For a long time, people in other countries had to watch American war films. Now they are making their own. In recent years, Russia and Germany have produced dueling filmic visions of their great contest on World War II’s Eastern Front. Paid for with ...

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The globalization of the Hollywood war film

For a long time, people in other countries had to watch American war films; now they are making their own. In recent years, Russia and Germany have produced dueling filmic visions of their great contest on World War II’s Eastern Front.

Paid for with about $30 million in state money, Stalingrad, directed by Feder Bondarchuk grossed around $50 million within weeks of hitting Russian screens in October, 2013. Earlier that year, Our Mothers, Our Fathers was shown as a three part miniseries on German and Austrian television in 2014. On its final night 7.6 million Germans, 24% of all viewers, watched it.

The duty of the classic Hollywood war film is to make war meaningful. It orders events in a satisfying narrative, with the message that it was all worthwhile. Private Ryan had to be saved, so that America could live on and prosper after the war. War films like this try to shape public memory of the nation and its wars in particular kinds of ways. The idea is to reproduce in the future a conservative vision of the country and its patriotic values. Soldiers of the past, and their wartime sacrifices, are made to embody this vision.

To perform their function, and make for good entertainment, such films have to deliver up fantastical accounts of wartime events. While US filmmakers now go in for the hyperrealism of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, this is not so in Germany and Russia. In their quest to be ordinary today, these countries have to make the Eastern Front into something other than a monstrous catastrophe, at least on film. In doing so, what is most revealing is the violence these films do to wartime events.

Stalingrad starts off by turning the war into a disaster movie, as if it were out of human hands. Incongruously, the film opens with Russian aid workers rescuing German teenagers from a Tsunami-hit Japanese city. This move recoups in imagination some Russian pride from a far more economically advanced Germany. Sergei Bondarchuk viscerally connects his present day viewers to the battle of Stalingrad: one of the aid workers was conceived during the battle, and becomes the film’s narrator. Through this crudely literal but compelling cinematic maneuver, the battle is turned into the womb of the contemporary Russian nation.

As always with war films, gender is key. In the situation Stalingrad’s screenwriters set up, the role of the women is to sleep with the right men. Only in this way can the battle give birth to people of good character.

Fedor Bondarchuk on filming of Stalingrad by Art Pictures Studio. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Stalingrad is loosely based on the defense of Pavlov’s House, a stout four story building which stood between German lines and a stretch of the bank of the Volga in the fall of 1942. Mostly under the leadership of Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, a platoon held out in the building for nearly two months before relief by counterattacking Red Army troops. One of the civilians, Mariya Ulyanova, played an active role in the fighting. In the film the Ulyanova character’s main job is to be protected by the men, in two senses. She must of course physically survive, but also her virtue must be guarded, at least until the appropriate moment.

For Bondarchuk, Sgt. Pavlov’s successful defense of his position was not sufficient cinematic grist. In a climax reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, the final, apparently unstoppable German tank attack is defeated by the godlike intervention of air power (at least as rendered in English subtitles; the filmmakers may have intended artillery). Unseen Soviet planes (or guns) bomb the building and its environs into oblivion, killing all the film’s remaining characters in a 3-D sacrificial fete, but for Ulyanova.

A soldier in love with Ulyanova carries her to safety where they consummate the business necessary to the plot, before returning to sacrifice his life usefully in the final combat. In this morally sanctioned moment, Ulyanova survives, passing her values on to her son, the film’s narrator.

Our Mothers, Our Fathers also seeks to make death in war meaningful by meting it out according to scales of virtue. The brave officer brother who fights well until he turns against the war’s insanity survives. The sensitive, cowardly brother who later becomes a brutal killer chooses suicide. This tidily excuses viewers from apportioning responsibility for the character’s all too human acts.

The innocent and enthusiastic nurse, who makes a tragic mistake but later feels appropriately guilty, survives to marry the conscientiously objecting ex-officer. They are the upstanding national couple who, as in Stalingrad, go on to give birth to today’s citizens/viewers, the good Germans. The vivacious nightclub singer who takes up with a Nazi in order to save her Jewish lover is executed, not unlike Ulyanova’s counterpart.

Meanwhile, in a swipe at Germany’s eastern neighbor, the main purpose of the film’s Jewish character seems to be to show up Polish partisans as anti-Semitic. German death camps are nowhere to be seen in the film. The Anglo-Americans are almost entirely excused from their favored form of the delivery of mass death, for the film makes hardly any reference to the bombing campaigns that flattened and burned Germany’s cities.

Real war is capricious and democratic in the way it hands out suffering and death; there is no rhyme or reason as to why some die and others survive. This is why survivors are often tortured with inconsolable guilt.

On film, death in war is part of a rational and moral order. The bad guys mostly die, and if the good ones do too, their sacrifice is purposeful and worthwhile, not random. Only in this way can the war film become a vehicle to tell stories about the nation, about its purpose and meaning in the world.

Featured image credit: Infantry, Soldier, World War II by WikiImages. Public domain via Pixabay.

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The poverty of American film

Some decades ago, British film scholar Laura Mulvey showed us that movies possessed a male gaze. That is, the viewer was assumed to be a man — a straight, white one — and films were created by men to entertain men like them.

We’ve made some progress. Among this year’s Academy Award nominees are eighteen African Americans, five Asian Americans, and one native-born Hispanic American. Three of the nine Best Picture 2017 nominees put African Americans at the center of their narratives (Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures), as do three in the Documentary category (OJ: Made in America, I Am Not Your Negro, and 13th). One third of the Best Picture bracket have female leads (Hidden Figures, Arrival, and La La Land), and one (Moonlight) is concerned with matters of sexual orientation.

There’s still a long way to go, but this heightened attention to race (thanks in part to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign) and gender (aided by ongoing research from the Geena Davis Institute) is all to the good. Yet while Hollywood has begun to confront its straight, white male gaze, it has yet to acknowledge its propertied gaze: While it’s still unusual to find big studio films about people of color, gays and lesbians, and women, it is even rarer to find ones that offer perspectives on the lives of poor and homeless people.

This is a long-standing problem. By my count, in the history of American cinema there are perhaps 300 films that deal centrally with those issues — even though the majority of us will be poor at least once over the course of our lives. Only two films even passably about poverty — My Fair Lady and Lady and the Tramp — can be counted among the 100 highest grossing US films, which offers one possible explanation for why more movies about people in need are not made: Perhaps that’s not what audiences want.

But it’s not just quantity that’s a problem, but quality, too, for even when filmmakers are trying to offer insight — even when they seem to mean well — they often wind up reinforcing pernicious myths and relying on clichés and tattered narrative tropes.

Advertisement in Moving Picture World for the American film The Fear of Poverty (1916) by Thanhouser Film Corporation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Advertisement in Moving Picture World for the American film The Fear of Poverty (1916) by Thanhouser Film Corporation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2009 Best Picture contender, Precious, is a useful example. Its director, Lee Daniels, only the second black Best Director nominee at the time, nonetheless gave us a film that trafficked in the ugliest stereotypes of poor, African American communities, and the people in them. His nomination reflected not a recognition of diverse viewpoints and original storytelling, but a reward for conforming to age-old supremacist ideology. Perhaps it is no surprise that Daniels has disassociated himself from #OscarsSoWhite.

Even when films seem interested in these marginalized populations, they turn out not really to care much about them. Take The Soloist. Despite its marketing, this was not a story about the homeless musician played by Jamie Foxx, but one about how far the reporter played by Robert Downey, Jr. will go to rescue the poor man, and how the reporter is made better for having done so. When they are not tools to be used for others’ redemption, poor and homeless Americans are objects of fear (villains who will destroy the social order — Hobo with a Shotgun is an extreme recent case) or objects of pity (passive, pathetic souls with little agency — think of Robert DeNiro’s character in 2012’s Being Flynn). They are typically not mad about their condition, however, and the audience is not meant to be, either. We may feel sympathy, or even gratitude (there but for the grace of God go I), but seldom are we called upon to react with anger or indignation.

When a character is poor or homeless, that is ordinarily the most important thing about them, and when movies try to explain why people are in such a state, the causes are rooted in individual failure or a dramatic, tragic event. There is almost never a sense of the political and economic forces that create poverty and make it a common occurrence. Blaming people for their poverty serves a function, obviating the need for policy change or a reallocation of resources. It relieves us, the viewer, of the obligation to press public institutions to operate more equitably. It reassures us that the world is as it is for a reason, and even if things are grim for some, it’s ultimately their own fault or the hand of God. There is, either way, nothing to be done.

While Hollywood valorizes those who must undertake heroic efforts just to survive (think of Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness), in reality, hard work and “grit” do not necessarily lead to improved circumstances. Most Americans in poverty don’t triumph against the odds – they succumb to them.

There are exceptions to these patterns in cinema of course, and one of this year’s Best Pictures, Moonlight, is among them. While young Chiron lives in public housing, his greatest challenge isn’t poverty, but his mother’s addiction and coming to terms with becoming a man and being gay. There’s no prurient gaze, no judgment. Hell or High Water, another Best Picture nominee, is among the few movies concerned with the effects of the recent economic crisis. The Great Recession hums in the background here (“Closing Down” “Debt Relief” “In Debt?” “Fast Cash When You Need It,” are among the roadside signs we see throughout) but the problems are deeper and older — these are folks who have been struggling for generations. So, when Toby (Chris Pine) robs banks, it is a small gesture toward balancing the scales: Banks have been robbing Americans like him forever, after all, and they are poor not for lack of effort but because the forces arrayed against them are so great.

The success of these films tells us that there is an audience for them. We should celebrate that, and encourage more filmmakers to follow their lead. And next year during Oscar season, when we ask how well women, sexual minorities, and people of color are represented, we should also ask how many fully realized poor and homeless people we find on the screen.

 Featured image credit: film 8mm low light 15299. Public domain via Pixabay.

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La La Land and the Hollywood film musical

Say what you will about the strong fan base of La La Land and its probable domination of the upcoming Oscars after sweeping so many of the guild awards, not to mention the critical backlash against it that I have seen in the press and among scholars on Facebook, but Damien Chazelle certainly knows the history of the Hollywood film musical. The allusions to An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and Sweet Charity are pretty apparent, as is the homage to the French homage to Hollywood, Young Girls of Rochefort.

I am surely not the first person to note this, but La La Land is also a formal throwback to the great Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s. Consider the numbers in Top Hat: “No Strings,” Astaire’s solo in which he loudly disclaims romance but then dances softly on the floor above in order to lull an angry Rogers to sleep; “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)?,” a challenge dance between the two stars, which awakens her feelings for him; the title tune, a show number for Astaire to display his expertise and masculinity; “Cheek to Cheek,” a waltz that clinches the couples’ romance and metaphorically expresses sexual consummation; and “The Piccolino,” a communal song and dance celebrating the couple, which is also reprised at the end as the two stars dance away together. The numbers direct the progress of the narrative, with the boy-meets-girl plot pushed forward by the musical elements, which is also to say that the numbers are where the substance of the film resides, not the plot. The numbers are its flagship sequences.

 La La Land works the same way, with its numbers structuring the romance of Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). La La Land opens rather than closes with the communal number, “Another Day of the Sun,” and then shifts the film’s viewpoint to Mia. She gets the equivalent of Astaire’s “No Strings” number as her roommates lure her into singing and dancing with them in “Someone in the Crowd.” After Mia meets Seb again at the pool party and they leave together, their challenge dance, “A Lovely Night,” awakens their mutual attraction even while the lyrics deny it. Their subsequent dance among the stars in “Planetarium,” the metaphoric expression of their sexual consummation, and their singing of “City of Stars” doubly perform the same function as “Cheek to Cheek” to celebrate the pair’s chemistry as a romantic couple. The final song is Mia’s show number, “The Audition,” which lands her the part in the film that makes her a movie star. The fantasy finale or “Epilogue,” which picks up the earlier “Another Day of the Sun” for one of its main musical themes, then closes La La Land somewhat like the reprise of “The Piccolino” in Top Hat.

I realize that “Epilogue” is more complex than that Top Hat reprise, that the plaintive melody of “City of Stars” belies its lyrics to focus attention on Seb’s opening and closing question, and that I have knowingly left out in my summary John Legend’s show number, “Start a Fire,” which is the sellout by Seb that eventually breaks up the couple. Nonetheless, it is clear that Chazelle more or less follows the Astaire-Rogers template for his romantic couple in order for their similarity and differences from the famous team — and what they still personify for musicals as the epitome of romanticized heterosexual coupling — to stand out more forcefully, again in musical terms.

Top-Hat-movie-poster
Movie poster for the 1935 musical Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I have heard both praise and criticism of Stone’s and Gosling’s singing and dancing, in contrast with the expertise of the old stars like Astaire and Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, who once populated the genre. I think the ordinary quality of the singing may be intentional since Stone’s and Gosling’s voices do not seem amplified at a higher aural register, as it would have been at MGM, say: despite Stone’s and Gosling’s stardom, these are ordinary people with unrealistic dreams who enter a musical where dreaming is possible. Their dreaming is then given form and expression by the numbers, which set up a counterpoint to the predictability of the narrative. The opening number–when traffic stops on the freeway, and everyone but Seb and Mia get out of their cars to sing, dance, and do their specialty bits–tells us right away that musicals express a utopian sensibility–not as an escape from but as an escape to a stylized kind of experience that is more vital and energizing, more imaginative and fulfilling, than everyday life, where one is inevitably stuck. The utopian “Epilogue,” which then revises the narrative entirely in musical terms, doing so in ways that make the genre’s history seem fully present, contrasts with the “real” world in which Mia has a great career, a husband she loves, and a child she adores, while Seb has his club, preserving what he considers to be the purity of jazz.

I don’t think what either character specifically dreams is as important as that they are dreamers. After all, in “City of Stars” Seb states his dreams have come true from his being in love, but he still asks if the city shines so brightly only for him. In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the romance and professional plots always coincided before the end credits rolled; the couple is the show, and the show is the couple, as the end of The Band Wagon explicitly announced. With its fantasy epilogue, however, La La Land closes by effectively and permanently disaggregating the show from the couple; the epilogue recognizes the utopian pleasures of the musical while the framing of the fantasy registers the impossibility of sustaining that utopian spirit in “real” life.

Featured Image credit: Oscar statues in 2012 by Ivan Bandura, CC By 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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“Don’t cry white boy. You gonna live”

On 20 February 2017, Sidney Poitier—”Sir Sidney” both in the colloquial and in reality (he was knighted in 1974), and just “Sir” in one of his biggest hits, To Sir, With Love (1967)will turn 90 years old.

Even today, Poitier continues a decades long career of collecting accolades for his pioneering role as Hollywood’s first black movie star. Just last week at its eighth annual awards ceremony, the African-American Film Critics Association bestowed Poitier with its inaugural “Icon Award.” That honor joins the knighthood, two Oscars, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with many others, in Poitier’s trophy case.

At the same time, Poitier also continues a nearly equally long career of carefully calibrating the connection between his stardom and racial politics in the United States. Poitier’s fellow star, friend, and foil Harry Belafonte has long spoken forthrightly on matters of race and social justice, most recently in the 5 February 2017 New York Times. In contrast, Poitier mostly lets his work do the talking; I must note, however, that Poitier was vigorously engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and was a prominent fundraiser for the Movement.

As the United States has moved, seemingly abruptly, from the Obama era to the Trump era, I’ve been wondering what we might hear in Poitier’s work.

One answercertainly one that was prominent at the height of Poitier’s career in the late ’60s—would be: conciliatory, “dignified,” and maddeningly limited gradualism (“dignified” is almost certainly the adjective most persistently used in relation to Poitier). Many film and cultural critics noted in 2008 that Poitier could be seen as a pre-figuration of Barack Obama, and in his autobiography, Obama wrote of Poitier as among his youthful role models. At the threshold of the Obama Presidency, this way of seeing Poitier seemed a sort of delayed, radical conclusion to Poitier’s career (his last role as an actor was in 2001, though he published his third autobiography, Life Beyond Measure, in ’08). Poitier’s harshest critics of the late ’60s and ’70s saw him as “an old [uncle] tom dressed up with modern intelligence and reason” (the words are Donald Bogle’s) for his role in making white people feel OK about interracial marriage in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Maybe Poitier’s character, John Prentice, a world renowned doctor who imagines his biracial children would one day be Secretary of State, if not President as his fiancé predicts, was getting the last laugh with President Obama’s inauguration. Or maybe John Prentice’s 2017 analogue is Ben Carson, a medical doctor of considerable repute, proposed as President Trump’s Secretary of…Housing.

Other aspects and texts of Poitier’s stardom, though, resonate more clearly critically in the current moment.

Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston at the Lincoln Memorial during the Civil Rights March on Washington in August, 1963. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston at the Lincoln Memorial during the Civil Rights March on Washington in August, 1963. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Poitier could only become Poitier because of the US traditions of international trade, natal citizenship, and opportunities for immigrants. Poitier is a dual United States-Bahamian citizen. He was born, prematurely, in Florida, where his Bahamian parents had traveled by boat to market their tomato crop. He lived in the Bahamas until his middle teens, but was sent to live in the United States as he neared adulthood. Because of his US birth, he was “legal”—unlike his brothers, one of whom was arrested three times trying to enter the United States and one of whom did immigrate and gain legal status by marrying an American, providing Sidney a place to land in Miami. Still, “legal” or not, young Poitier was Bahamian—obviously so in his accent. He moved to New York City when the “barbed wire” (Poitier’s words in an early star-level national press profile in Newsweek, 1957) of Jim Crow Southern racism became too much, and New York allowed Poitier the American dream of remaking himselfmost pointedly remaking his literal voice. Poitier is an embodied argument for the benefits of an America envisioned as an open, welcoming, cosmopolitan if also profoundly imperfect nation.

And then there is Poitier’s first major role in No Way Out (1950), an underappreciated, under-seen, unconciliatory noir-social problem film mash-up. Poitier plays the first of his many doctors, Luther Brooks a young intern who is integrating the medical staff of a big city hospital. Johnny Biddle, a white man brought in for emergency treatment of a minor leg wound suffered when he robbed a gas station, dies mysteriously under Luther’s care. Johnny’s brother, Ray, a virulent racist, vows revenge. Luther waivers between certainty that his diagnosis of meningitis was correct and self-doubt. Maybe he made a mistake? Maybe his antipathy to Johnny and Ray made him lose his focus? Maybe he’s not qualified? His loving wife, extended family, and black neighbors and co-workers all support Luther, creating a sense of black community rare in Hollywood movies, including many of Poitier’s. Ray hatches a double plot: His friends will attack Luther’s neighborhood, igniting a race war that Ray is confident the whites will win; meanwhile, Ray will hunt and kill Luther.

An African-American man passing for white tips the neighborhood to Ray’s plan, and a group of black World War II veterans trap and attack the plotters. The hospital is inundated by wounded and dead men, white and black. Luther is caught by Ray, who prepares to shoot him in the head, point blank. But Johnny’s ex-wife Edie (who’s been brought into the investigation into what killed Johnny; Luther’s diagnosis was correct) kills the lights. In the darkness Luther is wounded but disarms Ray, who reopens the injury he suffered in the robbery that caused his and Johnny’s paths to cross Luther’s.

Edie argues that Luther should kill Ray—even offers to do it herself: “He’s not even human. He’s a mad dog. You kill mad dogs, dontcha?” Despite his own rage, Luther tends to Ray: “Look—he’s sick, he’s crazy, he’s everything you said, but I can’t kill a man just because he hates me…Because I’ve got to live, too.” Luther fashions a tourniquet from Edie’s black and white polka dotted scarf and Ray’s pistol, which Luther carefully empties. They fasten it to Ray’s upper thigh, just below his groin. Sirens approach. Edie steps away to prepare to let the police in. Ray weeps from an apparent combination of pain, rage, shame, and cognitive dissonance. With a tiny smile suggesting a sadistic satisfaction Luther twists the pistol, tightening the tourniquet, and has the last word: “Don’t cry white boy…you gonna live.” Ray sobs.

In 1950, No Way Out was banned in many places in the United States—and not just the South, but also in places like Chicago, which in a few decades would become Barack Obama’s hometown. To quote Hemingway at his most hardboiled, “isn’t it pretty to think” that if more Americans had seen No Way Out then or since, the United States might have come to the conclusion that Robert Frost’s 1915 poem “Servant to Servant” does (admittedly Frost isn’t addressing race)?

The best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through…

It’s pretty to think so. But it didn’t come to pass.

Nonetheless, Sir Sidney is still here at 90, reminding us with his presence of what an open America can be, what it can have and create. And reminding us with his gritty first big movie role that we have known for a long time the traps we are in—and that if we struggle, collaborate, and chose our paths wisely, we may get out. If we’re lucky.

Happy Birthday, Mr Poitier. Thank you for your gifts.

Featured image credit: Sidney Poitier hugs President Barack Obama after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009. Pete Souza, White House, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Market solutions for improving treatment of farm animals? A review of At the Fork

How are farm animals treated and should one care? For the record, I am not vegetarian and I follow something similar to a paleo diet high in animal proteins and fats. But whether or not one believes animals have rights, libertarian philosopher Loren Lomasky once gave me the most succinct argument for caring about the welfare, at least some, of animals: “You wouldn’t put your cat in a microwave, would you?” But what if certain farm animals had intelligence and awareness levels in the same league as pets we care so much about? It turns out that pigs can master certain basic video game tasks that dogs and even monkey cannot, and they appear to be able to non-verbally communicate with humans or other pigs in much the same way as dogs. Regardless of one’s position on eating meat, one can still care about not intentionally inflicting pain on animals, or care that they are treated in humane ways. John Locke and Immanuel Kant adopted such a perspective.

Producers John Papola and Lisa Versaci, whom I know from their most excellent economics music videos, have produced a feature length documentary, At the Fork. John is a meat eater and Lisa is not, and in this film they visit various farms to see how meat and dairy animals are raised and treated. John narrates the film and at the beginning states, “So while I’m no animal activist, I am a filmmaker and the best way for me to honestly explore this issue is to hit the road and make a film about it.”

At the Fork is beautifully shot with attractive visuals throughout. It is well edited, well-paced, and accompanied with a quality soundtrack including music from executive producer Dave Matthews. A 1970s PBS documentary this is not. The movie also interviews different farmers, ranchers, politicians, business people, and scholars with different perspectives. A Michael Moore style documentary this is not, either.

The film shows a range of farms; from factory farms that keep animals in close quarters, to free range farms. I appreciated that the film never showed anything close to gruesome, but bringing viewers close to the animals let viewers see aspects of how pigs, cows, and chickens for meat, dairy, or eggs live.

While letting viewers reach their own conclusions about animal welfare or rights, the film raises many interesting questions. Toward the beginning, they visit an animal sanctuary where John voluntarily locks himself in the equivalent of a gestation crate that most pig farms keep breeding pigs for the entirety of their pregnancies. These crates are two foot by seven foot cages not big enough for pigs to turn around or fully lie on their side. Breeding pigs have multiple pregnancies per year so can find themselves in one of these crates for 10 months in a year and in slightly larger farrowing crates after giving birth. John asks, “So this is the price that they pay for me to eat my spare ribs?”

After showing some factory farms where pigs spend their lives indoors, the film shows farms with varying degrees of outside access to open pastures. When the film cut to a sweeping visual of pigs almost certainly enjoying themselves, at a free range farm, I started feeling guilty about having no idea about the conditions that these animals are raised. If I would not force a dog to live in a six by twenty inch cage, should I, as a consumer, demand that a pig be raised under such conditions? The film interviews animal scientist Temple Grandin who states, “It would be like living in an airline seat and I’m never allowed to walk in the aisle.”

 

A nice aspect of the movie is its presentation of range of animal husbandry methods. One particular pig farm uses gestation crates only for artificial insemination, then transfers pigs to open pens where pigs can move freely and socialize with each other. Another uses an outside system where pigs go between a barn during inclement weather and pastures otherwise. In another, pigs and four other red meat species forage a forty acre forest. This rancher states, “I think it’s our moral obligation to care about these animals. This whole idea that we have dominion over the animals, well yeah that’s fine, but dominion does not mean domination.”

The film shows how factory farming arose because of economic factors with consumers demanding lower prices. In a market economy, producers seek to supply whatever consumers ask for. But At the Fork also shows how many consumers are now demanding more ethically sourced meat and dairy products. One popular program that one may have observed at Whole Foods and other meat counters is the Global Animal Partnership 5 Step Animal Welfare Rating Program. This private certification program rates farming methods and gives a farm a Step 1 rating if it has “no cages, no crates, and no crowding” all the way a Step 5 if it has animal centered pasture farms.

The system has many parallels to private certification systems I have documented in my research. The London Stock Exchange, for example, was first created to give assurances to the public, and its members adopted as their motto “my word is my bond.” Similarly the New York Stock Exchange provided a Good Housekeeping Stamp of Approval that its listed firms were not “fly by night” operations. Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey states, “For the first time ever higher degrees of animal welfare are being rewarded in the marketplace, and that’s creating incentives for people to innovate and create this race to the top.”

Although chains like Whole Foods are at the forefront of such movements, consumer demand is king at all price points. Temple Grandin states that most consumers dislike the idea of gestation crates when they are told about them, and at this point America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield, is phasing out the use of gestation crates, and McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s are phasing out purchasing pork from producers that use them. These are not exactly expensive food suppliers, but their actions show that greater awareness and demand from consumers can help improve animal welfare.

As an economist who usually spends time reading about financial markets and alcohol, I did not know how I would react to seeing At the Fork. I ended up finding the film very moving.

The film does not present anyone in a bad light, and many, including Temple Grandin, come off in a particularly good light. Grandin has been working for decades advising farms and slaughterhouses on how to be more comfortable and less stressful for animals. Grandin states, “Yes, I ethically justify eating meat, but we’ve got to give animals a good life, we’ve got to give them a life worth living.”

At the Fork is really a visual story that gets people to think about what could be abstract philosophical questions in different ways. It is also presented in an aesthetically attractive way. Even if you don’t change your mind, watch it and enjoy.

Featured image credit: Cattle grazing silhouette by skeeze. Public domain via Pixabay.

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