|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 genre 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 stage or screen play, 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 Sylvia and Coco, and Sylvia’s husband Raul. 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 pseudonym 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 their 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.
The film also shows in a simple, almost amateurish documentary format the risks and expenses faced by undocumented immmigrants, the absolute power of the coyotes over their “customers,” the sexual harassment of immigrant women (in this case by ‘Mike,’ the repulsive, strutting alpha-male line foreman — played with offputting conviction by Bobby Cannavale). The routine hazards of the meatpacking work environment (steam cleaners, knife cuts, massive powered grinding machines, general filth) are a background to the workers’ lives and troubles. All this is fairly predictable. We know from the git-go that someone will get hurt in the meat processing equipment, an alienated fast food worker will spit on a burger, etc. We know the outline in advance, and yet Schlosser and Linklater’s script still delivers some surprises.
The extent of contamination and filth at the plant, and the genuine brutality of industrial meat processing (and indeed animal butchery by its nature) are revealed to us very slowly, almost in the style of a traditional horror movie, with hints and ominous foreshadowings leading up to fairly grisly footage in the final reel. At first we are shown only what Anderson is allowed to see, the Potemkin tour of the plant, the “day shift” view that goes nowhere near the killing floor.
But somehow Linklater got his film crew into a real meat packing plant — not an easy thing to do, as the meatpacking industry is highly secretive and for good reason — or by other means managed to get hold of actual footage of the intake chute, the bolt gun at the killing station, the conveyor line at the early skinning and dismembering stages, the floor drains, the skull disposal bin and the offal tables. It would be interesting to know how he pulled this off. In this sense, the allegedly “fictional” movie is a real and gritty documentary, and I found it interesting to observe reactions in the audience to the reality of how meat is processed. Most folks in the (packed) small cinema where I saw the film seemed to find it very disturbing — they responded with more distressed or protesting remarks, covering their eyes, etc., to the slaughterhouse footage than to fictional footage of violence (including a rape) in the rest of the film — indicating perhaps that reality is still distinguishable from fiction for at least some of the US population — or that cruelty to women is less shocking than cruelty to animals, I am not sure which.
Character development is secondary to exposition of facts in this flick — the story arc is documentary rather than novelistic, with no neat and tidy resolution. The bad guys win. It is the characters who are changed by the world system, not vice versa.
In a telling little vignette, a band of idealistic high school students angry about everything the meatpacking operation stands for — pollution, animal cruelty, exploitation — attempt a sabotage operation (after a solemn discussion of the PATRIOT Act and its implications for extralegal activism, which drew a sympathetic growl from the audience): they go to the edge of the grotesquely huge feedlot, bring down a section of fence and try to “free the cows.” But the cattle are not keen on leaving the lot, despite the students’ attempts to shoo them or talk them out. Eventually a vehicle approaches and the would-be saboteurs are forced to flee, having accomplished nothing. Like the cattle acclimated to their captivity, the characters in the film are stuck — trapped by their need for money, their responsibilities, the weight of the self-perpetuating machinery of power and control.
The end of the film finds the plant still running, the labourers still exploited, the meat still contaminated, our hapless executive meekly complying with his corporate masters. But the film makers challenge us — the audience — at the end, asking us do “do something about it” and offering a URL for more information (which actually leads to the homepage of the production company, promoting their other films and projects — just another irony of the media age).
Two elements in this movie qualify it for our ongoing cinÃ©ma altermondialiste theme. One is the strong presence of Spanish-speaking Mexican@ characters — not Americanised assimilated characters, and not dumb Tonto sidekicks to Anglo heroes, but characters in their own right, who own about half the screen time of the film and get some of the best lines. The other is a running critique of capitalism, Taylorism, and the cult of money and profit. Kris Kristofferson in a well-cast cameo appearance as an ageing and disillusioned rancher, sums it up as a sickness that is killing his country, the obsession with “pennies per pound.” All three sets of protagonists and every turn of the plot criticize corporate power and money power from various angles: infringement of privacy, destruction of natural resources, cruelty, exploitation, stupidity, lowering of quality, endangerment of public health, and so on. This is a film deeply critical of capitalism itself.
The quality of the acting wobbles throughout the production; at times one is aware of the characters (metaphorically) holding up signs with the name of the demographic or position they are representing, or woodenly reciting their assigned burden of exposition. But at other moments the dialogue and stage business sparkle with genuine feeling, particularly among the talented ensemble of young Latin@ actors and in some “family” scenes among the anglo characters. As one reviewer said, in this film people really talk, like real people, about real ideas and feelings: there are moments when the film crew captures conversation and not just dialogue. Even the more amateurish moments in the acting are not disastrous; a bit of stiff self-consciousness and amateurism fits in OK with the mid-budget documentary flavour Linklater is aiming for.
There are nice small touches: we see the pervasiveness of convenience food throughout the characters’ daily lives, from microwaved breakfasts through burger-joint lunches and dinners. Televisions are often mumbling in the background of the scene, and usually the televised content (being ignored by all the characters intent on their personal dramas) is directly relevant to the story: news clips about food scares and recalls, injury rates in industry, exploitation of undocumented labour, obesity and malnutrition.
A moment that caught my attention is a stroll taken by our young Mexican@ couple down a standard American strip mall suburban street in Cody. For a moment we can see the street, its glowing neon signs and car dealerships and fast food restaurants, its manicured and pesticide-laden grass verges, its smooth sidewalks, through the eyes of third world poverty: a magical place, a Big Rock Candy Mountain, America the land of opportunity where the streets are paved with gold, a Wonderland. The young couple are excited and happy after dining out at a “real restaurant” on the money Raul (affectingly played by Wilmer Valderrama) has made working at the meatpacking plant. But then Sylvia, our heroine and the most sympathetic character in the film, says something very much to the point: “That chicken tasted frozen to me.” It was only fast food after all, inauthentic, lower quality than what, on a good day, she might have cooked and eaten back home. Her young husband pays no mind, lost in his dreams of owning the latest shiny truck, drunk on the American Dream; but Sylvia has seen the man behind the curtain, and if the audience is paying attention they will see him too. And, I hope, go on seeing him after they leave the theatre.