Monday, October 29, 2007

A Narrative Approach to Exposition

Now that Fast Food Nation is available for viewing on Cinemax, it deserves a bit of reflection. After I saw Waking Life, I realized that Richard Linklater had a fascinating knack for taking expository material and presenting it through the narrative text type. Fast Food Nation began as an extended exposition by Eric Schlosser of the fast food industry and all the processing that takes place in order for you to each your cheap-and-quick burger. To the extent that this is about what happens in the meat processing stage of the supply chain, Linklater is following in the honored path of Upton Sinclair, who took the same approach to a narrative account of that same workplace in his novel The Jungle. My high school history teacher told us that President Theodore Roosevelt hit the ceiling when he read Sinclair's novel, and that led to the birth of the regulatory system for food and drugs that we take for granted today. I cannot imagine anyone in the White House hitting the ceiling after reading either Schlosser's book or seeing Linklater's film, but then I cannot imagine anyone in the White House taking any time to examine either the book or the film (and, worse yet, I am not sure I can imagine any of our current contenders for the White House doing anything different). However, what struck me the most about the film was that, from a point of view of "ancestry," it involved more than reminding us that things have not changed very much from the world of The Jungle. By examining the sale of fast food products, as well as their manufacturing, Fast Food Nation owes as much of a conceptual debt to Barbara Garson's The Electronic Sweatshop as it does to The Jungle; and, from the point of view of a dispassionate camera eye that obliges you to look at uncomfortable things, the overall mood of the film is not that different from Mondo Cane. Both of these "ancestors" were also expository; so Linklater's real gift resided in his being able to weave a variety of different narrative threads together into a fabric that covers all the bases of supply chain analysis, the domination of marketing strategy over all other concerns, the corruption of running the whole system off of cheap labor (bringing in another "ancestor," Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed), and the necessity of students and illegal immigrants, without whom the cheap labor strategy would be impossible. What may be most important is that Linklater takes a chillingly low-key approach to delivering his message. This film is clearly agitprop; but it is agitprop at its most effective, because you never see the soapbox on which Linklater stands nor do you feel that he is haranguing you into paying attention. He lets the narrative do all the work, and the narrative does so amazingly effectively, possibly because Schlosser assisted Linklater in developing the screenplay. There is nothing particularly pleasant about this film, and those who are already aware of the nation that fast food consumption has made will not find any surprises. The power is all in the rhetoric, but this is the sort of situation that needs the force of rhetoric behind it.

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