Super Size Me (2004)

Dir. Morgan Spurlock

Documentaries by lefty performance propagandists – like Morgan Spurlock or, better yet, Michael Moore – rely heavily on spectacle to make larger points about the social order and for that reason, the one sentence synopses of those documentaries tend to be misleading. Bowling for Columbine isn’t really about guns, but a culture of fear that Americans support which other nations don’t. And Super Size Me isn’t really about fast food, but about a culture of hyperindulgence that Americans support which other nations don’t. American exceptionalism makes a great focus for propagandist documentaries, but “exceptionalism” has, at long last, become a dirty word. Super Size Me was, despite its long sequences at doctor’s offices and its worried conversations with nutritionists, not a question of the scientific effects of eating vast quantities of fast food over the course of a month, but a bold, gargantuan, self-immolating proposal. There’s nothing more American than McDonald’s, and gorging yourself on America, Spurlock proves, is a 21st Century direct deposit from Sin.

The rules of Spurlock’s game, which generate the personal drama in the film which drives this particular subgenre, are clear and, despite his failing health, immutable. For one month he must eat three meals a day from McDonald’s, eating nothing that McDonald’s does not sell, and he must have everything on the menu at least once. He is not allowed exercise, nor is he allowed more steps than the average office-bound, car-commuting American takes. Most memorably, if he is asked by a cashier if he’d like to “Super Size,” then he must do so. (I worked fast food as a summer job when I was in college, and I was absolutely amazed at how rarely he was asked if he wanted to Super Size; people at my store were taught to try to upsize people whenever possible, and I can’t imagine that McDonald’s in 2004 wasn’t training people to Super Size.) It takes him about a week to get through the entire menu, which is simultaneously much longer and much less time than you’d expect it to take. In the first week, he throws up his first Super Sized meal, which he eats in his car, and has an absolutely dramatic weight gain, spike in blood pressure, and decrease in mood and libido. About three weeks in, Spurlock begins having chest pains and spends no small amount of time with his doctors; in the late stage of his experiment, he begins to note that his mood jumps right after eating McDonald’s and then gets worse the further away he gets from his meal, which is weirdly similar to how addiction works.

The human drama of the documentary is centered on Spurlock, who with his dumb bro facial hair and his bulldoggish face is at least as interesting to look at as Audrey Hepburn. His hostile interviews are significantly less aggressive than Michael Moore’s, whose shtick Spurlock borrows more or less for the better. Spurlock plays a genial host in front of the camera, the kind of guy who in a different lifetime and with a slightly different sense of what’s important would be doing the same thing for a Girls Gone Wild collection. Moore is the superior performance artist. In Fahrenheit 9/11 he reads the Patriot Act to a Congress who can’t hear him, amplified by an ice cream truck and circling the Capitol. That’s a gag that would work in an Altman or Fellini flick, just like going up to members of Congress and asking them to volunteer their children for the War in Iraq is like the G-rated version of something you can imagine Divine doing. Spurlock doesn’t quite have that in him, and the film truly doesn’t need it. Moore punches up whenever possible; Spurlock, knowing that America actually is all around us, can aim his blows wherever he wants. The A-plot of his documentary aims those blows at himself, making a fatty, sugary petri dish par excellence. 

In some cases he uses interviews of normal folks off the streets of New York or some other American city, proving that he can stand more or less to the side without.becoming the star of a sequence. (“Normal” may be a strong word; all of his interviewees, especially that personal responsibility believer with the jungle hat and sunglasses, are memorable.) These people tend not to know the literal definition of the word “calorie,” eat fast food more than they should, and generally evince their normality by being totally unexceptional in early 2000s America. He interviews still alive and thriving Don Gorske, whose nearly 30,000 Big Macs (by now, not at the time of filming) are a physical accomplishment about as impressive as LeBron James’ incredible durability. Gorske is more or less unique among the people interviewed in that he is neither a villain of the fattening of America nor a victim; you almost can’t help but root for the guy, even if he’s a McDonald’s Horcrux. But Spurlock also finds ways to bring pinatas into focus, and while he doesn’t have Moore’s penchant for shock and awe or Charles H. Ferguson’s incredulity, he has a disarming quasi-curiosity which gets people to talk more than they ought.

The one that stands out for me are the people in charge of cafeteria food at a public middle school. The lowest-ranking one of the bunch is a lunch lady who takes Spurlock on a tour of the freezers. She gesticulates with her box-cutter, calling it the best tool they have in the lunchroom. Another lunch lady, as well as the woman in charge of the meal plan, presumably the one in charge, are more or less unperturbed by the students who only get fries or candy bars or sugary drinks for lunch. They bring things from home, they say. The fries are just a side. Spurlock, recognizing that there’s an easy way to figure out if that’s true, wanders over to where the students are eating and finds out the obvious: no, the fries and candy bars and sugary drinks are lunch. That interview in particular always leaves me a little chilled. Professionally, I’ve seen enough students eating lunch to know that they really are just buying junk food and calling it lunch; I’ve heard comments from the film (where a girl in line argues that her French fries are vegetables because they’re potatoes) spoken to me by kids in real life; worst of all, I’ve found myself having to explain to high school students how food groups work. The gym teacher at that same school – he knows where his towel is at – understands how No Child Left Behind gives all extra time resources  to testing, thus drying up a chance for students to learn about, much less participate in, health classes or exercise routines. He compensates as best he can, but it seems like the kids are getting no guidance from the administration or from the food service team about how to make good choices. As a classroom teacher, I’m in the cafeteria enough to know what students are eating on a daily basis; how can a group of people who work primarily in the cafeteria turn a blind eye, or think their lies will go uncaught on camera?

It’s scenes like that one which convince me that this isn’t really a film about McDonald’s itself, or some foodie Don Quixote fanfiction. No one mentions McDonald’s throughout that sequence in a school, but that school is completely typical, and the familiarity of the scene reminds just about everyone of the fact that they went to school, and that their kids are in such a school. McDonald’s has managed to crowd its way into the public sector as well as dominate the private, and as long as their influence – cheap, gross, fatty, sugary, unhealthy food – is part of all the areas of a child’s life, it will be part of the adult’s. It’s the same principle as cigarettes, which is why John Banzhaf (come for the anti-smoking initiatives, stay for the math on voting blocs) is in this movie. Much is made in Super Size Me of the connection between Big Tobacco and Big Fast Food, which, like Big…Wall Street in the mid-late 2000s, makes its money off of practices which will hurt and/or kill their customers, and for good reason.

Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 and Inside Job, which also look at America broadly while seemingly focused on pinpricks of light, Super Size Me has led to some change. You can no longer “Super Size” anything at McDonald’s, and in fact haven’t been able to in over a decade. Super Sizing is a phenomenon better known to young millennials as the plot of an episode of Parks and Rec, not a thing that you could actually do. The Smart Snack Act has been passed. Trans fats are being phased out of American food. More and more, “fast casual” has become a niche as people look for (at least seemingly) healthier options on the menus of people trying to get a quick, cheap bite to eat. Even the regular fast food places have adopted healthier sides and smaller portion sizes on some menu items. (Back to my fast food experience real fast – I used to work at a fast food joint with a sandwich which featured lots of bacon, and although one could order the “triple” version, we were taught only to offer “single” and “double.”) And while McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s continue to fly high, they had to correct their courses. In America, a colossal ship with a largely unresponsive rudder, that ain’t nothing.

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