Imagine a film adaptation of a novel that leaves out so many details, including the story's conclusion, that viewers are forced -- or at least encouraged -- to go back and read the book to find out what all they've missed. I feel like this happens often with documentary films, and it's one of the many problems with non-fiction cinema that I'll be looking at on a weekly basis here at Doc Talk.
One of the frontrunners for this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature is Robert Kenner's Food Inc., a chapter-by-chapter expose of the many ills of the modern American food industry. It's not a perfect film, and many critics know this, but the majority ignored the problems with its storytelling, editing and narrowness of testimony because they favored the cause.
David Edelstein at New York magazine admitted he gave up on trying to review the film, choosing instead to simply "exhort you" to see it. Roger Ebert also acknowledged that his rave wasn't so much a movie review as a relaying of things he learned from Food Inc. The problem with this is that the film already does the same thing; it merely delivers some information that some other people found out about the business of food and hopes you'll be scared by these facts.
Is this really what you want a film to do? I understand that the purpose of some documentaries is to communicate a big cause. But Food Inc.'s likely closest competitor for the Oscar, The Cove, introduces its audience to an issue in a way that's entertaining and that feels like a complete narrative. Will it inspire some viewers to join Hayden Panettiere and others in the fight against dolphin slaughter? Yes. Is that all it's good for? No. As cinema should, it tells and shows us a story, one which we can be satisfied with regardless of where we go and what we do afterwards.
Food Inc., on the other hand, leaves us cinematically malnourished. It's an introduction to a topic and simply brings on two prominent writers on the food industry, Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, to dictate abridged versions of their books. And the closest thing it has to a conclusion is some quick-worded solutions and tips typed up alongside the film's credits -- where many viewers will miss them because they've turned the film off or left the theater as soon as they've seen the black screen signaling "the end" -- as well as one of my least favorite things found in a documentary, the "for more information, go to www. ..." title.
I'll be the first to agree that most of the information in Food Inc. is stuff every American needs to know. I recommend people read Schlosser and Pollan. And I'd sooner hand you a copy of Food Inc. than that terrible fictionalized film version of Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. But at the end of the day, Food Inc., which is executive produced by Schlosser and which credits Pollan as a consultant, is little more than a commercial for their literature. Other people additionally see it as an ad for Stonybrook Farms and Wal-Mart, but I wouldn't necessarily go that far.
I'm somewhat picking on Food Inc., which is far from the worst offender in terms of being a theatrical infomercial that I've ever seen. But given its esteem at the end of last year, and likely Academy recognition, I had to make an example of it. To be honest, if the film has turned you on to more conscious grocery shopping or the writing of the two authors, I'm glad. Just as I'm happy for you if Anvil! The Story of Anvil got you into the titular metal band. Just as I'm happy that Still Bill got me to download songs I'd forgotten about by Bill Withers. But I'm not happy for you if you think Food Inc. is well made cinema or if you think it's a stand-alone work.
For a while I'd thought my dislike of Food Inc. was primarily due to my familiarity with the subject matter going in. The fact that it didn't teach me anything. Yet I'd already read Pollan's writings on the significance of corn in our food industry when I saw the 2007 documentary King Corn, and I still came away from that film satisfied with its narrative and presentation. As for the other ground covered by Food Inc., I'd say there are far better narratives for some of that information in films like The Future of Food, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Our Daily Bread and, yes, even Super Size Me.
I was shocked when Paste magazine recently named Food Inc. above all these and other films in its list of best food documentaries of all time. I watched the film again the other day and still couldn't understand. Is it just because the film touches all the bases? That doesn't make it a home run, as far as I'm concerned. It actually just makes it too broad, too scattered and too collectively insufficient. In the end, it's enough to be a good argument for why Americans need to be more conscious of their diet and of government dealings in the food industry. But no film, not even documentaries, should be your outlet for facts and news. If journalism is what you're after, try a news channel or Frontline.
That isn't to downplay the wonderful documentary work being done for PBS and elsewhere. And I anticipate a lot of criticism for taking a stand against the school that believes non-fiction cinema is all about visual journalism and/or film as advocacy. Humanitarian documentaries are great for what they can do for the world, but I don't need to see these works in a cinema or pay for their propaganda, good or bad (relative to the viewer).
Here is one of the ways I measure a documentary: will it stand the test of time? Like any fiction film, I have to wonder if it will still work as cinema fifty or a hundred years from now. I can see The Cove being just as effective in the future. I can't say the same thing about Food Inc., regardless of what the food industry is like then.