by Farihah Zaman
Dir. Robert Kenner, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
Robert Kenner’s exposé on the American food industry, Food, Inc., begins with all the dystopian promise of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, plunging us beneath the surface of a shiny, pristine supermarket with rolling camera movement, prophetic voiceover, and pulsing horror movie score. The film’s first few minutes have the feel of exciting pulp, suggesting that the hidden truth about the scary practices underlying modern food production and processing will unravel in a Hitchcockian manner. It’s disappointing then that Food, Inc. doesn’t ultimately set itself apart from the standard documentary format, failing to follow through on the tightly wound, fastidiously structured nonfiction thriller it initially appears to be. Thankfully, what it lacks in originality and narrative drive it makes up for with efficiency, social relevance, and a few surprising aesthetic choices.
The timing of the film’s release couldn’t be better, as a tiny but growing number of Americans have begun to recognize the ramifications of an increasingly industrialized and centralized agricultural system, which range from animal cruelty and tainted food, to the economic destruction of the American farmer, to wide-scale ecological devastation. The various food movements that have caught on as a result of this burgeoning understanding—slow food, raw food, macrobiotic, fair trade, organic, all natural, sustainable, vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, flexitarian, locavore, the list goes on—currently stand poised to either break out of the young, privileged classes into the mainstream or drown in backlash sprung from their economic inaccessibility and holier-than-thou rhetoric. Staunchly peddling the good word have been authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), who inspire, appear in, and have enthusiastically stumped for Kenner’s film (Schlosser is also listed as a producer). Yet Food, Inc. is not a cinematic distillation of these authors’ elegantly structured arguments for healthy eating and food regulation. As a storyteller, Kenner lacks Schlosser’s ability to put a human face on an industrial problem and Pollan’s talent for weaving many disparate strands into a comprehensible structural whole.
This is not to say that he doesn’t try. In Food, Inc., Kenner talks to a lot of people about a lot of things: the perturbed and frustrated farmer willing to take him inside her corporate-owned chicken coop despite company regulation; a woman advocating for policy changes in Washington after the contaminated food–related death of her son; the scientists in labs manipulating high-fructose corn syrup to produce the processed foods of tomorrow; and of course the aforementioned food celebrities. While this accumulation of facts provides a sense of how various people and communities are affected by this fatally flawed industry, scattershot narrative organization (hanging a great deal on thematic intertitles) means the critical interconnectedness of their stories is never explicitly, or persuasively, articulated.
While Food, Inc. may not do a great job of assembling the bigger picture, it emphatically gets across that the picture is big. The film impressively portrays the sheer magnitude of the industrial food production problem, particularly via apt if obvious aesthetic choices. Kenner frequently employs aerial shots that simultaneously illustrate the amount of land devoted to industrial farming and reference American iconography of wild, open spaces tamed by human toil; indoor shots are likewise wide, always aimed at capturing the mind-boggling amount of everything, from potatoes to pig carcasses to crippled chickens. A favored visual trick finds him focusing on a single animal and then slowly zooming out to illustrate that it’s merely one of a teeming mass of infected misery. This image of mass production is not only imposing but also shatters the ideal of food cultivated through tender, individualized care from an artisanal farmer.
Kenner focuses on the machinery and the results of industrial production technology in odd and unnerving ways. The aforementioned grocery store sequence turns an innocuous domestic ritual into an onslaught of artificiality and industry at its most terrifying, as obnoxious colors and aggressive packaging go by in a seductive haze. We see hundreds of adorable baby chicks rush past on a conveyer belt before having their cute little asses stamped with a barcode—they may be living, breathing creatures but to the industry they might as well be cans of beans. Even the animated graphics, the low point of many a doc since Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s gross-out Super Size Me, work well to provide information while emphasizing scale and animal as commodity. In one, seemingly endless rows of livestock go by like metal ducks at a shooting range, while floating percentage numbers tick off statistics of meat consumption. Another features a red, shiny cut of beef spinning mid air in front of a lovely blue backdrop, strange and Dali-esque, an apt metaphor for our emotional remove from the source of the sterilized cut of meat on the plate.
The overall aestheticization of animal slaughter recalls Georges Franju’s meditative 1949 short documentary Blood of the Beasts, which contrasts life in a small rural town on the outskirts of Paris with an unflinching look inside the local slaughterhouse. Captivating in its grotesquery, Franju’s black-and-white 16mm lingered on blood, viscera, and butchered flesh in the same manner as Food, Inc.’s shots of undulating waves of crowded livestock and the endless march of factory machinery. Blood of the Beasts shares some of Food, Inc.’s social aims; to show the ignorance of communities about where their food comes from, and to shock audiences by documenting the bare reality of its processing. However, the single animal slaughters that may have been appalling in 1949 register as positively quaint when compared to the assembly line butchery of today’s charnel houses. So much has changed, and the more aggressively political agenda of Food, Inc. is an appropriate response.
The glut of issue-based documentaries in recent years has raised, time and again, questions of form versus content. While ideally all of these films would be as aesthetically considered as they are socially aware and urgent, expediency has too often won the day. Food, Inc., visually lovely but structurally clumsy, still manages to make a crucial point that continues to elude many American consumers: that the way in which we eat is unacceptably destructive to our land, economy, and health. The importance of that message, and the fact that it has a better than average chance to get out there due to its hot topicality and the support of food culture luminaries from Kmart vendor Martha Stewart to the more esoteric Alice Waters and everyone in between, makes one hopes that the message transcends the messenger.