I see a lot of movies every year. A
ton. But this year I’ve decided I don’t see enough movies, so one of my
New Year Resolutions was to simply see more. And to write about them.
See, that’s the other half of the equation: I see a ton of movies, but
I write about comparatively few of them. There are a lot of reasons,
but they mainly boil down to the fact that I feel the  need to do long
form reviews, and sometimes – like in the midst of Sundance – I just
don’t have the time.

so was born this new blog! I aim to make an entry for every single
movie I see in 2010. Some entries may be very short, some may be
lengthy. Entries may take a couple of days to be posted. Let’s see how
long this lasts.

last  thing: one of my main objectives this year is to rewatch more
movies. I know this sounds like a strange goal, but there are films I
haven’t seen since high school, which means it’s been almost a lifetime
since I saw them. Recently I rewatched Black Christmas for
the first time since the 1980s, and I might as well have been seeing
the movie for the first time. I’m interested in getting a look at some
movies I loved or hated twenty or even ten years ago and seeing how I
feel about them now.

Let’s begin…

#12 Food, Inc.
d. Robert Kenner

I come to a doc like Food, Inc. with a ton of baggage. I used to work as an activist, and I have come to a point of serious political burnout. I’ve seen the compromises that have to be made to get any legislation through – stupid, niggling compromises that end up gutting the whole point of the legislation.

I’ve also come to lose much faith in humanity, or at least the humanity living in America right now. Short sighted, foolish and selfish sort of begin to scratch the surface of it, I guess. We live in a country where victims don’t want to be protected because they have been tricked into believing one day they could be the victimizers. Poor people rail against taxes that do not impact them because they believe they could one day be rich. As if the rich will allow that. The top of this social ladder is a tiny little perch, and there are people up there actively kicking at those trying to climb up.

The other problem with a movie like Food, Inc. is that I know everything in there, and I bet most of the folks seeing the film do as well. You don’t watch a movie like this unless organic food is in your fridge, frankly. There’s nothing really wrong with preaching to the converted – you need to keep them fired up –  but I don’t think movies are all that valuable in any movement. The problem is that the audience walks out of the movie, for which they just paid 10 bucks or so, feeling like they HAVE taken action. A movie is like any other organizing technique designed to get people doing something, whether it be a leaflet campaign, a canvass, a protest, anything, except that a good organizing technique leaves people taking action. You have them signing a petition, volunteering, donating money – you’ve fired them up and then you have them act on it. An activist movie fires people up and makes them feel like they HAVE acted on it.

On top of that, even if people want to take further action it’s hard to get them to do it after a movie. Unless you have people in the theater taking signature, collecting donations, every step a person takes away from the theater their enthusiasm for the cause wanes. This is the beauty, by the way, of showing movies like this online – action can be taken immediately.

Director Robert Kenner’s no dummy, though, and he’s crafted his film to end with a simple call to action: eat better, be aware of the food you’re buying, etc etc etc. There’s a hollowness to this for me, though: everybody watching this movie eats organic or intends to do so. It’s sort of back-patting. Nobody’s sitting through 90 minutes of a doc about where your food comes from unless they already really care where their food comes from.

But what’s most frustrating is how the film keeps just skirting the edge of the real problem underlying every single thing in this movie: capitalism. The shitty conditions at the chicken houses, and the serf-like farmers who tend them while being terrorized by big companies? A problem with capitalism. The fact that e. coli outbreaks happen with alarming regularity but nobody will regulate the industry properly? A problem with how capitalism has our government in a chokehold. The way that workers at factories are treated poorly and paid terribly, and that plants hire illegal immigrants they can abuse? Again, capitalism.

Kenner doesn’t fully ignore it – his call to action is to do some jiu jitsu on capitalism and to spend your own money in ways that send a message – but he never engages it. The reality is that Monsanto can sue the shit out of little farmers because we live in a society where profit above all else is the mantra. The reality is that unless these businesses are heavily, seriously, restrictively regulated, they will abuse workers, they will make unsafe food, they will torture animals, they will produce food that is simply bad for you yet cheaper than food that is good for you – nobody’s ways will be changing just because Wal-Mart has decided to stock organic milk.

In fact, Kenner presents some kind of hippie wonderland theory, where a small farmer with a few dozen cows is the future of the industry. It’s bullshit, because the sheer amount of meat demanded in this country could never be procured that way. He also uses Stonybrook Farms as an example of good practices serving large demands, but I wonder if he looked as deeply into that company as he did Perdue. Just watching a belching diesel truck deliver yogurt to a horrific Wal-Mart in an island of concrete made me think that if this is the best we can do, we’re so very fucked.

It’s a good movie, and Kenner’s right on most of his points, but what’s the purpose being served? When I was an activist in the mid 90s we were working on the same fucking food safety issues Food, Inc covers. And the movie even admits that the meat packing industry went from being hellish to being unionized and reasonable back to being hellish again. Until we’ve convinced the people of this country that profit first is no way to run a world, we’re never going to get anywhere. The next step in those plants? Robots. They won’t get repetitive stress injuries, they won’t get deported, they don’t take breaks. And then what happens to the people eking a meager living from that business? Instead of pushing companies to fairness we’re pushing them to profitability, and profitability almost always comes on the backs of health, safety and the environment.

So pay two extra bucks for the organic, hormone-free chicken. We do in my house. But don’t pretend that this is doing anything except creating a new niche market for Kelloggs to exploit. And don’t pretend like Monsanto won’t spend lots and lots of money redefining what the fuck organic even MEANS legally – like they already do.