Fast food nation

19 Jun

The weather can’t decide what it wants to do, so I’ll do something different here instead of writing about rollerskiing.

I saw the movie “Fast Food Nation” a few weeks ago on the Voddler streaming website available here in Scandinavia. I saw some things in the film that I imagine went unappreciated by many viewers. The film resonated with my impressions coming back to suburban Southern California for a visit. Travel, and being away for a while, gives you a different perspective.

Last Christmas I was awed and troubled by the explosion of retail space in my childhood town. Making things all the more bleakly impressive, a lot of the brand new stores were boarded up since we were in the trough of the current recession. Among those still open, I noticed a troubling trend. Many had comic-booky names or signs in comic, friendly scripts. Stores were smiley and happy and this-y and that-y.

A troubling shift has occurred in the age of product and brand personas. We are living in a commercial space dominated by the fantasy life of stores and the stuff they sell. Before a store would simply make itself more or less classy as a clue to shoppers to save them the embarrassment of walking in somewhere too snooty or too popular for their economic class. And in those grim emporiums the bright spots were the products and, in the best case, the people selling them.

Now the brand identity dominates altogether to the detriment of humanity. Employees are almost universally morose, trivialized, indentitiless worker drones.”Fast Food Nation” does a great job of pointing this out. Again and again we see fast food cashiers and hotel reception clerks sadly, smilingly but docilely repeating the corporate mantras they were trained to espouse. All perfectly nice, perfectly human people withdrawing any individual engagement and performing the cold, impersonal dance of committee contrived corporate quality control initiatives. Even though what they say will be perfectly politically correct, it’s hard to imagine the speakers honestly identifying with their words, even if that is exactly what their corporate masters expect of them. But the irony, however, is that the latter come up with this dreck involuntarily, believing it’s what’s expected of them.

The point the film is that however unpleasant the effects of the big corporate “land grab” within the human and social spheres, the individual can’t do a damn thing about it. Any attempt to attack the system will be pitiful, ridiculous and even suicidal. The individual scenes and portraits may come across as melodramatic, but they are shades in a palette that paints larger portrait full of deep symbolism. The film is a large fresco depicting how you can’t fight an economy. The actors and their stories are the means of portrayal, but the system, and the ungrateful place of humanity within it, is the real subject of the film.

The film starts by showing a migration. Mexicans heading over the border. They are driven about by modern day outlaw cowboys operating at the margins of lawful society. The illicit work of these passers makes the legitimate service industry’s gears go round. And since the film centers around a fast food chain selling beef, the viewer is led to see a subtle mutation in the workings of the cattle economy. Where cattle were once driven long distances for slaughter, they’re now kept on cramped feedlots. And it’s the Mexican people who migrate long distances after each deportation to come back to the slaughterhouses to butcher the cattle.

We are taken to see an old cattle rancher and warned he might be crazy. He madness is mere excess lucidity. He mentions how the people who run the slaughterhouse are good, nice people who “would kill you for a nickel”, concluding that “it’s the system that makes them that way”.  His role is just to reiterate the point of the film. Good, nice people stuck in a system that forces them to work against their better judgment, their humanity and their interests but who don’t see any  alternative other than quashing their objections and going along.

We see the obstacles to making any principled stand again when one of the main characters, Amber, resigns from her job at a fast food restaurant. It’s easier to root for her ethical stand until she goes to break the news to her perfectly human and even sympathetic manager. It’s a hollow moment. When the scale shifts from Amber against the impersonal corporate megalith down to two people talking about the future and responsibility in personal terms, no one walks away from the discussion with a decisive victory.

We then follow Amber through her eco-radicalization which leads us to the culminating image in the film. She follows another member of the group in advocating something more active than a mere letter writing campaign against the animal cruelty embodied by the feed lot. This leads the group to a night action where they saw through a fence to free the captive cattle.

And there we arrive at the most striking image in the film. That image is the cattle who are fully enmeshed in a monstrous and destructive system but who refuse to leave its illusive comfort. They are offered a route out but only react hostilely to those who have provided it. They are afraid to imagine any other organization of their lives. The thesis of the film is this: we are the cattle. We are herded and manipulated through a system that operates in anything but our interest. And we’ll fight to stay in it.

The glowing fearful eyes are haunting when you see what the film is saying. I’m not sure, however, what positive steps the film recommends. I think perhaps it is just to be aware of the ways we are manipulated. Be lucid about the abnegations. If you have the luxury, don’t always swallow your tongue and spew the corporate line in the instances where that seems inappropriate. If you can’t believe in what your company does, look for another job.

Buy local. Buy less. Realize stuff doesn’t make you happy. Admit that people need healthcare more than rich corporations need to get richer. Recognize that there’s only one planet and that the chickens do come home to roost. D.I.Y. because hippies and punks weren’t wrong, they just got bought out. Convince many millions to do these things and the situation will improve.

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