“Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” - Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn (2014)

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) is a documentary film written and directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn that takes on the ambitious task of seeking to find a solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our planet.  It follows the personal quest of Kip Andersen, who was inspired by watching Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to do something about our impending climate catastrophe.  So over the course of this film, the viewer watches onscreen protagonist Kip Andersen (Kuhn handled the camerawork) as he narrates his efforts to see what can be done.  
At first Andersen sets about changing his own lifestyle, believing that if everybody did this, then our problems would be solved.  So he gave up driving his car and took to bicycle riding, took shorter showers, and tried to conserve electricity.  But as he investigated further, he learned that these matters of personal behaviour are not where the problem lies.  For example, he discovered that 660 gallons of water are used in the production of a quarter-pound of beef for a hamburger – a figure that dwarfs whatever water savings that could be made by taking shorter showers.  

And in fact as Andersen investigated further, he learned that animal agriculture in general is the primary source of human-based environmental degradation.  There is evidence for this out there, but it is not prominently on display.  Andersen wanted to know why.  

One piece of evidence that probably a number of people have heard about is a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, “Livestock's Long Shadow”, stating that raising animal livestock produces more greenhouse gas emissions than do all transportation vehicles [1]. Andersen found that the UN FAO assertion was supplemented by a 2009 World Watch Magazine report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang claiming that livestock causes 51% of greenhouse gas emissions [2,3].  However, a number of lobbyists and supporters of the meat and dairy industry have taken great exception to this latter report, arguing that the 51% figure was a gross exaggeration and that its mention in Cowspiracy renders the film fraudulent.  It should be pointed out, though, that the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production is a complicated matter, because one needs to include peripheral greenhouse gas sources, such as fossil fuel emissions from the transport of livestock and associated items (food, waste, etc.).  There is not always agreement on what must be included.  We must keep in mind that what we are interested in is the difference in total emissions from two different global situations – our current world and one in which no animal food products are produced.  In any case, it should be noted that no matter what calculation measures are used, they all agree that the total greenhouse gas emissions from animal food production are very high and significantly exceed the greenhouse gas emissions from those of all transportation vehicles [4].

One thing that shocked Andersen is that the primary U.S. environmental organizations, like Greenpeace and The Sierra Club, make no mention of the high environmental costs of animal food production on their web sites.  When Andersen tried to contact these organizations about this matter, they refused to discuss it with him – even when he made personal visits to the organizations to see if he could get their views on the subject.  For example, spokespeople for The Sierra Club simply dodged the issue (this is shown on film), while Greenpeace formally refused to talk to him.

It turns out that the major environmental organizations all receive funding and support from meat and dairy companies and lobbies. Andersen even shows meat and dairy industry logos on display on some environmental organization websites. Apparently the environmental organizations are unwilling to risk this funding by discussing animal agriculture impacts on the environment.  And  so they shut out speaking with inquisitors like Andersen.  

We also learn that both federal and state government agencies heavily subsidize the meat and dairy industry.  When Andersen tries to talk to California state government officials about the matter, they won’t talk about this issue.  So the animal agriculture industry seems to have a lot of economic clout. Cowspiracy does give some of their people a chance to speak – for example, Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance (a pro-livestock lobby), but their pro-livestock testimony seems weak to me.  For one thing, they have no answer for a basic issue with animal agriculture: the fact that no matter how nicely the animals are raised, these animals will all be killed well short of their natural lifespan.  No matter how we may try to ignore it, somebody has to do this killing.  We are graphically reminded of this terminating action when, towards the end of the film, we are shown closeups of a backyard farmer personally using his hatchet to chop the heads off of the ducks he has raised.  

As the film proceeds, Andersen and Kuhn take on wider, more global issues, and world experts  are interviewed on these matters.  For example, one issue is the dramatic depletion of the world fish population due to over-fishing and pollution.  Another issue concerns the imminent destruction of the Amazon rainforest due to human exploitation.  The program director of the Amazon Watch organization, Leila Salazar Lopez, tells us that the entire Amazon rainforest could be lost in just10 years.

Overall, Cowspiracy provides a fascinating and informative investigation of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.  Kip Andersen’s investigative style is mild-mannered and genuinely exploratory.  He lets the pro-meat people have their chance to take the floor and defend their products.  As a result, the film has received a number of favourable reviews [5,6,7] – at least from those critics who don’t have a pro-meat axe to grind.  

But no matter what the advocates of animal agriculture may say, and no matter how much many of us love the taste of meat (I used to be one of those people, when I was a meat-eater), they don’t have an answer or suitable response to a simple fact pointed out by sustainability consultant Richard Oppenlander:

for any given area of land, you can produce 15 times more protein from plants than from animals. 
We must keep this in mind when we ponder what to do with animal agriculture in connection with such major issues as the world food crisis and global pollution.  Reducing animal agriculture (in fact preferably eliminating it) can save the planet.   

So I recommend that you watch Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and take into consideration its message(s).  This film is both entertaining and informative.  However, one should bear in mind that there is one area of concern about animal agriculture that is not given a lot of attention in Cowspiracy, and that concerns the consequences and impact on one’s  personal health of consuming meat and dairy products.  Rest assured, though, that this was not a topic outside the purview of Andersen and Kuhn.  It was just an area of concern that in their minds deserved to have a whole film devoted to it.  And this is what they did when they made their subsequent documentary What the Health (2017), which is another film worth your consideration.
★★★★

Notes:

  1. “Livestock's Long Shadow”, Wikipedia, (15 March 2022).  
  2. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change”, WORLD WATCH MAGAZINE (2009), a well-fed world, (November 2009), . 
  3. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, Jeff (Nov–Dec 2009). "Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change were pigs, chickens and cows?" (PDF). Worldwatch Magazine, Worldwatch Institute. pp. 10–19. S2CID 27218645. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-10-01. 
  4. Keegan Kuhn, “Response to Criticism of Cowspiracy Facts”, Cowspiracy, A.U.M. Films & Media, (n.d.).   
  5. Kate Irwin, “More meat, more problems in ‘Cowspiracy’”, The Daily Californian, (27 June 2014).    
  6. Chris Sosa, “Are Burgers Really Destroying the Planet? Kip Andersen Thinks So”, HuffPost, (19 August 2014; updated 6 December 2017).   
  7. Ward Pallotta, “Cowspiracy Exposes the Truth About Animal Agriculture”, EcoWatch, (10 October 2014).   

Kip Andersen

Films of Kip Andersen:

Keegan Kuhn

Films of Keegan Kuhn:

“The Mask of Dimitrios” - Jean Negulesco (1944)

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is one of the classic films noir of the 1940s, and it stars two of the more colorful figures of that period, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.  Only on this occasion, instead of playing shady and somewhat threatening supporting roles, they are cast as the stars of the film and represent the protagonists of the story.  Greenstreet and Lorre appeared together in nine famous films during this period – The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Background to Danger (1943), Passage to Marseille (1944), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), The Conspirators (1944), Hollywood Canteen (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and The Verdict (1946) – but I would say that The Mask of Dimitrios features their greatest and most memorable performances.

Interestingly, despite their being cast here in The Mask of Dimitrios in the roles of the protagonists, Greenstreet and Lorre here retain their usual shady cinematic personae.  Lorre is his usual slimy self, and Greenstreet is characteristically abrupt and threatening, although he is here perpetually delivering his sanctimonious statement: "There's not enough kindness in the world".  Nevertheless, we are in film noir territory here, so it all fits together nicely.  Indeed, film scholar Keith Roysdon, who wrote an essay in praise of the Lorre-Greenstreet acting collaboration [1], commented:
“‘Mask of Dimitrios’ is . . . the peak of the Lorre and Greenstreet movies.”
The film was directed by the versatile Jean Negulesco, and it was based on the famous 1939 novel of the same name (aka in the U.S.: A Coffin for Dimitrios) by popular British author Eric Ambler.  The cinematography and editing was handled by Arthur Edeson and Frederick Richards, respectively; and while there are a number of distracting jump-cuts and camera-axis-crossing shots, the film’s overall appearance does very well conform to the dramatic visual panache of the dark urban film-noir underworld.  The film’s music was composed by the prolific Adolph Deutsch, who was also responsible for the music in The Maltese Falcon.  The result was a classic film noir in all its trappings.  And over the years, The Mask of Dimitrios has consistently drawn a number of appreciative reviews [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10].  

The narrative of The Mask of Dimitrios is somewhat complicated by the retelling in flashback of several lengthy past episodes from the life of the nefarious Dimitrios Makropoulos (played by Zachary Scott in his first starring role).  Dimitrios, we will learn, is a liar, thief, murderer, spy, gangster, betrayer, and traitor.  The person interested in learning his story is a well-known detective story writer, Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), who believes Dimitrios would make a good subject for his next book.  

The story begins in 1938 with Leyden visiting Istanbul.  At a social gathering Leyden meets a high-ranking police officer, Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), who is a fan of Leyden’s writing.  Haki tells him about Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dead body was recently washed up on the beach.  It is revealed that Dimitrios is known to have engaged in various criminal activities over the past sixteen years in a number of places – successively in Smyrna,, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, and Paris.
The evil nature of Dimitrios intrigues Leyden, and he is allowed to see the corpse just before it is disposed of.  Afterwards, a stout gentleman, a Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), also comes to the morgue to see the corpse, but he arrives too late.

Intent on basing his next novel on Dimitrios, Leyden travels to Athens to dig up more info about  him, but he doesn’t find much.  So he heads to Sofia, where he is able to track down Irana Preveza (Faye Emerson), a former lover of Dimitrios fifteen years ago.  Telling him in flashback, she says Dimitrios was involved in an assassination attempt and left the country using money borrowed from Irana. But despite his promises, Dimitrios never returned the money.  When  Leyden returns to his hotel room, he finds a gun-wielding Mr. Peters has searched it and demanding to know why he is interested in Dimitrios. After the mysterious Peters becomes convinced of Leyden’s relatively innocent intentions, he proposes that the two of them work together and that there may be some unexplained financial reward that results from it.

So Peters puts Leyden in touch with the genteel but sinister Wladislaw Grodek (Victor Francen).  In a 20-minute flashback Grodek relates how he had hired Dimitrios to obtain some state secrets. Dimitrios manipulated Karel Bulic (Steven Geray), a minor Yugoslav government official, into gambling and losing a huge sum so that he could be pressured into stealing charts of some strategic minefields.  Bulic ultimately confesses to the authorities and then commits suicide, but Grodek just smirks when telling about it.  However, Dimitrios double-crossed Grodek by selling the stolen charts himself to the Italian government.

Still desirous of knowing more about Dimitrios, Leyden heads to the next known stop of the man’s iniquitous itinerary, Paris.  There he meets up again with the up-to-now secretive Peters, who Leyden has by this time learned used to be a member of Dimitrios's smuggling gang.  Peters now informs Leyden that the corpse he saw in the morgue in Istanbul was not that of Dimitrios, and he proves it by showing Leyden an identifying photograph of the of the man, not Dimitrios, who was killed in Istanbul.  Dimitrios, Peters informs Leyden, is still alive and is living under an assumed name in Paris.  Since Leyden is the only person who has seen the corpse and can confirm that it was not Dimitrios, he and Peters are now in a position to blackmail Dimitrios. Peters wants one million francs from Dimitrios for his silence, and Leyden agrees to go along.  

Peters knows how to get in touch with Dimitrios, and he arranges a secret meeting between himself, Dimitrios, and a suitably disguised Leyden.  At the meeting Peters issues to Dimitrios his demand for one million francs in cash, or he will reveal Dimitrios’s to the authorities via Leyden’s anonymized testimony.  Dimitrios grimly concedes that they have the goods on him and agrees to make the payment.

And so at a secretly arranged location, Peters and Leyden pickup a case filled with one million francs in cash.  Peters is exultant.

However, we are likely to doubt that Dimitrios will give up the ghost so quickly, and, sure enough, Dimitrios does have another play to make – and a violent one, too.  But you will have to watch the movie, yourself, to see how it all plays out in the end.

One might be tempted to wonder if there is any moral slant in The Mask of Dimitrios', although this is not often an issue in a film noir.  However, in this film, Leyden, the ever-fascinated observer of malevolent people, is presented with closeup, contrasting views of two often-congenial but ultimately pernicious antagonists going up against each other:
  • Dimitrios – He is a complete narcissist and only interested in his own utilitarian gain.  If he thinks he can gain from it and get away with it, he will lie to, cheat, murder, and/or betray any person he comes across.  Other people don’t count for him.
     
  • Peters – Although we know that he has been a member of a smuggling gang, Peters does care about other people.  That is why his slogan is "there's not enough kindness in the world".  But he cares about people in both positive and negative ways.  He can sometimes hate them and want to take revenge on them.  Indeed, he has spent a major part of his life engaged in a revenge campaign against Dimitrios.  For Peters, this revenge is even more important than the one million francs.
So Dimitrios and Peters are malicious, but in different ways.  Dimitrios is almost a cold-blooded self-serving robot, out only for his personal gain, whereas Peters does concern himself with other people but sometimes in a vengeful way.

I personally believe that we have all been placed in this world with the assigned goal of bringing joy to all the beings that we encounter while we are here.  And anger, hatred, and vengeance have no place in the carrying out of this mission (as you may have guessed from my reviews of other revenge-films).  Therefore Peters is no angel here.  And so Leyden must consider that aspect of his encounters with the people he has met in this story, too.  

At any rate, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre with their colorful personages, do an excellent job of raising these issues in The Mask of Dimitrios.  As for the overall moral slant of the film, perhaps it does just come down to the need for more kindness.  After all, the final words expressed in the film are Greenstreet’s:
"There's not enough kindness in the world."
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Keith Roysdon, “Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet: Film Noir's Greatest Odd Couple”, CrimeReads, (30 April 2021).   
  2. Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN; The Mask of Dimitrios'”, The New York Times, (24 June 1944).  
  3. Walter E. Wilson, “The Mask of Dimitrios”, The Harvard Crimson, (28 October  1957).   
  4. “The Mask of Dimitrios Reviews”, TV Guide, (n.d.).     
  5. Orson DeWelles, “The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet”, Classic Film Freak, (28 June 2011).   
  6. “Synopsis”, The Mask of Dimitrios, Turner Classic Movies, (n.d.).   
  7. James Steffin, “The Mask of Dimitrios”, Turner Classic Movies, (24 October  2003).   
  8. Dennis Schwartz, “Mask of Dimitrios, The”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews (5 August 2019).   
  9. Leonard Quart, “FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Mask of Dimitrios”, Cineaste Magazine, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, (2013).   
  10. Glenn Erickson, “The Mask of Dimitrios”, DVD Savant, (20 June 2013).   

Jean Negulesco

Films of Jean Negulesco: