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Splashy, escapist, horrifying for all the wrong reasons

I unlock this door with the key of trepidation. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of underground. A dimension of fright. A dimension of rewind. I’m moving into a land of shadow and more shadow, of bewilderingly dumb ideas. I just crossed over into the Leawood Theatre.

We each have our personal Twilight Zone. Mine is here. In the basement theater of a half-century old strip mall in suburban Kansas City. Once well-attended, then abandoned to the wasteland of discount theater of the 80s, it suffered the final indignity of becoming a storage vault, only to be completely gutted and resurrected today to cinema status. As the double glass doors hiss shut behind me for the first time in 25 years, my soles suction one-by-one to a laminate floor, ashen as a corpse, decorated in accents the color of dirty snow to camouflage cracks, dirt, cockroaches and time. Past an old letter board, the mall tenants’ names leering like a toothless grin, errant and neglected grey letters drifted inevitably to the bottom like a neglected pile of autumn leaves. A hesitant descent down an open stairwell of gum-spotted teal ceramic tile and wood paneling of ebony contact paper dispels me at last into an echoing cavern of desolate shopfronts, save a solitary manned theatre ticket window.

The attendant slides forward my credit card and $6.50 receipt from the pool of shadow inside, in the process exposing the pale flesh of his forearm. His skin is a canvas, tattooed in a leering blue-green visage of a hunched vampire – Nosferatu, 1922’s first film fiend (who was eventually banished to the cinematic undead by the simple misfortune of being cast as the unpronounceable German counterpart when the studio couldn’t afford rights to the real Dracula of Bram Stoker.) Past the fraying scarlet rope and down a low-ceilinged hallway so narrow I have to turn sideways to maneuver past an exiting patron, I step finally into the cavernous blackness of 72 seats minus five occupied. And sit.

12-by-12-spacer 'Food Inc. is every bit the disentombed refurbishing as this shabby moviehouse where I now sit among the senior-citizen matinee'

Turns out, Leawood Theatre is the perfect place for me to see Food Inc., director Robert Kenner’s 2009 homage to that terreur ancien, the eternal horror that death surrounds us here in the land of plenty in the specter of what and how we eat. The Academy Award nominee, Public Broadcasting Service adoptee and darling of the liberal-arts campus film fest, Kenner’s 94-minute crockumentary pulling back the shroud that hides our food system from public eyes is every bit the disentombed refurbishing as this shabby moviehouse where I now sit among the senior-citizen matinee. It’s a new dish using a recipe and ingredients as stale as government cheese, like rehashed tofu dyed and spiced to give the clever but unsatisfying appeal of phony turkey. And like Nosferatu, it rises each dusk in new and different form:

  • When CNN’s chief national correspondent John King shopped for news sources to explain the cause behind one-sixth of one percent of the nation’s egg production being recalled over possible contamination in late August, his first choice was Kenner. “What should the consumer do?” King begged the Solomonic film maker.
  • Organic dairy farmer and candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke inspired endorsement from not only antique-farming advocates Jim Hightower, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, but also Kenner as well, "He will…fix our agricultural system," Kenner boldly predicted to the press.
  • Following its re-airing on PBS’ Point of View series in April, the movie earned an entire subsection of the federally subsidized broadcast network’s website, devoted to providing public school teachers with teaching materials to “create rich, engaging learning experiences with multimedia.” Viewing guides and resource packets encourage students to ask such probing questions as “Why does broccoli cost more than a hamburger from the dollar menu?” and “How do students feel about the idea that corn has been ‘hiding’ in…foods, often behind different names?”
  • The movie, as well as its individual star fear hustlers, continue to rack up near-weekly appearances at college campus film fests, public summits and recently even church screenings, where a viewing is often used as a kickoff for preaching the new gospel of social justice through smaller, gentler farming.

When Rolling Stone’s film critic breathlessly cautioned its readers in August 2009, “Don’t take another bite till you see Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., an essential, indelible documentary that is scarier than anything in the last five Saw horror shows,” he was right—but only by half. Food Inc. is not scarier than the five (now seven) Saw franchise slashers—it is the Saw Series, Lite. Food Inc. is a bad modern horror film that just won’t die and won’t go away.


Wait! Don’t Look Under There!

It’s reaping the reward of a newly identified trend in film-making, what film director Lucy Walker told USA Today in September is "a golden age of documentary," in which audiences will soon stop relying on fictional movies to shape their emotional beliefs and return rightly to the cinema of fact. Kenner and Food Inc.’s underwriter, Participant Media--founded in 2004 on a $2 billion windfall eBay's first president reportedly earned when he cashed out of the dot-com giant--claims a two-forked goal: make movies that advance progressive causes and make them box-office blockbusters. Others in the company’s stable include "Charlie Wilson's War,” “The Cove,” "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Backed by the moral if not financial support of 14 activist organizations--many recognizable to defenders of the food system, ranging from Center for Science in the Public Interest to animal rights activist Humane Society of the United States to Heifer International--Kenner borrows the “heartbreaking entertainment” formula that dovetails activism with show business. Apparently unwilling to subject most of these groups’ radical agendas to the withering and sanitizing sunlight of public openness, Kenner instead lathers on the cinematic icing covering the bitter politics that lie beneath. If, as Michael Pollan laments in the movie’s opening, today’s supermarket tomato is no longer a real tomato, but simply a “notional” tomato, then surely Food Inc. qualifies as notional cinema. The audience may take a bite, and because there is so much icing of factual inaccuracy, so many empty calories of cinematic wizadry, they won’t taste the unpalatable that lies beneath.

Agriculture’s response to those factual inaccuracies and open prejudice in Food Inc. has been predictable. Some of it’s been measured, calm and to the point. Some has been ham-handed, laggard and obscured by PR-eze. Typical of the fact-based response, the website, posted by an alliance of associations that represent the livestock, meat and poultry industries, complained “the makers of "Food, Inc." and the subjects they interview seek to paint our industries as big, bad and mechanized. They seek to prove their point through a selective use of the facts. While the makers of "Food, Inc." have the right to state their opinions, consumers and the media have the right to the facts.”

But the point Big Ag’s defenders appear to have missed, hiding behind the closet door as they rush like giggling teens into their factual defense of farming, is that Kenner et al’s attack on the factual integrity of agriculture is ultimately irrelevant. We’ve all been there, done that, lived to plow another day. What pass unnoticed are the deeper messages lying beneath Kenner’s factual surface, smooth and calm as an impending Camp Crystal Lake murder. It’s both fashionable and highly effective to position the food system as hopelessly and irretrievable broken, thus in need of complete reform and overhaul. And because consumers react with a guttural fear to an issue as personal as their food, it works—factual or not. But carried along in that message are the deeper fears Kenner’s selling—phobia of industrialization, consolidation, specialization, big corporations, even freedom and free-enterprise capitalism itself. It’s a story that comes, stake and hammer in hand, pretending to be hunting the lowly hunchback Igor of an unhealthy food system while in fact hoping to catch the Demon Prince of a heartless capitalist U.S. in a vulnerable slumber.

Food Inc. succeeds not by pulling back the veil on its own unpopular political inclinations, but by obscuring them behind the gee-whiz. It brings to the public screen a movement that owes allegiance first to a political ideology and only second to any fringe benefits it might bring to the food system. A highly illustrative case in point: John Mackey and Whole Foods.

Whether by happenstance or the hand of Providence, just two weeks before I found myself sitting in that dark theater in Kansas City, Whole Foods owner John Mackey wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing President Obama’s then yet-to-be-passed health reform plan. Good health was not the rightful purview of big government, argued the nation’s most successful local and organic grocer. It was instead a matter of personal responsibility. Using health as a pretext to increase government spending was hazardous at a time when, Mackey bravely opined, our current national debt is “unsustainable.”

12-by-12-spacer 'Like the cannibal in the cult classic who ultimately eats his own intestines, progressive liberals proved they faced no dilemmas about omninivorizing their own.'

Ouch! Yes, Mackey dared Bogart that mantric one-word anthem of new left counterculture reform. The backlash was immediate and impaling. Patrons of Whole Foods began blogging, writing, calling and boycotting their former organic, free-range, fossil-fuel free, pastoral lunch. As Ben Wyskida, director of publicity for the Nation magazine, “the flagship of the left” said writing for the equally left Huffington Post, “Mackey’s solutions seem “deeply conservative…” and “right out of the George Bush ‘ownership society’ playbook. …whatever his affiliation at present,” Wyskida wrote, “his role in this debate is parroting and advancing the current Republican lines of attack. …I’m done with Whole Foods.”

Like the cannibal in the cult classic Antropophagus who ultimately eats his own intestines, progressive liberals proved they faced no dilemmas about omninivorizing their own. It was a petulant fit that fellow Huffington blogger and Food Democracy Now! Founder Dave Murphy predicted would simultaneously make no difference on health care even as it threw to the wolves their supposed One True Cause: organic and natural farmers.


Welcome to the Food Horrors Funhouse

I’ve said often: Good liars lie with a semblance of the truth. There are some truths in Food Inc. Cases of food poisoning do occur. Children die. Farms are big. Illegal immigrants play a significant role within our modern food system from farming to packing to quick-service restaurants. Too many Americans are fat. And you certainly can’t fault Kenner for his work in shading those facts to his liking. Its undeniably great cinema is masterful in its use of imagery, of metaphor, of sound, of music (listen closely to how the music swings in tone and mood to match the subject), of light and dark (watch the treatment of the Republican vs. the Democrat.) We could learn a lot by deconstructing Kenner’s work to better telling American farming’s success story.

But in the end Food Inc. should fail, or at least deserves to fail, and not simply because it’s factually challenged. It fails in the underlying enterprise for the same reason modern film critics lament the death of the true horror genre. Like today’s horror movies, it’s all splashy special effects but little real horror. Like the difference between David Cronenberg's 1986 re-animation of the 1958 classic The Fly, or the 2003 resurrection of the ‘70s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Food Inc. is a remake in name only, a pretty but empty brand pilfering of the previous food-scares that form its heritage all the way back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Just as today’s slasher movies fail as meaningful commentary in comparison to their Cold War ancestors, Food Inc. trips blithely through a lazily constructed world of pre-packaged and pre-sold entertaining food faux phobias. It ignores the all too real claustrophobias that sprout naturally from a world where over half the people must live on less than $2 per day, where a dozen children under age 5 die of malnutrition every minute. As a result, far from being the intellectual enterprise Kenner, Pollan and Schlosser pretend it to be, Food Inc. in reality becomes a sort of splashy documentary escapism. It permits rational consumers to engage in the perverse—and wholly unlikely—entertaining fear that they’re as likely to die of E. coli poisoning as they are to face the prospect of an errant pyschologist eating their livers with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Kenner and his servants deploy the shock of seeing the food system for the first time--shocking and amazing the innocents who don’t make it their job to think about it daily. It capitalizes on the modern urban pet owner's inability to grasp the living scale of a 100,000-head capacity beef feedyard. It flash-frames the ungraspable idea of compressing the genetic manipulation of plants and animals farmers have pursued for centuries down into a week’s worth of laboratory work. It all makes for great show. But, ultimately robbed of any true underlying evil, it becomes Freddie vs. Jason or Alien vs. Predator …all gore and no fear, what Lady Gaga is to erotic cinema—overly costumed, predictable, empty, passionless and, finally, boring.


+5 # Ken 2010-11-12 12:58
Thank you for your sole voice of reason in a sea of stupidity we live in.
+1 # Keith 2010-12-14 22:19
Exactly on the money - we have the safest and healthiest food in the world but I have heard that 4 out of 5 Americans have unhealthy eating habits.
-12 # Charis 2011-01-17 08:00
Oh joy, another propaganda shill for the factory farming industry masquerading as an "independent" source of information.

The fact is no factory farm facility will ever allow the general public to visit or view their operations because if they did, they know anyone who did so would likely ever give patronage to factory farm industry again for the rest of their life.
+2 # Rex Peterson 2011-01-22 13:43
Ask and you shall receive.
The CEO for the third largest feedlot in the beefstate has told me how pleased he is to take sceptics around his lot.
When I lived next to Monforts (now Five Rivers) they had a big parking lot dedicated to visitors....just drop in.

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