comfort zone, and thus create a slow cultural drift towards sustainability.

The problem is urgent.  The burning question is one of effectiveness and optimal use of effort in a limited time:  is gradualism self-defeating?  will it be a case of too little too late?  is radicalism self-defeating?  will it cause a mulish resistance and denial that wastes more precious time or risks a backlash?

If the public understood the real magnitude of the problem would they be paralysed entirely by fear or despair and unable to act?  Should we downplay the various threats of peak oil and climate destab?  or is the public jaded and drama-addicted, needing a compelling bleed/lead story line to shake it out of apathy and complacency?
**From the front page - whataboutbob

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The Nuclear Skeptic Part 2: Megaprojects vs Micropower

by DeAnander Thu May 25th, 2006 at 09:12:52 AM EST

"Increasingly it looks like the energy consultation has been a complete sham," said Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth.
-- Financial Times courtesy of J á P

Taking off from the general summary in Part 1, Installment number 2 contains one of the nuke-skeptic arguments less often heard, but I think perhaps just as important and urgent as waste management.  Technologies shape the societies which adopt them.  What shapes may the adoption of nuclear power encourage our societies to take?   What are the policy and governance implications of increased reliance on this source of electricity?

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

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Risk, Perception, and Ethics

by DeAnander Thu May 25th, 2006 at 07:09:35 AM EST

Migeru's reminiscence about public protest related to the Galileo space mission drew me into such a long train of thought that it seemed to warrant a diary.  The question on the table is whether the people who protested the use of plutonium power cells in NASA launched space vehicles were just being silly/stupid/ignorant, or whether they had any valid point to make.

My view in gzipped form:  in any human crowd some reliable percentage will be silly, stupid, and/or ignorant (at least on one topic or another);  but just because an idiot joins an anti-war march doesn't mean that the war is a good idea or that anti-war marches are idiotic :-)  my POV is that the protesters did actually have some valid gripes, and this leads me onto some turf that I know and care about -- risk and ethics.  To gunzip, keep reading :-)

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

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The Nuclear Skeptic, Part 1: Sketching the Playing Field

by DeAnander Mon May 22nd, 2006 at 12:49:30 AM EST

And in terms of nuclear power... considering that its essentially just an advanced form of hitting a rock with a bigger club. Nah.  Let's use scalpels instead.

-- RElland, at DailyKos

OK, with some delay after the Chernobyl preludes by me and DoDo, time at last for me to deliver the first of the diaries I have been promising on nuclear power generation and the reasons why I remain skeptical (to put it mildly) about the benefits of this approach to the twin crunches of Peak Oil and Climate Destabilisation.   Since this is a contentious topic, maybe it would be best to begin with a quick reconnoitre of the disputed territory -- a little rough demography of the disputants - and the talking points "each side" (though there are more than two, of course) traditionally upholds.  Sometimes it helps to have an approximate agreement about what one is disagreeing about...

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"The Israel Lobby" -- overview and discussion

by DeAnander Fri May 12th, 2006 at 06:51:41 AM EST

In light of recent diary entries on the US/Israel relationship I thought it might be time to go back and review the fracas over the recent Mearsheimer/Walt paper... which oddly enough seems to have seen relatively little discussion at ET. Hey, while we're going near radioactive topics, why not go there? This is another long one... just too much good stuff to be blockquoted :-)

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

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Chernobyl +20: retrospectives and dispatches (long)

by DeAnander Sun May 7th, 2006 at 05:51:39 AM EST

It was, of course, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on April 26th, a few days ago. (And that makes me feel old:  I was 28 when it happened.) It was remembered and remarked on in obscure and random blogs as well as in the places (both virtual and physical) we would naturally expect.  News media across the planet ran stories, from XinHua to Reuters to small town papers.

DoDo has been working on an article about the ongoing controversy over the actual body count, ongoing allegations of coverup and epidemiological neglect, etc.  I thought I would contribute something slightly less quantitative for a change and more qualitative -- a look not just backwards but around, at the state of the affected regions today... 20 years later.  I take the liberty of boldfacing some text here and there which caught my eye.  Here and there I have commented (briefly) in square brackets and italics.

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Fall Down Six Times

by DeAnander Thu Apr 27th, 2006 at 12:53:47 AM EST

While we're playing at futurism, I thought I'd throw Ran Prieur's Fall Down Six Times into the mix.  Ran, creative as ever, imagines six futures from wildly optimistic to very dismal.  I thought I'd take a poll :-)  The whole essay is well worth a read, but here are some high points of each case:

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The Future I Was Promised [long]

by DeAnander Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 04:02:39 AM EST

Do you believe in "the Fall"?  The Jared Diamond Story, the collapse of Petro-Civilisation?  I can't not believe in it with smug assurance, because of all the inconvenient facts and numbers I know.  Yet all my life I've shunned the wild-eyed survivalists predicting the End of the World.  They've always been wrong so far :-) ["Just fine so far," the jumper said as he passed the 20th floor.] Yet I have such a bad feeling.   And I feel not only worried and scared, but angry:  cheated, actually.

My whole life I looked forward to the future; as a kid I was a big Star Trek fan, a big science fiction reader, and I believed whole-heartedly in that gaudy technocratic future of exploring other planets, of big clean space stations, a future of Solved Problems, when the miseries of our time would be looked back on with bewildered compassion.  I knew I was living in the Bad Old Days.  But the future, ah, the future would be some marvelous bouillebaisse of EE Doc Smith, Andersen, Asimov, Schmitz, Niven, Heinlein...

Promoted by Colman. Make yourself a cup of coffee, sit down comfortably and enjoy.

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Anti-War, Anti-Bush rally and march in San Francisco

by DeAnander Tue Mar 21st, 2006 at 02:38:06 AM EST

This is what democracy looks like...

I was in SF on March 18th for the anti-war, anti-Bush march and rally.  At the link above are some photos and comments.

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The End of Globalism? John Ralston Saul

by DeAnander Fri Mar 17th, 2006 at 06:22:15 AM EST

John  Ralston Saul suggests in the Australian Financial Review that Globalism (of the Friedman, IMF, WTO, Davos variety) is Over...

This has recently become a favourite article of mine, not because it has a slamdunk conclusion (it doesn't, in fact it kind of fizzles out at the end imho) but because it offers so many intriguingly different ways to look at the last 20-30 years of neocon/neolib dogma.

Many people have documented the incoherency of the dogma and the damage that has been done, but Saul steps back and takes a longer view. Here are some tempting little nuggets which I hope will entice readers to follow the link and discover the rest.  

From the diaries - with minor edits ~ whataboutbob

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seven by seven: listmania

by DeAnander Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 04:46:06 PM EST

  1. Seven things to do before I die

  2. Seven things I cannot do (to my regret)

  3. Seven things that attract me to [where I live or will be living]

  4. Seven things I say most often

  5. Seven books (or series) that I love

  6. Seven movies that I watch over and over again (or would if I had the time)

  7. Seven people I want to join in, too.

Cosma's  List

My buddy rootlesscosmo's List

Anyone want to play?

back from the front page

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Canadian Election Results

by DeAnander Thu Jan 26th, 2006 at 10:45:11 AM EST

Well if no one else is going to, I will venture a semi-informed comment on the recent unpleasantness North of the border, mostly by forwarding the analysis of a friend in Ontario.

Harper and the Conservatives, you will recall (if you were following the story) capitalised astutely on a recent series of scandals in the Chrétien adminstration (Liberal party) and upset the Liberal majority that had prevailed for a couple of decades. Harper "won" the election, with a somewhat shaky minority government. The question is:  is this the "Gingrich Revolution" for Canada, the opening salvo of a rightwing corporatist rollback such as the US has experienced to its cost over the last 20 years?  Or is it merely the voters delivering a slap in the face with a wet fish to Martin and the Liberals, and the opening of a political free-for-all?

Since I hope to become a Canadian at some point in the next year or so, Harper's election worries me mightily.   He is a good buddy of Dubya's and connected with radical Christian rightists.  I asked Canadian friends whether I was fleeing the frying pan only to land in the wood stove.  Here's one answer.

From the diaries - whataboutbob

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China and the Event Horizon

by DeAnander Thu Jul 21st, 2005 at 09:26:54 PM EST

I think it's time to get some other perspectives on recent info about China that has been troubling me.

Here are a few data points...

China Study Group papers and news articles on labour conditions and issues in China.

Cosma Shalizi on "The Condition of the Working Class in China":  "This is the gross, chronic exploitation and oppression of tens of millions of our fellow human beings; the deliberate and profitable creation of situations making Manchester in 1844 seem like a worker's paradise. Industrialization has never, in any country, been pretty or painless, but this is intolerable."

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Military-Industrial Theocracy

by DeAnander Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 10:05:57 PM EST

When Christianity Meets Military/Corporate Culture

It is the day before Independence Day in the Year of Our Lord, 2005, and our men and women in uniform are fighting overseas for our God-given freedom. That's what a few thousand worshipers have come to hear about during the 10:30 morning service at Grace Church, the casinolike "independent evangelical" complex that sits amid the rolling hills of Eden Prairie. The arena-sized parking lot is filled with newish cars and trucks, including a souped-up Lexus adorned with American flags, flag decals, and 1280 The Patriot bumper stickers. Parked next to that is a sedan whose lone sticker testifies, "Mary Kay: Enriching Women's Lives."

Before the service, worshipers take to the Divine Grind, the church's coffee shop. The counter is manned by well-scrubbed teens clad in aprons and denim shirts embossed with the Divine Grind logo. Many of the customers have their own type of uniform: Old Glory ties, shirts, and skirts. A few busy techies in headsets and Grace-logo shirts scurry about with walkie-talkies, getting ready for the day's program. The subject, according to the listing in the "Faith and Values" calendar of the Star Tribune, is "Righteousness Exalts a Nation."

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a fundamental problem

by DeAnander Tue Jul 19th, 2005 at 09:49:57 PM EST

On the bus on my way to work at the U I overhear many undergraduate conversations.  Most are bloody depressing, as I have noted in previous comments on literacy, the US educational system, etc.  However last week I was treated to an interesting exposition by an undergrad who had been taking some economics classes.  Here is his version of a fundamental paradox of capitalism which I had not, myself, really grasped before.  And yet it seems so obvious.

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Limits to Substitutability: BioFuels

by DeAnander Thu Jul 14th, 2005 at 07:58:33 PM EST

At Cornell, a skeptical voice is raised about optimism wrt fuel substitutability:

Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

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Shameless Plug for a Favourite Blogger

by DeAnander Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:08:39 PM EST

I would just like to introduce a "friend whom I have never met", Cosma Shalizi, imho one of the best bloggers out there.  His professional home is the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at UM;  his "Three Toed Sloth:  Slow Takes from the Canopy of the Reality-Based Community" is a treasure trove of good writing, good science, and good (often trenchant) humour.  Just the titles of his mini-essays are a delight to scan, and a wander through one of his many topic collections always leaves me thinking, "Gee, I wish I could write like that."  Than which there is no higher compliment among the scribbling classes :-)

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Can Math : recycling vs MPG

by DeAnander Sun Jun 12th, 2005 at 04:09:45 PM EST

The following question was raised in a discussion group online, under the general topic of SUVs and energy wastefulness: how much blame and dislike is it reasonable to attach to drivers of SUVs for their energy wastefulness, relative to other wasteful behaviours? One member said

The rest area near me has enough aluminum cans going into its dumpster to probably run a Hummer 50,000 miles per year on the amount of energy that's being wasted by not recycling them.
or in other words, "people who don't recycle their aluminium cans are at least as wasteful as people who drive Hummers." The related question immediately arose: if you drive your Hummer to the recycling center to recycle some cans, how many cans must you carry to "save" or reclaim as much energy as you have spent by driving the Hummer to the recycling center? At what point is this a negative-sum exercise in absurdity?

Interesting questions, but how the devil can one figure out the answers? Show Me The Numbers!

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Please allow me to introduce myself...

by DeAnander Sun Jun 12th, 2005 at 01:58:32 PM EST

I have a personal interest in energy literacy and the ways in which its opposite, energy illiteracy, is encouraged by our current economic and social order.  What is energy literacy?  One answer (mine, at the moment) is:  an understanding that the fundamental economics of life are calculated in units of energy, not units of money.  

If we don't understand energy units and costs, then we can't sensibly discuss issues close to my heart like sustainable technology, how to adapt to the end of the cheap fossil fuel era, how to live within our planetary means, etc.  We can't talk about which "alternative energy sources" are cost effective, or assess the impact of our daily choices and decisions, without understanding energy units and concepts.

We are all brought up to understand money units from an early age.  We know how to compare prices, and how to tell if something is expensive or cheap, a bargain or a rip-off.  We are brought up, by contrast, in fairly complete ignorance of energy units and equivalences.  Because of our inability to think quantitatively about energy with the same fluency and ease with which we compare prices at a supermarket, we are prevented from making rational choices or understanding major issues facing us (as individuals, nations, a species).

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