Some parents try to scare their children off smoking by making them puff on cigarettes until they get sick. In his entertaining and informative documentary Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock tries to scare us off fast food—or at least warn us of its dangers thereof—by showing how a month-long diet of Big Macs and 42-oz. drinks wreaked havoc on his health.
Smoking and eating may have more in common than you think. In the opening scenes of his film, which won the Documentary Directing prize at Sundance last January, Spurlock says obesity has become second only to smoking as a preventable cause of death in the United States. What's more, the national weight gain over the past half-century coincides with the rise of major fast-food outlets. So, to explore what sort of connection there might be between these two things, Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald's food three times a day for 30 days; he consumes nothing, not even water, unless it comes over a counter, out of a drive-thru window, or is dropped off by a delivery boy. In addition, he restricts his physical activity to that of an average American—which, for a typically peripatetic New Yorker like him, means giving up long walks across town for taxi rides.
Spurlock, who is in better-than-average health at first, playfully admits that he is embarking on "every eight-year-old's dream"—but the experiment quickly has nightmarish effects. Only two days into his new regimen, Spurlock pukes up his first super-sized meal just minutes after eating it—a symptom he figures was provoked not so much by the food itself, but by the abrupt change to his dietary habits, similar to the "three-day hump" that smokers endure when they cut off their body's nicotine intake. As time passes, he also begins to suffer headaches, depression and a loss of energy. In addition, the three doctors he consults throughout his project are shocked by the toxic effect his eating is having on his body; one remarks that Spurlock's liver is turning to pâté. Plus he gains 24.5 pounds.
Given that Spurlock is both the director and the subject of his film, you cannot help but wonder at times to what degree he may be playing to the cameras or editing his footage for dramatic effect. Certainly he exploits several opportunities to wisecrack like a stand-up comic; and in some ways, the film is structured like a traditional Hollywood narrative, with Spurlock as the crusading hero who takes on a daunting challenge and is obliged to stick to his guns despite the advice of alarmed onlookers—including his mother and his vegan girlfriend—who tell him to abandon his cause because it's too dangerous.
But the film is not just about one man, and it is not just about nutrition. Along the way, Spurlock raises some essential questions about the nature of personal, corporate and social responsibility. Echoing points that were made in the recent Canadian documentary The Corporation, Spurlock is particularly concerned about the way companies like McDonald's target children through their Happy Meal toys, playgrounds, birthday parties, animated television shows and multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns. When Spurlock shows some children a series of portraits and mug shots, they have difficulty identifying everyone from Jesus to George Washington, but they all know who Ronald McDonald is.
Blaming corporations alone would be too easy, and Spurlock knows it—so he saves some of his more pointed criticism for educators and administrators who have taken the easy road and allowed outsiders to run their cafeterias, while cutting back on physical education programs and installing soda-pop and junk-food machines in their schools. (Spurlock doesn't mention it, but Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston—until recently the "fattest" city in the country—also installed a Golden Arches on its property a few years ago.) He is also rather caustic toward the recent, unsuccessful class-action lawsuit that two overweight women filed against McDonald's. When Spurlock asks lawyer Samuel Hirsch what motivated their case, the answer is reduced to an amusingly skeptical soundbite: "You mean, motives beyond monetary remuneration? You want to hear a noble cause? Is that it?"
The film is more ambivalent in its approach to overweight people themselves. Smoking may be an unnecessary activity with enormous risks and no real benefits, but everyone has to eat, and some people do have better metabolisms than others. Reason magazine editor Jacob Sullum speculates that fat people may eventually have to deal with the same sort of social hostility that smokers now face, and there does seem to be an accusatory tone to Spurlock's many shots of anonymous huge Americans. However, there are hints in the film that diet isn't always destiny. One somewhat pudgy teenaged girl does get to complain about the glamorization of ultra-thin celebrities, and some interviewees—including a so-called "Big Mac Enthusiast" who has eaten over 19,000 of the double-decker burgers—seem oddly trim.
It is also unclear just what we are to make of the scene in which Jared Fogle—the man who lost hundreds of pounds on an all-Subway diet and now trumpets his success in their commercials—meets a very-overweight young fan after one of his speaking engagements. In an interview with the filmmakers, the fan says she wishes she could follow Fogle's example, because she knows it's "the only solution" to her problem, but alas, she cannot afford to eat at Subway so often. At this point, some viewers may wonder why she doesn't go the more cost-effective route of buying the basic ingredients and making her own sandwiches at home. Given a choice between spending money and practicing more self-discipline, it seems some people would rather spend the money—or, in this case, fantasize about spending the money.
Still, the fact remains, fast-food chains are increasingly improving their menus to meet consumer demand for healthier options; McDonald's itself introduced the McVeggie burger in Canada two years ago, and recently began selling "Go Active!" meals that come with exercise booklets and pedometers. If this film encourages consumers to keep up the demand, then so much the better.
Super Size Me comes out of the same anti-corporate activism-as-entertainment culture that has given us the dubious likes of Michael Moore (who was criticized by some of his fans for revealing that he took his film crew to McDonald's in The Big One), and at times Spurlock's love of irony overwhelms whatever point he is trying to make, such as when he plays the "Blue Danube" over graphic images of a stomach reduction operation. But the film does underscore the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own health, and it does this in a frequently humorous and self-deprecating way. Whether the viewer agrees with all aspects of Spurlock's political agenda or not, Super Size Me would be perfect for group discussions of all kinds—it gives the viewer plenty of food for thought.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- If our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, how should we eat? How do we honor God when we eat or drink? What place should fasting and feasting have in our worship?
- What should concern parents more—the dietary aspects of fast food, or the way some restaurants encourage children to identify with their brand? If children, once grown up, will not depart from the way in which they have been trained up (Proverbs 22:6), then how concerned should we be about advertising that targets children?
- How can we develop patience and self-discipline in a culture that encourages us to get what we want now? What would be the costs and benefits of waiting a little while longer? What would be the costs and benefits of doing more things for ourselves?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Super Size Me has no MPAA rating at this time, but the occasional four-letter words would probably earn it a PG-13. The director's girlfriend talks briefly about the effects of his dietary changes on their sex life, and there are several shots of needles (for blood tests, etc.) during the director's regular trips to the three doctors he consults during his McDonald's binge. A black bar obscures the details of a rectal examination that the director receives before he embarks on his mission, but an interviewee's stomach reduction operation is shown in full detail.
Photos © Copyright Samuel Goldwyn Films
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/13/04
This week, a Senate panel is hearing arguments about whether or not a film should be R-rated if it shows characters smoking cigarettes.
It's not such a wild idea. After all, films get R-ratings if their characters use certain swear words, expose certain areas of their flesh, or if the violence becomes too extreme for the vulnerable minds of younger viewers. Why not give a film an R-rating for giving attention to equally volatile behavior—one that causes cancer, obesity, depression, and even death?
It makes you wonder—why do we give films strict ratings for certain portrayals of misbehavior while other misbehaviors are shown regularly without any protest? Pride. Lying. Jealousy.
And what about the glorification of eating foods that are bad for you? Should a film be R-rated if the characters wolf down Big Macs on screen or drink Big Gulp-sized cola? Certainly, if characters who cuss can influence impressionable viewers to make poor choices, so can the presentation of reckless consumption of foods that lack nourishment.
Scripture tells us to avoid idle talk, murder, and lust. Thus, many Christians are offended—even outraged—whenever these behaviors are reflected on the big screen. But Scripture also tells us that our bodies are our "temples." We should honor God by being wise in how we use them and in what we give them. Why are those same Christians undistracted by big screen role models who advertise the pleasures of addictive soda pop, candy, and fast food?
Personally, I think artists should be free to portray the way human beings behave—both the good behavior and the bad behavior—in contexts that prod us to think about choices and consequences. It is up to the viewer to listen to his conscience, avoid those things that cause him to stumble, and learn to be a discerning viewer who is not influenced and persuaded by evidence of worldliness. A Christian who vows to "see no evil" will have to build a wall around himself and never venture out into the world Jesus asked us to love.
But we also must exercise our free will, to become strong against temptations toward misbehavior of any kind, whether it is shown in the media or exhibited by our neighbors where we live and work. Christians are called to "test all things and hold fast to what is good." That goes as much for our diet as it does for our media intake.
We're surrounded by fast food advertising. It has a massive influence on children who watch television. It has turned many grownups into junk food addicts. And it is this problem that Morgan Spurlock focuses on in his new documentary Super Size Me.
Whether or not you eat at McDonald's once a year, once a month, once a week, or once a day, if you're a discerning grownup, you should get in line to see this eye-opening, entertaining, appalling documentary. Spurlock decided to find out the hard way whether or not McDonald's fast food is as bad for our bodies as folks say it is. And he did learn. As he committed himself to eating three meals a day from the McD's menu for thirty days, the hard way proved much harder than he—and his doctors—ever dreamed.
Spurlock's film explores much more than the disintegration of his health. It also exposes the ruthless business tactics of fast food companies and national food corporations to get kids addicted to sugar and junk food. This (brave? insane?) filmmaker suggests that there's just as much reason to worry about the discernment and health of people who eat fast food as there is to worry about smokers. The information backs up his argument. So do his internal organs.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Peter T. Chattaway (CT Movies) says, "The film is not just about one man, and it is not just about nutrition. Along the way, Spurlock raises some essential questions about the nature of personal, corporate and social responsibility. The film … underscore[s] the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own health, and it does this in a frequently humorous and self-deprecating way. Whether the viewer agrees with all aspects of Spurlock's political agenda or not, Super Size Me would be perfect for group discussions of all kinds—it gives the viewer plenty of food for thought."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) has some strong criticisms of the documentary. "Spurlock himself is hilarious, and his command of documentary editing is fantastic. He mixes the … interviews with humorous animated sequences. He also makes some helpful points about how the sub-contracting of school food providers might be leading to our junk-food crisis. [But] there is certainly an uncomfortable element of arrogance in Super Size Me. The movie may couch its critique of people who eat at McDonald's on the basis of health, but the reappearing shots of grossly overweight people hold those people up to ridicule. There's no attempt at understanding why people gain so much weight or find so much comfort in food."
Parks is right—Spurlock could have made his film more informative, less confrontational. Still, I want to applaud his courage in bringing this important argument to such a large platform. He could have done it more tactfully, but these are issues that need to be discussed. This is information vital to our health, crucial to our decisionmaking. After all, our diet is a moral and a spiritual issue. It reflects our attitude toward Creation, and thus, toward the Creator himself.
Caution: The film does include some harsh language, graphic imagery of surgery, and some frank talk about how diet affects sexual activity. It also shows a lot of food that's bad for you.from Film Forum, 06/03/04
Reviewing Super Size Me, Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Mr. Spurlock's journey is alternately funny and disgusting, and it is likely to encourage viewers to watch what they eat. He takes the film on some interesting tangents, including a depressing look at school lunches. But as an indictment of McDonald's itself, the documentary is less convincing. Mr. Spurlock admits that his experiment was extreme, but as McDonald's points out in a press release responding the film, and other publications have also documented, Mr. Spurlock's diet was way over the top, even by his own standards."from Film Forum, 06/10/04
Reporting on Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's movie that explores the damaging effects of the fast food industry, Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Spurlock has created a fascinating documentary that is full of facts, moves quickly, and is quite humorous. His message, that we should be better stewards of our bodies and not allow the prevailing, almost overwhelming culture (of eating fast and badly) to tempt us, connects with Christian values. There are a few profanities and obscenities, as well as some inappropriate sexual references … so it is not for children. It is, however, an excellent way for adults to learn about this booming industry."
The film directly affected her eating habits. "Although I'm not a huge fan of fast food, I indulge occasionally. After seeing this movie, however, I intend to avoid fast food as much as possible. During my two-day drive, it took slightly more time and money to find healthier fare, but I felt so much better."
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