'Food Inc.' Offers Sobering, Ground-Level View of the Food Industry

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The best, and only, joke in Food Inc. (Magnolia) comes in its opening credits, which are incorporated into cheery, colorful faux supermarket packaging. “Directed by Robert Kenner” is slapped across a plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray of steaks. The punchline is, of course, that these deliberately innocuous household products are the end result of the mammoth, heavily consolidated industry that Kenner’s documentary explores. And Food Inc. itself has more in common with that packaging than you might think. Rather than pitching a Michael Moore rabble-rousing fit, the filmmaker takes a poised, polished approach, complete with cutesy title cards, to detailing the insidious degree to which a handful of corporations control almost every morsel that goes in our mouths.

Just about anyone with a television has flinched through a news-magazine segment on shocking conditions in a slaughterhouse. The same can be said, at this point, for accounts of the waste and unsustainability of much modern agriculture, the increasing dangers of food contamination, ad nauseam. In fact, almost nothing in Food Inc. is news, exactly. What Kenner, a TV doc veteran, does well here is synthesize the various strands of worrisome fact about industrial food production and corporate incursion into a flabbergasting, quick-moving account of a nation faced with endless options for dinner, but with little more room to roam outside the corporate food chain than feed-lot cattle.

The result is sobering, though not an utter bummer. For example, one segment illustrates that Monsanto essentially owns all the soybeans grown in the United States—and the people that grow them—but it does so through the stories of a pair of personable farmers being hounded out of business by the powerful multinational. Bringing huge dilemmas down to the level of the individual proves effective throughout, whether Kenner spends time with a poor family who choose fast food over fresh produce because the fast food is cheaper or whether he focuses on Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of organic dairy Stoneyfield Farm, who believes that big business can provide good eating options. Charismatic organic farmer Joel Salatin provides hope and inspiration, and food gurus Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser do voice-of-reason duty, but nothing anyone says is more compelling than the aerial shots of endless feed lots and corn fields, a haunting representation of how titanic industrial food has grown.

Objectified (Plexifilm) centers on a topic nearly as omnipresent as food. Reach out your hand and touch the man-made object nearest you. Whether it’s a cup, a laptop, or a park bench, someone somewhere put a lot of thought into exactly what form it would take and how it would look. Director Gary Huswit follows up his 2007 debut Helvetica, a doc on the famous modernist font, with a documentary about the art and implications of contemporary industrial design.

Not unlike Helvetica, Objectified is likely to make you want to immediately begin throwing out all your cheap, ugly stuff. Not only are the designs showcased beautiful and cool—from a minimalist open-face CD player to the elegant metal innards of a MacBook Air—but the white-walled offices of the many top-drawer designers interviewed and the mechanized assembly lines where their creations are mass-produced are as elegant and interesting as any spaces you’ll spend time in this week. But as the designers try to address everything from inspiration to sustainability, Objectified’s austere organization and pacing show poorly; without even a history lesson, it lacks the modest narrative thrust that Helvetica enjoyed. Designer Karim Rashid lends a bit of Kanye-esque flash to things, but only a bit. For design nerds only.

Thrust isn’t an issue for Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry (IndiePix). Erich Weiss’ film about legendary tattoo artist Sailor Jerry is one of those docs that fairly wriggles with rude energy, as irascible characters spin tall tales over a flashy mix of vintage images and crazed graphics, here all laid over relentless ukulele music. Sailor Jerry is now a burgeoning brand, with retro tattoo flash, a fashion component, and its own signature rum, but back before World War II, Sailor Jerry was just a nickname for a swabbie named Norman Collins who took up tattooing back when visible ink was something that made people cross the street. Setting up in Honolulu’s Chinatown, Collins made a living catering to the hordes of seamen in port to get “stewed, screwed, and tattooed,” and in the process helped transform Western tattooing into a genuine artform.

Collins died in 1973, and thus appears only in stills, excerpts from a few letters, and one brief radio recording, but his presence couldn’t be more vivid. Through interviews with Collins cohorts and peers such as Eddie Funk, Don Ed Hardy, Michael Malone, Zeke Owens, and Lyle Tuttle, Weiss reanimates his subject, and everyone involved has got great stories, even if they have nothing to do with Collins himself. Indeed, Hori Smoku is just as valuable as a window into the forgotten world of tattooing as taboo and the legalized debauchery of wartime Honolulu as it is for biographical purposes. Fascinating and tons of fun, even for the uninked.

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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