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Our Daily Bread in a Fast Food Nation

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<em>Our Daily Bread</em> in a <em>Fast Food Nation</em>

With the arrival of American filmmaker Richard Linklater’s warm but fractured version of Edward Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s coolly disturbing study of global agro-business, Our Daily Bread we are presented with two films on a similar subject matter which take near polar opposite approaches and achieve varying levels of success. And while I respect Linklater’s effort, I am much more impressed by Geyrhalter’s achievement.

I should begin with a confession. I’m a big fan of the more personal (non-Hollywood gun-for-hire) films of Richard Linklater. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are among my all-time personal favorites, while I also hold in high esteem Waking Life, Slacker and A Scanner Darkly, believing them to be among their respective year’s best films. There is a looseness and unwieldiness to his films that many find distracting, but which I contend is endearing. Driven by ideas and characters, they have only a secondary concern with plot. His best films are inhabited by society’s oddballs and fringe-dwellers who engage in wide-ranging conversations that sometimes have only the most tangential concern with providing their story’s with a narrative push. In fact, these films meander along at a leisurely place, arriving (if at all) at their critical moments almost as an afterthought. His latest certainly fits that description, but unfortunately fails to achieve the greatness of its forefathers, and the blame must be squarely laid at Linklater’s feet, as the weaknesses that others decried in his earlier films have come the fore in this sprawling multi-narrative expose of the fast food industry.

As mentioned above, Fast Food Nation is a fictionalized account of Eric Schlosser’s muckraking expose of the fast food industry. When looking for cinematic comps, Linklater’s film shares some of the characteristics of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, as it too attempts to look at a controversial issue from as many vantage points as possible, but it isn’t nearly as slick or professional-looking. This is a nod in Linklater’s favor, as the film’s overall griminess suits the subject matter better than Soderbergh’s high-gloss sheen. And while Bruce Willis and Avril Lavigne make, in order, amusing and distracting cameos, generally speaking FFN is not graced with a comparably distracting array of A-list movie stars. Linklater’s film shows us the fast food industry from the point of view of a variety of folks, including illegal immigrant workers, disaffected front line employees, cattle ranchers, fast food executives, and socially conscious university students. Of all these various vantage points, the film proves most engaging and honest when its feet are on the ground, following the fates of Mexican immigrants as they slip across the border, tramp for days on end across a forbidding and foreboding desert landscape and once they reach the promised land, attempt to navigate through the challenging waters of illegal employment and the ruthless topography of uninsured health care. The only instantly recognizable face here, Wilmer Valderrama (That 70s Show), offers a solid performance here, but it is Catalina Sandino Moreno as Sylvia, so riveting as a drug mule in Maria Full of Grace, who roots this storyline. Moreno imbues Sylvia with a frankness and humanity that blazes off the screen, and if the gods are just, she will have her pick of the litter of great film roles for the next decade. She is that good, and that deserving. All of their grim stories’ arcs are told in a forthright manner, and end on an open-ended but powerfully downbeat note that feels both honest and earned. If only Linklater had been as successful in all of his film’s tales.

Unfortunately, and unlike Soderbergh, Linklater is not adept at maintaining multiple narratives and seeing them through to their various plausible conclusions. As with Linklater’s best films, FFN is akin to that gangly, big-boned and loose-limbed kid who tries really hard to impress us with his grace, who is plenty of fun to hang and chat with, but who proves unable to move smoothly in a straight line, or follow his arguments through to their logical conclusions. Usually I love this aspect of awkwardness and open-endedness about Linklater’s films, but in FFN, where narrative threads reinforce and strengthen the film’s themes, it proves a bit disastrous. The narrative fissures that see the disappearance of Greg Kinnear’s corporate boss character for nearly the entire second half of the film point to a certain laziness and lack of focus and purpose that acts to submarine many of the storylines. There are moments when the film regains focus, as when one of the characters, after noting how the Patriot Act makes actions against property a treasonous act, summons up the charge that he can think of nothing more patriotic than breaking the Patriot Act. Or later, near film’s end and Sylvia surveys the horrors of the meat packing plant’s killing floor, Linklater is attempting to re-establish his hold over the film’s various themes and stories, touching on a wound that opens to what poet Karl Shapiro called “our richest horror.” However, rather than coalescing his film, and urging it on to rise steadily to a crescendo of intrigue and outrage, these moments prove frustratingly fleet, as most of tales wither quietly away.

And now for something completely similar, and yet strikingly different, we have Our Daily Bread, a documentary out of the Netherlands directed by Austrian Nikolaus Geyrhalter, that gives us a bird’s eye view of the daily operations of a variety of agro-businesses, but does so without a single moment of voice-over narration. In fact, the only audible words are spoken by the laborers in these businesses, and are in a variety of European languages that I suspect most of us have at best a passing familiarity with. So, for all intents and purposes, Our Daily Bread is wordless, offering as its sole method of documentation a series of immaculately constructed shots that eerily reflect the efficient and precise nature of the businesses whose methods they are recording. And without uttering a single word, Our Daily Food expresses a more radical vision of contemporary food production than Linklater’s far more verbose and easily accessible film.

While Fast Food Nation only escapes its running dialogue on the evils of the fast food industry when it moves outside of its lower middle class setting, and takes us into the meat packing plant with the exploited illegal Mexican employees, thereby allowing us to see the meat industry from the inside out, Our Daily Bread takes this tack from the get-go, and is, in fact, little more than this. And the result is positively chilling. The film presents a series of stately and deceptively beautiful shots of small and seemingly mundane moments in a typical day of various agro-businesses. The cumulative effect of these portraits is, however, emotionally devastating.

Now let me clarify something. I try to be reasonably well-informed about important global issues. I know about the perils of global agro-business, as I’ve read Fast Food Nation, and with equal parts dread and fascination, I have checked out the Upton Sinclair-like exposes that have recently graced the pages of socially-conscious magazines like Harper’s. Yet nothing I read prepared me for the overwhelming sense of horror and disgust that settled upon me as I viewed Our Daily Bread. We can communicate in many ways the many terrible things that we are doing to this planet, but there is something about moving imagines that simply cannot be superseded for visceral impact. Reading about it has given me the intellectual ammunition to question the ways of our world, but it has not managed to get to my emotional core in the same way that the grim images in this film managed. In effect, Our Daily Bread is a series of tableaux, existential portraits of working people put through their paces on a standard day.

The filmmaker’s clinical approach mirrors that of the food processors. By bleeding the passion out of their approach, the filmmakers achieve something quite striking, as the cumulative effect of the images of bloodletting and dismemberment is even more striking and horrific. Further, these stately, symmetrical and sometimes even majestic shots of workers’ daily tedium provides a sort of cognitive dissonance, as we stand at a comfortable distance, but are asked to observe actions that will rattle all but the most cold-hearted among us. Leo Goldsmith (web site: Not Coming to a Theater Near You) astutely describes how Geyrhalter “[emphasizes] the vanishing point in every scene, heightening the sense of infinite space in each field, barn, or factory in the same manner that Kubrick underscores distance and depth in [2001: A Space Odyssey].” Pulling up the compositions of Kubrick as a reference might seem like heady stuff, but Geyrhalter earns the comps. And like Linklater, who builds up to the final reveal on the killing floor that nearly reveals all the fumbling that passed before, Geyrhalter’s film builds slowly but inevitably to this gruesome climax. And all the evidence is flushed away in an orgy of anti-septicism, as if we must, Pilate-like, cleanse ourselves so thoroughly of these deeds that not only will the blood be erased from our hands, but memory of the deed as well. It’s as if Lady Macbeth is running global agro-business. “What’s done is done. These deeds must not be thought/After these ways; so, it will make us mad.”

With an eye as cool and detached as Stan Brakhage’s autopsy footage, and with a pace as casual as a summer picnic, Geyrhalter states simply that this is what we’ve come to. This is how we choose to handle the earth. A seemingly barren wasteland is a precursor for images of harvest straight out of a science fiction imagination. A massive field of sunflowers, and the workers toiling row upon row, are drenched by a crop duster, then the plants harvested by workers garbed as if stationed to clean up duty in Chernobyl. This is the food we eat. These are the methods we use to maximize profit and guarantee the lowest possible price for the consumer. And yet Our Daily Bread is not a muckraking expose in the manner of Sinclair’s The Jungle so much as a dispassionate documentation of the way things are. Sometimes a film offers up explanation and analysis, other times it merely requires that we bear witness. Is the latter a cop out? It can be, particularly when the filmmakers attempt to take some sort of falsely “objective” vantage point on the proceedings. Yet, despite the seeming coldly surgical approach to the subject, it is pretty obvious that the filmmakers of Our Daily Bread clearly have a point of view, and it is found in the juxtaposition and layering of images. Observe the contrast between the scenes of mass processing of food products with the intimate shots of individual workers eating their lunches. Where does the food come from that they eat? The film also quickly settles into a gentle rhythm that is deceivingly unobtrusive. As we observe at a respectful distance, workers carry out their daily chores in calm and unquestioning obeisance, our concern transforms into terror, our disgust becomes revulsion. How, we wonder, can these people continue to toil at such work without feeling as we do?

The answer is relatively simple. The people at work pushing the chicks here and shoving the pigs there, spraying the crops and eviscerating the cattle are part of a larger metaphor, one which Linklater’s film taps into quite graphically in its final scenes. Just like the meat their turn into food products for our consumption, these laborers are being processed. They are being shoved down the chute and onto the killing floor with the same dreadful efficiency as the creatures they process. It is rather sobering to realize that the same mechanical, interchangeable, assembly-line production model that Chaplin mocked so brilliantly over seventy years ago in Modern Times lives on, and with a dreadful and horrifying level of efficiency that even Marx might have found striking. The repetitive nature of the work is soul-deadening, and turns the workers into objects toiling silently and efficiently who, like the goods they manufacture, will find their humanity chewed up by the machinery of production. The livestock are not the only things being processed.