Saturday, October 28, 2006

FAST FOOD NATION - the agit-doc is dead! Long live the non-fiction fiction film!

I am getting a little bit tired of earnest liberal agit-docs that usually have little visually to do with cinema, could equally well be shown on TV, and tend to preach to the converted. Michael Moore may have increased the sale-ability of documentary cinematic releases and part of me is happy about that but the other part bemoans the seemingly homogenous product now flooding arts cinemas across the land. I've written too many reviews starting: "this week's self-explanatory documentary..." or "the point being...?" That's not to say that I don't agree with everything these docs are trying to say. I do. I just wonder how effective they are. Clearly no nasty evil polluter is going to slap down ten squid at his local cineplex to say a movie called "Nasty evil capital bastards are raping the rainforest!"?

So it was with real interest that I watched Richard Linklator's new movie, FAST FOOD NATION. And appropriate since I just watched INFAMOUS - a movie about how Truman Capote invented a new form of novel - non-fiction fiction. Capote's idea was to "bring alive" the facts of the case by applying fiction techniques such as emotional insight and inter-cutting narrative structures. Richard Linklater is pretty much following the same logic here. He takes a popular non-fiction book by Eric Schlosser that tackles the murky, hidden world of the industrial food industry in the USA. Linklater opts not to make another earnest documentary out of this material. Instead he gives us a feature length movie.

So, FAST FOOD NATION is not a documentary. It's also not a comedy or satire, although it contains the odd funny line. Rather it is a straight movie that contains three inter-twining stories.

The first story is about a group of Mexican illegal immigrants, including Wilmer "Fez" Valderamma and Catalina Sandino Moreno, who are helped over the border by Luis Guzman's pimped-out van driver and taken to a meat-packing plant in Colorado. There, watched over by the sleazy Bobby Cannavale, they earn a pittance which feels like a fortune to them and put their lives at risk in horrific jobs, turning live cows into frozen meat patties. This strand is brilliantly acted - showing for instance that Valderama and Canavale can play it straight. But be warned, the footage is not for the weak of stomach.

The second story is about some teenagers - played by Ashley Johnson and Paul Dano who work in a fast-food joint in the same Colorado town. The strand shows Ashley's character becoming politically aware thanks to her hip uncle, played by Ethan Hawke and, I kid you not, Avril Lavigne.

The final story is about a Vice President of Marketing at the same fast food company played by Greg Kinnear. He is sent to the same Colorado town to find out - quite simply - why there is cow shit in the meat patties. It's not hard to find out why. Everyone in town knows - from Kris Kristofferson's wise old rancher, to his maid, to the morally-challenged realist who brokered the deal - played in a chilling cameo by Bruce Willis.

The advantages of the non-fiction fiction structure is that it gives the viewer some emotional engagement with the issues. I know we should care as much about employees losing limbs at a meatpacking plant in real life, but thanks to the way our brains are wired, it's easier to care and to "get it" if we have some charismatic characters on screen. The other advantage is that we get a proper movie with proper production values, visual style (which in fairness is not that spectacular in this particular film) and sound-track. The disadvantage is that on occasion characters say stuff which is just not credible, because they are basically making a speech. It doesn't happen often but it does happen, especially when the Ethan Hawke character is on screen or when a radical student says, "The patriotic thing to do at this point is to break the Patriot Act". A gloriously seditious sentiment. Similarly, there is an extended discussion between the students as to why the cows won't leave their pens even when the fence is broken - a rather clumsy extended metaphor for humans who know fast food is made from shit-infused meat but still eat it.

Still, for all its flaws and clumsiness, I think FAST FOOD NATION is far more successful in conveying its message and simply entertaining its audience than the usual agit-docs. To that end, it's a noble experiment and hopefully one that will be influential.

FAST FOOD NATION played Cannes and London 2006. It is already on release in Australia and Germany and opens in the US and France at the end of November. It opens in Israel and Belgium in January 2007 and in the Netherlands in March.

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