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03/31/2010

Movie Review: The Animals Film-–the vegan documentary I’ve been looking for!   »

I realized 30 seconds into The Animals Film that this was the “vegan documentary” I’d sought ever since we came up with the idea of “vegan movie reviews” a few months back. Investigative documentaries like Food, Inc. were informative but left me cold. Likewise, I thought Meat was a masterpiece, but it deals solely with the issue of meat production. None of them took a global view of the relationship between humans and other species. Turns out the movie I kept waiting for someone to make came out nearly 30 years ago. 

From what I can tell, The Animals Film caused quite a stir in its native England upon release, mostly due to a unique opportunity to be aired on the then-fledgling Channel 4. The movie apparently also had a large impact in the Swedish Parliament, which revised a lot of its policies regarding animals following a screening of the film. The controversy is hardly surprising: the film opens with historical footage of animals being abused, molested, exploited for entertainment, brutalized, pulverized, electrocuted,* and generally destroyed by humans. As if that wasn’t enough, The Animals Film sets this sequence to the Talking Heads’ “Mind,” with its increasingly desperate plea for “something to change your mind,” extremely effectively. I thought this sequence was so moving—similar to what I imagine Errol Morris would do with the topic—that I watched it multiple times. The Animals Film continues on to critically examine the exploitation of animals by humans, be it in the form of meat production, hunting, entertainment, laboratory testing, or (the one that made me shudder the most) military testing.  

The Animals Film makes a very important point that I actually feel is often lost among the animal rights/vegan discourse. I’ve had a lot of people ask me why I’m vegan, given that I’m not really an “animal person.” I’d point to the inevitable health and environmental reasons, but there was always another reason that I couldn’t fully express. Movies like The Animals Film and Au hasard Balthazar helped me explain—it’s the human reason. When humans inflict suffering on other sentient species, what does that say about us? The film’s tagline, “It’s not about them, it’s about us,” says it all. The U.S. government tied up animals on boats during the Operation Crossroads nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, just to “test” the effects of atomic bombs on biological creatures? After the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Really? Let me go ahead and give you the results of that test: NOT GOOD. How do we expect to eradicate human suffering when our way of life is so needlessly bound up in inflicting suffering? To those of you thinking, “but we have developed so many medicines because of animal testing,” The Animals Film makes an excellent point—penicillin kills guinea pigs! Fortunately Fleming and Florey never tested it on guinea pigs, or we may have never tried it on humans! Also, side note—why test LSD on monkeys? 

This is how I logically found my way to veganism without being an animal-lover. I grew tired of lying to myself about what needlessly killing animals for food told me about me. Not to sound totally pretentious and condescending (or, for that matter, like a damn hippie), but in my mind, learning to honestly treat other species with respect is the next logical step toward ensuring equality among humans. 

Seriously, I consider The Animals Film mandatory viewing for not only vegans, animal-lovers and the like, but for everyone. If I ever have the opportunity to teach that hypothetical “Animals in Film” syllabus knocking around in my head, The Animals Film would be the first movie I’d show. Actually, maybe it would be the last. I’m not sure what else I’d need to screen after this one.  

*Seriously, Edison? You filmed yourself electrocuting an elephant? Electricity has to annoy me now?

When he’s not slowly burning out his projector bulb, Zach Cincotta is an entertainment and business attorney representing awesome bands, record labels, and other small businesses. His previous movie reviews for Vegansaurus can be found here, you can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.

02/25/2010

Movie review: Avatar! (and the problem with PETA’s love of it)  »

PETA awarded director James Cameron their 2010 Proggy Award for Outstanding Feature Film. Huh? Is that an actual award? Working off of PETA’s recommendation, I went to see it. I disliked this movie for several reasons, but let’s overlook the remarkable racism and sexism for now and deal solely with the rationale behind PETA’s commendation. First, PETA praises Avatar because the CGI visuals required no animals to be used in making the film. While I doubt Cameron would have thought twice about using animals if it made sense for his film, whatever, fine; I’m right there with you there, PETA.

The organization goes on to contend that Avatar's central themes are the interconnectivity of nature, and that all animals should be “treated with kindness, respect, and dignity.” So, let’s discuss Avatar’s animal themes. When the soldier dude in the blue-people suit first goes into the woods and meets the real blue lady, they fight a pack of threatening animals and end up killing at least one. She chides him for being all macho and happy that they fought off the animals, claiming that any animal death is a travesty and an affront to nature. Fair enough. I’m still with you, PETA.

THEN THEY GO HUNTING. Wha? The blue lady teaches the blue dude how to be an official Space Smurf, which apparently includes honing your hunting skills. They do thank nature for the bounty and request forgiveness from the spirit of the animal. Is that enough? Would you eat beef if Tyson first thanked “Mother Nature” and requested forgiveness from the cow?

But what really confused me about PETA’s endorsement is that by rationalizing hunting through the approval of an omniscient “Mother Nature,” Avatar tacitly approves of the idea that it is “natural” to eat meat. The nature argument goes something like this: Since humans are the smartest animals, since we sit atop the food chain, since we have done so since the beginning of time (and apparently even do so on other planets, despite Avatar’s insistence that Pandora has loads of very tasty fruit), nature provides a mandate to hunt and eat animals. Nature wouldn’t provide steak if we weren’t supposed to eat it with impunity. It’s unfortunate that an animal has to die in the process, but it’s nature’s fault, not ours.

What’s my problem with the nature argument? Well, it turns out humans created the concepts of “nature” and the “food chain.” Every animal that dies to feed humans does so not because it is the “way of nature” but because of a decision by humans. We, not some nebulous natural force, make these decisions and determine how to view the world around us, so we must take responsibility for our actions.

So while I appreciate Avatar’s message of respect between all life and the planet, the idea that Avatar’s mother tree oversees all of nature and approves of its inhabitants eating animals seems to fly in the face of that respect. Here on Earth, there are no universal truths emanating from “Mother Nature” or anywhere else dictating that humans do anything, much less eat animals. Rather, we’re in charge and must collectively make decisions that ensure “kindness, respect, and dignity” toward all people, animals and the planet, even if it means changing practices that are allegedly “natural.” How to equitably reach such an outcome is a wholly separate discussion, but I would suggest hunting an animal for any reason doesn’t exactly respect its dignity.

I’m really mystified why PETA would laud this movie—the last thing animals and vegans need is a global blockbuster suggesting that eating meat is “natural.” And I think Avatar would have done just fine without PETA’s dubious recommendation. Oh, and by the way, James Cameron actually used animals when filming Avatar. Whoops! Good going, PETA!

C’mon The Hurt Locker! Sweep the Oscars!

When he’s not slowly burning out his projector bulb, Zach Cincotta is an entertainment and business attorney representing awesome bands, record labels, and other small businesses. His previous movie reviews for Vegansaurus can be found here, you can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.

01/22/2010

Movie review: Meat, the thinking person’s slaughterhouse documentary  »

This is a pretty obscure film, but I’ve LOVED Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries* ever since I saw Welfare in law school. So when I learned he once pointed his camera at the inner workings of a slaughterhouse and meatpacking facility in 1970s Massachusetts, I knew I had to watch it. Not only does Wiseman show cattle and lambs rounded up, fed, slaughtered, and turned into meat products, but we also see footage of animal auctions, the rather mundane administration of the company, labor meetings, and marketing discussions—Meat made me feel like I was a part of every aspect of a meatpacking company.

Wiseman refuses to provide narration, thereby forcing the viewer to take what they will from Meat. Thus, the movie plays like a seemingly unbiased, unemotional exposé of an industry typically unexposed to the vast majority of the country. The veil between animal and meat product is the disconnect animal rights activists fight against on a daily basis—despite what the dairy industry would have you believe, I’m pretty sure none of their cows in California are happy. In lifting the veil, Meat felt to me like a precursor to PETA videos. But while that horrific footage will never find their way into a high school classroom or aired on television due to their overtly politicized message, Wiseman presents Meat so evenhandedly that one could actually imagine such market penetration, much to the meat industry’s dismay.

But oh dear god; watching Meat is no less unsettling. Trust me when I say Wiseman doesn’t pull any punches. I’m stating the obvious, but the slaughterhouse scenes are beyond ghastly. I can’t describe my revulsion at watching a cow’s skin, intestines and head being ripped from its body. I’m bracing myself for the inevitable nightmares; the film’s visceral impact is crushing.

I also have to admit feeling really bad for the employees on the slaughterhouse floor, dismembering cows for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Can you imagine the psychic trauma of that job? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre analogized slaughterhouse workers to a nation besieged by bloody images from Vietnam for very, very good reason. You might think “Well, they should just get another job,” but keep in mind that it’s rarely a seamless process to transfer jobs, particularly in this job market, particularly in certain parts of the country and especially for the undereducated. Anyhow, in addition to screaming “WHY ARE THEY CUTTING UP THAT VERY CUTE LAMB?” Meat also made me ponder the abusive psychological and economic power dynamic involved in the production of every steak.

Put it this way: if PETA videos are the porno of animal abuse videos, designed to grab the viewer’s attention and heighten their emotions, Meat is the calm, investigative PBS special. This is the thinking person’s slaughterhouse documentary—there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write—best for educating your friends and family about the reality of meat production and animal commodification. In this respect, I thought Meat was an utterly engrossing masterpiece. Alternately, in the sense that Meat required me to watch a lot of grisly, gruesome footage of harmless creatures being killed and dismembered like a real-life horror movie, I really hated it.

Damn. Someone owes me some vegan booze for making it through this one! I promise my next installment will be more upbeat! [Ed note: If you would like to watch Meat, Jonas reports having seen a copy at Lost Weekend Video.]

*Wiseman’s fantastic La Danse: Paris Opera Ballet is currently playing at the Roxie. Don’t miss it!

Zach Cincotta is a vegan movie obsessive who, along with his vegan brother, discusses his thoughts on every movie he watches at Le Souvenir d’un avenir. When he’s not slowly burning out his projector bulb, Zach is an entertainment and business attorney representing awesome bands, record labels, and other small businesses. His previous movie reviews for Vegansaurus can be found here, you can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here. Phew.

01/06/2010

Movie review: Au hasard Balthazar (it’s about a French donkey, you’re gonna love it!)  »

It may sound strange, but despite being a vegan, I’ve never been much of an animal person. Other than perhaps an ex-girlfriend’s cats, I’ve never felt much of a connection to any particular animal. This is probably because we never had pets growing up; my father would always count myself and my four brothers and sisters and then contend that we already had enough pets.

As a result, I fit in with the most recent wave of herbivores, those in the past decade who didn’t find their way to a veggie diet due to animal rights concerns necessarily, but rather more from a health and environmental perspective. Along with my vegan brother yammering on about the ridiculously terrible effects of animal products on the human body, the U.N. report on global warming from November 2006 probably had a bigger impact on my decision to take the vegan plunge than any notion of animal compassion. This is not to say that I went around punching puppies; I’m just saying I hadn’t thought a whole lot about animal rights.

With this background I watched Au hasard Balthazar by famed French New Wave director Robert Bresson. Known in movie nerd circles as “the existential donkey movie,” it’s the story of a French donkey named Balthazar. Yup, that’s right, the film stars an actual, non-anthropomorphized donkey. Whom I grew to love. During the movie, all manner of humans wander in and out of Balthazar’s life, and they all share one overriding characteristic: they suck. Hard. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but no human in the film has a serious character flawed (or at least what was considered flawed in the ’60s), be it thievery, alcoholism, prostitution, emotionless capitalism, or the rampant use of religion as a means to exploitative personal gain. And they all treat the quiet Balthazar, he of lovable eyes and calm demeanor, like shit. The movie ends with a striking, saintly and tear-inducing finale for our donkey protagonist.*

While it’s hard not to consider Balthazar a representation of Jesus, as no doubt did the devoutly Catholic Bresson, I was more interested in the movie’s message about the relationship between animals and humans than religion. Au hasard Balthazar reminded me a lot of Pythagoras’ quote about the importance of all living creatures to the quest for peace. “As long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap the joy of love.” Despite my initial disinterest in animals, this thought always resonated with me. How can we as a society expect to develop compassion for the entire human race when we exploit, abuse and snuff out some of the most defenseless lives among us just to eat dinner? Suffering is suffering. It may not have been a cause of my becoming vegan, but the desire to cause the least amount of suffering that I can in this world ensures that I’m gonna take veganism to the grave.

I really enjoyed the film’s refusal to beat you over the head with any particular message. I quickly tire of films, particularly those with an activist message, that manipulate my emotions, even if I agree with that message. I’ve read that Bresson would do like 50 takes of each scene, until the actors delivered the lines completely emotionlessly. To be sure, this is a slow and ponderous film, and probably not for everyone. Regardless, Au hasard Balthazar challenged me to consider the delicate balance between humans and all other living creatures. No, it doesn’t deliver the same punch in the gut as a PETA slaughterhouse movie, thus it’s probably not going to capture the hearts and minds of omnivores. That said, I found myself, someone who previously paid little attention to the animal side of veganism, accepting moral advice from a lowly donkey, and it’s hard not to respect the life of something you consider a moral beacon.

Yes, I know the issue of the actual donkey’s treatment in the name of making this movie is somewhat controversial, but I’d like to reserve the discussion of the treatment of animals in art for a later film review. Entering that discussion here would miss the point that Au hasard Balthazar is simply one of the most compassionate movies about the life of an animal that I have ever seen. I’ve never wanted to hug a donkey so much in my entire life.

*As much as I want to discuss the ending in more detail, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I also don’t want my tears to short out my laptop. Shut up! He’s a damn cute donkey! Here, see? Cute donkey.

Zach Cincotta is a vegan movie obsessive who, along with his vegan brother, discusses his thoughts on every movie he watches at Le Souvenir d’un avenir. When he’s not slowly burning out his projector bulb, Zach is an entertainment and business attorney representing awesome bands, record labels, and other small businesses. His first movie review for Vegansaurus can be found here, you can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here. Phew.

12/08/2009

Movie review: The Future of Food  »

About 10 minutes into The Future of Food I decided I would never eat food ever again. Never. Ever. Seriously, starving to death actually seemed like a better idea! At least if I starved, I wouldn’t grow a third arm or leg or ass cheek as a result of eating pesticide-covered food!

All right, so I’ve been vegan for right at a year now. Seriously, best decision I’ve ever made. Being a movie obsessive, I watched The Future of Food on Hulu* because, well, it was about food, and I’m fascinated by food and our food policies. I also heard that The Future of Food mines a lot of the same material as the more recently released Food, Inc., but without the head-scratchingly ridiculous hypocrisy inherent in the latter movie’s stance on animals. Sorry dude, ripping on the food industry’s treatment of cows and chickens only to lionize a farmer who “ethically” slits open a chicken’s throat onscreen doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot sense to me. Wisely, The Future of Food sticks to vegetable production.

Director Mrs. Jerry Garcia (no, really, she’s Garcia’s widow) spends the bulk of the movie shedding light on the use of pesticides in crop production; seed patenting and the resulting lawsuits; the disturbing, God-like science behind GMO foods; the need for labeling GMO foods; the messed up U.S. policy and regulation surrounding GMO foods and resulting global fall out from those policies; the plight of American farmers; and the food industry’s dominance of allegedly independent academic research.

Whew. Solid. No doubt. I’m guessing many of you are equally concered with some if not all of the issues raised in this movie.

The problem is that—aside from the fact that Garcia presents everything with all the subtlety of an 1880s fire-and-brimstone preacher delivering his sermon to the choir—The Future of Food's breadth was also its undoing for me. Watching this movie is kinda like going to a protest action. It's always the same thing—a wide coalition of progressives who, no doubt with their hearts in the right place, can't seem to focus. Legalize marijuana. Ecological policy reform. Free Mumia Abu-Jubal and Leonard Peltier. Down with capitalism. In theory, I agree with each of these concepts, but, dude, I thought I was attending an antiwar protest. It may seem harmless, and we should of course laud diversity and inclusiveness of opinions. But the problem is that any single message is diluted under the weight of all of them. In the aggregate, the messages become a lot of static in the background of the life of the average person and easy for the haters to marginalize the message: “Just those crazy progressives at it again.”

Focus, people! I can just hear my high school English teacher telling me to pick a theme and go with it. It takes Garcia about 80 of the movie’s 88 minutes to come upon what I think is her message: we should all eat organic food grown and raised locally. While I don’t really understand how this message is a solution to some of the concerns she lays out, particularly the issue of Monsanto patenting all of the available seeds, hey, it’s hard to disagree with her—if, in fact, organic farms are commercially viable and sustainable, a fact presented as a given in this film. Of course, I’m still too scared to eat anything ever again, so none of this particularly matters.

And dammit, don’t get me started on the treacly final line of this movie. “It’s up to you”? What? Shut the hell up, hippie lady. Pssst… the next generation is fairly jaded when it comes to overblown melodrama like this. How is it that you’ve made me, someone who ostensibly agrees with your entire message, hate your movie with one line? Ugh. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who winces at schmaltz like this, right?

Oh well. I know it’s not what Garcia was going for, but I’m still waiting for someone with a sense of humor to make the truly great pro-vegan documentary. Is I’m Vegan going to cut it, or do we need more firepower? What’s next on your plate, Michael Moore? Hey Jonathan Safran Foer, you busy? Wanna go to film school?


*I loved that my viewing of this film was brought to me with limited commercial interruption by Dole.

Zach Cincotta is a vegan movie obsessive who, along with his vegan brother, discusses his thoughts on every movie he watches at Le Souvenir d’un avenir. When he’s not slowly burning out his projector bulb, Zach is an entertainment and business attorney representing awesome bands, record labels and other small businesses. You can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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