George Bernard Shaw famously was quoted as saying that “If we had to kill our own food, we’d all be vegetarians,” but after watching Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s pristinely chilly (and chilling) documentary Our Daily Bread last week at Facets, I almost have to wonder if even ordinary fruits, legumes, etc, are feasible culinary options these days. Take olives: the way they’re harvested, apparently routinely, by huge clawed machines that shake the trees to within an inch of their uprooting (i.e., till all the fruit falls off), seems more than a little, well, inhumane, like the cruel and unusual punishments we disavow constitutionally, if only for our conspecific equals. Not that any of these trees die, mind you, which wouldn’t be economic; it’s more the equivalent of the strategic tortures at Abu Ghraib, where everything’s always on the verge of homicide but never quite literally there: just crank up those ol’ generators and let ’em all rip … And everything’s so goddamn, well, clean in these plants and facilities. “No actual humans were implicated in the processing of this produce” might easily have been this film’s disclaimer: no sense upchucking your lunch over such nasty bits of business, it’s what the machines are there for. In fact, watching Geyrhalter’s movie and then Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation approximately back to back, I was probably most unnerved by the creepy antisepsis of both: sure there’s “shit in the meat,” as one of Linklater’s fast food execs bluntly informs us, but the overriding subtext is purification, the negation of visceral complicity: not really us but the system that calls the shots, sluicing everything away, the spillover blood and guts, a bit like the tucking and primping that goes on in funeral parlors, down in the basement underneath the stairs, where we’re nothing if not respecters of finely upholstered stomachs. Not that slaughterhouse rituals in films have always been so standoffish: notoriously there’s Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949), where the butchery’s inescapable, utterly hands-on; no mistaking what this work’s about, the bleating of animals under the knife, anticipating dire ends, reminds you of it every minute. There’s nothing like a strong dose of physical engagement to bring the nature of the business home.
Arguably even worse though, in terms of fine stomachs churned, are the rabbit hunting sequences in Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (soon to be rereleased at the Music Box)–worse in their utter gratuitousness, in the way they turn casual slaughter into a form of recreational pursuit. Which is something Renoir himself was well aware of, as part of his whole analytic turn on French class division and its interwar discontents–also that he’s fully complicit with, feels a certain amount of creative culpability for: not above the violation, the quasi-ethical fallout, but actually a part of it–which can’t be said of Godard’s shameless slitting of the pig’s throat in Weekend: “Look at yourselves, despicable bourgeois scum, your benightedness, your contemptible crassness!” … while Jean-Luc levitates above it all, unsullied, as “creatively” self-exempt as ever.
So: “despicable” it is … now will somebody please pass the ketchup?