Spurlock’s no Sherlock
As the latest signpost of the anti-corporate indictment going mainstream through documentary film, Super Size Me recalls a number of related projects like Bowling for Columbine and The Corporation, although the stunt at its core would be equally at home in Jack-Ass: The Movie. The film follows director Morgan Spurlock as he submits himself to a strict diet of McDonald’s for 30 days. Elevated triglyceride levels, mood swings, and weight-gain ensue, confirming the expected. In one scene Spurlock apparently abuses his own limits and vomits from overeating. Through interviews, anecdotes, and statistics the film fashions a simplistic, if entertaining, look at the role of fast food in the epidemic of obesity currently affecting the United States. Spurlock clearly stacks the deck in his favour, but this may be irrelevant since ingesting media hype seems to be the film’s raison d’etre — a disappointing tack that leaves it destined to be little more than another blip on the media landscape.
Aspects of Super Size Me feel derivative, inviting direct comparison to Michael Moore. An animation sequence showing the grotesque history of a Chicken McNugget awkwardly imitates the “History of the United States of America” section in Bowling for Columbine. Spurlock’s performance feels modeled on the genial, occasionally grating mix of good-natured populism, reckless impertinence, and self-congratulation that Moore has perfected. The latter can, arguably, get away with this given his very real concern for his subjects. The recipe is much harder to take from Spurlock, however, who never shows much more than the detached interest of someone shooting fish in a barrel.
This detachment translates into filmmaking that feels indifferent and at times uninspired. An interview with a food industry lobbyist is mundanely set in a boardroom to accentuate the corporate connotations — read evil in the film’s simplistic schema. When the lobbyist missteps, identifying his group as “part of the problem” and nervously looking into the camera, Spurlock uses a freeze frame and then redundantly calls attention to the statement in voiceover. The use of music follows suit, hammering viewers with simplistic associations, as when “Fat Bottomed Girls” blares over the opening credits. The sequence makes the opening to Jack-Ass, with its assortment of non-characters riding a giant shopping cart downhill to an inevitable collision, look positively poetic.
With such an easy target the film seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. Many of the arguments feel underdeveloped and unfinished. The approach is wasteful. Super Size Me amasses an assortment of issues and complaints only to discard them, offering explorations that are cursory at best. When the narcotic properties of fast food are described, nothing about the potential effects of the phenomenon or the experiences that can follow is added. Instead, we get Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m Your Pusher” blasted on the soundtrack and a clumsy visual of advertising labels on screen. Bereft of ideas, the film simply declares “war on fast food” and then moves on. In discussing the lawsuit that inspired the film, in which two teenage girls sued McDonald’s for their obesity, the girls’ lawyer is interviewed and played as calculating and unfeeling; an acceptable choice although one wonders why he wasn’t afforded a more prominent place in the discussion, especially given the centrality of the issue of personal choice to the film. Film critic Kent Jones, reviewing Bowling For Columbine, equated Moore’s approach to other likeminded pundits on the right and left saying, “They don’t make arguments, they just argue.”1 Super Size Me only adds Spurlock’s voice to the cacophony.
In its eagerness to blame corporations for their callous public disregard, the film glosses over the issue of personal choice, giving short thrift to the ability of individuals themselves to take action. At the same time the film’s success is, of course, due to Spurlock’s own, somewhat grotesque, personal choices. In a strange paradox, the film is an illustration of the crucial importance of individual agency that simultaneously absolves individuals of any such responsibility. At other times it conflates personal and corporate responsibility for the convenience of argument. Sometimes individuals such as high school cafeteria administrators or lobbyists are taken to task; at other times the “evil corporation” bears the brunt of the blame. The film’s resulting verdict is unambiguous, perhaps, but it is also one-dimensional and unconvincing. Super Size Me shows very little interest in teasing out the subtleties of the issue, simply content to have it both ways — ironically showing its greed by eating the cake it ostensibly wants to have.
The counterargument runs that Super Size Me is always completely forthright about all of this; that the film is intended not as great documentary but first and foremost as activism. As activism as well, however, it feels spurious and uneven. The film’s intentions remain unfocussed and vague. Is this simply a depiction of the harmful effects of fast food? If so, the result is repetitive and uninteresting, more exhibitionism than activism. The numbers cited early on make the point more than adequately, after which solutions could have been explored. Perhaps the intention was to affect the court case involving the two teenage girls. If so, more details of the case would have been helpful, although there would remain the problem that such a film seems to vindicate an outlook that removes any responsibility from individuals at all. Was the intention instead to actually get McDonald’s to change? The film points out that McDonald’s has since eliminated their Super Size option (the company claims this is unrelated to the film) and launched a million-dollar ad campaign in response. As small victories go, this one is impressive. At the same time there seems to be a built-in assumption here that the ideal response to the problem is to engage in media scare tactics that use the same logic as the corporations. There may be a case to be made for fighting fire with fire, but it’s hard to see how anyone benefits from the ensuing inferno.
Aren’t there larger, more long-term victories that can be aspired to? Shifts in attitude or behaviour that stem from real understanding of an issue as opposed to a knee-jerk response that chooses to meet corporations on their own terms?
In fact, watching his performance, activism seems to be the last thing on Spurlock’s mind. His antics put a premium on remaining engaging — the villainous cackle as he mocks the food he is inflicting on himself, the self-deprecating transparency of his visits to the doctor complete with rectal exam and weekly weigh-ins. Even during the rare moments of self-consciousness when he questions the safety of his enterprise, there is an underlying feeling that what we are witnessing is an act, nothing more or less. Spurlock succeeds as an entertainer, but there is never a hint of the political engagement that would be required to provoke reflection, let alone effect real change. Judging by his filmography, if activism is of any concern to him at all, it is a recent one. His previous work includes a “corporate image piece” for Sony as well as a gross-out reality TV show for MTV titled I Bet You Will. The director’s agenda seems resolutely careerist, which is perfectly understandable given the cutthroat media landscape. There seems, however, to be little ground for accepting Super Size Me‘s filmic shortcomings because it aspires to activism or social change.
As the title indicates, Super Size Me is first and foremost a film about the director himself. To this end, Spurlock might have listened to the advice of his doctors more closely and opted for a fiction film. His general practitioner, Daryl Isaacs, raises one of the more interesting points in the film when he compares Spurlock to Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas. In that film, Cage played a man intent on committing suicide by drinking himself to death. The doctor also has a number of priceless moments in the film in which he incredulously reports Spurlock’s spiraling test results to him and then reacts in stupefaction at his patient’s stubbornness in continuing with the diet. In these scenes, the element of psychopathology comes into focus. Spurlock seems more committed to the stunt itself, risking liver disease by the end, than to either exploring the social reality of the obesity epidemic or to effecting any lasting social change. The film is convinced that the material reality of this act is intrinsically interesting and is content to simply “be there” and watch without contextualizing Spurlock’s persona. Conceiving the film as a fictional work might have left room to pursue this unlikely experiment to even more telling extremes. Such a film might have made for a more nuanced treatment of its protagonist helping to clarify the merits and implications of the simplistic exercise. This is not to say that documentaries cannot provide dense characterization, but rather that the high-concept conceit at the core of Super Size Me could have been better stretched in fiction. In the present version, the themes of overconsumption and personal choice as they apply to Spurlock and the media provide a telling parallel to the film’s alleged subject of fast-food-driven obesity.
- Kent Jones, “That’s Amoore,” Cinemascope, Winter 2002, No. 13: pp. 73-74. [↩]