“The films analyzed here explore the (crude) question: what are the individual and social consequences of eating shit?”
King Corn and Fast Food Nation have mainstreamed an entertaining but critical view of the fast food industry. The theory of defamiliarization, the genre of environmental film, and environmental rhetoric (comic vs. melodramatic modes) structure this analysis. Miguel Angel Asturias’ distinction between commercial corn-growing and Mayan corn culture is a metaphorical framework. As a tongue-in-cheek investigation, King Corn parodies the pastoral genre, and is innovative in its use of visual narrative, and shifting points of view. As a melodrama Fast Food Nation draws on many genres and motifs, including “coming to America,” and monkey-wrenching. FFN expands the previously humorous satire of “eating crap” (pioneered by Super Size Me) to shed light on those who are “treated like shit” (workers and animals). Collectively the films critique the U.S. “bigger is better” mentality, and seem to fulfill Asturias’ prophetic words about the consequences of the lack of a land ethic.
NAMING AND FRAMING
In comparatively analyzing films that have popularized a critical perspective on U.S. industrial food, I use corn-fed culture as a unifying concept. Corn fed means strong and healthy, but provincial or not sophisticated. We may hear that a beefy football player looks corn-fed. There is an undertone of animalism: livestock are also corn-fed, and we tend to think about corn-fed players “eating at the trough,” much like cattle being fattened on a feedlot.
More broadly, “corn fed” can mean a ruddy complexion. If a sportscaster describes a female athlete as corn-fed, it implies that she looks like she is from the heartland. She is prototypical of people from the region where most U.S. corn is grown, in being not only hearty or hefty but perhaps simple. What you see is what you get, we imagine: corn-fed people are good to have on your side. They don’t unnecessarily complicate things. They may be culturally corny, but in practical matters, they are reliable. Even if elites condescend to them, corn-fed people are often portrayed as representatives of the best of American culture: strong and single-minded.
A bit of historical context: The fast food industry was “revolutionized” and came to world dominance while Soviet communism was collapsing.1 And corn was the cornerstone of that revolution. In critiques of “our national eating disorder” that inspired the makers of King Corn, Michael Pollan observed: “If you take a McDonald’s meal, you’re eating corn . . . It holds together your McNuggets, it sweetens your soda pop, it fattens your meat . . . So when you’re at McDonald’s, you’re eating Iowa food. Everything on your plate is corn.”2 This is true of most fast foods and processed foods. One can begin to think about commercial U.S. culture as “corn-fed” in a broader sense: corn-fed culture has fueled the rise of a particular sort of American politics and economics during the “globalization” process. Vandana Shiva (1993) may describe the fast food empire as an imperialistic “monoculture.” But for many U.S. citizens, the proliferation of McDonald’s in Moscow and East Europe was proof of the “end of history” and a cause for triumphalist celebration.3 To be sure, McDonald’s became a locus of considerable resistance: the French saw the proliferation of U.S. fast food chains as a threat to family farms and localized food cultures. But in a public sphere in which the interests of industrial food and American military might are often conflated, fast food franchises became a default symbol for freedom. American soldiers during the invasion of Iraq expressed dismay that the Iraqis had “nothing” in comparison to the liberating Americans, where even in the smallest of towns, fast food eateries were ubiquitous.4
Since the early 1980s it has been hard for direct criticism of corn-fed politicians or religious leaders to gain traction.5 But some critiques of the commercial face of the “American way of life” have snuck in through the back door, as it were, through books and films about the culture of fast food. The template for the films discussed here was set by a series of reports on the emerging regime of fast food chains, commissioned by Rolling Stone in 1999 and written by Eric Schlosser. His expanded reports were published in the influential book Fast Food Nation (2001). Schlosser later helped write the screenplay of Richard Linklater’s fictional adaptation of his work in the 2006 film. The book has been compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 muckraking exposé of the Chicago slaughterhouses, The Jungle. It also follows a trajectory formulated by Texas farm activist Jim Hightower, who warned, in the early 1970s, of “the McDonaldization of America.”6
But Schlosser has agreed with Morgan Spurlock, in their interview on the Super Size Me DVD, that the founders of the fast food industry were “real all-American entrepreneurs,” the American Dream incarnate. The problems come from too much of a good thing — the rigid uniformity of factory farming on such a massive scale. For now, I want to note that the “Living Large” of the title refers to the critique of the “bigger is better” mentality in these films. This gigantism is center stage in the outsized farms and the mountains of corn in King Corn; in the size of the portions and the people who eat them in Super Size Me; and in the size of the feedlots and the scale of the problems caused by industrial beef farming in Fast Food Nation.
The films analyzed here explore the (crude) question: what are the individual and social consequences of eating shit? This is in fact the language used, and the central conceit, of Fast Food Nation: there is a secret ingredient in the burger that the fictional fast food chain Mickey’s calls “The Big One.” Although scientific reports use terminology like “fecal matter,”7 once the camera moves inside the slaughterhouse it is clear that “eating shit,” in both literal and figurative senses, is causing multiple problems that a “business as usual” majority would prefer to conceal. But this has been foreshadowed in other films: in King Corn the filmmakers-turned-farmers discover that the acre of corn they have grown tastes like “crap.” The sea of corn being grown in the American heartland, which as corn syrup and livestock feed is the foundation of the U.S. fast food industry, not only keeps the food cheap but makes “consumers sick [and drives] animals into confinement and farmers off the land.”8 In a different register, Morgan Spurlock goes on a 30-day orgy of McDonald’s food in Super Size Me, and discovers that although it tastes great,9 it makes him feel like shit. That these filmmakers manage to say such things with charm and whimsy is one of the minor miracles of these “food and culture” films.
Two theoretical frameworks unify the following analysis: defamiliarization and comic vs. melodramatic modes in environmental rhetoric. Defamiliarization is “a making new by estranging the familiar” (Posnock 1991, 56). Shklovksy (1917) wrote of how poetic arts “make strange” our every-day worldview, so that the audience recovers a fresh perspective.10 In social theory the term can describe any effort to make a public “see anew” something that has been previously invisible, or is “overly familiar” (Hawkes 1977, 62). Cinema has a powerful arsenal of tools with which it can defamiliarize audience preconceptions, although commercial film often repeats a fossilized reification of the familiar, as codified in generic conventions.11 But environmental cinema often defamiliarizes social norms in a manner much like environmental communication in its “crisis discipline” mode (Cox 2007). King Corn radically defamiliarizes corn, much as Teshigahara defamiliarized sand in Woman in the Dunes.12 But the directors of King Corn largely adhere to the comic mode, resisting the temptation to scapegoat an “environmental devil” (Check 2008). Morgan Spurlock makes McDonald’s seem strange beyond measure in Super Size Me. While his “gonzo journalism” at times puts the horns on the golden arches, he largely bypasses Michael Moore-style polemics in favor of a reality TV-cum-religious pathos aesthetic that allows diverse members of his audience to identity with his dramatic experiment.13 Fast Food Nation defamiliarizes hamburgers as the all-American food, while using melodrama to paint a group portrait of the new “our America,” and the greater community of life, whose sacrifices are a (previously) unseen tragedy in this mass perversion of the American dream.14
In environmental discourse, both comedy and melodrama can function as effective alternatives to the “tragic mood” that Douglas Torgerson sees in “the frequent moralism and desperation of some green discourse” (1999: 83). The “crusading sense of high purpose” arising out of “an atmosphere of crisis” has often led to narratives of “heroic resistance.” Such quasi-crusades within green politics often “fit the story line of a tragedy,” Torgerson observes: all too often “a remorseless destiny unfolds despite heroic action” (83-84).
As an alternative, Torgerson cites Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival (1974; 1997), which posits the benefits of a comic rather than a tragic approach in environmental affairs. (One thinks of the carnivalesque gestures of the European Greens, the tricksterism of Greenpeace, etc.) Meeker argues that tragedy goes against nature: the tragic hero’s idea of problem-solving is a “warfare between polar opposites.” Since “the way of the tragic hero is to choose passionately one pole,” then inevitably such a hero will “suffer from its opposite” (Meeker 1995: 21). The comic protagonist, by contrast, often takes the form of a rascal, a fool, or a pícaro. “This is not a heroic undertaking, but a strategic once,” Meeker writes. Comedy, as a form of play, seeks to engage, rather than defeat, an opponent. Through laughter, comedy enables an audience to identify with both sides in a conflict. In Meeker’s view, “as a strategy, [comedy] seems to resemble other natural processes.” It is also, most often, a “weapon of the weak”: a survivalist skill.15
The comic protagonist as a trickster figure is central in both King Corn and Super Size Me, although the “buddy clowns” of King Corn increasingly point towards tragic social dimensions. And Spurlock, as something of a stand-up comedian/guinea pig in Super Size Me, achieves some dramatic tension in his film by implying the possibility of personal tragedy. But both successfully retail their message through comedy. Neither position themselves explicitly as pro-environmental, since carnivores and fast food connoisseurs who may hold “tree-huggers” in contempt are an important part of their core audience. So they only partially fit within the typology of “comic eco-heroes” that Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann describe in Ecology and Popular Film (2009). But the directors of both films illustrate the limits of taking too literally Robert Cox’s insistence (2007) that environmental communication is a “crisis discipline” with “ethical responsibilities.” Scholars in the field (and directors of environmentally-themed documentaries) would almost all agree that there is an environmental crisis, and that it requires committed interventions. But there is a danger that the presumed “ethics” can lead practitioners to forget that “environmental crises must be treated as symbolically mediated phenomena,” as Steven Schwarze writes, and will just “get on with the public relations campaign” (Schwarze 2007: 94-95).16
Schwarze has convincingly made the case for melodrama as a mode of environmental rhetoric that can mobilize previously marginalized publics, call attention to previously invisible injustices, and “remoralize situations that have been demoralized” (2006: 250). Fast Food Nation successfully employs melodrama in the service of the goals Schwarze has outlined, I will argue. Because it is a feature, Linklater’s film is better able to dramatize what Schlosser described, in his subtitle, as “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.” Here we find a dramatic climax to what was inferred in documentaries about some of the tragic consequences of “living large” in a corn-fed culture. Yet if Fast Food Nation does not pull any punches in telling us that “There is shit in the meat” (Schlosser 2001: 197), and in representing the execrable ways in which the system treats the “parts” in its system (Mexican immigrants foremost amongst them), it still remains distanced from and in fact critical of the “eco-tragic mood” that tends to moralize, and seeks quixotic, or self-sacrificing heroes.
TROUBLE IN THE GARDEN: KING CORN GETS IN OUR HAIR
King Corn and Fast Food Nation place their exposés within a pan-American context, and breathe new life into the cliché you are what you eat. They help us visualize that the foods we eat tie us to a larger community, such as the immigrants who are largely responsible for growing, slaughtering, preparing, and serving our food. This strange kinship is prefigured in King Corn, when recent Yale graduates Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney face discomforting reports that “for the first time in American history, our generation was at risk of having a shorter lifespan than our parents. And it was because of what we ate.” With the help of Curt’s older cousin Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker,17 they set out on a quest to discover where their food comes from. This leads them to Dr. Steve Macko in a University of Virginia lab, who runs tests on their hair samples and then informs the boys: “The carbon in your bodies originates from corn.”
In plain English, they are men made of corn.
In Men of Maize, the Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias described a conflict between Westernized growers who treated corn as a merely commercial enterprise — and the land they grow it on as a disposable resource — and the traditional Mayan Indians, for whom corn was both a spiritual sustenance and a whole cultural way of life. Early on, Asturias has the character Gaspar Ilóm deliver himself of these prophetic words:
Sown to be eaten it is the sacred sustenance of the men who were made of maize. Sown to make money it means famine for the men who were made of maize . . . The earth will become exhausted. (Asturias 1988: 5-6)
The corn that gets into our very fiber in the fast food nation is a long way from sustenance, in the sense of small-scale sustainable agriculture, and much less from the sacred. The film achieves its purpose primarily through whimsical humor and visual irony. As the camera follows the boys inspecting labels in a food market, we hear the voice of Dr. Macko, describing some of the forms that corn takes as it migrates into our digestive systems: hydrolyzed corn protein, corn syrup, etc.
The introduction sets the tone: Cheney and Ellis may be Yale graduates, but they are also well suited to playing the wide-eyed “rube in nature” role. They relocate to Greene, Iowa for a year, plant an acre of designer corn, and watch it grow. This ruse allows the filmmakers to unmask the disjuncture between the glossy surface of the pastoral ideal and its dysfunctional underbelly. The film gently nudges the viewer towards a broader, more critical perspective. Principal director Aaron Woolf had worked in Latin America for several years before joining forces with his cousin Ellis for this project. On the film’s website, Woolf offers this autobiographical perspective:
I first found corn when, like the plant itself, I moved from my home in Mexico to Iowa . . . to study film. I loved the Iowa landscape, and would ride my motorcycle through the fields . . . [I]t never occurred to me that those plants would someday be the focus of a film that I would make, or that there was trouble in the garden.18
This “trouble in Eden” underpins a tongue-in-cheek look under the hood of corn-fed culture. Innovative visuals fuse entertainment and education functions. For example, grains of corn, a map, and stop-time photography are employed to visualize the migration of indigenous corn from Mesoamerica to its reign in the Great Plains states.
After Ellis goes to Iowa and prepares to plant one acre out of 70 million in the U.S. dedicated to corn, he reflects: “Our one acre would be growing a grain whose ancestors look very different.” We see multicolored grains march north and colonize the “garden” in Iowa, where they “found a happy home.” But “gradually, one type of corn replaced all the others” — yellow dent.19
This is an example of the “monoculture” and “bio-imperialism” to which Shiva refers. But the stop-time photography of the yellow grains crowding out the diversity of corn grains which were the legacy of indigenous peoples is more effective, for a mass audience, than an academic study, a political tract, or an overtly ideological documentary could hope to be.
Following the trajectory of industrial-corn-as-colonizer, viewers can make certain inferences. If one imagines the genetically engineered yellow corn grains marching south, after the passage of NAFTA, and crowding out the rich variety of corn cultivated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica, then one could visualize one of the primary causes for the Zapatista uprising of 1994.20 However, the DVD version of King Corn does manage to call attention to the ironies of what we have done with this “precious gift.” In the “Washington” special feature, the boys call on Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who tells them that any society is “nine meals from a revolution.” (Hence the power of mass-produced corn to stem the revolutionary impulse?) But perhaps only an alien could make sense of what we have done with this “sacred sustenance” that allowed us to survive on this continent. Later we would redefine the American revolution as a process in which the whole world learns to drive to fast food outlets.
Afterwards the filmmakers take a gander at the Capitol rotunda, including a relief of a Mohawked Indian handing an ear of corn to a Puritan in 1620. The white man has one booted foot outside the boat; his woman “seems to be observing a UFO,” as Cheney comments. Receiving corn from the Indians is a core part of the national mythology. (Look at the importance of corn as a “yellow gold” in the Disney version of Pocahontas).21
Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney enact a sort of mutant buddy flick. They might as well be aliens in rural Iowa. Yet their great grandparents once lived in the farming community of Greene. The locals treat them with the bemusement appropriate for hare-brained city boys with such a half-cocked scheme: a film about planting an acre of corn and watching it grow! Yet families named Ellis and Cheney still live in Greene, distant kin who show the boys photo albums about shared family history, and lead them to conclude that perhaps they’ve “returned” to Iowa “because a long time before there was corn in our hair, there was corn in our genes.”
Yet if their rediscovery of family roots provides images of “what we grew up picturing farming to be,” their experience disillusions them. The 21st-century corn farmer seems to be a hollow parody of the pastoral ideal. I want to pay particular attention to the use of visual narrative, and ironic contrasts, as a means through which the filmmakers begin to unmask the myth of corn, and begin their quest to get to the bottom of this “trouble in the garden.”
The myth of corn is expressed in full pastoral form at the end of the January chapter, during a visit to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Viewing this touristic homage to corn culture, the narrator imagines that they had “a pretty good idea of what farming looked like” — pastoral images of driving a tractor, their hands in the soil, etc. After they have described their mission to the museum director, he tells them: “Follow your dreams. Everything starts out as a dream.”
As “February” starts, Ellis and Cheney stand on a bleak field of frozen snow. They play wiffle ball — a recurring reference to Field of Dreams. But the harvest on this field will be unlike anything the filmmakers could have imagined. Their actual farming is nothing like their “pretty good idea” of what farmers do, and the spirits their corn field invokes are nothing like the romantic vision of the Kevin Costner movie. The narration clues us into the changes in store: “On the modern farm you don’t have to wait for the snow to melt before you can get to work.”
On the drive into town, a rear-window shot draws our attention to a radio voice: “What do corn growers really want? More corn. Way, way more corn. Go where no one’s gone before more corn.” The over-the-top voice signals the satirical nature of the critique to come (Star Trek‘s “boldly go where no man has gone” expansionism in the Corn Belt). After filling out paperwork for the federal subsidies that underwrite U.S. corn farming, Chuck Pyatt, from whom they lease their acre, guarantees that they would lose money if they grew corn without a subsidy. In the following shot Ellis and Cheney ice-fish on a frozen lake, a comic deflating of their idealized vision of farming. “We should have grown a thousand acres,” one of them says. Yet their one acre is an appropriate prism through which they will reframe the gigantism of King Corn.
Again stop-time photography illustrates a history lesson — this time with Fisher-Price farm toys. Until 1973, federal policy kept land out of production, balancing supply and demand to keep corn prices high. But then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butts announced a “revolution” in farm policy, “turning 180 degrees” from a philosophy of contraction and confinement, as he put it, to initiate a “philosophy of expansion.” His message to American farmers: “Get big or get out.”22 It seemed downright unAmerican to pay farmers not to grow food, although the wisdom of letting fields lie fallow can be found in the Bible, as in many cultures. Paying farmers to grow too much became the foundation of the fast food revolution. The remainder of King Corn is an exploration of the consequences of the Faustian bargain at the root of the trouble in the garden. The viewer can read this story through Edward Abbey’s credo that “growth for growth’s sake” is “the ideology of a cancer cell.”23 But the filmmakers prefer to let the local farm community spell out, in pragmatic terms, the consequences of the policy of subsidized overproduction.
Mega-farmer Rich Johnson gives the boys a tour, showing them the surrounding farms he works. In the corn business, farmers have to be “either a pretty good size, or get squeezed out,” he explains. The motif of whom and what gets squeezed out by corn culture becomes ever more central. A fleshy woman in a bar tells the newcomers that surviving farms are “getting bigger and bigger and bigger.” The hyper-production is chemically dependent: modern corn farming requires ammonia fertilizer. This will enable the guys to harvest four times as many bushels per acre as was possible for their forefathers. The local granaries cannot begin to contain this surplus.
Driving past a series of enormous hills of corn, Curt Ellis sets up a camera, and body-surfs down the corn mountain, the kernels clattering into the lens. “That was fun,” he says, a beatific expression on his face framed by yellow corn below and a brilliant blue sky above. At this point, the filmmakers are still prone to treat the “garden of corn” as a wonderland, a tourist site. But as their fingers get dirty, and they fill in the blanks in their image of just what the culture of corn is crowding out, they will rethink the meaning of the mountain.
On May 4, Rich Johnson brings in the heavy equipment and plants 31,000 seeds on their acre in only 18 minutes. They wiffle ball again — indicating the leisure time that has been freed up for the modern high-tech farmer. They interview Michael Pollan, who explains that they are growing an “industrial corn,” a “kind of an urban plant” bred to tolerate crowded conditions. Its nutritional value has been sacrificed in favor of high starch content.
June is spraying month; we see more of what King Corn squeezes out. “Liberty” pesticides are genetically modified for use with a name-brand corn (Blue Lake), and will kill any other corn. The resulting corn-field has a sort of synthetic perfection: nothing grows there except for a specific designer species. In fact, there is no visible evidence that anything frequents these fields besides the corn cultivated by men and their machines and chemicals. No animal life appears on-screen. We see no bees or birds, or to my knowledge, even a dog — no evidence whatsoever of other life-forms that would detract from the perfect focus on this singular monoculture.
By August, it was “months away from harvest, but our work was basically done.” The documentary shifts tone, becoming more self-consciously performative and critical. In a pivotal scene, Curt and Ian sit atop their truck, and perform a taste test. Beforehand, there are aerial shots of the surrounding fields in homage to Ian’s great-grandfather Claire, a pilot, and perhaps also to Ian’s third cousin Bruce Cheney, who retired to Greene (“July”) and recounted a boyhood dream of flying over the ears of corn. Then the camera floats over the top of a pastoral corn field. The camera cuts to a close-up of a “perfect” ear of corn. Then in a shot of a furrow at ground level, the breeze moves through the now yellowing lower leaves, in shadow beneath the dense canopy.
This idyll conveys apparent abundance, but any idea of “sustenance” is quickly undercut. Beside the field, each “actor” takes an ear of corn, sitting on the cabin of their Dodge Ram pickup. “Looks good. Looks great,” they note. Each takes a bite in turn. As their faces express repugnance, they spit out the inedible kernels. To Curt it tastes like “sawdust.” Ian thinks it tastes “disgusting, like chalk.”
There is a shot of the uneaten ear of corn flying back into the field — much like a hometown baseball fan may throw an opponent’s home run back on the field. In sotto voce we hear: “I thought it would taste better. It tastes like crap.” This is comic relief but also a signal of a change in narrative direction. With time on their hands, the filmmakers dig deeper, not only investigating but becoming “private eyes,” and even “mad scientists.”
Later they will brew corn syrup on their own stove, after officials in the high fructose corn syrup industry deny them entry. This leads to another comical taste test. Such defamiliarization serves to “inculcate a new, childlike, non-jaded vision in us” (Hawkes 1977, 62). But although the filmmakers/actors largely succeed in maintaining a “childlike” countenance on camera, the last half of the film is increasingly a story of “lost illusions.” There is something of a generic resemblance here to Mark Twain’s travel accounts.24
After learning that it will be impossible to trace their corn in the midst of a record harvest, they decide to play “a game of probabilities.” “So while our corn matured in the field, we decided to look into its eventual fate, and try to go where corn goes.” Edutaining visuals again underscore the narrative. An image of a cluster of corn kernels in the shape of Iowa, on a map of the U.S., then becomes a wheel, with tentacles stretching out into surrounding states.
Like the corn being thrown back, the flow is reversed. In the first part of the film, we are given something like a hair’s point of view (“how did all this corn get in me?”). When the focus shifts to the larger social consequences, the documentary mutates, at times like a monster movie.25 The point of view shifts to incorporate other corn-fed earthlings, including cattle. But more to the point, King Corn becomes a road movie with expert witnesses. Michael Pollan explains that in an Iowa cornfield, there is “an immense amount of food being grown, none of it edible.” It is a “raw material which must be processed before we can eat it.” But only a fraction goes to humans: most is fed to cars (as ethanol) and animals, who eat over half of all U.S.-grown corn. Scott McGregor, a local farmer, shows the boys what his cattle eat: corn silage, and other corn by-products such as wet gluten — an ethanol industry leftover — which “cattle love,” McGregor observes.
Back in town they order at a McDonald’s drive-through behind a car with “CORN-FED” license plates. The driver’s bumper stickers seem to indicate a political activism. In the parking lot, Curt and Ian ask the goateed driver what he’s eating. “Corn-fed beef,” he responds emphatically, then quizzes them: “Do you actually know anything about corn-fed beef? What it does to ’em?” He proceeds to give them an earful, as he and Ellis munch on their burgers: “It’s a good thing they slaughter them when they do, because it actually kills them to feed them to make the meat like that. They’d be dead in six months anyway, eating that stuff. It’s terrible.”
“Where is that?” Ellis asks, startled. And is told: “In every major confinement feedlot. Everywhere.”
So to know where corn goes, the filmmakers have to leave the corn belt and inspect the confinement on the feedlots that supply the nation’s beef. In Wray, Colorado, just across from the Nebraska-Kansas border, they interview Bob Bledsoe, whose company “finishes” 15,000 head of cattle (fattens them for 140-150 days). Bledsoe also grows 7,000 acres of corn, all of which is fed to the cattle. Like many interviewed in King Corn, Bledsoe expresses a sense of being trapped in a huge system whose (il)logic is beyond his control. “We don’t like being big, but right now you’re looking at a family farm in Yuma County, Colorado.” And later: “If the American people wanted strictly grass-fed beef, we would supply it. But it would be more expensive.” His conclusion is based on an inescapable “tenet”: “America wants and demands cheap food.”
And so “our passions forge our fetters.”26 Our addiction to the “freedom” and convenience of a drive-in culture has created an unhealthy, inhumane system of food production. Somehow Cheney, Ellis, and Woolf have made this story entertaining. After having played the clown for much of the film, and gaining the good graces of the audience and the people they interview, Cheney and Ellis shift gears, and let those who have been “bound” by America’s passion for cheap fast food voice how this has twisted their way of life. Their concern extends to the animals that they raise for slaughter in horrendous conditions. And yet neither the appetites of the consuming public nor the political policy of Washington elites seem to allow for alternatives.
In Sue and Dean Jarrett’s operation, calves start on grass before being sold to the feedlots. Sue Jarrett does not seem pleased with what has become of the family farm. In her father’s day, the cattle spent most of their lives (several years) eating grass. In her view, “confined operations” are an unnatural change in the life of cattle. “They put on weight faster if you don’t let them move. So, a total confinement . . . and they eat continuously, and you get them into the market, into the food chain.” The image cuts to cattle standing in feedlot muck. When we cut back to Jarrett’s face, the force of her words is more apparent. The catch is, “you’ve got to have cheap feeds to do the confinement.” From the point of view of a cow, whose stomach was evolved for grass, the federally subsidized overproduction of corn is a tragedy. As their time on grass has been cut out, confinement has expanded from 60 to 140-plus days. But “120 days is really pushing it,” Jarrett says. “Cattle were not meant to be on a corn-fed diet for that long. They get stomach ulcers.”
On a visit to Iowa State Agriculture Professor Allen Trenkle, Curt reaches his gloved hand into the stomach of a fully conscious cow and pulls out the semi-digested corn that will one day become, perhaps, a Big Mac. Trenkle describes how the fast food revolution has disfigured cattle. Grazing on the grass has been “squeezed out” by corn culture, with negative consequences for both animals and humans, as well as the environment. “We’ve gone from mostly grass to rations now that contain up to 90% grain,” Trenkle says. “But cattle are not evolved for this. Their stomach produces acids, [which causes] acidophilus — and they die if not treated.”
To combat the consequences of a corn diet, and to help cattle survive the conditions of confinement, they are fed massive amounts of antibiotics — 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. Ellis refers briefly to the environmental consequences. A feedlot of 100,000 cattle produces as much waste as a city of 1.7 million. The camera conveys something of the sense of the “rivers and lagoons of shit,” but as Ellis notes, the environmental story was largely left out of King Corn.27
In one haunting moment, after Bledsoe says that “America demands cheap food,” the camera slowly pans endless Colorado feedlots at sunset, with bluesy music by the WoWz. The surreal scene is “unvelievable . . . like a sea of fur,” as Schlosser has said.28 There is an inference that our appetites/ demands, and our systemic dependence on cheap corn, sustains an inconceivably large animal holocaust. But the narrative quickly jumps back to the human costs. Loren Cordain of the University of Colorado memorably describes the hamburger as “fat disguised as meat.” 65% of the calories in a burger come from fat, a direct consequence of “total confinements” and a corn diet. But as Cordain concludes, “This is the meat we eat in America.”
In September, Greene firefighters burn down an old wooden grain elevator. Ian’s cousin Bruce recalls that when he was a boy, this building held all the corn produced by the community. But now the large concrete silo, built in the 1970s, can hold only a fraction of their produce. The mountain of corn looms ever larger.
The King Corn crew turns to Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group for historical perspective. Before 1970, almost no one consumed high fructose corn syrup, Cook notes. But he invokes the memory of Earl Butz, who in announcing his agricultural revolution, instructed American farmers to live large: “Get big or get out. Grow fencerow to fencerow.” By the late 1980s, high fructose corn had taken over half of the sweet industry in U.S. The annual average consumption of corn syrup in the U.S. rose from 0.5 lb in 1970 to 73.5 lb. in 2000.29
While Cook talks, we see a train pulling MCP tanks with a corn logo on the side, and the words: “for corn syrup only.” In a convenience store, Ian turns to the camera and announces: “Every item in this aisle contains corn syrup.” He lifts a case of Busch Lite: “Proudly Brewed with Iowa Corn.” They begin to reflect on ethical implications of their small entry into the culture, economy, and politics of corn. “What we hadn’t realized was what we were essentially growing was an acre of sugar,” says Curt. His tone is still deadpan, but tinged with regret.
What follows is in a sense a re-evaluation of the “man made of corn.” The inedible corn of the Iowa “garden” does not compare favorably to its Mesoamerican ancestors. Walter Willett, an epidemiologist from Harvard, is blunt: “Most so-called improvements have degraded our food system from a nutritional standpoint.” Instead of the high-protein grains from Mexico, the current North American king of corn has been bred for endosperm (starch) with no nutritional value. Ricardo Salvador of Iowa State summarizes an obvious but important truth regarding the trade-offs in cord bred for starch: “You don’t get something for nothing. What is sacrificed is nutrition.”
Other, more fundamental sacrifices are inferred. While the Mesoamericans who pioneered corn culture expressed a sense of belonging to the earth, in commercial corn-fed culture we are overlords of the earth. We can see that the earth has become “exhausted,” as in Asturias’ prophecy. But to say that it has created a “famine” would seem to be counterintuitive.
Famine means not only a food crisis but a more general acute deficiency. As the most obese nation on earth, North Americans are suffering from a nutritional famine — in the midst of a glut of calories. King Corn takes an obvious step in going where corn goes by heading to New York, the world capital of corn syrup consumption, where 1 in 8 residents have diabetes. This double epidemic (obesity and diabetes) acquires a human face in one of the most moving stories of the film, related by Fray Medez, a Puerto Rican cab driver. He and most of his family have been diagnosed with diabetes. He shows a picture of himself 100 pounds heavier, before he conquered his addiction to soda. He tells Ian the story of his diabetic father having his flesh cut off bit by bit. Finally, when doctors wanted to cut off his remaining leg, he gave up.
Cheney’s stunned silence is almost as eloquent as Medez’ testimony. This moment could turn to melodrama, but viewers are largely left to infer tragic implications. As metanarrative, we can see that human flesh itself is one of the things being “crowded out” by King Corn.
Farida Khan, MD, of Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn makes a direct link between the explosion of obesity, the growing crisis of diabetes, and the “nutritional famine” that is rampant within corn-fed culture. Like so many people in this film, she explains the problem as economic. People will almost always choose the cheap food, but “the cheapest food is not the best food.” When what Khan’s colleague Sabita Moktan, MD, calls “liquid candy” is cheaper than either water or petroleum, then the “fast food famine” is almost guaranteed to spread.
Curt Ellis is suitably sobered by what he has seen and heard. It dawns on him that they are growing “an actual crop for actual people.” And the notion that their crop will cause suffering provokes some soul-searching, although this is done with characteristic whimsy. Back “home” in Greene in October, they visit a local farmer, Don Klikeman, who inquires about their corn crop. Ian confesses that he is not particularly impressed with corn’s social profile; after investigating where their corn goes, “none of our options seem particularly attractive.” Klikeman laughs ruefully and says that, indeed, the only thing that should impress them is the “stupidity” of the system, because in fact “we are growing crap.” His sense of disenchantment is reinforced in his following hyperbole: “the worst quality crap the world has ever seen.”
In the romanticized heartland, like the corn farmers in Richard Pearce’s film Country (1984), people will fight to stay on their land.30 The more sobering reality seen in this documentary is that there is often a disconnect amongst people who realize they are “growing crap.” They have lost a sense of a land ethic, after a generation of the “get big or get out” regime.31 That logic affects people in the Corn Belt in ways big and small. The fact that they can’t eat the food they grow seems to breed cynicism. However most, like Rich Johnson, simply tune out everything but this: “Our big thing is producing as many bushels as we can from the acres that we plant.” He admits that he takes no notice or pride in the omnipresence of their product in the supermarket.
But the actual low-key climax of the film is an interview with Butz just before he died, in a nursing home. This scene defies viewer expectations that “the boys, who up until now have maintained affable fronts, may move to savagely interrogate Butz.”32 This expectation is shaped not by the personas of the “actors,” but by the visuals and the talking heads that form a bridge between the exchange with Klikeman and the Butz interview. Cook points out that “there is a role that the subsidies have played in making the raw material for an overweight society. We subsidize Happy Meals but we do not subsidize healthy meals.”
Pollan makes explicit what has already been intuited about “the subsidy system that rewards the over-production of cheap corn” — that it “has to go somewhere, and a lot of it goes onto our bodies.” To fully understand the underlying logic of corn-fed culture, he insists, “you have to go back to Earl Butz and the revolution in farm policy.”
Their words are underscored by intercuts to the mountains of corn, aerial shots of rows of gigantic “grain elevators,” and river barges with cargoes of corn. But Cheney and Ellis arrive at Butz’ senior home dressed in suits and ties, looking like boys on their best behavior at Sunday school. Woolf has admitted that “we wanted to find some grand antagonist in the story . . . the one bad guy who we could say, OK, aha, he’s the guy who created this system.” But in Butz’s presence they realize that they “can’t, of course, find a single antagonist for these kinds of things.”33 There will be no “environmental devil.” As Lloyd Alter observes, “what separates King Corn . . . from so many other documentaries” is that “unlike a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, [the tone is one of] grace, dignity and humor. It is warm, funny and treats its subjects with respect.”34 Since he is asked gracefully what he thinks about those who say that there is “too much corn,” Butz responds with his own low-key dignity: “It is the basis of our affluence.” Current consumers spend only 17% of their earnings on food, he notes. Butz’s parents spent twice that much, and they had no free time. His conclusion seems irrefutable: we are living in “the age of plenty.”
But examining Butz’s point of view through the theory of “syntagmatic connotation,” we can frame his testimony as a misleading tip of an iceberg.35 Beneath the surface, the “age of plenty” is the “famine of plenty.” Perhaps one day we will look back on it like we are currently re-examining the “steroid era” in baseball. When bigger and longer was always better, we turned a blind eye to the shadow side of “living large.” The problems of the corn-fed culture have been almost impossible to face, because they have been so intertwined with the quasi-religious faith in the American version of progress. Corn as the substance of our heartland and as the “basis of our affluence” are, for all practical purposes, part of the “God terms of our age” (Weaver 1953; 216; Check 2008: 95). They are sacred cows. An unassailable dogma that fattened the nation beyond recognition, filled our waters with feces, and squeezed farmers off their lands in droves.
After their visit with Butz, Ellis and Cheney sleep under a blood-red harvest moon in their acre of corn, caress the leaves, and watch the stars swirl. After they harvest their 180 bushels and take it to market, Ian throws a few grains onto the corn mountain. In extreme long shot we see a pipe pouring corn onto the top of the mountain. The gesture may be recognition of the futility of their enterprise, in comparison to the gigantism of the system. But the mood on which the film ends is more elegiac. Ellis and Cheney share wine and thoughts with other farmers such as Pyatt and Johnson to celebrate the largest harvest in Iowa history. Pyatt acknowledges that he doesn’t really like the direction corn farming has taken, but surmises that only the biggest will survive.
By the film’s end, at a six-months-after coda, Pyatt has sold out. The last scene takes place at the auction of his belongings, a symbol of the passing of a generation who still remember that things were once done differently. Even Butz seemed to recognize that the “abundance” he had helped assure came at a high human cost: “This is a commercial operation. Used to be a family operation, but not anymore.” An unspoken inference which both King Corn and Fast Food Nation explore is that this commercialization of the family farm has been a Faustian bargain that has contributed to the breakdown of the American family on several levels: nuclear, social, national.
“WE’VE ALL GOT TO EAT A LITTLE SHIT”: SECRET INGREDIENTS IN FAST FOOD NATION
Four posters for Fast Food Nation demonstrate how the creators and marketers of the film have positioned its American iconography. The poster with a flag planted in a burger evokes two iconic images, the planting of the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima, and the first flag on the moon.36 These icons connote the expansion of the domain controlled by the U.S. (“defenders of freedom”). It implies that the American Dream has now been grounded in the fast food industry — and specifically in corn-fed beef. And it accuses the fast food industry of dishonesty: ‘Do you want lies with that?”37 Most blunt is the poster in which the Statue of Liberty has been co-opted by an obese American male (the “Ugly American”) holding aloft a burger. The masses who yearned to be free once looked to Lady Liberty’s torch as a beacon guiding them to freedom, but now they crave a Big Mac. In the poster with flag-diapers, a baby reaches towards two burger-buns as if they were her mother’s breasts. Indeed, fast food is the mother’s milk of the contemporary U.S. This poster continues the motif of a national incapacity to stomach honesty: “The truth is hard to swallow.” Finally, the poster that substitutes burgers for stars on the American flag asks the question about lies in Spanish. As with the other posters, it suggests that the hamburger is the brightest star on our horizon, the truest embodiment of the American “way of life.”
Whereas King Corn used humor and ironic contrast to look beneath the (utopian) surface of the (dystopian) American pastoral, FFN uses satire and melodrama to explore the unsavory underbelly of the “All-American Meal.” Three levels of analysis are employed:
1. Foremost, the “poetics of shit” — not only eating shit, but being treated like shit, being full of shit, etc., are pervasive concerns of the characters in FFN.
2. A continuation of the theme of “being squeezed,” or “crowding out” as in King Corn.
3. Observing how the film “pushes responsibility back on the audience” (Linklater 2006).
Eric Schlosser began his book by stating that “fast food has proven to be a revolutionary force in American life” (2001: 3). Those posters signal, in a manner richer than mere words can convey, the film’s rendering of this “revolutionary force,” which is by turns satirical, ironic, and melodramatic. It plays fast and loose with American icons in a way that strikes some viewers as daring and others as almost sacrilegious (a tainting of inviolable “sacred symbols”). One could compare this to Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.
The film’s mixed reception can help evaluate FFN‘s relative success in retailing its critique of industrial food. This “curious hybrid of investigative journalism, documentary, and fiction” (DeAnander 2006) defies numerous generic expectations, such as for a clear distinction between documentaries and feature films. In Screen Education, Dave Hoskin (2006: 24) argued that Linklater’s lack of fidelity to “the purity of Schlosser’s work” had taken “an intelligent, well-argued piece of journalism” and made it “unpalatable.” This word is used in an opposing sense in Screen Comment, where Kristin Jones paraphrases a central question posed by FFN: “Are we really so different from cattle when it comes to safeguarding our own well-being?” A scene of abortive ecotage when idealistic college students try to free some cattle in a feedlot “suggests the unpalatable answer,” in her view (Jones 2006: 73). But this is meant as a compliment for the high ambitions of “a horror movie in the guise of a genial message film” (Jones 2006: 74).
The film’s ambitions were bigger than its budget, Linklater remarks (DVD commentary). These ambitions are evident in its models: Linklater and Schlosser used “Sherwood Anderson’s interconnected stories in Winesburg, Ohio” as a literary template (Jones 2006: 73). Moreover, the film is a part of “the preferred cinematic method for addressing complex social issues” in which “multiple stories . . . radiate like spokes from the hub of a central theme” (Scott 2006).38 Linklater’s deeper cinematic kinship is evident in “the Altmanesque ‘intersecting lives’ ensemble cast” in FFN (DeAnander 2006). Linklater himself places FFN in the “genre of multi-narrative films” — although he believes that it was “not as hardcore as Nashville.” Yet in some ways FFN is more provocative and in tune with the complexity of contemporary life in the U.S. than Altman’s classic. A New York Times review called it “the most essential political film from an American director since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11” (Dargis 2006).
Because of FFN‘s hybrid nature, it is not easy to separate aesthetic merits from ideology, or one’s appreciation that certain themes/groups have gotten screen time. The Latino cast brings a rare authenticity to the representation of the Mexican “coming to America” experience. “How you wind up in a meat packing plan as an illegal is a major backbone of our movie,” Linklater notes.39 DeAnander (2006) commends the “strong presence of Spanish-speaking Mexican characters — not Americanised assimilated characters, and not dumb Tonto sidekicks . . . but characters in their own right, who own about half the screen time of the film and get some of the best lines.” Several of the Mexican and Mexican American actors in the cast convey their enthusiasm for the opportunity to bring the immigrant experience into a commercial film (Ford 2006).
Hoskin’s view that the film corrupts the “purity” of the book reflects “fidelity criticism” myopia (Leitch 2007).40 In fact, British producer Jeremy Thomas first sold Schlosser on the idea of doing a fictional film (van Schagen 2006). Skeptical at first, Schlosser came to believe that “fiction can sometimes get closer to the truth than a documentary” (DeAnander 2006). And it was Schlosser who suggested to Linklater that they set the book aside, and distill parts of its message through a narrative about fictional characters. The film touches on themes from several chapters from the book, but above all it follows the “unpalatable” revelations of the “What’s in the Meat” chapter. Thus, the film begins with a tableau of happy families eating at the fictional Mickey’s, and then the camera zooms in on, and goes inside of, a hamburger patty.
“This is the beginning of the “shit trail,” “the hub of a central theme,” which takes us to Mexico. In a border town, the first image emerging out of the “inner meat” is dogs running through the streets, a nod to Buñuel indicating this film’s sympathies: with Los Olvidados (the forgotten ones). The group of Mexican migrants that FFN follows on their “path towards freedom”41 is the first of three principal narrative threads in the film. This thread centers on Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), along with her husband Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and her sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón).
Sandino Moreno’s breakthrough role, in Maria Full of Grace, was as a “mule” carrying Colombian coke in her stomach to the U.S. As in that film, those crossing the border into the U.S. are engaged in illegal acts, but they are also meeting a demand by U.S. consumers: in the first instance, for drugs, and in FFN, for cheap food and cheap labor.
FFN begins and ends with the interface between Mexican illegal immigrants and the fast food industry. The beginning sequences establish a “squeezing” theme similar to what we have already noted in King Corn. The “recruits” come to the slaughterhouse because they have been squeezed out by an economic crisis in Mexico. After a desert crossing that not all survive, they are crammed like sardines into a van, which transports them to the fictional town of Cody, Colorado. A large group of the illegals are crowded into a small motel room, where a predatory foreman picks out some workers, who are unceremoniously rushed into the slaughterhouse.
There are some cinematic precedents for the journey of Mexican illegals into the U.S. Tommy Davis’ documentary Mojados (2004) gives an “alien” point of view during the dangerous crossing. In commercial cinema, Gustavo Loza’s Al Otro Lado (2007) takes the south’s point of view in the treacherous journey from the margins to the center. But FFN‘s narrative is unique in the way that it follows its Mexican workers into a meatpacking plant and then shows the connections between their lives and the consumers and producers of fast food with whom they are (invisibly) connected. The narrative about Mexicans who slaughter and cut beef brings together the themes on which I want to focus now: a literal infecting of meat by shit; workers being treated like shit; women being treated like meat; and the final, darker vision of “eating shit” as a ferocious critique of the interconnected pathologies of how we treat animals and workers in the fast food nation.
The second narrative strand follows an investigation by Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), whose marketing team came up with “The Big One” concept and campaign. But as a Mickey’s executive tells him, some grad students “decided to culture patties from fast food chains,” and discovered that in the “Big One” patties, “the fecal coliform counts were off the charts.” In street English, “There’s shit in the meat.” Don’s mission, and the glue of the first half of the movie, is to find out where this shit comes from, and how it gets in the meat. This sets up a motif that is played with variations for the rest of the film. Don’s attitude in the beginning is cynical. As he tells his wife that evening: “That is my new job. Still dealing with the same bullshit.”
The connection between the immigrants and the fast food industry is visualized when the camera moves from a lost “wetback,” about to die of thirst in the desert, to a flyover of feedlots, hundreds of thousands of cattle standing in their own shit while waiting to be slaughtered. Before arriving in Cody, Colorado, Don drives slowly past this sea of cattle. He pulls over to look at some cows near the UMP slaughterhouse. In town, a van carrying the illegal immigrants pulls beside his SUV. As with other recent movies treating the relationship between immigrant workers and a northern host country (such as The Edge of Heaven), they are ships passing in the night. The viewer knows their connection, but the director deflects our hopes that they will interact.
In Cody Don interviews Tony, a Mickey’s manager. When Don asks about rumors that secret ingredients get in the meat at a local meatpacking plant, Tony remarks that he has heard “nasty stuff” from a friend. But he quickly backtracks: “Maybe my friend is full of shit.” He is, of course, bullshitting Don. But his conscience/ambition tug at him. Tony takes a chance and refers him to Rudy Martin, a maverick rancher (“Frank” in the book) played by Kris Kristofferson. Like the ranchers and farmers in King Corn, Rudy is a sympathetic figure. He is representative of families who have held their land for generations, but “are being squeezed out of profitability by the factory model. How can you compete [economically] with people who are cramming a bunch of cows in one pen?” (Linklater, DVD commentary).
Rudy walks Don up a crest to show the “new neighbours”–encroaching suburban developments. The problems they bring include soaring land costs that make it hard not to sell; methamphetamine labs; even dead bodies dumped on Rudy’s land. The book goes further: the ranchers’ land is threatened by a runoff of shit both from feedlots and their subdivision neighbours. Kristofferson’s face, eyes, and gruff voice convey the hard experience of someone who has seen it all and will tell the unvarnished truth because he has nothing left to lose. Asked about UMP practices, he is contemptuous: “workers are getting their arms cut off over there.” He calls in his housekeeper, Rita, to explain “how manure winds up in burgers.” Her brother works at UMP, and the line moves too fast, she says, with the result that the contents of intestines are spilled into the meat every day.
This is a long way from Charlie Chaplin’s comic vision (in Modern Times) of the human cost of a factory line being sped up to an inhuman pace. But the tragic trajectory of Chaplin’s logic is evident in Rudy’s post-mortem. “Machines taking over the country,” he mutters. “Land, cattle, human beings. This machine doesn’t give a shit.” The corporate machine is squeezing the life out of land, animals, and human beings for “pennies per pound. Squeezing out a few more pennies of profit per pound, that’s all it cares about.” As a parting shot, he tells Don: “You seem like a nice fellow, but the food your company sells is crap, even when there ain’t manure in it.”
Rudy’s seeming Luddite sympathies echo Edward Abbey, who cast Quixotean aspersions at the “megalomaniacal megamachine” (Abbey 1975: 171) taking over the American Southwest. It won’t be the last time Abbey’s ghost haunts Fast Food Nation: he is in fact cited in the “Cattle Liberation” chapter, and serves as a posthumous éminence grise for the student activists.
Don’s last interview is with Mickey’s beef supplier Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis), in a semi-comic scene which keys the movie’s melodramatic second half. Willis, in his pink shirt and shaved head, looks a lot like the raw hamburger patties Don is investigating. He chomps on a burger the whole time, which, as Linklater notes, is a sure way to make a character seem sinister. When told by Don that “there’s shit in our meat,” Harry chaws down with gusto, and seems to use his burger as a rhetorical prop. He savours these words:
“You know, I think there might be a little bit of shit right here in this meat.” He takes another bite with relish. Don, the straight man, insists that the “tests are not clean.” At this point Harry still plays it for laughs. “There’s always been a little bit of shit in the meat. You’ve probably been eating it your whole life.” But when Don threatens to make noise in the corporation, Harry’s patience runs thin. Just cook the meat, he repeats, maliciously stressing every word.
Harry is right: proper cooking will kill dangerous “secret ingredients” in the meat. And his rant about Americans who go to extremes to prevent impurities in their food has been heard before, such as in Carlos Fuentes’ Old Gringo (Fuentes 1985: 25).42 But by now, Don has seen enough to want to make moral distinctions.Harry tries a different tack: “Donny boy, you gotta step back and look at the big picture. 40,000 people die in auto accidents every year. Does that mean Detroit should stop making cars?” He describes the mixture of beauty and extreme poverty in Mexico, the minuscule wages there compared to work at UMP, then draws a point that is hard to peg as either conservative or liberal: “I admire these people — working hard, trying to improve their lives. Isn’t that what our ancestors did? Isn’t that what made this country [great]? You want to stop them? Tell them what is best? Most people don’t want to be told what’s best for them.”
Harry finally manages to silence Don with a barbed but calmly stated piece of realpolitik: “It is a sad fact of life, Don, but the truth is, we all have to eat a little shit from time to time.” Some viewers may want to hate Harry, but as Cheney and Ellis say after their interview with Earl Butz: “He has a point.” Don seems to realize that he cannot avoid “eating shit.” He calls his corporate boss in the morning, recommends further study, and then walks out of the movie.
Having a central character disappear from a movie is a “violation of Screenwriting 101” (Linklater, DVD commentary). But “Don is no Erin Brockovich” — he is neither the villain nor the hero audiences might expect, so “the film pushes responsibility back on the audience” (Linklater 2006). Don’s organizing narrative is taken over by Amber, along with her family, co-workers, high school friends, and college activists. The part of Amber’s life on which the film focuses is central to its ideology. Schlosser and Linklater contrast their interest “in a young woman’s political coming of age” with a more common focus on “a young woman’s sexual coming of age” — something that “a lot of French directors are obsessed with” (van Schagen 2006).
Amber is a no-nonsense teen who does her best as a worker and student. But her fast food job reveals other forms of crowding. Mickey’s, a thinly veiled McDonald’s, squeezes every ounce of value out of low-paid teens, who respond by spitting on burgers, and worse. As at the slaughterhouse, there is a high turnover rate; those who have recently quit or have been fired often return to rob their former employers (as is play-acted/discussed in Linklater’s chatty style).
Amber cobbles together her worldview from sometimes conflicting sources. For example, her mother Cindy (Patricia Arquette) is an apolitical, somewhat superficial single woman. But she happens to work at a pet store. One night she comes home from a date, happily tipsy; while Amber works on a class paper, she tells her about a new shipment of puppies, and soliloquizes about “opening the cages and letting all those puppies run free.”
Her Uncle Pete (Ethan Hawke) shows up, and gives Amber shit for her Mickey’s uniform. His tales of anti-apartheid activism are derided by his sister: “that notorious band of Midwestern white freedom fighters.” Pete is self-deprecating: “I’m probably just going through some full-of-shit, early middle age period.” Amber defends him, but her mom is having none of it: “he is full of shit.” But Pete’s residual idealism sticks with Amber: revolutions are for the young, he advises, so do something while you still believe change is possible.
FFN at times veers into preachiness, but the speechifying comes from types that we know from experience but don’t see often in film. When the messages come from “leftist” characters, the “final word” points back to the viewers. Thus, at the end of the “Do Something” chapter, a “bull session” over a chessboard ends with Pete telling Amber: “It’s your move.” FFN seems to hope viewers follow Amber’s coming to consciousness (Freire 1974).
Amber goes to a hilltop party with some college students, but declines an invitation from her girlfriend to meet an interested boy. She chooses to listen to the critique of a student organizer, Andrew (Aaron Himelstein). Instead of going with the boys, she cleaves to the activists. This is her reality. When she tells Tony why she is quitting the next day, she says Mickey’s is unreal.
Meanwhile, unmasking UMP’s horrors further illustrates how the immigrants live, and demonstrates why the students want to strike a blow against UMP. The visual narrative draws parallels between the workers and the animals. The machine that “doesn’t give a shit” cuts them both up while meeting the demand for cheap food that is the underlying logic of corn-fed culture. We see how women are treated as meat and the workers are treated like shit (as Don and the student activists say).
Relationships between women as well as with men (the predatory foreman Mike) are mediated by meat. At left, Mike verbally abuses a worker (Yareli Arizmendi) for mixing a piece of sirloin with hamburger meat scraps. Center, Vicky (Mileidy Moron Marchant), tries to be on the lookout for Coco, warning her of Mike’s habit of consuming the prettiest female workers. But she ignores the warning, immediately becoming one of “Mike’s Girls.” At right, the way in which Coco is framed shows how she has become “a piece of meat,” although true to the reportage in Schlosser’s book, this is portrayed as mostly consensual — a way to rise in status.
The moment of Mike and Coco kissing is hardly romantic: it occurs in a scene permeated by animalistic passions, the threat of violence, cutting meat as über-imperative, and elaborations on the poetics of shit. Coco has just discovered that Mike is having sexual relations with another woman at the plant. She goes after the competition with a meat knife. Mike separates the women: “Deal with this shit on your own time, not mine.” Company time must be dedicated fully to the rendering of meat. Any threat to this system must be eliminated, as Mike makes clear to Coco:
“If you slow down my line again, you’ll be in shit so deep you can’t dig your way out of it.” Coco passes out while watching meat fall . . . After seeing a nurse, she pushes Mike into a meat locker and threatens to kill him if he touches the woman again. Mike is aroused, but ignores her entreaty/ threat: “What I do with Maria has nothing to do with you.”
In fact, soon Mike will have quid-pro-quo sex with Coco’s sister Sylvia, who must beg for work after her husband is injured. The “Accident on the Line” chapter brings FFN more fully into the modality of a horror film. A dismembering machine is set off, and Francisco’s foot is ground to a bloody stump. Raul falls and breaks several ribs. The company accuses him of drug use and discharges him. Humans are now being “rendered.” One recalls the “litany of horrors” detailed by Sinclair, some recounted by Schlosser, such as a man who “fell into a vat and got turned into lard. The plant kept running, and the lard was sold to unsuspecting customers” (Schlosser 2001: 152).43
Although The Jungle led to some reform, by the “fast food revolution,” the meatpacking industry had again turned humans into “cogs in the great packing machine” whose parts were “easily replaced and entirely disposable” (Schlosser 2001: 152).44 In FFN, this machine mixes human and animal flesh and blood, animalizes human beings, and perpetuates levels of pollution and animal suffering which the college students Amber has befriended attempt to address.
In “Student Activism,” Andrew decries the “ponds of piss and shit” that the cattle in the feedlots produce, which then pollutes the city’s waterways. The Avril Lavigne character describes the feedlots as “prison camps for cows,” and repeats a perspective voiced by ranchers in King Corn: “Cows aren’t supposed to be treated that way.” But when a would-be Che Guevara named Paco derides Andrew’s proposed letter-writing campaign, Amber voices a proposal that echoes her mother and uncle: “What if we cut the fences and let them out and let them run free? That might get some attention.” “That’s the kind of shit I’m talking about,” Paco enthuses.
When the students attempt their ecotage/cattle liberation, it is Paco who pronounces: “always cut fences” — echoing Abbey’s golden rule of monkey-wrenchers. It is also Paco who reveals his urban New Jersey insularity when he advises, “Don’t step in the shit,” and then screams in panic: “That m.f. almost gored me.” The scene is a satire about the limits of idealism, but also an implicit critique of anthropomorphism. Amber tries to talk to the cows: “They’re gonna kill every one of you!” Even as her new friends are fleeing when car lights approach, she repeats the plea: “Don’t you want to be free?”
Back in his dorm room, Andrew muses: “Who knows: Maybe it’s easier in there. They get all the food they want. I bet that genetically engineered shit tastes better than grass.”
FFN uses meatpacking plants as a “metaphor for a lot of what’s happening . . . in this country,” Linklater remarks (Van Schagen 2006). As DeAnander points out (2006), “like the cattle acclimated to their captivity, the characters in the film are stuck” — by their desire to “live large,” among other things. Immigrants are not mere passive victims in FFN. Raul dreams of a big truck. He proclaims dinner out as delicious, but Sylvia thinks the chicken was frozen. Wanting to live the dream, we consume the hype (and shit) willingly. Coco also wants to live large, and falls into coke addiction. Larger meanings of “eating shit” come into view. Sylvia leans over Mike’s truck seat and lets him have his way, but what does this bring her? He gives her a job on the kill floor. As we see through her eyes why slaughterhouses never have glass walls,45 the underlying horror of the fast food nation is revealed. The camera lingers on a tear running down Sylvia’s cheek.
The film comes full circle. We can read between the lines now and know the subtext when the coyote’s driver says “welcome to the U.S.” and offers “Itty Bitty Meals” to Mexican kids. In this freeze frame, we can see that he is both pusher and Santa Claus, giving a “bag of corn” that is full of shit. The children are being introduced to the American dream. But they are eating not only corn-fed beef, but the very blood of their predecessors.
This tableau, in retrospect, is a sort of sacrament: having arrived at the outposts of Zion, they can begin to consume the American dream, without knowing its secret ingredients.
CODA: WHY DOES THIS SHIT TASTE SO GOOD?
Let us now use FFN‘s coda to draw some conclusions relevant to both films analyzed here. This coda follows a fade-to-black after the freeze frame of the “Itty Bitty Meals.” Over a soundtrack of Nortec music (The Friends of Dean Martinez), the credits roll over an endless flow of frozen hamburger patties coming off a conveyor belt. The abundance of this corn-fed beef serves a purpose much like the mountains of King Corn: it renders the humans who produce it as small and insignificant. Like the flows of cars, people, and manufactured goods in Koyaanisqatsi, this shot conveys the sense of a larger grid that is a controlling design, to which all life and materials are subordinate. Here the grid is the corn-fed culture of a fast food nation, whose only real logic is “more pennies per pound.” We can also say that this shot conveys the iconic properties of hamburger production: an icon defined as an image blown up to larger-than-life proportions which takes on a life of its own.46 This is an ironically dystopian definition of eternal life: we reproduce in order to provide more consumers for the machine.
The assembly line cuts to Don announcing the launch of the “BBQ Big One” to Mickey’s executives. He is playing the good soldier after tasting the unpalatable truth and deciding to bite his tongue. Despite criticisms that the film leaves too many loose ends, I think that FFN is richly suggestive, if viewers are willing and able to connect the dots.
This coda should recall an early scene in which Don visits a chemist. He is offered a whiff of artificial smell/flavour that will add “authenticity” to the forthcoming BBQ Big One. The illusion is so convincing that Don involuntarily responds: “It tastes wonderful.” This is the “unreality” that Don will help market as the authentic flavour of the American dream.
Thus, the secret ingredients in our burgers are not only cow shit, and even human blood and flesh, but a chemically induced response in which even corn-fed shit will evoke a backyard barbeque. When Don decides to “eat shit” and deep-six what he has learned, he will sell this “whopper” to an unsuspecting public. As we would say in street English, “that’s a big one.”
The directors of King Corn, Spurlock in Super Size Me, and Schlosser all affirm that fast food tastes good, even after they have sworn not to give any more of their money to fast food chains. FFN provides answers to the question: Why does this shit taste so good? “Genetically engineered shit” tastes better, as Andrew imagined, to those who don’t know the difference, be they cattle or humans. Food by-products with genetically and chemically engineered “invisible substances” have come to be seen as more desirable, and even more nutritional, than real food, as Michael Pollan argues (2008: 19). And real food hardly exists in corn-fed culture, although there are artists making “the path less travelled” seem attractive (Kingsolver 2008).
In a sense, the conclusions of King Corn and FFN share the bleak worldview of films like Syriana, in which wrong-doing is so embedded that heroes are incapable of achieving justice. This is a generic transformation pioneered by Chinatown, and a cinematic development which, not coincidentally, parallels the rise of oil addiction, the fast food revolution, and globalization.47 But while films like Syriana and Chinatown still give us humbled heroes, King Corn and FFN portray an essentially hero-less world. The only would-be heroes, the student activists in FFN, are satirized. The desire for a hero itself is a part of what is being defamiliarized in these films.
Defamiliarisation “emphasizes a boundary or ‘shift’ between literature and life,” according to formalists (Barry 1995: 163). These “food and culture films” erode the boundary between how we eat and the impact of our consumption on the environment and society. These filmmakers have all been actively involved, outside their films, in suggesting alternatives.48 But on-screen, whether through comedy or melodrama, they choose to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions. One of these conclusions might be that eating shit is both encouraged by those on top and perpetuated by those on bottom. That is the definition of hegemony.49 To go further would indeed require an interrogation of societal sacred cows on the part of a mass audience.
A pioneering work of environmental film, Pare Lorentz’s The River (1937) showed the disastrous consequences of a culture in thrall to King Cotton. The present films hold up a mirror to a culture in thrall to King Corn. One might say that the golden calf of this culture is corn-fed beef. A “rhetoric of liberation” is beyond the scope of these films, but they demonstrate that both comedy and melodrama can be effective in visualizing the conditions of our bondage.
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- 1. On Ray Kroc and “the first fast-food revolution” beginning in the latter 1950s, see Malcolm Gladwell, “The Trouble With Fries: Fast Food Is Killing Us. Can It Be Fixed?” New Yorker (March 5, 2001). On the specifics of McDonald’s plan to “revolutionize the poultry industry,” see Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 139-140; and on the larger revolution, Chapter 10, “Global Realization,” 225-252. [↩]
- 2. In this quote I have fused a quote that appears in the “October” chapter of King Corn with passages from Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, 2006), quoted in Lloyd Alter, “Food Fight: Is Corn Food or Fuel?” January 5, 2007; http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/01/food_fight_is_c.php. [↩]
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992); Ellen Schrecker, ed., Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism (New Press, 2006). [↩]
- During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sergeant Michael Sprague from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, told a Guardian reporter: “I’ve been all the way through this desert from Basra to here and I ain’t seen one shopping mall or fast food restaurant. These people got nothing. Even in a little town like ours of 2500 people you got a McDonald’s at one end and a Hardee’s at the other.” James Meek, “Marines Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds,” Guardian (March 25, 2003); http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/mar/25/iraq.jamesmeek. [↩]
- Influential journalistic and academic accounts, respectively, of the virtual disappearance of dissent in the mainstream mass media beginning in the 1980s are Mark Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (Schocken, 1989), and Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufactured Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988). [↩]
- Jim Hightower, Eat Your Heart Out (1975), quoted in Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 5. [↩]
- A 1996 USDA study found that “78.6 % of the ground beef contained microbes that are spread primarily by fecal matter. The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms, but the unvarnished reality is that “There is shit in the meat.” Schlosser, FFN, 197. [↩]
- “King Corn: The Film,” PBS Independent Lens; http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/kingcorn/film.html. [↩]
- The opinion that McDonald’s food “tastes great” is an article of faith that Schlosser, Spurlock, Cheney, and Ellis all espouse. But the perception that such processed, high-fat food is tasty is culturally and chemically conditioned. See Schlosser’s section on “Food Product Design” (120-29). Furthermore, a poll of consumers by Restaurants and Institutions in 2000 revealed that “the lowest-quality food of any major hamburger chain was served at McDonald’s” (Schlosser, 260). [↩]
- Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” quoted in Barry, Beginning Theory, p. 161; see also Michael Crotty, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process (London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), 190. [↩]
- The literature on cinema’s capacity to challenge or reinscribe hegemonic ideologies is enormous. I will only mention here two books that examine this issue specifically in regard to environmental film: David Ingram, Green Screen: Environmentalism and Holllywood Cinema (University of Exeter Press, 2000), and Sean Cubitt, Eco Media (Amsterdam and New York: 2005). [↩]
- Gregory Stephens, “Sisyphus in the Sand Pit” (2009). [↩]
- Laura Reiley describes King Corn, which was broadcast on PBS Independent Lens April 15, 2008, as “part Michael Moore polemic, part Morgan Spurlock . . . gonzo journalism.” “King Corn is a sobering look at what we eat,” St. Petersburg Times (April 9, 2008). [↩]
- “Our America” is of course José Martí’s enormously influential concept of “nuestra America.” Two recent assessments of the continuing influence of this concept are Susan Gillman, “Otra vez Caliban/Encore Caliban: Adaptation, Translation, Americas Studies,” and Raúl Coronado, “The Aesthetics of Our America: A Response to Susan Gillman,” both in American Literary History 2008 20(1-2), pages187-209 and 210-216, respectively. See also Gregory Stephens, “Monolingualism and Racialism as ‘Curable Diseases’: Nuestra América in the Transnational South,” in Globalization with a Southern Face, ed. James Peacock & Harry Watson (University of North Carolina, 2005). [↩]
- James. C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1985). [↩]
- An example of the tendency to use Cox’s position to justify, or legitimate, ideological formulation of the discipline as ideologically driven is M. Nils Peterson, Markus J. Peterson & Tarla Rai Peterson, “Environmental Communication: Why This Crisis Discipline Should Facilitate Environmental Democracy,” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 1:1 (2007), 74 – 86. The authors write that “the urgency associated with crisis gives those disciplines both an excuse and a responsibility” to intervene in a manner that they then go on to prescribe, in order “to avert impending disaster” (74). [↩]
- Aaron Woolf directed Greener Grass: Cuba, Baseball, and the United States, which was released by PBS on VHS in 2000, after being aired earlier that year in a WNET-ITVS co-production. A director bio is at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/kingcorn/filmmakers.html. [↩]
- Woolf quote in the Independent Lens “Filmmaker Statement”:http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/kingcorn/statement.html. [↩]
- Regarding the polemics of yellow dent and other hybrids that “remake nature in the image of capitalism,” see Michael Pollan, “The Seed Conspiracy,” New York Times Magazine (March 20, 1994); http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=5. [↩]
- Gregory Stephens, The Poetics of Indigenismo in Zapatista Discourse: Revisioning the Mexican Revolution through Mayan Eyes. MPhil thesis in Spanish literature, University of West Indies-Mona (2008). [↩]
- Corn has enormous narrative and symbolic importance in Pocahontas, the Disney movie: a sustainable food-equivalent of the gold the Europeans sought; a hiding place; an extension of a woman’s domestic sphere into semi-public places, etc. The published journals of the actual — that is, the historical — John Smith describe a fall festival featuring a dance of the Yellow Corn Maiden, with Pocahontas presumably in the featured role. Frances Mossiker, Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend (Knopf, 1976), 112. [↩]
- Butz quoted in Lloyd Alter, “Review: King Corn — You Are What You Eat,” July 8, 2008; http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/review-king-corn.php. [↩]
- This Edward Abbey quote has enjoyed a wide diffusion. One example: P. Sainath, “Neoliberalism and the Ideology of the Cancer Cell: Growth for the Sake of Profit,” Counterpunch (March 6, 2007), http://www.counterpunch.org/sainath03062007.html. In Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang (Perennial 1975/2000), his character Doc rants about “A planetary industrialism . . . growing like a cancer. Growth for the sake of growth” (64). [↩]
- Such as Roughing It, Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad, in which he sometimes uses “ugly Americans” to convey penetrating truths. [↩]
- Regarding the turn of their thoughts when they “have a lot of time on their hands,” Laura Reiley remarks: “This is where King Corn becomes a monster movie every bit as sinister as King Kong.” “King Corn’ is a sobering look at what we eat,” St. Petersburg Times (April 9, 2008). In a blog dated April 1, 2009, Elizabeth Sherman writes that the film “makes you think about the monster we’ve created.” http://stanford.wellsphere.com/healthy-living-article/king-corn/635318. [↩]
- “fetters,” adapted from Edmund Burke, “A Letter from Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791; National Assembly (IV. 319); quoted in S. Austin Allibone, Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1875), 246; also in Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (1960), title page. [↩]
- Personal communication with Ellis. Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, Big River (Mosaic Films, 2009). [↩]
- “fur.” Dave Weich, “Eric Schlosser Knows What You’re Eating,” January 2002; http://www.powells.com/authors/schlosser.html. [↩]
- Butz, fencerow; stat on DVD cover. [↩]
- Richard Pearce, director, Country (Touchstone Films, 1984). [↩]
- For a discussion of Leopold’s “land ethic” in relation to environmental communication, see Peterson, “Environmental Communication: Why This Crisis Discipline Should Facilitate Environmental Democracy,” Environmental Communication, 1:1 (2007), 74 – 86. [↩]
- Savagely, Lauren Reiley. [↩]
- Alison Stewart, host, “Documentary Challenges Big King Corn,” National Public Radio (April 15, 2008); http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89641647. [↩]
- “treating subjects with dignity.” Lloyd Alter, “Review: King Corn — You Are What You Eat,” July 8, 2008; http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/review-king-corn.php. [↩]
- Syntagmatic connotation: James Monaco, How to Read a Film (Oxford University Press, 2000), 161-63. [↩]
- The defamiliarization of these iconic moments evident in these posters participates in a larger cultural reassessment, such as Clint Eastwood’s de-mythologizing of the Iwo Jima legend in Flags of Our Fathers (Dreamworks, 2006). [↩]
- Although the question “Do you want fries?” is standard enough, the phrase is so over-determined in American popular culture that it inevitably carries other associations. The phrase may be a riff on the George Clinton’s song “Do Fries Come with That Shake?” [↩]
- Scott mentions Crash, Traffic, and Babel. [↩]
- DVD commentary. [↩]
- “Fidelity criticism” — the notion that a film adaptation should be faithful to its source, especially when it is literature/ a book. This notion has been thoroughly interrogated by contemporary scholars of adaptation. See also Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006); Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (Routledge, 2006); Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge University Press, 2007). [↩]
- 4 “Wow, you know, this is the path to freedom. It’s a story that needs to be told. People need to see it, man.” Luis Guzmán, in Kevin Ford, Manufacturing Fast Food Nation (2006). [↩]
- Re: General Arroyo’s discourse on the “worm in the bottle,” certain inferences are implicit: “[A] people who so segregate the food they eat from the environment in which it is grown will end up trying to sanitize everything” (Stephens 2009, 77). [↩]
- Schlosser’s reporting on the prevalence of animals being fed to animals in industrial meat production, and occasional pieces of human flesh being passed on into the human food chain, suggests the dystopian vision of Soylent Green. See Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann, “Environmental Nostalgia and the Tragic Eco-Hero: The Case of Soylent Green and the 1970s Eco-Disaster Film,” in Ecology and Popular Film (2009), 91-107. [↩]
- The “cogs” line is Sinclair’s, the “disposable” wording from Schlosser. [↩]
- “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” This quote is often attributed to Paul McCartney. I think it may originate with Bertrand Russell, but have not been able to trace it. [↩]
- See the discussion of icons having a life of their own in Gregory Stephens, “Sisyphus in the Sand Pit” (2009). [↩]
- John Cawelti, “Chinatown and Generic Transformations in Recent American Film,” reprinted in Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre Reader III, 3d ed. (University of Texas Press, 2003), 243-261. Originally published 1979. [↩]
- Linklater is the only vegetarian, to my knowledge, involved in the scripting or directing of the films discussed here. Interview with Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater, Spike (November 16, 2006);. Cheney and Ellis only seem to have made changes in their diet because of constant questioning from their viewers. Among online pieces where they discuss their attempts to alter their fast food consumption: Curt Ellis, “Take the Corn-free Challenge: Curt Throws Down the Gauntlet,” November 1, 2007: ; “Conversation with Curt Ellis,”. Schlosser and Spurlock still eat beef, but stick to the grass-fed variety. [↩]
- Two films that were seen too late to incorporate into this essay but that do an excellent job of exploring more comprehensively the hegemony of the industrial food system, are Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. (Magnolia Pictures, 2009), and Deborah Koons Garcia, The Future of Food (Lily Films, 2004/ Arts Alliance America, 2007). [↩]