Arts & Events
FILM REVIEW: At Any Price: Modern Agribiz Is a Field of Schemes
Opens May 3 in San Francisco; Opens May 17 at the UA in Berkeley
Before shooting his new crops-and-robbers film, At Any Price, Director Ramin Bahrani (a good ol' boy born and raised in North Carolina) spent six months living with farm families in the Midwest Corn Belt. As Bahrani will readily tell you, the two catch-phrases he heard most often from America's farmers were: "Expand or Die" and "Get Big or Get Out."
It is these twin mantras of modern agriculture that drive the fortunes of three-generations on the Whipple family farm as their stories play out in a 105-minute saga that has won praise at the Toronto, Telluride and Venice Film Festivals.
Much of the tension in this tale arises from the modern farmer's need to be more a competitive, hard-knuckled salesman than a traditional, sunburned steward of the land. As Dennis Quaid observed when he first read the script: "I thought: It's Willy Loman on the prairie. We're really doing Death of a Salesman!"
Bahrani (once dubbed "director of the decade" by the late-great movie critic Roger Ebert) has assembled a great cast to tell his tale of agribiz and avarice. The major conflict flashes between second-generation farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid, as a grinning, bubbling tar-pot of fake bonhomie hiding a sink-hole of insecurity) and his feckless, resentful son, Dean (the always credible Zac Efron, who seems to have spent half his screen life playing magnetic young rebels). Maika Monroe, Kim Daniels and Heather Graham all hit their marks as, respectively, Zack's girlfriend, Henry's wife and Henry's mistress. (Spanning generations, Graham's character, Meredith, also takes a memorable tumble with Dean in the cinematic confines of a corn silo.)
These days, we learn, it's not enough for Henry to preside over 3,000 acres of corn (patrolling his empire in a massive, air-conditioned, GPS-directed tractor). He also has a parallel career as a salesman for Liberty seeds, a genetically modified corn produced by a powerful multinational. (It is a mark of the power of today's agribiz giants that even Hollywood is afraid to come right out and name the company –- even though everyone who sees the film will know it's Monsanto, a company whose business model is the very antithesis of "liberty.")
While Henry and his major competitor pursue control of seed contracts with the intensity of two warring Mafia families, Henry is also struggling to recruit the youngest of his two sons to pick up the family mantle. But Dean, a rising star on the local stock car circuit, is eager to abandon the farm and pursue a career as a NASCAR driver. Ultimately, Dean is cursed with a dark core that may prove his undoing. At the same time, Henry suffers under the longstanding, critical gaze of his own father, who has never cut Henry any slack -- and never will.
Berkeley-based author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) has called Bahrani's film "a harrowing journey into the modern, post-Monsanto farm belt." Pollan also assisted Bahrani in his research, introducing the director to George Naylor, an Iowa farmer profiled in the powerful, award-winning documentary, Food Inc. Pollan also introduced Bahrani to Troy Roush, another farmer profiled in Food Inc. (Roush wound up with a small role in At Any Price, playing -- no surprise -- a farmer threatened by corporate enforcers.)
Modern farming has radically changed, Bahrani reflects: "It's not local guys in overalls plowing the land; it's businessmen running multimillion-dollar operations with very advanced technology." The "expand or die" philosophy that rules the cornfields struck Bahrani as "a metaphor for American society, for the values that have led us to disaster [and]… perpetuated the housing crisis, and the global financial meltdown. It's a dangerous philosophy for life that is being exported to Europe and beyond."
The cornfields of Iowa mirror the malaise Bahrani sees reflected from Washington DC to Washington State. "That's the culture of the country right now," Bahrani says. "Politicians on both sides helped the banks get away with [crashing the economy]. Corporate and political greed is on steroids. Screw people over and you'll get away with it -- you will even be rewarded!"
It all comes back to Arthur Miller's doomed salesman, Willy Loman. "He valued the idea of having more and getting bigger, more than he valued his own life," Bahrani says, "And I think that's where we're unfortunately heading as a global community. I thought this film could be an alarm bell that would ring out from the cornfields."
But having spent some serious time with today's corn farmers, Bahrani admits the odds of dramatic reform are dimmed by self-interest. Every farmer Bahrani met confessed a preference for owning his own "automated tractor with air conditioning that could drive itself with GPS." Why give up petroleum-fueled comfort for the backbreaking work of traditional farming?
Progress comes with a price tag, Bahrani says: "The Whipples have to choose between the truth or survival and they have to live with trying to succeed at any price. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what our moral compass is -- who we are, and what type of world we want to live in."
Also Opening: The Playground Film Festival
Opens at Berkeley's Elmwood (and around the Bay Area) on May 1
For the second year in a row, local filmmakers and writers have teamed up to deliver a series of short films that celebrate a unique collaboration of Bay Area playwrights and film artists. This year's festival begins at Berkeley's Elmwood Theater on May 1 and runs through the 25th with additional screenings at Berkeley's Zaentz Media Center (2699 Tenth Street) and in San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Rafael.
In an unusual teaming of stage and screen artists, each of the films is based on a play by a local writer. Six films will be screened in this year's festival and each film will be followed by a short documentary about the playwright. The plays -- and the subsequent screen adaptations -- enjoy the sponsorship of Playground and Dances with Light.
The six films are: Aegis (Jonathan Luskin playwright and filmmaker), Climax (playwright Sean Owens; filmmaker Jeremy Solterbeck), Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos (playwright Kirk Shimano; filmmaker Amy Harrison), Obit (playwright Geetha Reddy; filmmaker Brian Tolle), The Secret Life of a Hotel Room (playwright Garret Jon Groenveld; filmmakers the Runnels Brothers) and Undone (playwright Diane Sampson; filmmaker Bruce Coughran).
The festival's official opening is set for the Elmwood on Wednesday May 1 (5:30/7:30).
For more information, visit the festival online at: http://playgound-sf.org/filmfest