Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Michael Koresky: Raw Meat -- On Fast Food Nation

Raw Meat
Michael Koresky on Fast Food Nation
Reverse Shot

Everything about Richard Linklater‘s terrific movie Fast Food Nation (2006) is something of a red herring. A film about huge subjects writ tiny, this freeform fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser‘s best-selling nonfiction exposé of the meat and processed food industries is not really about the meat at all. It’s a survey of the current culture: big, sprawling, and endlessly frightening, told via the minutiae of everyday life, as it’s lived in one Nowheresville Colorado town.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to followers of Linklater’s extraordinary career. In a sense, the Texan director’s films are never about what they’re about. Or to put it more vividly, perhaps, they confound typical dramatization, even as they appear to grapple with recognizable subjects. Thus, his debut Slacker (1991) isn’t really a generation X-ray at all, despite its wayward title, but rather more of a sketch of universal existentialism; it’s site-specific (it’s still cinema’s most authentic depiction of the bustling hive of open minds that is Austin) but all-encompassing, and it remains a benchmark of Nineties American independent cinema not because it so brilliantly captures a time and place but because it’s profoundly engaged with its crazy quilt of philosophical voices—there’s literally something for everyone in it. Dazed and Confused (1993), his studio-financed disaster turned instant cult classic, is hardly the kitschy, nostalgia-drenched look back at those extraterrestrials known as Kids of the Seventies that its promotional material misguidedly promised, but rather a poignant, and almost alienatingly casual evocation of directionless youth—its painted-on bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyes, and clacking bead necklaces are functional rather than symbolic. And Linklater’s 1995 and 2004 diptych Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, cumulatively his masterwork thus far in his young career, about an American boy falling for a European girl in Vienna and, nine years later, again in Paris, isn’t simply a Brief Encounter for the Kurt Cobain generation, but a deeply spiritual quest for romantic fulfillment that transcends eras as much as it does continents.

Fast Food Nation is reminiscent of those earlier films in style and informality—like them it casually surveys an environment rather than flat-out states a thesis or purpose, and it also drifts around its characters, catching them in seemingly on-the-fly moments rather than engaged in big dramatic dialogues or conversations meant to represent cultural or social shifts. Then again, Fast Food Nation differs greatly from those films in scope. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, as well as SubUrbia (1996), Tape (2001), and Waking Life (2001), all took place over condensed periods, their narratives resolving generally within the course of one day or night. Fast Food Nation on the other hand, follows many characters, segmented in discrete story zones, over an indeterminate number of days, even months. As such it’s easily Linklater’s best film not contained within a limited time frame, and by extension, perhaps maybe his most purely dramatic film to date. So, even though the film remains remarkably laidback by the standards of Hollywood—the films of which are more apt to pummel viewers into submission than engage them into debate—it’s still clearly borne of a subject that has gotten Linklater riled up. So what is it that has rocked him?

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