Sunday 26 March 2017

A Look at Simon Amstell's Carnage

Simon Amstell in Carnage Promo Pic

   Let’s be honest here, before I get into the meat of this article, and speak about vegans. To address the elephant in the room - the group have something of a reputation, don’t they?

   To some, usually the type of folk who formulates their entire persona around the idea that eating large quantities of flesh is a suitable substitute to developing any form of charisma or identity, vegans are repulsive – to not gorge on a fry-up makes one humourless, overtly po-faced and pious. To be introduced to a vegan often comes with the expectation that a sermon will follow; one which addresses the ethical and moral superiority of those who eschew dairy.

   Thankfully, then, Simon Amstell is here to blow this stereotype right out of the water. On paper, a mockumentary about veganism seems like a relatively poor option to deflate this received wisdom – where can the humour possibly be found in an hour-long special about the benefits of a plant-based diet? What joy can be found in castigating those who don’t subscribe to this food-based point of view?

   For those familiar with Amstell’s work (from his early days on Popworld through to his stand-up shows and the drolly amusing Grandma’s House), it will come as no surprise that the acerbic comedian is able to wring humour out of his subject - for this writer, however, the sheer joy of Carnage comes from the unpredictable and eccentric manner in which he does so. That wry smiles and full belly laughs stemming from a production featuring some absolutely harrowing footage is a testament to the creativity at work here – there’s sadness and horror on display, but lectures are kept to a minimum as audiences are left to make up our own minds about some of the bizarre and bonkers images we see in front of us.

Simon Amstell Carnage poster

   Set in 2067, Carnage is a mockumentary which looks back on the vegan movement and attitudes to meat consumption throughout modern society. Whilst we witness mocked-up “performance art” pieces and actors playing talking heads from the future, it comes as something of a shock when the realisation dawns on us that the most ludicrous footage on-screen is plucked from documentary archives and represents behaviour we currently understand as mainstream. Nigella Lawson, for example, takes an almost perverse delight in the sound which splatters out of the chicken carcass whose breastbone cracks in her hands. In voice-over, Amstell intones with his wicked deadpan: “What looks to us now like a documentary about a lunatic was, in fact, a hit show about cooking.”

   In Amstell’s narration, Carnage becomes a humorous soliloquy of sorts which drips of 20-20 hindsight vision. Everyone in the future is a vegan of course – it would be unthinkable, and flying in the face of common sense, if they weren’t. How could we bring ourselves to eat another non-human animal knowing what we now do?

   From this position of knowledge, Amstell provides almost perverse archive footage of images we may not have batted an eye-lid at previously. To celebrate the release of the film Babe, the family friendly movie about a piglet who yearns to be a sheepdog, McDonalds created an advertising campaign to entice children to the fast food chain. “In 1995,” Amstell dryly intones, “taking your children to watch a likeable pig escape death, followed by a celebratory Happy Meal, was completely acceptable.” Similarly, we see hypocritical and farcical footage of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall espousing viewpoints which should lead to the celebrity chefs never being taken seriously again.

   Yet, even as laughs run freely, there’s no escaping what a harrowing and emotive subject the movie centres on. Footage of factory farmed chickens makes for a very uneasy viewing whilst the explanation of how milk finds its ways into our bottles is genuinely horrifying – the blunt manner in which Amstell explains how cows are raped repeatedly throughout their life by human insemination, followed by the immediate separation of calves from their mothers as soon as they are born is enough to break even the toughest of hearts.

   The cleverest aspect of Carnage is that although there may indeed be a lecture from a vegan in here, and a powerful lesson may be granted, the manner in which we’re spoon-fed a potentially hard-to-swallow message is often joyous. Humans, we understand, are perverse and hypocritical, irrational and often self-defeating – this is our nature. But it doesn’t mean we can't collectively change for the better. Amstell invites us to (re)discover our empathy and to laugh as we do so. Vegans aren’t always joyless, and their message doesn’t have to be either.

   The film is available to view at BBC iPlayer.

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