Can a Movie Change Our Dinner?

Last night I settled into a seat at the Angelika Film Forum in SoHo alongside celebrities like Robin Quivers (shockjock Howard Stern's longterm co-host and a new vegan), actress Kirsten Dunst, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, and designer Zac Posen for a screening of Food Inc., the new film set to open from coast to coast this week and galvanize American audiences with the horrors and hopes of the way we eat.

Students from the nearby French Culinary Institute served organic popcorn and artisanal pretzel sticks. My friend Rachel brought some spicy beef jerky made in her Brooklyn apartment with grassfed meat that was processed at Meatpacking District institution Pat La Frieda.

While interested eaters won't find too much new material in this film--it builds on characters and themes explored in Supersize Me, The True Cost of Food, Fast Food Nation, and Neil Young's indie flick Greendale--Food Inc. may be the food expose to date that uses the magic of movies to its greatest effect. During the opening credits, a shopping-cart cam strolls supermarket aisles to a horror film score. A balletic montage of junk food ads inspired anxious audience laughter. Occasional computer simulated infographics were cheesy, but effective.

I've seen plenty of grainy, PETA-produced hidden-camera exposés of factory farms and slaughterhouses, but Food Inc.'s naked high-resolution clarity is harder to dismiss. At one of the largest hamburger making plants in the world, a tight shot on one worker slowly pulls out until the worker is a spec in a endless metallic sea of meat-extruding tubes. We gasped in disbelief.

"Does for the supermarket what 'Jaws' did for the beach," is how Variety summed it up. But did Jaws make people safer swimmers or raise respect for beach ecology? And do we want people to be so frightened of supermarkets that they run to farmers markets or food coops or to plant gardens? It's still not clear to me what role film can play in this food revolution, whether this film is a turning point or another welcome option for people looking for the inspiration and argument to change their lives.

In the vein of An Inconvenient Truth, the film was short on solutions. "Problems make better drama," a film buff explained to me. But I was particularly moved by the portrayal of Barbara Kowalcyk's transformation into a food safety activist after her two-year old son died from eating an E. coli-tainted hamburger. And I smiled at grassfarmer Joel Salatin's superman-like attitude and physique, his unyielding confidence that farms can be clean and healthy and ecologically sound, and still nourish rural economies and feed the world.

Instead of clips of hungry, rioting Indians, Africans, and Haitians, I would have welcomed scenes of innovative farmers around the world who are using the science of ecology and marketing and processing to feed themselves and make some money. Or a short demo on cooking quick, healthy meals, or planting a container garden. When audiences agree they have been poisoned, where will they turn for sustenance? (Perhaps fodder for a sequel.)

"It's no accident," narrator Michael Pollan declares in one of the film's many insightful transitions. We--farmers, food scientists, politicians, agribusiness executives and eaters--have created this dysfunctional food system, or at least buoyed it with our mouths and stomachs. And we can undo it as well.