The Future of Eggs

December 29, 1993|By ROBERT BURRUSS

KENSINGTON — Kensington. -- The movies of Frederick Wiseman mostly have short titles, such as ''Hospital,'' ''High School,'' ''Central Park,'' ''Titicut Follies'' and ''Meat.''

I don't like Mr. Wiseman's movies. The ones I've seen are in black and white, and they have no narration or background music; they require active attention which removes them from the entertainment documentary genre, which includes most nature movies and work of Errol Morris (''Thin Blue Line,'' ''Brief History of Time''). Mostly, though, Mr. Wiseman's movies are depressing -- wherein I suppose lies their merit in the relative morality of us liberals.

For me the worst Wiseman movie -- or most significant or powerful, or best, if that's the best word to mean worst -- was ''Meat.'' In the 10 years or so since I saw ''Meat'' I've consumed probably 20 percent as much meat, red or otherwise, as had I not seen the factories where cattle are processed on a disassembly line. At the beginning of the movie, the cattle come in the door, and at the end they're loaded in little plastic packages out another door onto supermarket-bound trucks.

In a scene near the beginning, severed and skinned heads are shown moving along on hooks, and -- I suffered the movie twice to check this out -- the face muscles were twitching on one of the skinned heads, which shows how fast the process happens: The meat was still alive several minutes into the process. Obviously the twitch was a reflex, though actually a mammalian head could probably be cut off and skinned within the time that consciousness would take to wink out. The flesh, though, and its reflexes, would remain alive and active for an hour or more.

For most of a year after seeing ''Meat'' I couldn't deal with Big Macs and Whoppers. My problem was not one of morality or liberal guilt, simply the thought of beef, in any format, provoked -- images of unsuspecting cows walking past a guy who pushed a stunning device to their heads before they dropped through the floor to a room where another guy pushed a hook through a tendon behind a rear leg and the animal was hoisted onto a conveyor. About a minute later, or so it looked in the movie, the skin was off; and a few seconds later the skinned head was riding along, bared face muscles twitching, on a conveyor of its own.

About 20 years ago, Scientific American ran an article on the management of chickens in the production of eggs and meat. Concentration camps for chickens is what one friend who read the article called the chicken farms.

My enjoyment of eggs and chicken has forever been abridged by that article. Again, though, the problem is not moral; rather it is again the images evoked by the idea of scrambled eggs or chicken meat, images from the article of the ways the animals spend their bleak lives.

Maybe, thinking about it now as I write this, those images actually are a basis of a moral judgment. Maybe that's how moral judgment originates. As an engineer, which is a kind of scientist, I don't like to think of myself as a moralist, or as judgmental; morality and judgment get in the way of the search for objective and unbiased data.

But maybe we have here a piece of data: maybe the moral feelings of people who, say, oppose abortion derive from sickening images; maybe their moral judgments are equivalent to the ones that put me off meat and eggs for so long. Maybe the photos of cut-up fetuses used in anti-abortion protests actually are the basis of a moral outrage which I would have thought had a ''higher'' origin that that of simple disgust.

Maybe Frederick Wiseman should do a movie called ''Abortion.'' It could be as depressing as his other movies and might actually put some pro-choice people off abortion. If Mr. Wiseman makes that movie, I won't go. Though maybe I should, to gather data on whether I'd still be pro-choice, to use that damned euphemism.

The topic here originally was eggs, which is ironic, eggs being closely related to abortion.

Funny how the mind works. On the evening of the autumnal equinox, I got home from work and took a hard bike ride while I was thinking out a technical problem relating to an environmentally clean engine. When I got home I sat in a lawn chair in my front yard and drank a big glass of one part red wine and four parts seltzer to cool down while the twilight set in. Somehow my mind drifted to the optimization of egg production, and I think I glimpsed a piece of the future.

Frank Perdue take note. Why should those chickens have to suffer such desolate lives? Of course, having no basis for comparison, they can't know their lives are desolate. Still, to think about how eggs are produced is disgusting enough to sap the enjoyment from an occasional Egg McMuffin and also possibly to be the basis of an issue of morality.

Now I remember how I got to thinking about eggs: I was thinking of having a scrambled egg sandwich for dinner.

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