When Richard Linklater made Slacker, it wasn’t enough for him to define a generation. (Well, part of one.) He had to bounce from character to character, format to format, so his movie would be as blob-like and shifting as a college-town community. When he wanted to convey the experience of infatuation, in Before Sunrise, he again matched form to subject matter. The film, like its fictional couple, was its own little bubble floating through space and time. In Waking Life, Linklater improbably set out to capture consciousness itself: the rippling motion of thought, as one mental image dissolves at the touch of another. His means was a made-in-the-garage rotoscope, which let him produce pictures in an indeterminate zone between live action and animation. Even when he took on a cheerfully commercial project, School of Rock, Linklater tested the material and himself. To make a movie about forming a kids’ band, he put together a kids’ band.
Now, in Fast Food Nation, Linklater has collaborated with journalist and co-writer Eric Schlosser to create a wide-ranging fictionalized exposé of the franchised burger business. It’s about “billions and billions served” as an economy, a set of social relations, a way of life. Or, if you prefer a more direct statement, it’s about eating shit, both figuratively and literally. Either way, Fast Food Nation is explicitly an activist movie, which not only encourages viewers to change their world but directs them to a website that suggests how to get started.
Being a film by Richard Linklater, Fast Food Nation also questions the nature of activist movies.
Before I get to that, though, I’d better tell you about the website. One of the companies behind Fast Food Nation is Participant Productions, an outfit established in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay. Working with like-minded people who are experienced in film and television production, Skoll has been involved with more than half a dozen films about social issues, including An Inconvenient Truth; Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; North Country; Murderball; and Arna’s Children. Some of these are documentaries; others are fiction films based on true stories. But all are solid, responsible movies that urge audiences to learn about a problem and then do something to solve it. I suppose this makes Skoll the Stanley Kramer of the Internet tycoon era. He brings good intentions to the screen, then asks you to visit www.participate.net, where good works are only a click away.
But what actions are available? With participate.net as your portal, you can contact worthwhile organizations like Oxfam. You can add your name to a petition expressing wishful if unexceptionable sentiments. (Who knows? Maybe they’ll influence somebody with a little power.) Or you can go right back to where you started: Visit the website of the film, buy the DVD, watch the hilarious flash videos inspired by the movie you just watched! Now that your consciousness has been raised, you might also want to take advantage of the site’s blog feature, which lets you read your own opinions and agree with yourself. For all the good that Participant is doing–and I think the contribution has been substantial–the company also has reproduced the traits of self-congratulation and self-validation that weighed down Stanley Kramer’s cinema, politically and artistically. You see the problem on the website, and you see it in many of the films, which want to go crusading but never venture beyond a very homey aesthetic territory.
I can’t say that Fast Food Nation overcomes these problems, but thanks to Linklater it succeeds in confronting them.
Fast Food Nation does its work by connecting three sets of characters, each of which is summed up in a single figure. The purveyors of fast food are represented by a marketing executive with the bland, good-guy name of Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear). His fabulously successful new product for Mickey’s Burgers–a slab of ground beef slathered with the name Big One–is in danger of failing, now that some meddlesome college students have discovered that the meat contains a surprisingly high concentration of manure. So the home office sends Don to Cody, Colorado, to check on the supplier and make sure everything’s OK.