“I am a good liberal hypocrite. I eat meat, but only abstract meat… I absolutely cannot eat anything that reminds me directly of an animal — chicken should be abstract. Chicken to me is McNuggets.” –Slavoj Žižek
Americans’ conflicted relationship with the industry standard for sourcing their animal protein immediately brings to mind several zany quotes by Slavoj Žižek. The above is just one of my faves. However, over and above supplying the West’s favorite socialist philosopher-comedian with fodder for punchy criticism, this relationship also serves as one of the main crossroads where documentary filmmaking and activism meet. This fertile intersection tends to cater toward the latter, the factory-farming business’ abundance of excruciating and now common images of animal suffering and human callousness being perfectly suited for filmed pamphlets about the injustice of our collective appetite.
Director Graham Meriwether breaks his narrative of American meat production into three roughly equal segments, focusing on the way things are normally done now (confinement farms and borderline animal cruelty), the way some folks are doing things on a smaller scale, and, finally, how we can bring about a society where the second option is the most popular. Meriwether and the people he’s chosen to interview lay out their argument fairly simply. It will take a lot of work and a lot of land to convert American agriculture into a grass-based system. It will also take a lot of people.
The film proposes that in order to make small, grass-based farms the norm for food production, roughly four million Americans will have to start farming the old-fashioned way. Joel Salatin, an outspoken proponent of the local food movement and frequent contributor to documentaries like this one, is convinced that people would gladly give up their workaday jobs and harried lives in the city for a chance to get their hands dirty working the land to provide for themselves and their families. One might balk at Salatin’s suggestion that people will be happy doing intensive outdoor manual labor for a fraction of what they earn aiding in the ongoing destruction of natural resources, but he says these things with such phlegmatic, Gentleman Farmer practicality that it doesn’t seem like such a weird concept. Everyone involved with the film displays an understanding that renorming the West’s agriculture into grass-based ethical farming is possible, if very improbable, and how they make their case is relatively devoid of sensationalism.
It is extraordinarily undemanding to react with a crystalline, rarefied cynicism to any sincere attempt to alter the course of human progress, and American Meat will definitely fall victim to this trollish impulse on the part of smarties who think they’ve got everything figured out. However, unlike some of the more notable brow-beating documentaries that have preceded it, Meriwether’s film does not promise its audience that changing the kind of milk we drink will cure cancer, or that letting chickens freely range will prevent people like director Jason Russell from completely losing their shit. Unfortunately, near the end of the film, Chipotle Mexican Grill is cast as a modern hero of sustainable meat production. While it’s true that the chain of restaurants does more than its peers to source their ingredients locally, the segment in which it’s featured feels more like advertising than awareness.
American Meat lacks the Tiresian qualities of some of the more dire movies about industrialized food production, but it more than makes up for it by not being so self-righteous about everything all the time. There seem to be two major reactions to the news that our conventional methods of farming are creating a monumental amount of toxic waste: You could wash your hands, lament the stupidity of (other) human beings, and wait for the apocalypse to finally go down, the whole time shaming those around you for being selfish; or, like the film Carbon Nation, you could stress how easy it will be to change over to a green economy and how poverty will be eradicated with just a little positivity and government spending. American Meat somehow transcends this dichotomy. Yeah, it’s crappy the way we do things. We can change them, but it’s going to take a lot of work. And it probably won’t make a ton of economic sense to begin with. I just wish a certain chain burrito place had taken more of a backseat in this production.