Let Them Eat Crap

A fly in the ointment propels many plots, but what drives Fast Food Nation is fecal hamburger
From left: Mike (Bobby Cannavale) inspects the poor-quality meat that eventually becomes a Mickey’s burger and will be served with a smile by perky wage slave Amber (Ashley Johnson).
Fast Food Nation
Dir. Richard Linklater; writ. Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater, based on a book by Schlosser; feat. Greg Kinnear, Ashley Johnson, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis (R)
A fly in the ointment propels many plots, but what drives Fast Food Nation is fecal hamburger. To put it more bluntly, in the words of the CEO of Mickey’s Burgers, a giant (fictional) fast-food enterprise, “There’s shit in the meat.” To find out why unacceptably high fecal content has been showing up in the company’s patties, he dispatches corporate VP Don Henderson (Kinnear) to investigate. Henderson, who devised “The Big One,” Mickey’s trademark entrée, travels to Colorado, where he inspects the packing plant run by Uni-globe, the corporation that supplies Mickey’s with its meat. An executive (Willis) pooh-poohs the poop concerns. “We all have to eat a little shit from time to time,” he says.

Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation provided a devastating exposé of the price we pay for cheap, mass-produced burgers, chicken, tacos, pizza, and fries: exploited workers; abused animals; a ravaged environment; duped, malnourished, and endangered consumers. Adapting the book to film with Schlosser, director Richard Linklater chose not to attempt a documentary but rather to concoct a fictional scenario to dramatize some of its themes. The film Fast Food Nation ignores the epidemic of obesity, the globalization of franchise culture, and the reactionary politics that the book attributes to the success of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and others that make a killing by purveying toxic provender. The figure of Sylvia (Sandino Moreno), an illegal Mexican immigrant who gets a job in a slaughterhouse, offers a graphic illustration of the horrors of meat production, for assembly-line workers as well as cattle. Amber (Johnson), a perky high school student who takes orders at a Mickey’s franchise, exemplifies the business’s dependence on unskilled, low-wage labor. She joins a group of ineffectual young idealists intent on exposing and opposing the fast-food industry.

Schlosser concluded his book on a hopeful note. “Even in a fast food nation,” he reminds us, “you can still have it your way.” But the film is less sanguine about challenging a sanguinary system of creating appetites and feeding them. Though Henderson’s eyes are opened to the cruelty and chicanery that go into the production of The Big One, he ends up just swallowing the corporate excrement.

Schlosser, who began researching fast food as a journalist for Rolling Stone, started out writing plays and screenplays. He tried for more than a year to get a documentary made, but during a book tour, he met Linklater in Austin and the two began to invent characters and situations to illustrate problems with fast food. During the three years that it took to complete the film, Linklater was working on four other features as well as an aborted HBO pilot about low-wage workers. Interviewed by phone, Schlosser praised Linklater as “one of the few very bold, innovative directors of our time.” He explained the reason they altered the ending: “The aim of the film was to be totally true to life. It would have been a lie to neatly wrap it up in a happy way.”

Interviewed separately, Linklater added: “What would have been unrealistic would have been to have Don Henderson blow the whistle and bring down the whole industry.”

Schlosser has been the target of organized attempts to discredit him, and Linklater did not expect a hospitable reception in the slaughterhouse, feedlot, and burger franchise he needed as locations. Using the misleading working title “Coyote,” Fast Food Nation was shot on the sly in Mexico and under false pretenses. “It was sort of like being undercover,” Linklater explained.

“I remain more optimistic than when I wrote the book,” Schlosser said. “When I started researching for Rolling Stone, obesity, marketing to children, and factory farms weren’t being discussed. Now they are part of mainstream discussion.” Though he observes “a sea change” in upper-middle-class attitudes toward nutrition, he notes that conditions in meat plants have worsened, government regulations have loosened, and fast food has expanded abroad.

Though he acknowledges that poor people do not flock to art houses to see low-budget independent films such as Fast Food Nation, Linklater concedes that the affluent and educated already know about the perils of fast food. “Ultimately, it’s a huge class issue,” he declared, noting that working people suffer disproportionately from the effects of junk diets. “It’s the ultimate poor tax.”

A political polemic, Fast Food Nation is a departure for the Austin-based director of Slacker, Bad News Bears, and A Scanner Darkly. He does not necessarily see himself as now becoming a political filmmaker, except in the sense of continuing to pursue projects that defy the corporate mentality. “The corporation doesn’t care about your health,” insisted the director whose latest work warns us that, if we are what we eat, no one should eat shit. “The new form of civil disobedience is just being healthy in mind and body.”

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