Viewed: From the Couch
Paddy starts us off:
Of all the movie arguments Sean and I have had over the years at various Cambridge taverns, none has been as heated as “The Great Sell-Out Debate.” The way it usually works is as follows:
- I criticize a director whose work I previously admired for giving up his integrity in favor of a Hollywood paycheck.
- Sean, who doesn’t trifle over dichotomies like artistic expression vs. mind-numbing entertainment, says “ah…like whatever man.”
- My head hits the bar.
When it comes to Linklater, the debate is especially intense, because the stuff of his I love (Slacker, Before Sunrise/Sunset, Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly) I really love, but his more mainstream efforts, like Bad News Bears and The Newton Boys are just brutal. My way of reconciling this is that Linklater’s bad movies are simply the result of him trying to cash a paycheck, while his pure genius can show through when not burdened by a big budget. Sean counters that Linklater has always been an entertainer and never an auteur, and that the guy has no real artistic vision to begin with.
I still think anyone who makes as perfect a movie as Slacker has some vision, but after seeing Fast Food Nation, Linklater’s literally shitty adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s best-seller, I’m beginning to think Sean is right.
Shit is front and center in this movie, care of a White Castle-like chain that discovers high doses of fecal matter in their new burgers. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), the man who dreamt up the new ad campaign, is sent off on a mission to discover the cause, and in the process interviews speechifying former ranch workers (Kris Kristofferson), meat buyers (Bruce Willis) and franchise owners (Essai Morales). At each stop, Kinnear simply stares at these men while chomping down on a burger, listening to the dark tales of the fast-food industry.
If this moralizing were not enough, we also have two parallel plots concerning a group of illegal immigrants and a band of activist coeds. While the scenes dealing with the idealistic college kids are the best part of the movie, the movie is all too obvious in presenting each student as a moral archetype rather than as an actual person.
But it is the immigration story that really brings down the movie, despite fine performances from Wilmer Valderamma and Catalina Sandino Morena. The problem is that while the story of some illegal immigrants is both tragic and important, it is a subject deserving its own treatment and need not be shoehorned in to a story about corporate greed, mass consumerism, misplaced idealism, and about a hundred other things. There is also the irony that a movie about beef would focus on immigration, when far more illegal immigrants are employed in agriculture then in the meat industry.
And this seems to be the fatal flaw in Fast Food Nation’s morality tale. What is set up at first as an anti-corporate movie, or an anti-mass consumption movie, or an anti-exploitation movie turns out to be none of the above: FFN is an anti-meat movie, pure and simple.
Evidence for this claim comes in the final, dramatic scene, where Morena is finally exposed to the gruesome killing floor or the meat processing plant that is responsible for mixing cow feces with Grade A beef. While the scene is moving, it draws its power not from the constellation of events in the movie, or because of a political point; but because of the simple disgusting act of cows being butchered. The problem here is that this disgust at the slaughter of a cow would still take place even if you removed the immigrants, or the big burger corporations, or the greedy middle men. The butchering of a cow is an awful process to witness, even if done is a more private intimate way, such as kosher killings. For Linklater to entangle very serious political issues with basic repulsion is intellectually dishonest; that, or else he is as politically naïve as the college kids who earlier try to spring the cattle from their pen.
While I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetics and style of my slightly older Gen X peers, FFN is another example that disaffection and coolness do not easily translate into an honest and genuine engagement with political issues. If this movie indicates that Linklater – as good a barometer for his generation as anyone – is getting up from the couch and into the fight, I’m not impressed.
So Sean, has Linklater run out of steam, or worse yet, weed and ripped couches?
Ah… like whatever, man. In my dictionary the term “sell-out” has a pretty specific definition. It defines a sell-out as a person that corrupts his or her own personal ideals or views for money. They don’t make the movie/album/work that they truly want to. When an artist puts out an album or a movie in which they censor themselves or change their beliefs due to “the man’s” wishes. In nowaywhatsoever do I think Richard Linklater has ever done this (for this reason, not my disinterest in art vs. commerce, do I laugh off the repeated implications). The Newton Boys was story from the history books of Texas that Linklater felt very passionate about (the resulting movie’s quality is pretty fuzzy to this old man). The Bad News Bears shows no signs of not being the movie that he intended to make. The fact that it isn’t a very good movie is beside the point.
This holds true for Soderbergh, Nolan, Singer and any other director that you want to place that lazy tag onto. These people are creating the movies that they want to make. They might not be making the movies that Paddy wants to see every single time, but because they don’t have the same narrow, strict ideology that you do it shouldn’t be a strike against them. If anything they should be applauded for it. Most people, especially filmmakers, and even the curmudgeons among us, like some diversity in their movie library. If every movie was like Sex, Lies & Videotape or Slacker I’d probably shoot myself; at the very least I wouldn’t be a film geek. To borrow a phrase, I wouldn’t want to eat steak every single night, sometimes a good salad is in order; variety is the spice of life, and other such appropriate clichés.
I think it’s a safe bet so say that if one were to devote their lives to working with a certain medium that they would have an appreciation for all aspects of that profession – be it music, movies, literature, food, wine, beer, etc. If I were to become a food critic, but say I only like filet mignon and truffles, well, I wouldn’t be a very good food critic. I’d at least have to have an appreciation for the other things that make up this medium. Myself, I don’t particularly like musicals, but I can appreciate the genre and I know Busby Berkeley made some good ones back in the day, and I’ll probably watch Once when it comes out on video. Point being, these directors are having fun playing in some popular genres, and if you can’t find any merit in them whatsoever, than that’s not their fault if they, and I, disagree with you.
On the subject of Fast Food Nation, though, I do agree with you. It’s a muddled, disjointed, mess of a film and all the good performances, especially Bobby Cannavale as the evil UMP (fictional meat processing plant) factory supervisor, can’t save it. I will disagree with you on a couple points in your review though. I found the whole student activist part fairly tedious. In fact, the entire Amber storyline was grating, boring, annoying and basically lazy writing. The story of the illegal Mexican immigrants is really the meat (sorry) of the story. Even though it didn’t come through to you, theirs was the only story that gave a clear point. Showing the kill floor at the end wasn’t just an anti-meat statement. Yes, killing a cow whether it be at a profit-generating factory like UMP or at uncle Jim’s farm, is going to be a gruesome sight no matter which way you slice it(again!). But if you were to walk by Jim taking down a cow to sustain his farm and stepping inside the kill floor and be literally surrounded by thousands of different parts of cow swinging and sliding past you to make happy meals – you can’t say it’s the same thing or would have the same impact on a person. Also, you can’t say that these factories could exist on the same level they do without the illegal Mexican immigrants. One of the points they hammered home was that the reason the shit’s in the burgers is because you can over work and abuse these people in a way you can’t do with the average American worker. Things would have to change if you took these people out of the equation, you wouldn’t be able to run the line as quick.
Adapting a book like Fast Food Nation, which has no narrative to speak off, into a cohesive film is no small challenge. I know that one of Linklater’s favorite tools to use is the half-mute character who basically walks around, bumps into interesting people who end up talking their ear off. That can work, as it does multiple times in Slacker, and to varied success in Waking Life. Or, in this case, as with Amber and Don’s characters, it can come off as cringe inducing, uninspired and contrived. This is due in part to the decision to have these multiple storylines weaving past each other for the entire length of the movie. I agree with you that the issue of the Mexican immigrants is one that deserves it’s own movie, and If they had gone with focusing on one half-mute illegal Mexican immigrant, or a husband and wife, followed them to the UMP factory and had Kris Kristoferson, Bruce Willis, and Essai Morales do their speeches either to them, or have them overhearing them, well, it might have been an easier pill to swallow.
It’s hard to criticize a movie like FFN that is only trying to shed some light on a serious situation and to get people motivated to get involved in it. But this is my biggest problem with the movie, I can’t picture anyone getting motivated to do much besides maybe lay off the fast food a bit. Not only is there hardly any liveliness in the movie (Ethan Hawke tries, god bless him), but you have three stories that basically end with statements, “Well, I tried, but nothing came out of it.” If anything this movie could promote even more apathy in people. I’m not saying any sort of happy ending should have been tacked on the end of this but you have to give your target audience something to grab onto besides bleakness. I was left with a bigger sense of hopelessness than anything else in this movie and for something aimed at getting people involved, that shouldn’t happen.
In the end, we have here is Linklater showing his limitations. To juggle three separate storylines for two hours and not drop a ball is one of the biggest challenges you can give a director. Linklater excels in allowing actors to shine and giving characters room to breathe in a series of long takes with gentle, flowing camera movement delivered at a nice and easy, getting to know ya pace (see: Dazed, Sunrise/Sunset, Tape, SubUrbia, School of Rock). While he didn’t exactly shit the bed here, he didn’t do his subject matter any favors by attempting this high-wire act of story-telling. Hopefully, he’ll come away with this as a lesson learned and return to what he does best and leave this stuff for Soderbergh and Iñárritu.
Well, I’m out of steam. Any last thoughts, Paddy?
Glad we can agree on the movie, and I’m thinking this really isn’t the best place to explore the sell-out debate. However, I’ll just say my definition of sell-out is a little broader; anyone who takes the money (and you must agree that all the above names certainly did get paid a lot more) to do a film with little to no artistic value is a sell-out. You might argue that Batman Begins, or the X-Men, or Ocean’s 24 would be worse if done by a studio hack, and you would probably be right. But the point is these movies shouldn’t be that good. Batman and Cyclops are just not deep enough or interesting enough characters to warrant the sort of psychological investigations or blindingly obvious allegories that mars most of the recent generation of “smart” action films. I don’t necessarily need all indie fare (I would kill myself if everything were like sex, lies, and videotape), but directors who have shown an eye for developing original characters and plotlines are wasted when handed a big Hollywood project. It is simply a question of quality; if Singer, Nolan, Raimi or Soderbergh (well, maybe not the last) had spent the past 5-10 years making movies somewhat broader then the mind of Stan Lee, we would be seeing better movies.
I also don’t want to talk too much more about FFN, because it is a bad movie, and not even bad in an interesting way, but I completely agree that this kind of movie is outside of Linklater’s talents, one of those talents being making a great movie without much of a budget. I don’t know how this project came together, but I can’t believe this is the kind of movie he dreamed of making while maxing out his credit cards in Austin. I also completely believe that if Linklater had had no budget, no access to “stars” like Kinnear or Willis or Avril or Kristofferson, and had to scrape by with no-names and poor production values, he would have made a much better movie.