I saw this movie at the same Whole Foods™ film festival as the previous film reviewed, however, this one has very little merit as it is pure propaganda for the “plant-based diet” that is part of the Whole Foods agenda and it is completely transparent in this mission from the very first scene at the beginning of the film so this review will be chiefly composed of descriptions of how this movie is attempting to skew data and manipulate the audience towards its goal. This is not to say that other films are completely objective or anything ridiculous like that, however, because of my familiarity with many of the topics that this film purports to represent “truthfully” I am in a unique position to see exactly how it is that this film attempted to manipulate me versus a film on a topic I know nothing about or where I am sympathetic to the position represented from the beginning.
This film is essentially an attempt to be the movie version or companion to T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” book. As such, it relies mainly on him, his studies, and his conclusions though not exclusively. In addition to Campbell, a fair amount of time is also given to this Israeli scientist who attempts to construct the environmental argument against meat and dairy and Dr. Esselstyn who follows the line of cardiac event prevention.
The arc of this film is more or less character driven with T. Colin Campbell playing the role of the determined truthseeker going against the grain for what is right. However, in addition to this, you have an alternate line which has to do with how delicious a plant-based diet can be. The montage of the film is thus an intercutting between interviews that instill fear into the hearts of omnivores and shots of chefs preparing complicated, high end vegan food. The tack is obvious, the first line makes you want to give up meat while the second line shows you how delicious it can be to do so.
All right, so already from the way in which the montage is organized we can already see how transparent this film is about its agenda to get you to give up meat. At the beginning of the film you have a dinner scene which begins promisingly by describing how we all have a complex relationship to food and from there decides to focus on meat and dairy exclusively which I find very interesting. Food qua food has an impact on health, the environment, and so on and yet no reason is given for why we must investigate animal products and not plant products. This is the first instance in which cultural assumptions and just-so stories are used so that nothing is actually explained.
T. Colin Campbell presents his moving story of a boy from a dairy farm realizing that he needs to give up animal products based on his research but what isn’t explained to the audience are experimental design, the difference between a whole food and an isolated substance, and the problems with epidemiological correlations. So, when Campbell describes his experiment where cancer growth is promoted by feeding mice isolated casein, he generalizes this to mean that dairy is cancer promoting, a jump which is not feasible yet this is the implication from the film. Dairy, however, is not isolated casein and we cannot treat it like so. For instance, there have been experiments in which actual dairy has been used and an association has been found between low-fat milk and colorectal cancer while no association has been found between colorectal cancer and whole milk. Obviously, there is more to the story here. More that is not even hinted at by the movie which instead prefers to simplify and generalize.
The film, however, presents Campbell as someone who understands that he needs to prove that animal protein is bad in a human study or no one will take him seriously. He decides to do this by engaging in an epidemiological study in China. Of course, the film doesn’t explain anything about what epidemiology is or what its limitations are because that would create a few problems for the idea of “proving” anything. Epidemiology by its nature is observational and so epidemiology can present correlations which may be used to produce hypotheses which may then be tested in an experiment to see if it is, in fact, a causative factor or not. For instance, if it is snowing and everyone outside is wearing a coat, you have a correlation between snow and coats. You cannot, however, conclude from this that coats cause it to snow. This is the problem endemic to epidemiology and why it cannot actually prove anything. This is why it is very interesting that this film presents the data from the China Study as Campbell’s attempt to prove that meat is bad. This is also the problem with Dr. Esselstyn. Apparently, the intervention trials he performed with his patients had no control group and a high dropout rate which makes concluding anything from them very difficult. You need a base in order to compare how much of a difference your intervention made, furthermore, when you have dropouts the group you are studying stops being random and becomes selected. Maybe everyone who was doing badly on the vegan diet dropped out giving the impression that the vegan diet was 100% effective for preventing heart attacks since only those for whom it was effective actually stayed on the diet until the conclusion of the study. None of this is explained in the film, however, so that the impression is simply given that meat causes cancer and heart attacks and that Dr. Esselstyn and T. Colin Campbell have found the answer.
Gidon Eshel performs this same procedure for his environmental argument against meat. He produces a bunch of statistics without explaining how they were formulated and then uses mathematical equations that remain hidden in order to tell us that meat has the worst carbon footprint ever. Very little attention at all is paid to production methods except for one small section of the film which I shall get into later. In other words, he acts as an authority we must trust, after all, he’s a professor. The problem with all the information that he presents is that, even if he is completely correct, he has provided no argument whatsoever against meat consumption. He’s only provided an argument against the production of meat in the mode of the factory farm. I can get behind that. There is no question that the factory farm is environmentally destructive but this cannot be generalized to mean that all methods of producing meat are environmentally destructive. This contradiction, however, does become apparent in a small section of the film where Eshel visits a small scale farmer who raises grass-fed cattle. While earlier, Eshel says some jargon that isn’t explained clearly about how c-reactive protein is a marker of pollution in water produced by effluent from raising livestock and that the levels of c-reactive protein are the same whether it is a conventional or organic operation, once he gets down on this small scale, grass-fed farm he admits that there is no c-reactive protein being produced here. This is the only admission of this extremely large and important caveat to what he is advocating and this section doesn’t last long. If we examine more closely then this type of diversified smallholding operation, we can see that no waste is produced and marginal land is made use of and carbon is sequestered. When you have a closed loop farm you have cows that produce manure that fertilizes crops, the cows also eat the grass that spurs growth that sequesters carbon, and the cows provide meat and dairy for the farmers from land that would otherwise not be very useful. This alternative that allows for meat consumption without environmental degradation is hastily dismissed as being impossible on a large scale. It is simple enough to say such things but no explanation is given as to why it is not viable to have more of these sorts of smallholdings. Let us not forget that conventionally produced food is no more efficient than organically produced food and yet many still believe this is the case because it seems so very “obvious.” Global problems will not be solved by imposing from the top global solutions. We must think beyond linearity and numbers. Something which Eshel seems to be unable to do, obsessed with data manipulation as he is.
Another issue I have with this film is that the confounding of variables is not explained at all. People who are at risk for a heart attack are put on a vegan diet by Dr. Esselstyn after which they are able to live out the rest of their years heart attack free. Now, did these people avoid the heart attack because they stopped eating meat, because they stopped eating dairy, because they reduced sugar intake, because they reduced refined grains, because they reduced fats and oils, because they increased vegetable intake, because they increased nutrient density, because they decreased caloric intake, or because they increased fiber intake? It’s hard to attribute a cause because all these changes tend to travel together and considering how many of the cooking examples in the film involved people sautéing in liquids and not oils, you can bet that the amount of polyunsaturated fats consumed fell. In one part, Campbell tells an audience that if they become vegan but only eat processed vegan foods, they will not be healthy. This is a very interesting statement because if disease is unequivocally caused by meat and dairy then a vegan diet, even if that diet is just processed wheat and soy, should still protect you against heart attacks and cancer. Whether it is a whole foods diet or not should not matter so long as meat and dairy are excluded. This statement gives away a ton of information. First, the implication is that most people are coming from a diet high in processed food to his unprocessed vegan diet. So is the main change that protects against disease the absence of meat and dairy or the absence of processed foods? Considering that Esselstyn and Campbell have produced no convincing results about meat and dairy being harmful, I’m betting that the main benefit is from getting rid of processed foods. This would make a lot more sense considering that heart disease has increased only in the last hundred years, the same hundred years in which processed grain, sugar, and vegetable oil intake has gone up. This would also explain why a lot of indigenous groups who have diets high in meat and dairy like the Masai have no heart disease or cancer and this would also explain why a lot of indigenous groups start to get cancer, heart disease, and diabetes once they switch to a western industrial diet. In any case, the correlations that Campbell drew from his China Study data set do not even show his conclusions. There have been critiques done of his data which show that, for instance, where meat is correlated with colorectal cancer, chronic schistosomiasis infections are common. Once you look at areas that have high meat consumption where there are no cases of chronic schistosomiasis infections, you completely lose any correlation between meat and colorectal cancer. If you’re curious about how much Campbell’s own data does not support his conclusions, you should take a look at some of the links I have listed at the end of this review.
The prescription given by this film that if you change your diet, you’re done with your responsibility to the environment is also quite limited as it constrains an individual into only being allowed to express him or herself via consumer action. We can do more than just manipulate our buying choices but this is a very useful message for Whole Foods to promote of course since it wants to sell you more stuff especially expensive stuff that you want to buy because buying it makes you feel less guilty about being alive. Another thing to consider is how little the problem of grains is given air-time in this film. I believe there is one small part in which factory farming’s environmental degradation is tied to the fact that we have huge grain monocultures done for the purpose of feeding livestock and therein lies the bigger problem: grains. We subsidize them so that they are cheap enough to be put in virtually everything processed that they can be put in and used for animal feed. Without subsidized grain, I am not sure how feasible factory farming would be, not to mention that if animals actually ate the food they’re adapted to eat they would not be getting sick all the time and require the amount of antibiotics we give them. Without grain monocultures we could raise livestock on marginal grasslands, sequester carbon, and then recycle their manure to grow more vegetables and other higher quality plant foods on those lands that used to grow grain monocultures. A vision to strive for but difficult to achieve with the corporate control of the government this country now has.
Incidentally, soymilk and seitan were featured quite often in this film and who benefits from the sale of these products? The food processors of course. So whether you eat meat or not, Monsanto doesn’t care just so long as in some way, shape, or form you eat their crops. You can eat Monsanto via bread, soymilk, seitan, conventional beef, tofu, cake, or chicken nuggets and they don’t care which you choose just so long as you choose.
In conclusion, this is an interesting film to watch as far as seeing how propaganda works in its full spin but do not be fooled by it. Nothing is ever as simple as a film purports to make it, especially diet. You just have to make your own decisions and don’t trust anybody’s slogan or trust any so-called “authority” to tell you the truth.
http://planeat.tv/ (official site)
In case you haven’t heard, Whole Foods™ is running a film festival that they’re distributing throughout the country by partnering up with local cinemas and some of the films actually look interesting including the one I’m reviewing here which I saw two nights ago at Real Art Ways. Some of the films are pure propaganda which I may or may not get into in a separate review later.
“Vanishing of the Bees” is essentially an attempt to explain the how and why of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the United States. The main culprit according to the film is the use of systemic pesticides though there are also some analyses done of the differences between holistic, organic beekeeping and conventional beekeeping. By way of France, they attempt to demonstrate that CCD is preventable and reversible when systemic pesticides become illegal.
The film essentially follows a bunch of beekeepers through their journey learning about CCD, trying to figure out its cause, and then their attempts to reverse it. Along this path, you have the usual suspects: interviews with pathos and caring for their bees and interviews of concern and despair of the government’s indifference to their plight. There is also an explanation of the importance of bees to the food supply and the dangers of monocultures for them. All this is mixed together and unified into a narrative logic that goes from describing a mysterious problem, figuring it out, and then trying to solve it with the work left undone and for you to finish at the end. This is moved forward through the voice of Ellen Page and the film is segmented according to a corny storybook device. That is, each segment begins with a shot of a CG storybook and a quote and continues into the segment as the page of that storybook turns.
So was this a good film? It was certainly interesting and I did learn a few things from it but the storybook device and some of the graphics used in it served to undermine the importance of the issue at hand by relating it with elements that I associate with fantasy, childhood, and superfluity. In this sense, the filmmakers appear to perform the same action that they are critiquing in the film, that is, the marginalization of the importance of bees through these devices meant perhaps to lighten the mood or to produce a sensation that this is a story that will end tidily with a resolution authored by the viewer as in storybooks.
The way the film is structured, it ends with prescriptions at the end for how you, the individual, can help fix this problem. In this case, it seems to be that buying organic honey, increasing the habitat area for bees by planting flowers, not using pesticides in your own garden, and becoming amateur beekeepers are what you should be doing. This focus on individual guilt and change as individual action, especially consumer action, I find to be the film’s greatest fault and a great fault for many films of this same mold.
The individual has not caused this problem, voting with your money is incredibly self-limiting and classist in the possibilities it provides. Solving a problem requires solving it. This means that if your car’s motor is broken you should fix the broken motor and not paint the car, fill up the gas tank, and improve air pressure to the tires with the hopes that all this will somehow make it easier for the motor to spontaneously fix itself. You actually need to fix the motor or that car is not going to run. So after showing quite clearly that the biggest threat to bee colonies is the use of systemic pesticides produced by corporations like Bayer in huge monoculture operations, we are told that all we can do is plant a few flowers and buy organic. Of course, what we should be doing is getting GM out of our food supply, forcing the government to outlaw systemic pesticides, and eliminating the huge monocultures of wheat, corn, and soy (the big three) that dominate this nation’s food supply and are subsidized by government policy. The problem is a problem caused by corporations and governments being in bed with one another and not by the naughty consumer. Once again, the myth of the bad individual is used to deflect blame off of the corporation who makes money by selling GM crops that destroy habitats, increase pollution, destroy small producers, and cause colony collapse disorder in bees all at great cost to the American taxpayer. Considering that the film holds up the example of France where direct action lead to the banning of systemic pesticides produced by Bayer and has lead to the bouncing back of bee colonies, you would have thought that the film would have ended with a call to direct action but instead it ends in a tepid call to consumerist guilt. Near the end of the film, one of the beekeepers describes how now when he trucks his bees across the country for pollination purposes, he ensures that he does not get anywhere near monoculture operations for fear of contamination of his colonies. This is not the situation we want to be in and buying organic is not going to change it. However, trying to figure out how to cripple some corporations and force legislation to pass in the government is a bit harder to describe and put into soundbites not to mention it’s a lot more complicated and requires much more work than is possible for most people who also have jobs and families to attend to.
The prescriptions at the end of this film thus are able to act as an empowering form of non-action that allows individuals to feel less guilt in their lives all while not having to change anything substantial about the way they live their lives. This is good for Whole Foods since it’s a prescription that implies buying things at Whole Foods especially since Whole Foods has gotten so big that in most areas there are no longer any other local natural foods stores that provide the same variety that Whole Foods does.
“Vanishing of the Bees” is an interesting movie worth watching but weak on solutions.
http://www.vanishingbees.com/ (official site)
I’ve been thinking about my relationship to the narrative and what that structure means for temporal art. Before this, I had been pretty exclusively concerned with the idea of the medium specific in the digital realm but this concern with medium specificity qua itself resolves only into a formalism. An empty formalism is something that must be avoided in a medium that requires a temporal movement. Often, the formalist experiment exists empty of any other content and so the problem arises of engagement through time. What I mean by this is that when film or video engages in formalist experiments, in a way, they condense the idea of the medium into an instant thus producing something analogous to a painting or a sculpture, that is, something that exists in a realm outside time through its presentation of a stasis. The problem in temporal art of doing this is that the audience usually expects the work to be in a state of change and flux and hence the need for its temporal movement. The formalist experiment is thus important inasmuch as it teases out the possibilities of a medium qua itself in a sort of purity but this is only a first step that will, of necessity, be difficult to produce in a way that has broad appeal or engagement outside of its conceptual or static element. Of course, the subverting of the expectation of a medium can be seen as its own project, however, in my case, I am interested in preserving the temporal movement.
These novel processes of the digital must be made subservient to a greater idea. As I’ve mentioned before, these processes can be seen in the light of ways in which they make the digital representation present or perform disjunctions from an idea of a cohesive reality. There are older methods taken from film theory as far as how the sound and image relate to one another and theories of montage which can serve as important tools as well towards a greater idea. The important factor is that these methods are used for the goal of eliciting the complexities of reality as opposed to being used towards their simplification or homogenization. The use of compositing as it is used in Hollywood for instance is usually towards the goal of obscuring its presence and through this producing a reified product attempting to hide its process of production and presence as much as possible.
The media one uses always has implications that underly its being. In the case of the digital, you have the ability of an infinitely fungible and distributed text as never before that may potentially exist in a non-hierarchal structure and you have the flattening of an aesthetic plane so that many different types of art can now be, in a way, simulated in the digital or re-produced but in a way that opens them up to difference which does not end. In a way, the digital cannot be divorced from the context of the Internet where its form may slip into or meld with and the fact that the object of art is now no longer real or necessary in the realm of the digital.
I’ve gotten a bit off topic here, but the previous is all to say that a formalism can nevertheless take up specific questions about the role of a medium in modernity and make implications about this so with the digital, you already have a medium that through its being has implications of non-hierarchal structures and cooperative engagement with a text and the subversion of ideas of private property and ownership.
But to return to the idea of how to structure art that moves through a temporal field, I suppose I have become obsessed with this question because of something that I cannot let go of. I do not yet wish to engage in interactive art, static formal experiments, or installation type art; I want to preserve a temporal movement that I can control. In this sense, it may be said that I wish to preserve the power of the author and the audience as passive recipient but I consider this more as a desire for the construction of a text that can show to another the thought process of myself or lead into an area that opens certain questions. The text is there not to act as a unitary voice or to instruct you as teacher or guide but rather to take you on a journey filled with openings and sutures.
How does all of this relate back to narrativity. It has seemed to me for a while that the narrative dramatic film has often worked towards reactionary ends by constructing and preserving complete subjects and meta-narratives of our place in society which serve the rulers or that they serve as petty distractions. This can be true I suppose, but the text of the narrative or the story in cinema is, especially through the implications provided by the camera angle, psychoanalytic par excellence as it produces the conflict among relationships and this is why you see Zizek usually analyzing popular films for it is in these that you have the representation of the Subject. The narrative, keeping this in mind, can thus be structured towards a goal of incohesiveness and disjunction by using the same tropes of the standard narrative and this is what many of the great films of art cinema have done. Construct narratives that open rather than clamp down upon questions and show the complexity of reality. In this register, the film still appears subservient to the story which is subservient to whatever it is you are hoping to show via this story and so technique that engages with the medium also functions a subservient role to the representation of subjectivity and so on.
I, however, am not a collaborator or a story-writer and so I do not see myself as going forward into any narrative organization of my work except inasmuch as it may function as a temporal alibi but is this the only option for a temporal alibi that serves to move someone through time? That is the question that I am interested in. What are alternate methods of moving others through time in the mode of the moving image? In the documentary form, you see an alternate mode of movement though this is often done with a grand narrative that assumes the voice of knowing in the film and thus often functions through the preservation of a hierarchy between artist and audience and functions didactically and simplistically, often able to prescribe action or solutions at some point. The documentary that ends in this way ends analogously to a fiction film with the happy ending by resolving tension when the tension, in fact, cannot be resolved (at least not so easily as can be shown in a film). A voice can contextualize images into cohesion or it can act as just one of many elements pulsating together. Considering that my interest lies more firmly in the political, I am more interested in alternate modes of producing documentary that opens up questions without attempting to simplify or answer them.
So this ends with no real solutions or answers to anything but just my questions about them and the general direction in which I am curious about going into. I suppose I need to return to reading theory and watch more films and videos as I only encountered all this to a limited extent in my undergraduate experience. From there, the time will come for formalist aesthetic experiments and experiments in alternate documentary practice and who knows what else. I must keep in mind Godard (from Weekend to Je Vous Salue Marie especially) and Dusan Makavejev as always.
In my own goals, what I have become interested in is in the medium specificity of video and how it relates to the idea of the digital. Whereas before we could classify art based on differences in terms of actual media, with the digital we have one media which allows for multiple types of representation. The computer translates code into a sound, an image, a sequence of images, and so on so that the line between photography, video, painting, and music in the digital can be seen on a continuum rather than as distinct from one another, each being an iteration of the same. But the code does not appear as a factor of obviousness and so each of these arrives at itself as an artifice of the art form that it apes where the specificity of the medium was always already immediately apparent in the product.
With the digital, the common among all of these reproductions of older artforms is in the specificity that arrives on the margins of their representation. For instance, the digital error is always clearly digital, endemic to the modes of storage and transfer that digital art must be subjected to. The different sorts of compression artifacts and distortions as much as they are error have been used intentionally to produce a deformation of sound and image that is specific to the digital though acting as a sort of negative presence. This has been, for instance, in the Lossless series from Rebecca Baron & Doug Goodwin.
The image and the sound of the digital, while able to closely approximate the older analog forms is often perceived as being too realistic or “not as warm” as the various distinct analog representations. This allows another starting off point towards a medium specificity of the digital and we can see, for instance, in the work of Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment an embrace of video as a sort of anti-film where the uncinematic realism of the video image is emphasized along with various other cinematic negations. The story is decentered as all the characters appear as mockeries of themselves. The acting and make-up are garishly overdone in contrast to the subtle film actor. The compositing, rather than being done to ape reality or improve upon it, is instead done to create a disjunction from it and a disruption from an immersive narrative experience. The anti-acting, anti-makeup, anti-characters of this anti-narrative anti-film produce one method of thinking through a medium specificity of the video. However, this way still preserves the cohesiveness of the image itself and its basis in a reality. It preserves the human even if only as an object of play.
What is interesting between the embrace of the digital error and the embrace of the “too realistic” digital image is that though the former is always entropically working to destroy the latter, they both function as disjunctions from an immersive experience that we have come to associate with the cinematic image. Attempts to map the cinematic form onto video always appear as a wrestling with video’s ontology in order to force it into the celluloid box and so you have video cameras who shoot true 24 frame progressive scans when video was the form that brought interlacing into being via the 29.97 frame scan. The “too realistic” video image can be considered to be such due to its overabundance of information and in this light can also be seen as analogous to the historical moment of data overload. The problem has become how to control the compulsion towards infinity where the collection of data seems to be a never ending quest. With digital storage, the problem of the take and economy of the shot is destroyed as these cease to be needed with the potentially unlimited capacity of digital storage and its economy. As one example of this tendency, there is the movie Russian Ark which was shot using a single 96 minute shot. What would have been an impossibility to the mechanics and economy of film becomes possible with the digital.
The Fungible Image
Beyond the possibilities of the image itself as it appears to us, we have the infinite fungibility of its being provided by digital processes and enabled by software. What is the importance of the source when it is possible to distort it via processing so thoroughly? This fungibility of the digital image means that the necessity for a good camera or a camera at all falls out. The cheap camera can capture a digital image and then it may be distorted beyond recognition or found video can be sourced from the Internet and then decomposed and reorganzied.
This new fungibility of the digital also opens up a new realm of possibilities for individual artistic practice. As we have traditionally conceived of it, cinema has been a collaborative art form and, though making a film on your own has always been possible, what could be done with it has been limited. With video, the practice can be entirely individual and driven by what Rodowick terms the intra-image montage or the deformation and processing of the image sequence itself into a new product. This can be taken to its ultimate conclusion of total abstraction or be combined with the representation of the image to varying degrees where it can act obviously as a disjunction or subtly to enhance or change that reality as has been its use in cinema.
The subtle use of compositing and effects, however, is just another method of attempting to map the cinematic metaphor to video since it attempts to hide its process. We also see this same pattern in 3D films where what is attempted is an aping of reality. When you see a credit roll for a 3D film, you often see tons and tons of people who have been employed to work on nothing but lighting or textures, however, as the example of David O’Reilly has shown, 3D too has its own medium specificity which can be explored and thus has more to offer than an aping of reality. In his RGBXYZ film, O’Reilly makes the process of the 3D fully present and obvious through the use of simple shapes and artificial voices thus also pointing a way towards a practice in 3D that can be low budget and based on an individual artist. Within 3D, it seems one can either work towards aping reality or creating new realities.
The digital in video thus seems to open up several possibilities for artistic practice including the exploitation of its errors and artifacts, the embrace of its difference from film in terms of image representation, the making visible of digital manipulation processes (whether taking this to total abstraction or combining it with the reality represented), the exploitation of the possibilities of virtually endless data storage, and the ability to do this cheaply and on your own with third party sources or cheap equipment. In the 3D as well as in sound, we see similar possibilities. In 3D especially, we can emphasize the potential to make process present and to exploit the ability of making new realities for novelty or abstraction within an individual artistic practice while in sound, we have the same ability to work with the digital error, recomposition, and deformation of sources that may or may not be your own and to balance between maintaining the integrity of the original sound representation or going towards a completely processed product derived from it.
For all of these, there is also the potential of creation from the ether. The synthesis of sound or image and use of these as well. This is what the 3D amounts to inasmuch as it has no relation to a reality. It represents nothing except itself and so can be seen as having no source. With sound, there are processes that can synthesize sound that you can manipulate and so too with video though each one of these has their own limitations.