Not in the loop: a festival of film for a labour-free weekend

I’m trying, not quite successfully, to kick the climate change habit. After 24 hours’ film immersion, political satire In The Loop loses the battle to the message movie Home

I guess I’m out of the loop, or at least, excluded from the ranks of reviewers who have found themselves chortling throughout In The Loop, and for whom a Scottish-accented “fuckety bye” will be forever part of the lexicon.

Briefly, for there are no shortage of online synopses: hapless Minister Simon Foster (whose previous evening’s radio interview has allegedly had him sounding like “a chicken with a wasp up its arse”, and describing war as “unforeseeable”) finds himself thrust into the middle of a fictional, yet familiar, trans-Atlantic plot to invade the Middle East. The Machiavellian star of the show is Prime Ministerial strategist Malcolm Tucker.

With varying degrees of ineptitude and profanity, Tucker and the communications and political advisers to members of the Future Planning (aka War) Committee manipulate each other, and a controversial intelligence briefing that goes under the acronym PWP-IB. I might not have the acronym quite right: the film’s running gag is that nobody can pronounce PWP-IB, or remember quite what it stands for. The invariable on-screen response to it could be summed up by an acronym too, WTF?

There are one or two moments of undiluted joy: Tucker deals with the fallout of yet another Ministerial departure from the PR line by means of a cellphone clapped to each ear—mystifying the two on the other end, whose phones are ringing simultaneously (“How does he do that?”). There’s satirical brilliance, of course. But mostly, it’s just a cast of unlikeable characters screwing each other.

Food Inc
I was a bit bored and ambivalent about Food Inc. I thought it would be Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma writ large; a documentary-style reprise of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Pollan was employed as a special consultant to the film and it is Schlosser’s latest vehicle.

In part, it turned out to be both of those things, but it’s also a story of oppression and entrapment. America, the land of the free, is anything but as regards its food supply; it has knuckled down under the corporate thumb.

However many times you may have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the scale of this story defies anything you might have imagined; it truly does have to be seen to be believed. The documentary takes us inside Smithfields, the largest slaughterhouse in the world; in the engine room, vast machinery dwarfs its humans. Aerial shots of ploughed Iowan fields, and a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (bovine factory farm), show them both stretching as far as the widest camera angle can reach, and the eye can see.

Not all of the film is grim. Pollan’s Utopian description of Polyface Farm turns out to be pretty ordinary, by New Zealand standards, but there is a lovely scene in which Joel Salatin (whose farm it is) chats to camera from a sun-dappled brushy field. Behind him is ranged a half circle of fat pink hams and gently oscillating tails. The faces of the owners of the tails are buried up to the eyes in a trough, but you just know that they are smiling.

Intensive broiler chicken farming seems tame after Hugh’s Chicken Run and Jamie’s Fowl Dinners—which, given the film’s overall message, ends up being a sort of backhanded tribute to the different British climate that allowed those shows to be produced. However, there are some other brutal scenes. For anyone familiar with the YouTube clip that did the rounds a while back, of a downed cow at a meat works, being prodded along by a forklift, Food Inc gives that another airing. The most shocking moment of perhaps the whole film is actually not the forklift, but the bit that wasn’t shown on YouTube—the reason the cow is down. She is grotesquely crippled.

Mulling over Smithfields afterwards—wondering whether it is the sheer scale, the depersonalisation, that above all makes it inhumane—I remembered Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay “It Takes A Village To Kill A Pig”. That was and remains, for me, among the most disturbing accounts of an animal’s killing. It involves some French farmers, doing the deed the old-fashioned hands-on way, to make boudin noir (blood sausage).

A five foot plus long, 400 pound pig, who “seems to know that he is about to die”, is forcibly dragged by three burly farmers while he locks his knees and digs in his toes. Lashed on his side on a makeshift platform, his throat gaping from chest to chin, bleeding into the waiting bowl, “The pig began struggling again, and it took four men to hold him down. I became nauseated and dizzy. I had not bargained for his grunts and his hoarse cries … Once or twice the pig slid off the zinc trough and had to be dragged back onto it. Bleeding the pig took at least 20 minutes, and then he was dead … I felt a deep sadness and sense of shame.” But the sausage is delicious.

In other words, none of this is easy.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s feature length online documentary Home is—yes—a climate change message movie and, for me, the pick of this bunch of three films. It tells the story from the beginning, from genesis to revelation, if you like.

A thousand words could not capture how transported I was by it—and not by the message at all, which is almost a bit passe. Frame after frame, the cinematography succeeds in its stated mission of composing “a hymn for the planet”.

The symmetry and beauty of some of our efforts, albeit usually the more primitive ones, shows that we haven’t been all bad. The wreckage we have unleashed with oil in the last 50 years—less than one lifetime—is quite terrifying, but again, not all bad. Carbon that formerly poisoned the atmosphere was sequestered underground, and we have dug it up again. However, like Food Inc, Home doesn’t shirk from the dilemmas: it’s oil that feeds us and has freed us from manual toil.

Home costs nothing to view. If you can summon a decent amount of bandwidth, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, except for one nagging doubt: odds are, it was shot from a helicopter.