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Welcome to the Jungle

Two movies, one point: That bacon burger you ate for lunch? Big mistake.

When not hitching a ride on a tractor or crane, Geyrhalter's camera is static, contemplating an infinite expanse of chicken coops, a hangar-sized greenhouse of hydroponic cucumbers, or the vast vista of a crop-dusted field. Machines rule, whether milking cows or gathering olives. Humans aren't necessary; the assembly line sprays cattle with feed, guts pigs, and processes live chickens. Scenes of workers chewing their cud or sitting docilely on the bus supply human interest. (That everyone and everything is drugged is suggested by the C-section performed on a totally passive cow.)

Geyrhalter's fastidious, symmetrical compositions match these clean, orderly spaces. Our Daily Breadgives the sense of an empty, highly regulated planet populated by a relatively few number of workers. (It's a happy version of Metropolis.) As with Pripyat, Geyrhalter's 1999 survey of the contaminated zone around Chernobyl, information is subordinate to visual ideas. Yet the clarity of these ideas provokes all matter of philosophical questions—they're food for thought. At what point during the industrial procedure do the animals actually die? The film's title obviously refers to work as much as food—does it also ask forgiveness for our sins?

Like Linklater, Geyrhalter saves the spectacle of stun-gun cow slaughter and blood geysers for last—next-to-last actually, in that he ends with someone hosing out and scrubbing down the killing floor. That erasure is part of the horror. What's harder to forget is the sight of live chicks being processed in handfuls or masses of fish vacuum-sucked out of the sea. This may be more "humane" than the system mapped by Fast Food Nation—but that is because it is a more efficient technology of death.

Food, folks, and this guy’s loogie
photo: Fox Searchlight
Food, folks, and this guy’s loogie

Details

Fast Food Nation
Directed by Richard Linklater
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Opens November 17

Our Daily Bread
Directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
First Run/Icarus
Anthology Film Archives, November 24 through December 3

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As The Jungle is the literary paradigm for Fast Food Nation and Our Daily Bread, so their filmic precursor is Georges Franju's poetic documentary Blood of the Beasts. Like the surrealist films Franju admired, his 20-minute investigation of Paris's municipal slaughterhouse is an assault on the spectator—rubbing the viewer's nose in butchery. But, filmed only a few years after the end of World War II, Blood of the Beasts not only asks what it means to be a carnivore but what it means to be a political collaborator—even providing a visual analogue for images, like the Nazi death camps, that are too terrible to behold.

There's almost nothing we can't look at now. Where Fast Food Nation ends with a crescendo of allegorical violence, Our Daily Bread uses factual material as a means to interrogate metaphor. Without needing a word, Geyrhalter gives new meaning to the species paranoia dramatized in those gore-soaked scenes of human harvesting in War of the Worlds or The Matrix. Our Daily Breadis quietly radical in showing creatures whose existence is solely and inexorably a preparation for death.

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