Reading this news item about the possibilities of “laboratory-grown meat” got me thinking about the two or three times in my life I’ve flirted with vegetarianism. As a child, after seeing a struggling chicken being carried to its doom through a lane behind a butcher's shop, I stopped eating meat for around 10 days. As an adult I've resisted the temptation to convert, having accepted one of the key hypocrisies of my life: that my very strong feelings about cruelty to animals (“animals” in this case being mainly cats, dogs and caged birds) are thoroughly incompatible with my eating choices. If or when I do turn vegetarian for good, it’ll probably be for health reasons (and with a sense that I’ve been the victim of a terrible injustice).
There have been a few times when I lazily considered converting for ethical or visceral reasons. One was after I read Eric Schlosser's description of the beef-making process in “Cogs in the Great Machine” (a chapter excerpt from Fast Food Nation). More recently, while watching Georges Franju's 1949 documentary Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts), an almost unbearably impassive look at what goes on inside the slaughterhouses of Paris.
The film was made in black-and-white, which was the only reason I could keep my eyes on the screen from beginning to end: as Franju himself said in an interview, it would have been repulsive if it had been shot in colour. But even so, the most hardened non-vegetarian will feel squeamish about the scenes showing calves and sheep being decapitated and strong, proud horses being reduced to twitching carcasses by stun-guns, then casually bled and flayed until the inanimate mass lying on the floor is unrecognisable from the cantering, head-tossing beast it had been a few minutes earlier.
The slaughterhouse scenes are intercut with benign, pleasant shots of life as it goes on in the other, more “visible”, more respectable parts of the city: children playing, lovers kissing by the Seine. Reading a shot-by-shot description of the film, one might think that Franju has set out to make a profound moral statement about “the barbarism and cruelty that lies just beneath the thin surface of what we call civilization” (or insert similar portentous phrase of your choice). But watching the film, one doesn’t at all get that impression. All he’s doing, really, is recording a series of incidents, without comment or judgement (this is what happens in Paris, but see, this also happens), and that in a way makes the whole thing more disturbing. (“I like recording truth,” he said in the interview, while also expressing the hope that viewers would find his film “aesthetic”.)
Blood of the Beasts features as an Extra on my Criterion DVD of Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), which is one of my favourite horror movies (and which, creepily, I was re-watching the night before Michael Jackson died). Eyes Without a Face is a beautifully shot, lyrical movie with a ghastly subject: a surgeon tries to restore his disfigured daughter’s face by kidnapping other young women and transplanting their faces on to hers. This is by no means the hysterical mad-doctor figure of genre tradition: he’s a composed, serious-looking, slightly melancholy man who does everything he can – using his professional skills – to help his daughter. Watching him use his scalpel to make incisions and peel away a mask of skin in the film’s most unsettling scene, I was reminded of Franju himself, making Blood of the Beasts, methodically examining how things work.
Anyone who badly wants to turn vegetarian but needs a final strong push, get hold of Blood of the Beasts. You'll thank me for it. There’s a version of it on Youtube, with the voiceover dubbed in English.