Food, Inc.

Admit it: There is something fundamentally unpalatable about yet another documentary whose credits open with a slick barrage of info-graphics and close (over Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land is Your Land,” no less) by telling you precisely how to live and what to think and where to shop and point your Web browser. Especially when, in between, it tries so hard and manages so well to make you feel sick.

The intentions of producer-director Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. may be perfectly wholesome and righteous, but the thing itself gives off a strong whiff of crass salesmanship and assembly-line prefabrication, and that really doesn’t help when the subject being documented is the industrial ruination of American agriculture by way of crass salesmanship and assembly-line prefabrication.

But you must understand, friends and movie critics will insist, Kenner has seen the distended, feces-caked underbelly of abundance, and it is made of corn syrup solids and corporate corruption! It is something every American must be made to see, and certainly not for the sake of entertainment! OK, but is a fresher, less processed-seeming film about it really too much to ask?

In other words, Food, Inc. is about as well-meaning as a movie can be, if not quite as well-made. As for journalistic integrity, never mind; apparently that gleaming standard is as dubious as a “notional tomato.” One of the film’s primary sources is also one of its producers, namely Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. But hey, at least there will be no confusion about where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to say. On that subject, no, Food, Inc. is not the first to the table, as it were, but it does still seem timely and necessary–and maybe even more constructive than Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and the Richard Linklater movie of Schlosser’s book put together.

You don’t have be a vegan crusader to find it troublesome that anyone would want to make it illegal to publish photos of feed lots. You don’t have to worry for the souls of chickens or cows to suppose that husbanding them in ostensible concentration camps might be hazardous to the health of the people who eat them. And you don’t have to be a professor of civics to doubt the wisdom of staffing regulatory food-safety agencies with former food company executives.

If you can get past the unnatural additives of his presentation, you may find that Kenner’s progressivism actually is rather pragmatic. Consider a distribution partnership between the hippie-founded, proudly organic Stonyfield Farm yogurt company and the highly hippie-resistant Wal-Mart. Or the Republican woman who became an activist because, as she bravely explains, her little boy went “from perfectly healthy to dead in 12 days” thanks to the E. Coli he acquired from corn-fed, factory-farmed beef. You will not be reassured to know that the industry-standard precaution against such horrors involves adding lots of ammonia.

Kenner has a keen sense of the big picture, although his treatment of small details sometimes tends toward the sketchy. For instance, it is contextually useful to give at least a glimpse of illegal Mexican slaughterhouse workers getting raided by the cops, or working-class diabetics eating fast food because it’s cheap, but the movie has a vaguely unsettling way of treating these people like sacrificial pawns. As for the Monsanto soybean racket, it’s fair enough to assume that complicated and distressing situation might need a whole film of its own. Maybe later.

With The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, among other reliable sources, also on hand, Food, Inc. does have some hope, and real nourishment, to offer. Arguably it puts itself at a disadvantage by reminding us of the comparatively rigorous journalistic examples of Schlosser and Pollan (or, worse, by seeming sometimes like little more than a snazzy multimedia press release for their books). But of course we all know the exchange rate between words and pictures.And plenty of these pictures are, well, moving.

It’s not necessarily any easier to watch a guy grabbing free-range chickens and cutting their throats by hand than it is to observe the assembly-line rendering of ground beef. But the absurd abstraction of the latter certainly must correlate to the impunity with which we tell ourselves that the source of what we eat is something we don’t even want to know.

Robert Kenner isn’t trying to spoil anybody’s appetite. Rather, he wants his movie to be a digestive aid. Food, Inc. may look and smell like a glossy package of highly processed luncheon meat, but really it’s more like a big pile of organic, locally grown cabbage. Yum?

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