Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 05, 2006 12:52 pm 
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Sloppy seconds

This is a somewhat odd idea, though not unique: the mercurial, talented Richard Lnklater has taken Eric Schlosser's best-selling 2001 eponymous exposé of American fast-food chains and the increasingly bad eating habits they foster and turned it into a series of interwoven dramatic scenes. He has enlisted a cameo-chain of activist-minded actors like Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis, Patricia Arquette, Kris Kristofferson -- and near the center of things, as a naïve junk-food company executive, perpetual good-guy patsy Greg Kinnear. And he has gotten hold of some good (but here relatively wasted) Mexican or Hispanic actors to play the roles of undocumented workers released by their border-crossing "coyote" right into the hands of a sadistic Casanova of a meat packing boss (Bobby Cannavale).

The movie is divided into wise guys, patsys, and underdogs. Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson are wise guys, though one defends the new food culture of a capitalist machine and the other attacks it. Kinnear is a bland simpleton who thinks he's doing a good job and then seems outraged and ready to change things when he finds his company is using hamburger meat with shit in it. But at film's end he's quietly knuckled down and invented another flavor of Big Burger. Cannavale's character, the meat packing foreman who literally screws the female workers, is worse than a wise guy: he's a creepy, brutal lothario, an exploiter wildly out of control Ironically this actor was a quiet charmer who ran a little food stand in The Station Agent. He has moved up on the B List, and down in the food chain.

Some of the characters are cast in white trash roles but hoping to rise by escaping from their crappy jobs, such as the girl and boy (Ashley Johnson and Paul Dano) who're fast food servers at "Micky's," Kennear's company. Arquette as the girl's mother and Hawke as her uncle represent particularly clumsy threads in the dramatization, but basically everyone is just a mouthpiece for the non-fiction which would have been more thought-provoking and more interesting presented straight, in a documentary, with more facts, and hence, hopefully, more complexity..

An undocumented woman's husband is severely injured in the meat packing plant and the company accuses him of being on drugs. But this is another blurred point, since it's already been stated that the workers do resort to drugs to deal with their numbing, unpleasant work. In fact the meat packing plant -- and we see a real kill floor in some late sequences -- is so demonized that Linklater seems to be confusing dehumanization with evil and nastiness.

The factory sequences ought to be compared with the more comprehensive and chilling ones in the currently highly praised 2005 German documentary Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot), in which Nikolaus Gayhalter depicts many phases of European mass food production in vast, coldly beautiful scenes presented without any commentary. The workers in these sequences may be suffering or they may be happy. That isn't the point of Our Daily Bread, which is how we're being cut off from local, slow food; how animals and plants are equally treated as factory objects. The processes are numbingly repetitive and everything is efficiently mechanized. In Fast Food Nation the processes are disgusting and criminally dangerous, but if you watch Gayhalter, that may not be the real point.

Neither movie has much that's positive to offer. For that, you need to go to Deborah Koons' s 2004 The Future of Food, which while depicting the Orwellian controls afoot with genetic manipulation of foods, also shows there's a slow food movement, there are farmers' markets everywhere, and farmers are organizing to fight back against Monsanto.

Unlike either of those documentaries, Linklater's film overloads its statements at every turn, without providing an effective drama. None of the characters are developed very well in storytelling terms, and various narrative lines go astray. There are many lurid payoffs -- enough to make the film nasty and unpleasant to watch -- but no conclusions. Bruce Willis' character, the middle man who got Micky's its cheap prices for the meat factory's products, is a welcome voice (though he's basically just lecturing us in a cameo, like Kristofferson) because in taking a "realistic" position he is able to see the food production issues as ambiguous. Surely it isn't true as he asserts that there's always been fecal matter in the meat we eat. This is the result of fast food mass production. But it's true as he says that the Mexican workers are diligent and admirable and life requires compromises -- just as it's always been true as Kristofferson's character says that the meat packers have always been mean guys. But these are only tiny glimpses of the complexity of a very complex subject.

Fast Food Nation is unsuccessful agit-prop: lacking the cool detachment of a Brecht, it reads only as shrill polemic hiding behind very patchy drama. These indie film actors seem exploited too (and were probably paid low wages). For actors of the caliber or charisma-level of Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancón and Luis Guzmán to be used in these generic roles is the cinematic equivalent of being ground up into fast food. They're not playing in a compelling fiction but acting out little scenes in a morality play. While Our Daily Bread seems at times in desperate need of a little commentary, Linklater's film browbeats us non-stop, and we don't know if we're getting real "information" because there's no nuance. I kept hoping the fast food restaurant employees would start making loud wisecracks, like the guys and girl in Clerks II. This movie desperately needs believable characters and a sense of humor. Instead it lectures us, like Lucy in Peanuts, till our stomachs hurt and we feel nauseous. The people who praised a lurid documentary like Capturing the Friedmans will praise this too. Linklater has given us one great movie this year, A Scanner Darkly, and we didn't need to be served this indigestible second course.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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