In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.
Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.
And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.
You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.
Which is what? To make us laugh. Carnage does that, plenty of times.
Amstell is unafraid to both look back at the awkward, bland goofiness of the vegan movement across TV of the last few decades but also forward to the kind of art installation campaigning that sees a man lock himself in a cage in Hampstead Heath shopping centre for sixth months, with suction pads strapped to his nipples like a cow, while allowing himself to be ‘milked’ at regular intervals. That kind of acerbic commentary and observation reminds you of Chris Morris and Brass Eye at times, even if Amstell is never as cold or savage.
Behind the comedy is lurking polemic, however, and quite possibly Amstell’s belief in a very self-destructive world. As someone who isn’t a vegan, this film left me questioning why. Beyond the appealing taste of meat, how does the industry truly benefit anyone? Key points are made to the increasing Western society levels of obesity linked to the rise of fast food across the decades since the end of war and austerity, the boom years where corporations such as KFC, Burger King & McDonalds developed multi-billion fortunes using colourful, silly characters to distract us from the mass slaughter of animals to provide us with cheap, cooked meat.
That same kind of distraction technique ties into Amstell’s commentary here on capitalism and its destructive ideology. A capitalist society is uniquely placed to indulge a meat-eating, carnivorous society where we consume, grow fat, develop health problems, and ignore the emotional plight of species considered lower on the food chain. Interestingly for anyone interested in post-capitalism (as I am), it’s climate change in Amstell’s vegan future which serves as a major catalyst for why society undertakes such a fundamental change in the coming decades, reaching a point where the slaughter of all animals is banned. It’s a profound idea presented in satirical, darkly comedic, absurd tones.
What’s really interesting about Carnage is how optimistic it is.
It genuinely believes in a world where a national empathetic response to suffering is embraced by the masses. That’s quite remarkable, especially right now, in a world where self-interest and capital gain seem to be asserting themselves as the driving force in a dying capitalist ideology. Amstell genuinely appears to be looking over the next hill. That’s not to say he believes this future will happen—Carnage is clearly meant to be satire—but his film taps into the underbelly of feeling in the Western world that in the ensuing decades change is coming, that the way we live simply cannot hold. Carnage provides an answer.
It also predicates itself on the world pushing back too. Crucially, aside from climate change and the increasing footprint of meat production having significant effect on rising tides and sea levels (a brilliant future episode of EastEnders segment shows titles from that soap where the Thames is vastly bigger than we would see it now), angry middle-aged YouTubers, in this case a Home Counties meat-eater who bears a striking similarity to a certain former UKIP leader, rail to the right-wing masses across social media as they viciously target and humiliate vegans going about their own business. Not to mention how martyrdom provides a major catalyst for the change from a carnism-based society to a purely vegan one.
Troye King-Jones, a pioneer of vegan thought who suggests the populous are ‘carnists’ and should be seen as such, is murdered by a labourer in his home, randomly and senselessly; a labourer who formed part of a militant, meat-eating organisation. It’s perhaps intentional King forms part of his name as a man who must die and be risen as a figurehead people rally behind to invoke change. Statues eventually are built of him. The film opens on the day named after him.
In Amstell’s vegan future, mother nature and charismatic forces promoting love, tolerance and empathy to animal kind change the paradigm.
In many ways, Carnage seems to be commenting on the political arena right now, only through the eyes of this meat-centric future paradigm.
Here, the vegan movement is pioneered heavily by youth, just as the growing liberal, proto-socialist push-back against right-wing, corporate-sponsored Brexit austerity is happening under the cult of personality that was Corbyn’s Labour. Cool rappers and charismatic YouTubers promote veganism and animal rights and help build a swathe of popular opinion among the educated, liberal thinking masses. Amstell’s current equivalent is the Brexit and immigration problem. Both this mock future and our own is driven by a divided country with wildly different ideas of what we want that future to be.
In presenting this, Carnage shines a light on what an ugly culture we are right now. An uncaring, consumerist, hubristic race who consider themselves top of a food chain they eat and process to provide gluttony, not mere sustenance. In the 2067 future, the very idea of eating meat or dairy is considered shameful and repellant to the young people of the age. Psychotherapists run treatment groups for elderly people who lived in the world before animal rights, who feel intense regret at their carnivorous past and are counselled, in groups analogous to Alcoholics Anonymous, to forgive themselves. Astonished people visit museum abattoirs and hear how animals were slaughtered, described in the same genocidal terms people would encounter touring Auschwitz today.
None of this sounds funny, does it? There’s a strong argument that none of the best dark comedy satire ever does on paper but take my word for it, Simon Amstell’s script, direction and non-judgemental, quietly sardonic voice-over is clever enough to present this absolute brace of conceptual ideas and social commentary while always landing a joke or visual gag. It’s a skilful balance, aided by strong character actors mostly playing ‘talking heads’ from the vegan future, such as Lindsay Duncan as a retired activist.
Amstell never stages Carnage like a lecture or beats you over the head with statistics and facts; one eye is always on the satire.
That’s what makes Carnage such a subversive and timely piece of work. It has an enormous amount to say about our society, about where we could be headed, and about what we see in the mirror, while always being funny at the same time. Simon Amstell needs more platforms like this. He’s a man we need to be listening to.