The journey of a thousand pounds
begins with a single burger.
Burger Buddies: Fast Food Nation's Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser
By Denis Faye
Whether you consider the film version of Fast Food Nation cutting-edge message filmmaking or merely vegetarian propaganda, there's one thing that can be agreed upon: it's horrific. It horrifies as it depicts the exploitation of illegal foreign labor. It horrifies in its accusation that fast food ground beef is filled with cow excrement. And, most viscerally, it horrifies with its graphic, real footage of "the kill floor" of a meatpacking plant.
Does Fast Food Nation push its message too hard? Could the images of cattle being slaughtered and ripped apart polarize audiences instead of persuading them? Beachbody got a chance to put this question to the filmmakers, director/screenwriter Richard Linklater and original author/screenwriter Eric Schlosser.
And for the record, while Linklater is a long-standing vegetarian, Schlosser is a flesh eater.
Beachbody: Are you concerned that the footage from the slaughterhouse might be too visceral?
Richard Linklater: We all have in common, to a large degree, the production of our food, the production of meat. You can choose not to consume it, but billions of animals, billions, are raised and slaughtered every year. We were trying to get at the realistic truth. We're so disconnected from our food supply in the industrial model that we've forgotten that, at the end of the line, there is a cow getting shot in the head under duress.
But I don't think it's that shocking and the way we have it at the end of the movie, hopefully it makes narrative sense. It's definitely unsettling. It's not something you want to see, but I think, for this movie, by the time you see it, it's inevitable. You kind of should see it to be totally truthful. That's what we tried to be.
But if people think that's all the movie is, they'll just be afraid of it. I think it works so much in the context of the story.
Eric Schlosser: I think it's earned. If you look at the running time of the film, which is an hour and 45 minutes, how long is that slaughterhouse sequence? A couple of minutes? I wouldn't say that's the dominant scene of the film, but it's present. It's the truth. It's reality and so much of what this film's about is trying to make you confront reality—reality that's been hidden, that's deliberately kept away from us. That final scene, that's the ultimate reality.
Linklater: I would like to promote a human connection to reality. I think when they see it, people won't like it, yet they want the products of it. I don't see much difference between the media blackout on these kinds of images and the media blackout on flag-draped American coffins coming back from Iraq.
Schlosser: Or even media footage of our soldiers shot or injured in Iraq.
Linklater: If you feel that connection to the things that the Powers That Be don't want you to feel—the empathy, the compassion—then, oh my God, you might question the policy or the method that's leading you and that's what the Powers That Be don't want you, the Citizen, to be contemplating. It hurts their agenda. Potentially, that's the only volatile element in all this, the human element, the unpredictable. If people actually care and demand something different, that's the only thing that can step in the way of the corporate or government agenda.
Beachbody: People can disconnect from the story of the exploited workers, because they can say it's not their fault, but you walk away from the slaughterhouse scene feeling anyone who buys a hamburger is to blame.
Schlosser: In a way, anyone who buys one of these fast food hamburgers, what's happening to the workers is their fault too.
Linklater: I don't see a big difference between what's happening to the animals or the workers or the environment or the end health of the burger. Those are all so intertwined that we're all on the hook for all those things as consumers.
Beachbody: Why on earth did the meatpacking plant let you film there?
Linklater: We shot the footage in Mexico. I think they liked the idea that it was about these Mexican workers who go to the United States and what happens to them. They have a tough time up here. We didn't lie to them, but maybe we weren't totally truthful about the full ramifications of the movie. It's what we emphasized.
Beachbody: Did craft services serve beef during the filming?
Linklater: I believe they did. I don't think it was anything different from any other movie. I don't eat meat, but I hate to impose my own views on others, even my own family. It's kind of a personal thing. I hate when vegetarians impose their stuff on other people. But if you want to ask me, I'll tell you about it. But I'm not going to go up to someone eating a burger and start lecturing them.
Schlosser: It's so wild too, because I'm a meat eater and it's amazing how respectful 99 percent of all vegetarians and vegans are of other people. You think about the core ethical belief behind vegetarians and yet they're so respectful—and you just don't find that in so many other segments of society, which are all about imposing your views and condemning.
Beachbody: Vegetarianism is also a big, gray line because some vegetarians eat eggs and dairy or wear leather.
Linklater: I think I'm wearing boots right now that are leather, but I think it's a by-product of a larger industry. I don't think the cow got killed to make these boots. It got killed to make the meat and, sure, they're going to use that hide to make a lot of stuff.
Tony La Russa, who manages the world-champion St. Louis Cardinals, he's a vegetarian and I saw them trying to bust his butt because the baseballs are made out of rawhide. He had to explain himself. They're always trying to paint you as a hypocrite or something. It's like, hey, everyone's doing their best in this world, you know?
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Fast Food Nation Film Review
By Denis Faye
Journalist Eric Schlosser has managed to create an industry from his incendiary exposé of the American way of (bad) eating, Fast Food Nation. In May, he published the children's version of the book, Chew On This. This week, a movie version, directed by renowned indie director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bad News Bears) hits theaters.
While some might ridicule such milking, our reaction is more akin to, "Right on, brother! Keep spreading the word!"
If you haven't read Fast Food Nation yet, it's truly your loss. Published in 2001, the book skewered the fast food industry, showing how McDonald's and their ilk exploit workers and trick an ever-fattening American public into believing their burgers—which are largely made of chemicals and fecal matter—have some redeeming nutritional value. The book then goes on to slam our country's corrupt agriculture industry and gives us a blow-by-blow tour of a slaughterhouse—where the workers are often treated worse then the cows they butcher.
Schlosser crafted the screenplay for the film with Linklater, turning it into a 90-minute fictional narrative starring, among others, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette, and Bruce Willis. It tells three interweaving stories. The first concerns a trio of illegal Mexican laborers (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Ana Claudia Talancon) at the mercy of the meatpacking plant that employs and abuses them. The second story follows a marketing executive (Kinnear) for the "Mickey's" fast food chain (you figure it out) who visits the plant when he learns the meat it produces contains fecal matter. The third story concerns a young Mickey's fast food cashier (Ashley Johnson) who learns about the true nature of her employer.
Given the need to focus on these characters, many of the facts in the book had to be sidelined. The agriculture industry isn't mentioned and the restaurant industry comes across less villainous and more just complicit in its unwillingness to confront the true evildoers—the meatpacking industry. The filmmakers most likely chose this focus because film is a visual medium and there could be nothing more visually horrifying than life in a slaughterhouse. From the fictional recreations of worker mutilation to the 100-percent-authentic footage of cattle being killed and slaughtered, these are images that will make even the most hardened beef eater think twice about his next Whopper.
Like any film Linklater scripts himself, there are plenty of opportunities for characters to sit around and pontificate and this gives us a chance to learn many of the facts that fill Schlosser's book. It can also be fairly entertaining, particular the scene in which Bruce Willis, who plays a scruple-deprived liaison between the packing plant and the fast food chain, tries to explain why it's okay to have manure in ground beef as he voraciously chows down a hamburger.
This is not a fun film. It's hard and mean and thought provoking. Many people will probably feel preached to by the time they're done and, in a way, they're right. But it's important films like this exist because, as entertaining at the book is, most people nowadays just don't reach for nonfiction. The cinematic version of Fast Food Nation gives these people a chance to see the facts. Sure, we all know our waistlines and arteries suffer when we buy an extra-value meal—but that's nothing compared to the bigger picture.
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Fast Food Facts
Americans eat about 13 billion hamburgers a year. If you put all those burgers in a straight line, they would circle the earth more than 32 times.
Americans currently spend about $134 billion dollars per year on fast food—more than they spend on college education, computers, software, or new cars.
The typical American child sees 20,000 junk food ads a year.
One out of every five American toddlers eats French fries every day.
Four major meatpacking firms slaughter nearly 85 percent of the nation's cattle, and the majority of the nation's beef comes from thirteen large slaughterhouses.
Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. In 2001, the rate of serious injury was three times higher than that in a typical American factory.
Every year, about 76 million Americans are sickened by something they ate.
At a modern processing plant, a single cow or steer infected with E. coli O157:H7 can contaminate 32,000 pounds of meat.
A typical fast food hamburger can contain pieces of hundreds, if not thousands, of cattle.
—Courtesy of Fast Food Nation
Fast Food Nation (2001) book cover: Houghton Mifflin press
Fast Food Nation film poster: Fox Searchlight films
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