Butchering vegans: SOME LIKE IT RARE – Barbaque (Eboué, 2021)

The French are sticklers for correct grammar. Bien sûr! Grammar, and particularly syntax, are importants! For example, there is a tendency in animal rights literature for people to declare: “I am vegan.” Simply untrue – you are made of meat, comrade, red meat to be precise, as this film sets out to demonstrate, and at some length.

The correct syntax is “I am A vegan”, that is, a person who tries to avoid eating the flesh of, or otherwise exploiting, any animal. This is usually for ethical reasons to do with the undoubted suffering caused by the modern industrial animal businesses, but sometimes for health reasons (e.g. Bill Clinton) or the environment, because the animal industries cause massive amounts of greenhouse emissions, use absurd amounts of land and water, and are the main cause of deforestation, particularly in the Amazon.

But none of these arguments are likely to persuade the protagonists of this quirky French comedy Barbaque released, for those of us outside of France, under the title Some Like it Rare. Husband-and-wife Vincent (Fabrice Éboué who also wrote and directed the film) and Sophie (Marina Foïs, who managed to make three other movies in that same year) are running a failing butcher shop called Pascal Boucherie, assailed by vegan activists who throw blood (I guess red paint) around their store in protest at their bloody business.

When they see the man who threw the paint riding his bike on the road (of course he rides a bike – this is satire), they stop their van suddenly and reverse, unintentionally (perhaps) causing him to crash into their vehicle and die.

What to do with the corpse? They can’t call the police, because Vincent has already reported the damage done to his store by the dead vegan activist, and it would be assumed to be a revenge murder. But alors, they run a butcher shop, so they have all the tools to dispose of the evidence. Sophie is watching true crime documentaries on TV (aren’t we all?) and tells Vincent to chop the body up and dump the pieces in the garbage. Vincent starts chopping, watched by his dog, who eagerly gobbles up a piece of the vegan that falls onto the floor. Vincent gives the dog an ear, then realises – hey, humans are made of meat!

Chopping up bodies is easy for a butcher, but then Sophie, thinking he has already thrown out the body parts, puts the meat on the shelves. Turns out the flesh of vegans is delicious (grain fed?) and there is a rush of customers seeking what Vincent decides to call “Iranian pork”. With enthusiastic customers in the store, Vincent does not stop Sophie tasting it. Afterwards, she asks

“Vegan” says Vincent.

It’s the perfect crime, the evidence is not just eaten but, as Sophie says, “shat out” afterwards. There are lots of cannibalism jokes, such as the local policeman promising to catch the vegans who attacked the store,

It’s not exactly a new idea. Mads Mikkelsen had the same problem and the same solution (after accidentally locking their electrician in the meat freezer) in the Danish movie The Green Butchers, together with a haircut that would have shocked the normally unshockable fans who loved him in Hannibal. And let us not forget the many variants of the Sweeney Todd story which saw the “demon barber of Fleet St” feeding meat pies filled with his hairdressing clients to the grateful populace of nineteenth century London, as well as a classic of kinky Hollywood cannibalism, Eating Raoul. Butchering people for meat has appeared in several other movies including the much-underrated film The Butchers and the animal revenge movie The Farm.

At first glance, this is a satire on veganism, but then there are all the references to how delicious their flesh tastes.

The only really dislikeable character in the film is their extremely carnivorous and insufferable friend who owns a chain of butcher shops and makes a fortune selling inferior and tainted cuts of meat. He is racist, sexist, and talks only about money. When Vincent has a scuffle with him and bites his ear off, he says “you taste disgusting – you should eat more veg.” Eating meat, Vincent has discovered, makes you taste bad. Maybe that’s why we don’t eat lions.

Vincent and Sophie discuss the logistics of their new business, in the same way other meat and dairy executives talk about the “growing” and “finishing” of the victim animals, as production units. They could farm vegans, they say, and she could milk them. Vincent points out that the best meat comes from castrated steers, he wants to find

There are references to Hitler being a vegetarian (it’s not true) and still being a butcher. Sophie tells how the rabbit she loves when she was little was turned into a stew by her father, and

“although I loved Thumper more than anything in the world, I loved him more as stew.”

They then proceed to kill a plump vegan who they’ve tied up in a bathtub. Most of the film’s action is slapstick hunting sequences as Vincent and Sophie stalk and kill vegans for their shop, interspersed with discussions about hunting a black woman, from which Vincent recoils, until Sophie tells him

They both spot a plump young boy, but Vincent draws the line at killing children, with Sophie complaining

It’s easy to see it as a commentary on the commercial meat corporations, which kill most animals when they are still little more than juveniles or (for veal) babies, and exploit female animals twice – for the production of their young (and sometimes their milk) and then for their flesh when they are worn out – what Carol Adams calls “feminized protein”. All Sophie wants to do (or wants Vincent to do) is apply the same methods to human meat.

The film currently has an unbeatable 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Guardian critic Cath Clarke saying:

“Some Like It Rare is a tasty treat for herbivores and carnivores alike, and it honestly doesn’t feel like an anti-vegan film.”

Martin Unsworth in the Starburst magazine said:

Some Like it Rare is a non-meat eater’s idea of extreme horror, and if you’re upset by the sight of meat being prepared, you should avoid it at all costs.”

Yes, but that’s not really true. I know plenty of meat-eaters who scrupulously avoid knowing the source of their main course. That’s why animals are butchered in remote slaughterhouses with high walls and maximum security, by anonymous, minimum-wage workers. On the other hand, it is the vegans who climb those high walls and take videos (YouTube is full of them). So while they don’t like what’s going on, the “extreme horror” is probably more applicable to those who are assailed with the cognitive dissonance of knowing they support corporations that do what Vincent and Sophie do, albeit to other species (as far as we know).

If you don’t mind subtitles (or are fluent in French) this is well worth a viewing. Let me know what you think the message is.

“Reports of widespread cannibalism” – NO BLADE OF GRASS (Cornell Wilde, 1970)

Cities are locked down, citizens are trying to escape from a deadly virus, food is rationed, rumours abound of dark government plots to kill off sections of the population. No, it’s not a COVID-19 movie but a speculative fiction film from over fifty years ago. From the trailer (above):

“Mankind destroyed what made most of the world liveable. Nature – wounded, diseased, and enraged – took revenge on her murderers. She cut off their food supply, and then waited, while they consumed each other.”

Yes, it’s a cannibal film based on a cannibal book, and its premise is the human war against nature, the way victory inevitably turns into defeat, and then perhaps extinction. The book it was based on, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, came out in 1956, which makes it quite prescient, and a bit of a shame more people didn’t read it back then, when carbon dioxide levels were 314 parts per million, compared to today’s 422ppm. Here’s a quote from that book:

“…he could no longer believe that there would be any last-minute reprieve for mankind. First China, and then the rest of Asia, and now Europe. The others would fall in their turn, incredulous, it might be, to the end. Nature was wiping a cloth across the slate of human history, leaving it empty for the pathetic scrawls of those few who, here and there over the face of the globe, would survive.”

Those who did take it seriously were film-makers like Ray Milland, who made Panic in Year Zero! in 1962 with a very similar plot, and this one, No Blade of Grass, an adaptation of Christopher’s book made by the acclaimed American actor turned director Cornell Wilde, whose 1965 film The Naked Prey was in many ways a forerunner of the Italian “Cannibal Boom” films of the 1970s and 1980s.

The film, set in the UK, starts with scenes of environmental destruction, as did its more famous American rival Soylent Green three years later. Soylent Green specifically nominated global warming as the cause of the collapse of the food system, due to the human population peaking in a way Thomas Malthus might have found terrifying.

In No Blade of Grass, it’s a virus sweeping the globe (right up to date, again); this one is killing all the grasses, including wheat, oats, barley, rye and rice, the food staples, without which the human species (and many other animals) will starve. We’re already getting a taste of this, as discussed in last week’s blog, with the blockade of Ukraine, the grains from which make up a majority of the food supplies for some of the poorer countries.

Of course, that is ‘over there’ and while we can feel sorry for the starving masses, we also have remote controls so we can turn off the sad news and enjoy our dinners. Just so, in this film we get unsubtle examples of starving children, interposed with rich, entitled, white British folks scoffing their roast beef and looking superior as they hear the news from overseas where, we are told, 600 million people have died of starvation, and the Chinese government is using nerve gas to kill 300 million of their own citizens to keep the state from total anarchy. The news continues:

“In the countries which no longer have any form of government, there are reports of widespread cannibalism.”

But even the comfortably bourgeois patriarch John Custance (Nigel Davenport) is making plans, in his light-hearted, Pythonesque way, to take his family up to visit his brother in the country. Do come along, old boy, he tells his daughter’s boyfriend, a scientist who has insider knowledge of what’s going to happen, because:

Anarchy breaks out in London and major cities. Fighting their way out of London, John and his family adopt the savagery of the collapsing society, robbing and killing those who stand in their way.

The car is stopped and John is knocked unconscious, while his wife (Jean Wallace, Cornel Wilde’s wife and frequent collaborator) and daughter (Lynne Frederick, later to be the last of the many wives of Peter Sellers) are raped. This rape scene, not the famine and cannibalism, turned out to be the controversial part of the movie, since Lynne Frederick was only 15 at the time. Nevertheless, Michael never loses his eyepatch or his cool or his alpha masculinity, while the women mostly do what they are told, and their hair remains perfectly coiffed.

A short-wave radio news bulletin reports:

“All the evidence indicates that France, Germany, Italy, in fact all of Western Europe along with a major part of Asia, South America and Africa have ceased to exist as part of the civilised world. In the midst of complete anarchy, and mass starvation, the horrors of cannibalism are already widespread.”

Only America and Canada are left, in the words of the US President, to “survive and preserve… the heritage of man’s greatness.”

When they finally arrive at John’s brother’s farm after a battle with a bikie gang that seems to owe more to the early Western than to science fiction, they have collected a whole lot of salt-of-the-earth farmers, whom the brother is not pleased to see, as he doesn’t want to feed them. The final showdown is therefore a modern iteration of Cain and Abel – the battle of the brothers.

The really odd thing about this cannibal film is that, while we witness the descent of civilised British gentlefolk into savagery, we never see any actual cannibalism. We hear a lot about it occurring in other countries, and speculation about it being about to happen at home, but the British seem to find each other particularly unappetising.

Cornell Wilde was an activist director, intent on convincing his audiences that the world was going pear-shaped in a hurry, and he was not big on subtlety. Unfortunately, the audience expects not just social commentary but also entertainment, and despite a lot of shooting and explosions and murders and rapes, the film suffered from some wooden dialogue and irritating flash-forwards which extinguished any suspense. The film received a desultory score of just 40% on Rotten Tomatoes.

No Blade of Grass is over fifty years old, which doesn’t excuse but partly explains the overt sexism, classism and racism that it addresses while also often seeming to endorse. Yet the film’s environmental theme is even more current today than it was on its release fifty years ago. Pollution is killing off agriculture, the water is contaminated and unfit for drinking, animals are dying out everywhere. The two little boys in the car even mention global warming, years before most of us had heard of it.

When COVID hit in 2020, people queued for food and water and guns and (most urgently) toilet paper, and there was much talk of famine, the breakdown of social order and, inevitably, the rise of cannibalism, just as we see in this film (although being British, they never discuss or seemingly require toilet paper). With no grains and no domesticated animals, people naturally turn to the only available meat, that which grows on the ape called Homo sapiens. But fifty years on, we don’t seem to have learnt anything from such speculations.

The film ends with a narrator announcing:

“This motion picture is not a documentary; but it could be.”

Indeed.

Racists and Cannibals: JUNGLE JITTERS (Friz Freleng, 1938)

Not a movie this week, but a cartoon! Even today, many cartoons depict racist and sexist stereotypes, but JUNGLE JITTERS was so gratuitous that it was placed on a list known as the Censored Eleven, a list of  Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons taken off television in the United States in 1968 because of their offensive stereotyping of black people. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia links to this cartoon, as well as to several other real stinkers.

This cartoon, which is well under a hundred years old, followed the favoured interpretation of colonialism – the native people were uncivilised savages, probably cannibals, waiting for the white man to bring them into the modern age. This process was always violent and exploitative and often involved the expropriation of their lands and even extermination. But the public image of colonialism was the semi-human cannibals, as amusing as apes, and the civilised Europeans, who might be running the place, or could be poaching in a cauldron. This cartoon managed to fit all of that ideological baggage into less than eight minutes.

The idea that those who are not part of the Western liberal tradition must be primitive cannibals seems strange to us now, but let’s not forget that Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel and many other European philosophers considered indigenous people, whose strange customs were reported by the explorers, to be primitive savages, urgently in need of enlightenment. H.G. Wells in his 1920 book Outline of History wrote, “At first, the only people encountered by the Spaniards in America were savages of a Mongoloid type. Many of these savages were cannibals”. Even in this century, the weary trope continues to raise its head – a British Secondary School exam board recently apologised for approving a psychology text that contained a question on teamwork, involving a group of cannibals cooking a missionary.

In the “plot” of this cartoon, a travelling salesman brings a case of useless consumer goods to a fenced village. At first, the natives don’t want to let him in, but then change their perception of him.

Of course, he is soon in a cauldron, with jokes about “hold the onions” etc.

Then there is the love interest. This was a problem – depicting primitive natives indulging in cannibalism was unproblematic, but the “Hays Code”, which set the moral guidelines for American cinema from 1934-1968, definitely frowned on miscegenation – any hint of sex between the races.

The solution in this was to make the Queen into a white woman, without explanation, and have her see the salesman not as the cooked chicken envisaged by her tribe, but as Clark Gable and Robert Taylor.

While he appears to be some sort of dog, she seems to be based on a chicken (but not edible for some reason) and of course she is the kind of spinster that Hollywood loved to show as desperate and dateless.

She arranges an instant wedding, but he is repelled by her and, hilariously, chooses to leap back into the cauldron, expressing the hope that

“…they all get indigestion!”

I guess people still make racist and sexist videos today, in ever greater numbers, probably, but at least they are no longer distributed by major entertainment companies and aimed at children. Perhaps we are making progress. Or is racism and sexism simply becoming more sophisticated?