(On DVD, March 2010) Adapting a book to a movie is a gamble even in the best circumstances, but adapting a well-regarded non-fiction classic into an ensemble drama is really asking for trouble. To its credit, Richard Linklater manages to touch upon much of Eric Schlosser’s critique of the fast-food industry: We get a taste of its reliance on students and migrant workers, the bloody mass butchery required to keep those burgers flowing, the external costs inherent in cheap food and even details such as made-in-laboratory flavours. What the film doesn’t do as well is in dramatizing those issues: Often, Fast Food Nation feels like a talky issues show in which every scene mentions a problem or two. (Even a quick walk through school corridors can’t help but feature metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs.) Some characters are more interesting than others (there are plenty of cameos and small roles for familiar faces, the best of which being a single-scene semi-villainous turn for Bruce Willis), but the film shuts down before it can tie up most situations adequately: it’s all setup and little payoff, although it leads, Heart of Darkness-style, to a revelatory climax showing the gruesome nature of the “Killing Floor” discussed so often during the rest of the film.. This unflinching moment, filmed in a real Mexico butchery said to be cleaner than US ones, is meant to disgust –but it may not be the film’s intended climax for viewers who already understand that animals become meat become burgers. Still, Fast Food Nation generally sticks close to reality, and its failings as a piece of narrative fiction are profoundly linked to its strength as a semi-documentary exposé. It could have been much stronger by including a third act, presenting its messages more carefully (although, thanks goodness, it avoids the most obvious “fast food will make you fat”) and sticking closer to its characters. But even with its flaws, it’s a worthwhile film: the issues are there to ponder, and there are a handful of scenes good enough to make the film compelling. Don’t plan on eating much fast-food right after, though. Appropriately, viewers may come to appreciate the film more after listening to co-writers Linklater and Schlosser on the audio commentary track: they discuss what material was kept from the book, the nature of low-budget moviemaking and some of the themes they were tackling. A handful of other extras round up the DVD, the most memorable of them being the now-classic Meatrix Flash animation short films.
Harper Perennial, 2002 updated re-edition of a 2001 original, 383 pages, C$22.95 tp, ISBN 0-06-093845-5
Almost ten years after its publication, it’s not a stretch to call Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction exposé Fast Food Nation a budding classic. It’s been influential enough to spawn one direct film adaptation (as an ensemble drama, no less) and inspire a documentary picture (Food, Inc), while becoming a primary inspiration for a basket of food-related non-fiction such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The 1,462 reviews on Amazon.com so far hint at the influence it had on readers during its decade-long history. Best of all; it’s still a terrific read in 2010.
It’s not as if his basic thesis is controversial: Fast-food (ie; food you order at a counter and get almost immediately) is a uniquely American creation, and its continued existence hints at a number of profound second-order effects. Born in the socio-economic context of 1950s Southern California, its growth as an industry has changed the way America feeds itself. That much is unarguable, but as Schlosser set out to examine American through the prism of fast-food, the less savoury aspects of the fast food industry quickly emerge.
It starts with the food, obviously: Chemically manipulated to a point where basic taste and smell can be manipulated at will, fast food is laden with salt, sugar and fat designed to fill you up and make you ask for more. The resemblance with traditional food is more a matter of habit than substance. Thankfully, Schlosser doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the health impact of the industry: the point having been made elsewhere, he feels free to talk about the second-order effects of the rapid-restaurant agri-cultural complex: The regression of the meat-packing industry to appalling standards that would make even Upton Sinclair blanch; the transformation of agriculture into a corporate cartel (a subject that has since been explored in greater detail by a variety of sources), the transformation of food in neatly marketable categories… if you thought fast food was bad for your health, just wait until you realize the impact of the industries that had to be built in order to make that cheap burger possible.
Once we’re sliding down the greased rabbit hole of the fast food underbelly, through, it’s hard to stop. What about the voluntary servitude asked of the largely teenage employees employed at fast food restaurants? What about the far less optional servitude of illegal immigrants employed in the meat-packing factories? What about the lower food safety standards that result from a system concerned with profits and speed? Fast food is not just a way for people to buy food, it’s a system that, domino-like, affects everything it touches. The idea that one can explore a culture through what it eats has seldom been as troubling.
In delivering this work of investigative journalism, Schlosser depends on a wide variety of historical sources, personal interviews, documented statistics and verifiable press clippings. One of the book’s smartest decisions is to ground its subject in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and examine the facets of the fast food community through a community small enough to be understood. This microcosm becomes a way to grasp an issue that would otherwise be too overwhelming to contemplate.
Circa 2010, Fast Food Nation continues to show the way. There is now a lot more material available to those who would like to learn more about the modern food industry, and others have picked up the threads identified by Schlosser. There’s a reason why it’s still selling briskly: But even today, the book is still a fun, engaging, noxiously informative read… even as most of its points are now common sense.
[March 2010: As an experiment in investigative criticism, I actually went out of my way to go get lunch at McDonald’s shortly after finishing the book. I was reminded within moments of stepping into the lunchtime rush of the restaurant why it had been years since my last Big Mac. I’d like to say that the food was horrible, but it was… fine. I did have some trouble at the office due to the smell of the meal, however: plans to stealthily eat at my workstation as usual were foiled by the unmistakable aroma of the combo I had ordered, and I had to retreat to the lunch room where I got a few surprised comments about what I was eating. All in all, not an experience I’m bound to repeat soon.]
(On DVD, December 2009) The past decade has seen an unprecedented boom of interest in the way we eat, and after conquering TV networks and bookshelves, those ideas are dripping onto the big screen as well. In this case, the kinship between books and documentary is obvious: Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) are two main interview subjects and if Pollan is merely credited as a special consultant, Schlosser also co-produced the film. Food, Inc takes on the task of exploring the less attractive aspects of the secretive food production industry, from corn to cattle to burger. Along the way, it explains a number of troubling realities that will be familiar to Pollan and Schlosser’s readers: How family farms are a charming relic of the past; how (de)regulation is having a disproportionate impact on our health; how food production is being controlled by very few entities; how those entities have captured governmental agencies and are given extraordinary rights to silence their critics. Discussing food, it increasingly becomes obvious, quickly comes to touch other crucial social issues such as migrant work, copyright reform, and the role of government in industries. As a documentary, Food, Inc is up to current standards, with a mixture of interviews, infographics, location footage and archival footage. It’s not always pleasant to watch, but it’s informative, and gives added context to the growing amount of information about the food supply. Though heavily US-centric, it describes issues at play in Canada as well -although I’d be curious to see a comparative examination of our regulatory regimes. Well-made, provocative, stirring and (eek) important, it’s well worth watching as another warning light on our modern dashboard.