Friday, April 23, 2010

Food Inc. Revisited

PBS recently aired the 2009 documentary Food Inc. I wrote about it here before, but took notes this time and wanted to write some more about it since it brings up important topics which affect us all.

The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than the previous 10,000. 47,000 products in the average supermarket give us the illusion of diversity. The food industry does not want you to know where the food comes from, otherwise you would not eat it. A small group of multinational corporations control food, from seed to supermarket. 70% of supermarket food is genetically modified.

McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef, and they want a hamburger to taste the same in every one of their establishments. As far as meat producers, in 1970 the top 5 controlled 20% of the market. Today, the top 4 control 80% of the market. The big meat companies include Tyson, Smithfield, ADM and Cargill. Cows are fed corn not grass since it is cheaper and they put on weight faster. Farmers are given subsidies to grow corn, and high fructose corn syrup is included in a wide range of products since it is cheaper than sugar to use as a sweetener. Foods that contain this are highly processed. Corn is found in so many products these days, including ketchup, cheese, twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, cheese-its, salad dressing, coke, jelly, charcoal, diapers, motrin and meat. So much cheap corn being fed to animals creates low meat prices. Grass fed beef will not have as many e.coli bacteria issues as corn fed beef. Acid resistant e. coli develops from feeding cows corn. The cows are ankle deep in manure and their hides are caked with manure, which often ends up in the meat. Ammonia is being added to meat to cut down on the chances of e. coli contamination, but do we really want to be ingesting ammonia? What are the long term health consequences? In 1996 Oprah Winfrey was sued by the beef industry for making disparaging remarks about beef after the mad cow outbreak. Regulations are not enforced like they should be since often it is former beef industry people who work for the FDA and determine policy. In 1972, the FDA performed 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006 that number fell to 9,164. In the 1970s there were thousands of slaughterhouses, and today there are only 13. Illegal aliens are sometimes used to work there since they provide cheap labor. That type of work has become very dangerous.

"Cheap food" is not really cheap in terms of health consequences, effects on the environment and the workers in the food factories are often mistreated. Our country has skewed the costs toward the bad calories. The junk food is subsidized which makes it so cheap. Humans are hard wired to crave salt, fat and sugar. High fructose corn syrup and refined carbohydrates lead to spikes in insulin levels. This wears down the system by which the body processes sugar, and can lead to diabetes. Of the children born after 2000, 1 in 3 will get diabetes.

Monsanto made the chemicals DDT and agent orange, and they rule the farming industry with an iron fist. Farmers who save Monsanto seeds and re-plant them will be investigated and prosecuted. They operate like Microsoft in that they own the intellectual property and the patents. Farmers do not have the money to battle a multinational corporation like Monsanto, so they must do as they dictate. Many former Monsanto executives have gone to work for the federal government where they can make and enforce laws that benefit that company. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is a former Monsanto employee.

Growth hormones and antibiotics are put into animals, and chickens that used to be full grown after 70 days in 1950 are now full grown in 48 days. The chickens get so big so quickly that they often cannot walk since their legs cannot support their bodies. Companies like Tyson and Perdue would not be interviewed for the film. They did not want the insides of their chicken houses to be shown. They have regulations that chicken farmers must follow or their contracts will be cancelled. It costs $300,000 to build a poultry house, so farmers need to accumulate lots of debt. The average farmer only makes $18,000 per year so they become slaves to the companies that buy their goods.

The film Food Inc. showed some bleak facts about agriculture and nutrition, but also said that we have the power to change the industry. We can vote with our wallets and make the right choices by staying away from bad foods. If we do not support fast food restaurants and quit buying the processed foods and junk food it will cause change. The film makers pointed at the tobacco industry and how their power has declined due to the evidence of negative health consequences. I have to wonder, what role does what we eat play in health issues that have become epidemic in this country? Does the food we eat contribute to cancer, alzheimers, parkinsons, autism or other issues? What can we do? Grow a garden. Support your local farmers market. Buy food that is locally produced or organic if you can. Look for foods that do not contain hormones or antibiotics. Buy beef that comes from grass fed cows, not corn fed. You can change the world with each bite.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Career of Comedy Icon Woody Allen

In his 74 years, Woody Allen has had an amazing, varied career which any artist would envy. He is more than just a film director. He has written many of his best films, as well as books, (Without Feathers, Side Effects and Getting Even), plays and he has written for television dating back to the 1950s. He wrote for Sid Caesar, Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show and Candid Camera. In the 1960s he worked as a stand up comedian. In 1966, Allen made his directorial debut with What's Up Tiger Lily. Starting with 1969's Take the Money and Run, Woody started an amazing string of comedic triumphs. The period between 1969 and 1979 included his most acclaimed fims. The 1980s saw some moody, melodramatic films which pay tribute to Allen's hero, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Woody's films are not $200 million dollar blockbusters full of special effects, but he does have loyal followers, especially overseas in France and Spain. The city of Oviedo, Spain, erected a life size statue of Woody in 2002. Post-2000, he has shot many of his films in Europe, a change of pace since most of his are shot in his beloved New York. He has been nominated for Academy Awards 21 times and he has won 3. He has a large following in New York City and the surrounding areas. His films often deal with the same issues of intellectuals, psychological challenges, Jewish life, and sexuality.

Here are some of his most significant films;

1969--- Take the Money and Run--- A slapstick screwball comedy about an incompetent bank robber. I think this was one of his funniest movies.

1971--- Bananas--- A wacky comedy in which Woody plays a Castro-style revolutionary.

1972--- Play it Again Sam--- Allen was the writer and actor in this, but he did not direct it. This was shot in San Francisco, which is unusual for a Woody Allen film. Woody is a neurotic man who wants to be smooth with women like his hero, Humphrey Bogart.

1972--- Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)--- This was broken into several sections, each dealing with different sexual topics.

1973--- Sleeper--- Woody's look into the future.

1977--- Annie Hall--- Woody co-starred with Diane Keaton, and this was his most acclaimed, best known work. This is a landmark film in the genre of romantic comedies. It won 4 Oscars, including best picture, best actress, best director and best screenplay. It featured Christopher Walken, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Jeff Goldblum and Sigourney Weaver.

1978--- Interiors--- I loved this, but many did not since it was so moody and a complete departure from Annie Hall. It was Allen's homage to Ingmar Bergman.

1979--- Manhattan--- Other than Annie Hall, Manhattan is Woody's most popular film. It is a black and white love letter to New York City. It is well known for its soundtrack by George Gershwin, especially Rhapsody in Blue over the opening sequences. The irony is that this film foreshadowed a romantic relationship which would shock the world. In the movie Woody played a 42 year old comedy writer dating a 17 year old high school student. He would be criticized later for marrying his wife Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Manhattan featured Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, and Meryl Streep.

1980--- Stardust Memories--- The ironic thing about this movie is that Woody plays a film director who has people coming up to him saying they prefer his "earlier, funnier films". Along with The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen considers this one of his best films. This was also shot in black and white, reminiscent of the films of Fellini.

1983--- Zelig--- This was a mockumentary about an insecure man who is a human chameleon that morphs into whoever surrounds him in an attempt to be accepted.

1986--- Hannah and Her Sisters--- This is one of my favorites and it starred Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Weist. This film dealt with family strife and infidelity. These themes seemed to be more common for Woody's films starting in the 1980s. Grossing just over $40 million, it is one of Woody's biggest financial hits. It was praised heartily by critic Roger Ebert.

1987--- September--- This film along with 1988's Another Woman and 1992's Shadows and Fog and Husbands and Wives, was a very moody and dark film, perhaps tied to the turbulence in Allen's life. These films are polar opposites of his early screwball films like Bananas or Sleeper.

1989--- New York Stories--- This was broke up into three sections, each directed by an iconic director. The first section was directed by Martin Scorsese, the middle directed by Francis Ford Coppola and the final is directed by Woody Allen. Woody's portion deals with his relationship with his mother who wants him to meet a nice Jewish girl and settle down.

1995--- Mighty Aphrodite--- This film earned Allen plenty of attention since its star Mira Sorvino won the Oscar for best supporting actress. She also won many other awards for her role such as a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA award (British Academy of Film and Television Awards).

1996--- Everyone Says I Love You--- This was Woody's first musical and it starred Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn and Natalie Portman. Roger Ebert called it his favorite of Woody's films. It was set in New York, Paris and Venice.

1997--- Wild Man Blues--- I enjoyed this very much since it was a documentary about a side of Woody Allen we do not see. It chronicles his tour overseas playing clarinet with a jazz band. This film shows how much Allen is idolized in Europe. It is unique to see since Allen is such a private man and in this film we are able to see him unguarded, not hiding behind a character. He has played with his jazz band for over 25 years. They perform in Manhattan regularly.

2005--- Match Point--- This was a dramatic thriller starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson. Two things that make this significant is that is was a big hit at the bos office and Woody was satified with how the picture turned out. He said Match Point "arguably may be the best film I've made." Its worldwide gross was $85 million.

2008--- Vicky Cristina Barcelona--- This was shot in Spain, marking Woody's fourth consecutive film shot outside the US. It was successful, taking in $96 million worldwide. Penelope Cruz won many awards for this, including an Oscar.

2009--- Whatever Works--- I liked this since it featured Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as a Woody Allen type of character who is a neurotic older man dating a younger woman.

I think it is amazing how Woody Allen has had such a varied, lengthy career, and he has been prolific as a writer-director for films over the past 40 years. He makes films by his own standards and does not aim for the lowest common denominator, as so may films do these days. He may not make blockbusters like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, but he makes thought provoking films that are appreciated by those who like to be challenged intellectually. I think he is one of the most under appreciated artists working in the genre of film. To people who have not seen his work, I would recommend Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, New York Stories and Everyone Says I Love You.

* Some information from