Monday, April 10, 2017

On Talking About Meat-Eating, Talking About Mass Death

Pick 10 recent American movies. People talk politics in American movies. And I'm sure if you watch 10 at random, at some point someone will say something, or at least do something directly related to the War on Terror, abortion, climate change, gay rights, police shootings, or torture. They may not discuss these issues well. In fact, they may be completely incompetent. But I think it's possible that in a sampling of 10 contemporary American films no one will make even a passing mention of the Medieval torture to which we subject the cows, pigs, and chickens we eat.

It's not that these issues are not discussed in other parts of our society. Major novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer and J.M. Coetzee have written extensively about veganism. A former president declared himself a vegan, at least for a short while. Animals rights have bipartisan support. Chris Christie came out for treating chickens in New Jersey with more kindness. Oprah Winfrey spoke for the rights of animals on her show. Paul McCartney and Lisa Simpson remain proud vegans. PETA is part of the mainstream. But in our mainstream film, there's often only a quiet, passing mention. Meanwhile, we can see plenty of people eating hamburgers, enjoying Thanksgiving turkeys, and frying bacon. Morality evolves. I'm still a meat eater, but I think it's possible that 100 years from now, human beings will consider these scenes as difficult to watch as we find concentration-camp footage. They will live in a world in which our reliance on livestock for our nutrition will have decimated valuable land, in which we better understand the complex emotions of animals -- emotions that are not so far from our own -- and in which the largely academic concept of speciesism will cease to be academic. 

They won't see an entire culture that ignores what they may one day consider the greatest barbarism of our time. They will wonder why certain aspects of our culture examined the travesty of meat-eating and other parts ignored it. What is the great unspoken in Hollywood blockbusters is not the great unspoken on television shows like The Simpsons (1989-- ). The silence may say as much for them as the lack of discussion of the British empire in most nineteenth-century British novels said for Edward Said.

I am currently writing a chapter on the Zagreb School's depiction of warfare. Only one film made during the period of the Zagreb School, Tifusari / Typhoid (Vatroslav Mimica, 1963), dealt directly with the memory of World War II. What may arguably be the last School film, Zlatko Bourek and Pavao Štalter's Weiner Blut (2015), deals with the Holocaust. The rest of the war films dealt with abstract issues of modern warfare in a post-Hiroshima world. The pre-Hiroshima world, a world of low-tech warfare which had wiped out 12 percent of Yugoslavia's population, is just not talked about, even if the stories of Partisan fighting are part of the conversations in their live-action films, popular songs, and novels. 

I am starting this chapter with this issue, something that a simple claim that the films existed on an international stage which sought to develop universal themes does not adequately explain. What is it about a certain medium, one which the School took perfectly seriously and which examined problems rooted in the Yugoslav soil, that made its creators avoid describing a certain kind of violence, even while examining many other forms.

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