Beckie’s pick for me: King Corn (doc. 2007) directed by Aaron Woolf
My pick for Beckie: Fish Tank (2009) directed by Andrea Arnold
At first it seems these two films are worlds apart, but if you think about them for very long, you realize they’re both about the same thing: abuse, power, corruption, deception and the struggle for something better in life. I’m struck by the way both of these films – one a documentary set largely in Iowa, the other a fictional narrative set in a British housing project – show us that there’s something wrong with the world, something that desperately needs fixing, and right now, not later.
I told Beckie that while I hadn’t seen King Corn, I had seen several fairly recent documentaries about food and the problems resulting from the typical Western diet, films such as Super Size Me, Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, and others. I wasn’t expecting to learn that much from King Corn and in some ways I didn’t, but I found the film’s focus a bit different from the others I’d seen.
King Corn follows Curt and Ian, two guys from Boston who realize that the modern Western diet is killing us, sooner rather than later if we don’t do anything about it. These guys decide to move to a small Iowa town, plant an acre of corn, and see where it goes. Along the way they encounter many revelations about how the Western diet has changed in the last 40 years and how it affects all of us. This isn’t one of those films showing outraged people challenging the government over the abuses of current agricultural practices and their consequences and it’s not really even a call to action. It’s just two guys showing how the process works for good or bad (and it’s mostly bad).
I shared this with Beckie and she pretty much agreed that Curt and Ian are quietly trying to tell their story in as simple a manner as possible. The farmers they meet who are involved in producing insane amounts of corn (all subsidized by the government) know what they’re doing. They don’t like it, but what can they do? Even when the guys meet former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz – one of the prime movers in how we got into this mess – there’s no real confrontation. But neither is there any real accountability. “I don’t see much room for improvement,” Butz states. “We feed ourselves very cheaply.” Butz is proud of the fact that Americans spend less of our incomes on food than any generation in history. He sees no problem. The very fact that Curt and Ian don’t challenge Butz makes the film more powerful than shouting and protests on street corners and in front of government buildings.
I also shared with Beckie how the leisurely pace of the film, combined with several moments of levity, show us that this is a quiet grassroots battle. Yet the film also questions whether this can even be considered a battle with so many people blindly accepting the Western diet and consuming record-breaking quantities of high fructose corn syrup (as well as chemicals, etc.) in just about everything we eat and drink. King Corn is a quiet little movie that packs quite a punch.
Fish Tank packs a different punch, but I was totally unprepared for Beckie’s reaction to it. You can read more about the film in a post I wrote for the Criterion Blogathon last year, but the basic plot is this: Mia (Katie Jarvis, above) is a 15-year-old girl who longs to escape from the housing project she and her mother (Kierston Wareing, below) and little sister (Rebecca Griffiths) live in. Mia hopes to do this by a career in hip-hop dancing.
Mia’s living conditions are atrocious. Her little sister is a foul-mouthed, precocious kid and her welfare mom brings an endless parade of men in and out of their apartment. Watching Fish Tank is like watching the worst of reality TV, but without the caricatures and over-the-top antics you normally see on those shows. You get the feeling that this is really happening to Mia and thousands of others. Things get a little better when Mom’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender, below right) shows up, but it also creates problems, big ones. Fish Tank contains two scenes that I will never forget, both of them enormously disturbing, but essential to the film. You will be terrified and disgusted watching them, but you must watch them in order to understand this world.
What stunned me as much as these two scenes (perhaps more) was Beckie’s response to the film. “This film is what my life was like growing up,” she said. I won’t go into her personal story, but she said that she recognized much of what she saw in Fish Tank because she’d lived through it. I told her that I’d had no idea, that I wouldn’t have picked the film had I thought it would bring back such personal memories. But she said she was glad I’d picked it. If indeed Beckie is a real-life Mia, if her story is anything like Mia’s, something amazing happened to take her from where she was to where she is now. I do not mean this to embarrass Beckie in any way, but to show that film can often not only reflect our own lives, but also impact us in ways we never expected.
Wow… I think that’s enough for this time. We’ve got two more installments to go, so stay tuned.