03.26.12: culture blotter {the hunger games}

i picked up a paperback copy of the hunger games at the jetblue terminal at JFK in early december; i tried to buy the sequels six hours later when joe and i touched down in phoenix, but the concessions at sky harbor had already shut down for the night (this is why you lost the war, phoenix), so i talked my mother in law into driving me to walmart* for them a few days later. catching fire and mockingjay are not, in the final analysis, worth a trip to walmart, but the hunger games could be; suzanne collins's writing is every bit as propulsive as stephenie "true love waits" meyer's, but collins uses a variety of adjectives, and her heroine's more than capable of taking care of herself. moreover, her adolescents' interactions have an authentically emotional crackle and snap that harry potter and friends never quite generate as they get older and lumpier, if you ask me; j.k. rowling nailed tween-harry's feelings in her first few books, but his teenage years with ron and hermione read like frodo and sam's wanderings in mordor circa the return of the king scotch-taped into a few episodes of saved by the bell.

but i digress. the hunger games is a winning, entertaining young adult book, and it had the potential to be an outstanding movie. several of the casting choices were brilliant (jennifer lawrence as katniss, stanley tucci as caesar flickerman, elizabeth banks as effie trinket, donald sutherland as president snow, lenny kravitz and his gold eyeliner as cinna), the pre-release marketing campaign was gorgeous (the capitol couture e-zine, with content from design houses like mcqueen and prada, is the most satisfying online tie-in since noel's website circa felicity**), and early footage was so promising!

it was not an outstanding movie, not by a long shot. jennifer lawrence was a fine katniss, and i think folks who argue that she looks too healthy to be a starved district 12 tribute can pipe down and netflix a bunch of off-putting skeletal-christian-bale movies, if that's what they're into (katniss is a hunter and is supposed to be in good shape, at least until the games start); the real trouble with the role is that her character's stoicism works in the novels because they're narrated in the first person and we get her vivid interior monologue.*** lawrence killed as a strong, silent type in winter's bone, but that film traded in shades of minimalism; it hurts me a little to say this, but i think the hunger games needed some substantial voice-overs. the audience needed to know how desperate katniss was in the flashbacks when peeta threw her the burned bread; lawrence did what she could with a look, but we needed the backstory of how his gesture gave her hope. that scene was choreographed badly, as were the few katniss shares with gale; we're supposed to get a lifetime of partnership and communion in that first hunting scene (to inform the awkwardness of gale's viewership later on), but it's hardly clear that he's essentially family. the sad-trombone cuts between gale at home in district 12 and peeta and katniss in the love cave were funny-awkward, not, er, awkward-awkward.

speaking of funny-awkward, can we talk for a moment about how peeta goes all pan's labyrinth on himself after hurting his leg so that katniss nearly steps on his face when she finds him near the river? that was true to the book, and it was a nice detail - peeta's a baker's son and a cake-icin' machine, so he was a quick study at camouflage during the pre-games training - but shouldn't he have been halfway underneath something? did the makeup team really take a good look at that tree-face and pronounce it badass? paint me skeptical; our theater laughed.

but enough about my hunger games; how did it strike you?

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you seen "lana del rey's 'hunger games'"? go ahead, i'll wait.

02 have you seen battle royale (the 2000 japanese movie to which, as umpteen critics have noted, suzanne collins's books bear striking similarities)?

03 did you read any of the suzanne collins books? if so, how many?

04 do you think the movie would have benefited from more exposition - or, as i've argued, more narration?

05 should the violence in the arena have been more explicit? did the fact that the tributes' bodies remained in place (instead of being whisked away as they are in the books) serve a dramatic purpose?

06 would you have stepped on peeta's face?

07 did anyone dress up at your screening? if you were to costume yourself as a hunger games character, which one would you pick (and what would you wear)?

08 should the filmmakers have gone for broke with the mutant dogs and given them the fallen tributes' eyes?

09 will you see the next movie?

*walmart in their town has an LDS book section. i hid some things there.

**please note, however, that i am not one of the felicity people. i have my pride.

***"Dystopian fiction," laura miller writes in "fresh hell," the new yorker essay that convinced me to pick up hunger games in the first place, "may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader."

03.21.12: how it happened {part II}

o, egg mcmuffins. to say that they were my favorite thing about mcdonald's would misrepresent things a bit; let's say that they're healthier than most other menu items and a rare break from meat on an otherwise vegetarian-unfriendly menu.* they were the one thing i liked about driving someone to the airport (or having to go to the airport) for a crack-of-dawn flight. i have a fond memory of walking through belfast's deserted city centre to buy a bag of them for joe and me early one morning on our honeymoon. that was a weird honeymoon.

i have a gloomier memory of the last egg mcmuffin i had (or tried to have), a few years later, at the train station in philadelphia. was it at the beginning of the food-documentary craze? had i recently read fast food nation? i know that in that plastic booth at that moment, lurid, recently-absorbed details of standard factory-farming practices like debeaking (a procedure in which a heated mechanical blade removes a laying hen's beak so that, in theory, she can't peck neighboring birds and can be confined in a smaller space) came back to me, and the feeling of nonspecific angst most of us already associate with fast-food restaurants was suddenly keen and quite particular. it was common knowledge (this was a few years ago) that factory farms produced mcdonald's egg supply, and i knew what factory farmers did to laying hens; that is, i knew what had been done to the hen that produced the egg i intended to eat. as when i realized i had to stop buying leather, i knew at once (and once and for all) that i was done.

or was i? i stopped eating egg mcmuffins, obviously, and i stopped purchasing eggs which weren't clearly labeled "cage free," "free range," "vegetarian," "humanely raised," and/or "organic" - or all of those. a few months ago, my office had me research a brief nutritional piece on what those labels actually mean. surprise: they're trade descriptions, which means that the USDA doesn't regulate them. at all. if they choose to do so, farmers can apply to organizations such as the nonprofit humane farm animal care to be "certified humane" (you can read what those standards mean for different types of animals here). as for the others - that's where jonathan safran foer and eating animals come in.
The USDA doesn't even have a definition of free-range for laying hens and instead relies on producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims. Very often, the eggs of factory-farmed chickens—chickens packed against one another in vast barren barns—are labeled free-range. ("Cage-free" is regulated but means no more or less than what it says—they are literally not in cages.) One can reliably assume that most "free-range" (or "cage-free") laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once "spent." I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.

(jonathan safran foer, eating animals)

You won't get buildings with 3,000 ["cage-free"] laying hens—it's 30,000, 50,000, or 60,000. That being said, there are people who actually quantify how much space cage-free hens have, and I think it's something like 110 square inches as opposed to 67 for those in a cage, so that's a lot more space, but draw yourself a rectangle of 110 square inches—it's not what people have in mind when they spend more of their money to buy this product. Cage-free and free-range eggs are the fastest-growing sector of the food industry right now, which says something so amazing about Americans.

[Interviewer] People want to feel good about the product they're buying.

Right. They don't taste better, and they're not better for us. People all across the country are spending more of their money on something simply because they think it's the right thing to do, and they are being taken advantage of, and that should make everybody very angry.

(JSF, in a conversation with the atlantic's jeffrey goldberg)

lifestyle modification II: eggs and dairy products should only be purchased from demonstrably humane sources.

when joe and i got back from california last week, there were almost no animal products in the fridge. we bought humanely-produced, locally-sourced groceries from a cheesemonger at the local public market: eggs, a pint of cream, and a quart of milk. they were all of exceptional quality, and they cost about fifteen bucks.
In the past fifty years, as factory farming spread from poultry to beef, dairy and pork producers, the average cost of a new house increased nearly 1,500%; new cars climbed more than 1,400%; but the price of milk is up only 350%, and eggs and chicken meat haven’t even doubled. Taking inflation in account, animal protein costs less today than at any time in history.

because of the way our government subsidizes corporate agribusinesses, and because of our consistent demand for their products, providing one's family with animal protein means either spending a substantial amount of money or accepting the institutionalized mistreatment of animals—and it often means both.

as you've probably gathered, my decisions about animal welfare are much more emotional than they are logical. truth be told, most of them have been very easy; i wasn't that interested in meat to begin with, there are plenty of replacements for leather out there, and no one's forcing me into mcdonald's. my relationship with ostensibly non-lethal forms of animal protein is much more complicated: i'll buy the straight stuff from the good guys, sure, but what about products which count them as ingredients? what about dining out? what do i feed our cats?

jonathan safran foer is a polarizing guy, to put it mildly, but you don't have to love him or his analogies (...michiko) to agree with eating animals's premise.
[W]e know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless—it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another. Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is.

watch this space.

*even mcdonald's hash browns and fries (still!) contain "natural beef flavor."

03.14.12: how it happened {part I}

when i worked at a nonprofit animal hospital, fur-industry exposé videos made the rounds like pornography. to this day i'm not sure why we circulated them among ourselves; most of us had eschewed animal products for years already (i've been a strict vegetarian since i was 14), some of us protested in front of the neiman marcus in san francisco's union square, and none of us wanted anything to do with fur. there's something to be said for becoming better-informed and for keeping one's righteous indignation at a fever pitch, sure, but i wonder if i should have tried harder to make joe watch one with me. i never even thought about looping in other family or friends.

i stopped buying new leather a year or two ago. since then i've picked up a few pairs of used leather shoes on ebay; i wasn't contributing directly to the demand for new leather, i reasoned, and i wasn't buying up the flimsy faux stuff which enters the market with a foul petrochemical belch. better, right? i also started saving up for a fancy-ass, new-to-me purse (as the one i've been carrying every day for the last four years has started degrading with gusto): as of this winter, for every kilometer i've run, i've added a dollar to a big old matzo-ball soup jar which lives on a shelf in my closet.

sprained ankle notwithstanding, i've been running quite a bit, and a custom ebay alert informed me this past weekend that a gal in poland would sell me her gently-used, authenticated bag for a price my jar could handle. here is one of the many points in this narrative at which i probably sound like a dipshit: i opened a new browser window and called up google images of lambs (the fancy-ass bag in question is made of pebbled lambskin). morrissey skittered through my head: a death for no reason / and death for no reason is murder. oh, hell. i couldn't buy a lamb's skin, no matter why or how long ago it died.

lifestyle modification I: no more purchasing leather, period. i'll use the pieces i still have, repair them as i can until they fall apart, and replace them with non-leather products.

in my four-hundred-and-fifty-first conversation with joe about whether or not the polish gal and i had a deal, i was wandering the corridors of how to carry used leather without telegraphing the idea that i condoned it all. joe noted that i was attempting to convince him of something with which i myself didn't seem especially comfortable. i tried to argue around that for another half hour, realized i had to let go, and felt...free.
Suddenly [Kafka] began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks. "Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore." It was the time that he turned strict vegetarian. If you have never heard Kafka saying things of this sort with his own lips, it is difficult to imagine how simply and easily, without any affectation, without the least sentimentality—which was something almost completely foreign to him—he brought them out.

(max brod, from franz kafka)
i came across that excerpt, on kafka's visit to a berlin aquarium, in jonathan safran foer's eating animals, a book i avoided for years and finally picked up a few weeks ago. it's kicked up dust in my chest as well; that's the next story.

03.01.12: culture blotter {the whitney biennial}

picket line, whitney biennial VIP entrance, 50-ft woman

union protesters picketed the whitney's VIP reception to express their displeasure over the 2012 biennial's ties to sotheby's. their props - giant duct-taped hats shaped like padlocks, a man-sized auctioneer's mallet with which they flailed at the douche-queue, a scabby-dwarfing fat cat - were unusually well-constructed, and i thought for fifteen minutes or so that they were an installation.

"i never eat or drink anything at these events," joe said with disdain. i addressed a few shards of fancy cheese on his behalf.