This underrated 1976 documentary by cinema verite master Frederick Wiseman, detailing the process of cattle farming, is both horrific and beautiful to behold.
The film begins with a cattle auction, and follows the animals to the Monfort Meat Packing Farm in Greeley, Colorado, where they are prepared for slaughter. The cows are killed on the farm just as the Monfort salespeople clinch their deals in the offices. The assembly workers inside the plant
shave, wash, and cut the hanging cow corpses, throwing out the "waste" parts and gutting the innards. The beef sales continue at the office while the workers clean up the slaughter house and go to lunch. During the break, Colorado Governor John Vanderhoof visits the cafeteria and gladhands the
In the second half of the film, a pen of sheep are lead by a Judas goat into the slaughter house, where they are sheared and stabbed to death on a pulley. A similar process is followed as before: the carcasses are washed, weighted, tagged, and put into cold storage. At the office, later, union
representatives confront the administration about inadequate employee benefits. The conference leads to a standstill, however, and the managers walk out. Meanwhile, the President of Monfort talks to one of his salesmen about the value of the meat commodity to the consumer and how world wars are
fought over such material things. Finally, the packages of steaks and hamburgers are shipped off to faraway supermarkets throughout the state.
Wiseman's MEAT begins with the promise of becoming a anti-industry tract, in the same politically and socially concerned way Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, shook up notions about the meat-packing business in the 1930s and Victor Shonfeld's documentary, ANIMALS FILM, caused a sensation in 1985.
But the lesser-known MEAT slowly evolves as a more complex (perhaps problematically so) chronicle, in which the villainy is less clear-cut. Quite appropriately, MEAT is filmed in black-and-white, with many shades of gray. Though the animals represent victims of human greed, so, too, do the factory
workers, who suffer at the hands of the exploitative management. Yet, the film also implicates carnivorous viewers as the cause for the management's ruthless business tactics regarding both man and beast.
Wiseman brilliantly emphasizes the repetitious, dehumanizing work of the slaughter in the two parts of the film, identifying partially with the animals and partially with their killers. The rhythmic pattern forces the viewer (however uncomfortably) to understand the desensitivity which takes place
in such an environment, a chilling echo of the Holocaust's "banality of evil." Ironically the formal beauty of the images, which are mainly eerie shots of killing and death, reemphasizes the filmmaker's distance, but potentially lulls the viewer into complacency. However, the penultimate sequence
between the President and the salesman, and the final shot of the truck shipment, remind the viewer of social implications of mass production (and, in this case, mass killing).
Other ironies abound throughout, underscoring the themes: a worker listens to a love song on the radio ("What Kind of Fool Am I?") while branding numbers on the carcasses; the campaigning Governor reaffirms the exploitation of the workers, briefly turning them into valuable commodities, the way
the cows appeared at the auction. MEAT combines genres as diverse as the documentary, the Western, the horror film, and avant-garde modernism, while clearly and soberly analyzing a dense social microcosm. (Graphic violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1976
- Review: This underrated 1976 documentary by cinema verite master Frederick Wiseman, detailing the process of cattle farming, is both horrific and beautiful to behold. The film begins with a cattle auction, and follows the animals to the Monfort Meat Packing Farm… (more)