Friday, January 23, 2009

DVDebuts: the wonders of food and travel OUR DAILY BREAD, LAST STOP FOR PAUL

To celebrate yesterday's announcement of the Academy Award nominations for this past year's films, let's turn to a couple of award-winning movies -- one an American independent, the other a foreign documentary -- that slipped in under the radar last year. The American indie, LAST STOP FOR PAUL, is touted on its web site as "the most award-winning independent film of 2007," boasting some 45 different international film fest prizes. The Austrian/German documentary about the food that makes its way onto European dinner tables has also received some nominations and awards, and though OUR DAILY BREAD has elements in common with Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation, its tone and approach are markedly different.

In Last Stop for Paul two young California frends/co-workers, played by Neil Mandt (pyramiding, above left, and directing center -- with Eric Wing, foreground -- and Marc Carter (photographing, above right), travel around the world to a BIG party in Thailand, stopping along the way to scatter the ashes of a third friend. A title card at the beginning informs us that this is based upon a true story ("based" being the operative work, as much of what happens seems extremely unlikely though bizarre and always, finally, fortuitous). Mandt and Carter also act as director and photographer respectively, and many of the rest of the cast were recruited on-spot and made to forge ahead a la improvisation or a little rehearsal. Given all this, it's an amazement that the movie turned out watchable. It did, but not a whole lot more than that. The two guys seem like doofuses supreme, and their constant prattle, not to mention their rather limited interests, struck me at least as that of very young men. There's little build to any of this, and although some viewers are said to have been moved by the goings-on, yours truly was not. I actually found the DVD's special features -- the "making of" and the "story of the movie" somewhat more interesting than the film itself -- and the two leading men considerably more likable narrating than acting.


In one scene of Last Stop..., the protagonists discuss how many chickens must be needed around the world to provide for all the restaurants that serve them to diners. If they'd seen the German/Austrian documentary Our Daily Bread, they might think twice before ordering any variation of that particular dish. Directed and co-written (with Wolfgang Widerhofer) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, the film is nearly silent, other the ambient sounds of the food-related workplaces that the filmmakers visit. We hear occasional snatches of dialog between workers (in German or Polish, I believe) without any subtitles to translate. Otherwise, we simply view how the food we eat -- vegetable and animal -- has been harvested and prepared for market. The film offers no explicit judgments, nor does it try to push its viewers in any direction. This is disconcerting for awhile, as we are now so used to being told how to feel and what to think. Slowly, though, one's own judgment will probably make itself apparent.

Because the documentary was made in Europe, I suspect that what we are viewing is infinitely cleaner, more sanitary and health-conscious than much of what we would see had the film been shot in America -- particularly over these last eight years of Republican/damn-any-standards rule. This very cleanliness has the odd effect of making the movie seem even more difficult to watch and consider. And, as with any good story, the filmmakers save their best for last: the meat department. The images seen here will sear themselves onto your permanent memory card.

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