Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do You Want Shit With Your Fries?

"It's a sad fact of life, Don, but we all have to eat a little shit from time to time."
"Fast Food Nation" is not a particularly great film but it covers an incredibly important subject. Richard Linklater's fictional version of Eric Schlosser's book is more than a critique of McDonald's and other fast food companies. It is a bitter critique of the fast food culture and society that we have become in the age of industrial and corporate globalism. Fast food not only makes us sick, but it harms immgrants, the animals whose flesh we are addicted to, and the environment.

There are three interlinked stories in "Fast Food Nation" using a cinematic collage technique that is fast become the story-telling formula of choice ("Bable," "Crash," Traffic," etc.). When done well, it is a powerful way to expland the scope of a plot. Linklater's film (as well as Schlosser's book first published almost six years ago), presents Mickey's, the invented fast food franchise in the film, as the nexus for three major ethical conflicts. Mickey's company representative, Don (played by Greg Kinnear), tries to be a good provider for his family but remains silent after learning about the misdeeds of a meat packing plant which might harm other families. Amber (played by Ashley Johnson) innocently works for Mickey's but becomes an eco-terrorist when she learns about the harmfulness of factory ranching. And a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico, including Sylvia (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno who was terrific in "Maria Full of Grace"), try to start a new life in Colorado but learn that freedom and democracy is dependent on the exploitation of workers as well as drugs.

There are some wonderful cameo performances by Bruce Willis as a corporate sleaze on the take from the meat packing plant who tells Don that shit in the meat can be overcome in the cooking, Kris Kristofferson as a rancher whose land has been taken over by fast built houses, and Ethan Hawke as a college rebel turned carpenter for the wealthy. Together they expose the injustice and general tackyness of 21th century corporate consumer capitalism.

And the final bloody scene in a slaughterhouse is enough to turn any filmgoer into a vegetarian. If it weren't for the fact that fecal coloform is now being found in spinach as well as meat. I read Fast Food Nation several years ago, and the part that scared me the most was the description of laboratories where scientists known as "flavorists" can duplicate almost any taste or scent. We could be eating cardboard and not know it. In the movie, a gee-whiz flavorist develops a a barbecue taste that Don uses for Mickey's next big campaign. With the right chemicals, even shit would taste great.

Could the film of Schlosser's book have been as insightful and disturbing as a documentary? This is, after all, the Golden Age of documentary film with almost one a week coming through the cinemas in our town to much acclaim. I doubt that the nodes in the fast food chain could have been illustrated as completely if it had been simply a documentary. Last week I watched the documentary "Dying to Live: A Migrant's Journey," about the dangerous passage across the Mexican border and through the Arizona desert, and although, it was informative and moving, it did not probe as deeply into the experience of the migrants as Linklater was able to do with his fictional story.

Another documentary I saw last week, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," probably could not have been as powerful as a fictional story. The unvarnished truth, in this case, hurts. And it also illustrates the malaise of a country in the stranglehold of corporate capitalism. Only profit counts in the reign of Big Business and Global Corporations.

Directed by Chris Paine, the film tells the story of the rise and fall of the electric car, starting at the turn of the century when electric cars were more popular that those powered by gas and steam. But Henry Ford and cheap oil pushed them off the roads. Then ressurection of the electric car began in 1990 when California's Air Resources Board adopted a Zero-Emission Vehical mandate which forced auto manufacturers to develop new technology. The General Motors all-electric car, sold under the Saturn brand, was enormously popular with a small group of people who were only allowed to lease it, not buy. It had a limited range of 70 miles but battery technology existed to extend that distance. A few years later, however, the chairman of the board reversed the emissions mandate and GM recalled, and destroyed, all of its cars. It was later revealed that the chairman had an interest in hydrogen fuel cell technology and that technology was pushed by government and business, even though a successful car is still years away. In the meantime we have the hybrids which are good but nevertheless no match for the electric car.

Paine's film, which would make a good double-feature bill with "An Inconvenient Truth," concludes that the electric car was killed off by the auto makers and the petroleum industry, neither of whom wanted a replacement for the gas guzzler. This is the same group, along with tire manufacturers, who killed off the electric transit system in Los Angeles forty years ago, documented in the excellent film "Taken for a Ride."

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