Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2015 9:14 am 
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The perfect steak may be outside your price range--or your healthy zone

Franck Ribière is a Frenchman whose family has long raised Charolais cows in eastern France. Accompanied by the Parisien butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, he is one of the stars of his own film. Steak (R)evolution is a world tour by these two Frenchmen of principal beef-producing countries --the US, France, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and some others. Ribière begins with a porterhouse at the famous Peter Luger steak restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which strikes him as much tastier and more tender than any French equivalent. But Peter Luger's fast-produced, very young American beef he later questions, saying that while to a Frenchman it seems wonderful, it's really flabby and fat. And not as tasty as it could be. And so the tour begins.

As the two men go around the world, they investigate many of the issues involved in raising cattle and delivering it to the table as beef in all the many different cuts, flavors, textures, and degrees of fat content different cultures, industries, and individual producers offer. Ribière is thorough and energetic. You will learn more about beef than you may have expected to. And if you're someone who enjoys a good steak, your imagination will be stimulated and your mouth will water. An overall theme that emerges is that of MIchael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma: the best food is also the most humanely and sustainably raised.

The search for the perfect steak is complicated, though, by how much definitions of steak perfection shift from one country or producer to another. Ribière's early condemnation of mainstream French steak for being too lean is a given, never warying. In favoring lean meat, he says, the French have foolishly followed nutritionists. Ribière also uses an odd numbering system that implies he is ranking the country-producer-beef styles from one to ten, but somewhere along the way he lost me with this. Just as economy and health are not major considerations for him, organization appears not to be ultimately his forte.

At any rate Ribière sticks with the assumption that, though not all of it is good, the best beef is the fat-streaked, marbleized kind. He doesn't seem to notice how much of the beef consumption seen on screen is excessive. He notes with admiration the enormous per capital beef consumption in Argentina: he'd like the French to consume three times as much meat. He also doesn't notice that most of the producers and cooks he films are overweight. Not Michelin three-star chef Michel Bras, though -- and one would like to have heard from more top all-around chefs like Bras, who see the whole picture, as well as from some nutritionists -- and less from steakhouse cooks and other beef specialists. How big is a "perfect" steak, and how often should you eat one? Ribière chases after an ever more elitist goal, increasingly neglecting guidelines of economy and of health.

The film visits a dizzying and colorful array of different breeds of cattle raised in totally different, sometimes exotic locations, including a cold part of Canada and the highlands of Scotland. A hardy longhaired breed is grown in the latter that is native to the place and can thrive in a climate other cattle breeds are too fragile for. Cattle raising in Japan is very refined, its consumption very different. Various growers in Sweden, England, and Spain are visited whose methods are so refined and long-term -- with animals raised as long as fourteen years before slaughtering; with hanging meat in bulk to dry-age it -- that the final product becomes a luxury almost akin to fine wine. And American assumption that beef must be from an animal consumed when no more than thirteen months old comes to seem ridiculous, the Brooklyn steakhouse no longer a worthwhile destination -- though hip Park Slope, Brooklyn has one of the coolest of sophisticated new butcher shops, which even has that rare Scottish beef.

At some point an American grower makes clear that small sustainable farms "are the future," that meat will cost more in years to come, and be consumed in smaller quantities, but will taste better, and that is the way it has to be. It is fascinating to see cattle growers (and their colorful, diverse animals) who put loving care into their production, sometimes, if not always, working from an environmentally enlightened perspective.

Steak (R)evolution, which is like a TV show and is too long, somewhat resembles Jonathan Nossiter's more sharply organized and provocative 2004 wine business documentary Mondovino. It is more specialized, but also less clearly focused, than other food documentaries related to Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's 2006 The Omnivore's Dilemma, like Robert Kenner's 2009 Food, Inc., French filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin's 2008 documentary The World According to Monsanto, Deborah Koons Garcia's 2004 The Future of Food , Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's more comprehensive 2003 film The Corporation, and even the ominous, narration-free 2003 documentary Our Daily Bread by German filmkaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter, which delivered Food, Inc.'s message about dehumanized factory-style food production from a European perspective. Steak (R)evolution is surely the most comprehensive film so far about beef, but its messages get a bit mixed.

Steak (R)evolution, 130 mins., debuted 25 September 2014 at San Sebastián, Spain; French theatrical release was Nov. 2014. The AlloCiné press rating was a healthy 3.5, though many critics noted the slapdash organization and undue length. Half a dozen international festival showings. NYC release (Kino Lorber, at IFC Center) 17 July 2015. San Francisco and East Bay release 28 Aug. 2015.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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