[22 January 2009]
One of William S. Burroughs’ more famous quotes concerns the meaning of the title for Naked Lunch. No matter that he was probably just winding up the interviewer, Burroughs still captured a shiver of dread when he explained it as being “the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” The line may not be appropriate for the entire opus, particularly when one is talking about Mugwumps, but it’s nevertheless a feeling that everyone is familiar with. It’s that second in time when the scales fall off and you see the world—or, more often, a particular corner of it—in a completely new way, as though for the first time.
Nicholas Geyrhalter’s film Our Daily Bread is a 21st century naked lunch in the true sense of what Burroughs meant, not a scattershot impressionistic sensory assault, but an eye-opener that can actually change the way one views the world. At least part of it.
Although it had a brief theatrical run after showing at the 2006 New York Film Festival, Our Daily Bread is only now hitting DVD, and it’s long overdue. Composed with uncommon wisdom and vision, the film is a wordless tone poem about food and how it is produced for human consumption. From slaughterhouses to greenhouses, factory floors to farm fields, Geyrhalter just sets up his camera—there are intentionally no establishing shots, but it seems clear that much of the film was shot in Germany—and watches as the animals and plants that make up our diet are grown, fed, cared for, harvested, and processed, all with a quiet and routine efficiency that would have made Henry Ford proud.
Composed alternately of wide static shots that capture the immensity of the human food production machine and long tracking shots that show its daily humdrum routine, the film treats all its subjects with the same dispassionate gaze. Although there is no vocal editorializing, and generally no particular viewpoint in the camera’s cool gaze, the mood continually shifts towards the dystopic. Workers shuffle on their knees through a field of lettuce, bagging each head in plastic as a tractor nudges their protective overhang foreword, like an alien overlord reminding its human slaves of their quota. An endless line of fish on a conveyer belt are sawed open and gutted by machine with a Hindu god-like panoply of jabbing, tooled arms. Vast acreages of plants under plastic roofing are sluiced with chemicals apparently so dangerous that their human attendants must wear spacesuit-style masks and suits.
Then there are the slaughterhouses.
Many works on the modern food industry focus on the particularly stomach-churning realities endemic to the manufacturing of meat for human consumption, as a means of arguing against its damaging centrality to the modern diet. But by treating all methods of food production in the same manner, Geyrhalter avoids presenting any particular agenda. It is that steady point of view, focusing as much on the quotidian as the horrific, that actually makes these sections of the film so heartrending.
He shoots a woman just walking through a factory-sized barn holding untold thousands of crowded, squawking chickens in the same way that he does a river of fuzzy, tiny yellow chicks being helplessly sped along a conveyor belt towards some unknown end; the even-handed distance of Geyrhalter’s camera actually makes scenes like the latter even more emotional than they might normally have been. By the time we are shown cows shunted one at a time into a giant rotating metal canister where they are shot in the head with a cattlegun and unceremoniously dumped out the side, it’s all one can do not to break down in tears.
Somewhere in the world there of course remain family farms, where small numbers of people produce grains and dairy products for incremental profits. But even those who try to “eat local” are not, by and large, fed by such people. Our sustenance comes from the Matrix-like food factories shown in Geyrhalter’s film, where plants are produced in space station-sterile surroundings and living things are gruesomely disassembled like scrap metal. People could use the film as an argument against this way of doing things, pointing out its throbbingly inhumane mechanization as the sort of thing that’s damaging to the very human soul, much less the planet. That may be Geyrhalter’s point of view, as well. But his film bravely doesn’t betray the maker’s intent.
Whatever the intent, you do feel depleted by the end of this beautiful gut-punch of a film, but wiser, at least. Whatever else one might think about Our Daily Bread, after viewing it becomes impossible for anybody to say they don’t have a very good idea of what exactly is on the other end of the fork.