The long take: Veggie tales

Can we turn a blind eye to films that show the reality of eating animals, or is meat still murder?

Gunda (2020)

Can a film shock you into changing your diet? The UN says that current Western consumption of animal products is unsustainable but, according to a recent survey, 86 per cent of adults in the UK, many of whom have read those headlines, still eat meat and dairy.

Perhaps a glimpse of the slaughterhouse could change our minds, though filmmakers have been showing us that for a century. When Sergei Eisenstein cut from an army attacking workers to the killing of a bull in his debut film Strike (1925), he was comparing the state’s violent suppression of citizens to the execution of livestock. The underclass are treated like cattle. Even if you read it the other way around, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. (When Francis Ford Coppola made a tribute to this scene in the climax of Apocalypse Now, 1979, he incurred the wrath of the American Humane Association.) More to the point, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Parisian city symphony Rien que les heures (1926) sprang a grim surprise on carnivores when a shot of a plate of meat dissolved to show an abattoir scene. Via a double-exposure, Cavalcanti exposed the unpalatable source of a steak supper.

Both examples come from left-wing art cinema with a message of class consciousness. Mainstream cinema of the period was less interested in promoting that agenda, but happily channelled audiences’ sentimental attachment to fluffy animals. In 1910s and 1920s films, sympathetic characters are often introduced petting animals as a shorthand for their loving nature. Witness Lillian Gish rescuing a puppy from a tin can in The Mothering Heart (1913). John Ford’s wearingly winsome Kentucky Pride (1925, scripted by Dorothy Yost) is narrated by a horse, Virginia’s Future, who appeals to our sympathy most when she is mistreated by “those creatures known as humans”. It’s a technique similar to that in Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty, first planned as an essay on animal welfare rather than a children’s story.

Cow (2021)Courtesy of MUBI

Silent cinema is an excellent platform to raise awareness of animal rights. Virginia’s Future speaks with the same volume and eloquence as her two-legged co-stars, thanks to the intertitles. Two recent, exceptional, barnyard films with a vegan  message, Andrea Arnold’s Cow (2021) and Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda (2020), tell their stories of life and suffering with closeups of farm animals and Cow has no more than a scrap of overheard human dialogue. Arnold’s class-aware, feminist cinema lends itself perfectly to tracing the life of Luma, a dairy cow kept almost perpetually pregnant but separated from her offspring, her milk drained away by machines. Luma’s baleful eyes search for her stolen calf; handheld cameras take us into insistent close-ups of skin wounds and hooves caked in mud and excrement. It’s a brutal, mechanised life. Even Arnold’s flair for the lyrical is heavily undercut with harsh irony: pop music blares through the byre and fireworks explode in the night sky as Luma conceives her umpteenth pregnancy.

Gunda pushes its lyricism to the fore in a gentler tale that saves its killer emotional punch for the finale. In this silent, black-and-white film, Gunda the sow contentedly raises her litter of downy, soft-snouted piglets, while elsewhere on the farm (or three different farms cut together to look like one), we follow the antics of fly-swatting cows and some endearingly scrappy chickens. Just like Yost and Ford, Kossakovsky and Arnold experiment with the idea of animal as protagonist. Could you eat someone whose narrative arc you have been introduced to?

Kossakovsky told this magazine he wanted to show “that animals are not something but someone”. Arnold has expanded on that: “There’s always been this conversation about farm animals, whether or not they’re sentient. I think it’s been very convenient for humans who farm them to think that they’re not, because we use billions of them every year.”

The aim, perhaps, is to emulate the influence of The Animals Film (1981), an often gruelling compilation of scenes, many shot undercover, of factory farming and scientific research, narrated by Julie Christie. That film prompted many to try vegetarianism – and made many more aware of the extent of commercial animal exploitation.

Perhaps just seeing the slaughterhouse isn’t enough, though – a little more emotional manipulation, or science fiction, is required. Google searches for “vegan” apparently rose by 65 per cent after Bong Joon-ho’s “super pig” fantasy Okja (2017) appeared on Netflix. Among my friends, Simon Amstell’s TV mockumentary Carnage (2017), which looks back from the perspective of a fully vegan 2067 at the horrors of our carnivore age, ruined the most appetites for cheese omelettes and coq au vin.

As for myself, I haven’t touched meat since the mid-1990s, and it was a film that pushed me over the edge. Unlikely maybe, but it was the serial-killer flick Se7en (1995), with its icky combination of human corpses laid out for display and a grisly death induced by the kind of forcefeeding inflicted on geese that creates expensive French specialities I have never tasted. I can only explain that somewhere in my brain a synthesis of images took place, between the crime scenes and the meat counter where I worked part-time – an Eisensteinian montage, half off-screen.

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