Cogs in the Butcher's Machine By Janusz Wróblewski

in 17th Ljubljana International Film Festival (LIFFE)

by Janusz Wróblewski

In his psychological social drama Fast Food Nation, Richard Linklater tans the hide of the McDonald’s corporation, showing that statistical data and sociological commentary can be turned into a lively, two-hour story. This is a new voice for the American movie – one that takes on an educational function.

The recent flood of documentaries reviling the effects of American corporationism has evidently given feature films a social conscience: Syriana ‘s creators spoke out against the dubious business of American oil concerns in the Middle East; The Constant Gardener indicted world pharmaceutical companies testing their new vaccines on poor Kenyan children. Fast Food Nation, the latest iteration of this cinematic trend, goes much further, accusing flagship American institutions and placing the whole system of cheap, mass-produced food before the firing squad – even comparing it to the lethal effects of HIV infection.

Linklater, the independent filmmaker, does not have to observe Hollywood rules, showing dirty slaughterhouses where cattle is being killed, skinned and gutted. The viewer sees rats running out of air shafts, seasonal workers processed through assembly lines and young Mexican girls sexually abused by their American supervisors. He does not hesitate to inform the viewers that the taste of the hamburgers that children love is prepared synthetically, and that these beef patties are not much different from … cow pats.

“There’s shit in the meat,” a character says early on in Fast Food Nation, and from this moment on – just like in a real thriller – the suspense gradually builds. The cast is filled with famous names, but Hollywood superstars show up only briefly, in cameos, to voice specific arguments against the junk food – or for it – produced in this huge butcher’s machine. Casually dressed, with no make-up or lighting package to enhance them, they do not look like celebrities. Just people.

Greg Kinnear is a naïve Mickey’s executive dispatched to investigate reports of sanitary failure at the “Big One” processing plant in fictional Cody, Colorado, where most of Fast Food Nation takes place. Bruce Willis, looking more like a truck driver, plays a dull cattle distributor who tells Kinnear, rather bluntly, that even if some of the hamburger meat he provides for Mickey’s “Big One” might carry some trace of E.coli, the bacteria will disappear in the process of cooking. Kris Kristofferson, as a farmer, complains about the twilight of the rancher’s lifestyle that was so essential to the American West. And Patricia Arquette appears as the mother of a teenage girl who works in a local Mickey’s, does her best to deny – or at least – ignore the fact that big corporations exist to crush the free spirits of both America and her daughter.

The director uses a fictional restaurant chain, and doesn’t use the world-famous golden arches as its logo. But even a child can guess at which corporation the film is taking aim.

Linklater’s film owes its significance and logical reasoning to Eric Schlosser’s bestselling “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal”, first published in 2001. Schlosser’s uncompromising work is a strong condemnation of the fast-food American mindset, a mindset created primarily by McDonald’s – the symbol of American free market and consumerism. Having examined the appearance and growth of the mass-production system, Schlosser found the fast-food industry destroyed America’s traditional meat-processing business. With hamburger domination came the inevitable changes in consumers’ dietary habits, and an epidemic of obesity. The collapse of family farms, the proliferation of country ghettoes, an increase in crime, poverty, drug addiction and homelessness, and the boom in illegal immigration – and the exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants once they arrive on the north side of the border – are the disastrous consequences of the monolithic food industry’s control of American farming, and its hotline to the consciousness of hundreds of millions of consumers all over the world.

Schlosser’s excellent book – decades later, a worthy successor to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” – resonated with many documentary filmmakers (including, most famously, Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock) and ultimately became the bedrock of Linklater’s multi-layered (fictional) screenplay. But the end result, despite the director’s clear and correct instincts, is rather unconvincing.

Converting the documentary material into a psychological drama strengthens its educational message, but weakens its artistic value, turning Fast Food Nation into something that feels a lot like a blatantly leftist agit-doc. The film’s reach for a broader picture, rather than trying to focus on the individual human tragedies caused by “Mickey’s” influence, is also disappointing. Linklater has chosen a more difficult approach than Spurlock, who openly accused McDonald’s of poisoning him. Super Size Me’s triumph, much like the success of Michael Moore’s satires, demonstrates that feature-film rules, applied to a documentary, can capture the public consciousness. Linklater tried the reverse, transforming a factual study into a fictional narrative. Unfortunately, he did not become the Upton Sinclair of the cinema. His Fast Food Nation will not similarly impact public opinion; in the end, it’ll probably be most appreciated by vegetarians.