Sunday, September 11, 2011

Noble Like a Fox

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about vegetarianism. I don’t have a basic moral objection to eating meat, but I’m disgusted by the global food industry: a depraved cross-border monstrosity functioning on pain and poverty. It’s too difficult to stick to meat from humanely treated sources, so I ought to bypass the whole thing. But then, as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a recent New Yorker article:

"it could be argued that even a vegetarian diet falls short.. some of the animals that suffer most from the factory-farm system aren’t the ones that end up on the table. Most dairy cows spend their lives in sheds, where they are milked two or three times a day by machine. Many develop chronic udder infections. Laying chickens are kept in cages, jammed in so tightly that they don’t have room to spread their wings. To prevent them from cannibalizing one another, their beaks are trimmed with a hot blade. When their production begins to decline, they are starved for a week or two to reset their biological clocks."

The Pain Of Animals

I don’t want to make this my life’s cause, and anyway I’m gloomy about the virtue of individual action when compared to the vastness of what we’re dealing with, so I just keep moving lamely along. I haven’t eaten fast food in years, but I do for example buy processed meat at the St Laurence market, so I know it’s a thin line at best. What I really want, I guess, is for global government to acknowledge the viciousness of what surrounds us, and to start fighting back. I mean, this lousy food we eat demeans us as humans, making us fat and unhealthy, distorting the health care system, paying mediocre wages, thus being probably the single biggest contributor to the creation of a permanent underclass, wrapping itself in shiny images of nourishment while crapping on every value we’re meant to hold. Here’s Kolbert again:

"Intuitively, we all know that animals feel pain. (This, presumably, is why we spend so much money on vet bills.) “No reader of this book would tolerate someone swinging a pickax at a dog’s face,” (Jonathan Safran) Foer observes (in his new book Eating Animals). And yet, he notes, we routinely eat fish that have been killed in this way, as well as chickens who have been dragged through the stunner and pigs who have been electrocuted and cows who have had bolts shot into their heads. (In many cases, the cows are not quite killed by the bolts, and so remain conscious as they are skinned and dismembered.)"

Talking of vet bills, our 11-year-old Labrador retriever Pasolini had to have a leg amputated recently, and is now going through chemotherapy. It’s been a wretched thing to have to do to such a good and gentle creature, but Pasolini clearly isn’t ready to give up on life; through all his ordeal, he’s never skipped a meal, and he’s remained almost consistently bright-eyed, engaged, and quirky. I am not exaggerating when I say he’s an inspiration every day, and an education. There’s no point denying this all costs us a very significant amount of money, but we think it’s worth it even if assessed in purely utilitarian terms (which of course isn’t actually how we do assess it). Still, I’m preoccupied by the injustice of a world where the demonstrable value of Paso’s life, wellbeing and pain avoidance so outrageously exceeds that of the animals Kolbert writes about. But then, it’s no different from the grim mathematics we apply to humanity; even within our own country, let alone in our devaluing of global suffering.

Fabulous Mr. Fox

All of which may not strike anyone, least of all Wes Anderson himself, as a suitable introduction to his film Fabulous Mr. Fox, based on a story by Roald Dahl. The eponymous fox retired years earlier from stealing chickens, making a living as a newspaper columnist, but as the film begins is straining to recapture the old excitement. Acquiring a new home, in a tree overlooking three mega-farms, he springs back into action, bringing the wrath of the farmers down upon him, and on the whole surrounding community of badgers, rabbits, and so on.

Anderson shot the film using a stop-motion technique, using three-dimensional models painstakingly posed to create movement. In close-up, the models are remarkably detailed; in long shot they often look merely like silly plastic figures. George Clooney provides Fox’s voice, applied to superbly Clooneyesque dialogue: a scheming rascal who uses words like ‘existential’ and is frank about the limits of being a wild animal. The very specifically imagined society around him (I don’t know how much of this comes from Dahl’s original book) encompasses lawyers and schools (where they carry out science experiments and sports teams) and real estate agents. However, chickens and beagles (and, in a more noble vein, wolves) seem merely to be voiceless animals, while the humans are dumb and reactive, each living on a limited diet and seemingly possessing just a few mostly repulsive character traits. Yet they’re the ones in possession of the governing infrastructure, albeit with a more dynamic back and forth than we have in our own reality (the antagonists exchange ransom notes and responses, for instance).

As you see, this is a dizzying filmic universe, increasingly coherent on its own terms, but not at all on anyone else’s. I’ve never been Wes Anderson’s biggest fan (the last two, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, left me almost completely cold) but his familiar filmic vocabulary – chapter headings, a stark use of close-ups alternating with a “figures in a landscape” approach to framing elsewhere, a certain laconic terseness in the dialogue and avoidance of over-emoting, left-field musical choices – works like a dream when applied to such a peculiar, textured fantasy. Using Americans (also including Meryl Streep and Bill Murray) to voice all the animals and British actors to voice the humans even succeeds, weirdly, in evoking the lost promise of the new world rising against the aging empire.

Integrity Of An Ecosystem

The film avoids cartoon anthropomorphism. Fox is clearly a fox, relishing his skill in killing chickens with a single bite, and as I said, fatalistic about the specifics of his animalism. Obviously the film is not in any sense “realistic,” but to go back to where I started, the painstaking care behind it shimmers with respect not just for an artistic idea but for the integrity of an ecosystem, however quirkily imagined. I don’t think the free-living foxes and the badgers and the rats – let alone the factory-farmed cows and chickens – carry quite as much psychological and organizational complexity as in Anderson’s dreamy imagining, but if we lived as if they might, or at least as if they deserved the possibility of it, it would take us somewhere so much better.

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