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Super Size Me

By Christina Lee

Christina Lee is a Doctoral candidate at Murdoch University (Western Australia) in Cinema and Cultural Studies, and teaches in these fields. Her dissertation looks at women's changing representations in contemporary youth cinema.

 


We have Michael Moore to thank, or blame (depending on where you stand), for the recent surge in infotainment at the cinemas. After the airing of Moore's television series The Awful Truth (1999-2000) and the international acclaim of Bowling For Columbine (2002), there has been fervent public interest in the docudrama (1). As Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004) screen nationally to full houses, in the theatre next door an equally 'heavyweight' production can be found-Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004). With a paltry budget of US$65,000, no drawing cards in the credits, a lack of impressive pyrotechnics and with an agenda of 'nothing but the truth', the reason why this minor project has become a global phenomenon is as revealing of post-Fordist consumer society as it is an exercise in introspection.

Super Size Me documents the escapades of independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as he interrogates one of the world's most lucrative and powerful corporate bodies-McDonald's. Spurlock embarks on a quasi-experiment to test whether, according to a statement made by a fast food chain representative, such retailers serve 'nutritious' food. The rules are simple: for thirty consecutive days a strict McDonald's diet must be adhered to, and portions must be super sized when asked by the counter staff. Armed with the latest 'fat facts' on the obesity crisis afflicting America and goofy wit, Spurlock paints a humorous but alarming picture of the institutionalisation of the fast food industry in contemporary culture. The paradox is encapsulated in a scene in which a group of children are shown images of recognisable personalities. Without hesitation, all are able to identify Ronald McDonald. The eye-opener is when one of those youngsters then mistakes Jesus Christ for George W. Bush.

Super Size Me is not a documentary solely about McDonald's. It uses this multinational chain as a platform from which to address broader questions of America's burgeoning waistline, commercial greed and the lawful ruthlessness of advertising campaigns as it wrestles with issues of personal responsibility. The gut reaction to Super Size Me is so obvious that it appears a moot point to debate. The (de)merits of takeaway food have been widely documented on countless occasions. It features as a mainstay in news reports, medical studies and the curriculum in Home Economics and Health Education in primary and tertiary institutions. There are no hidden skeletons in the closet to be ousted. Spurlock's acknowledgement of this is clear, as are his intentions. The film's raison d'être resides in why the demand for such outlets continues despite existing health warnings. As Spurlock shovelled a Big Mac and half a gallon of soda in his mouth only to graphically regurgitate it fifteen minutes later, I caught myself perplexingly yearning for a serve of french fries and wondering why.

When the 'outside enemy'-be it Communists, those evil Arabs or the hippie Greenpeace radicals-have been catechised, demonised and their hackneyed representations exhausted and performed to death, the laws of laissez-faire demand new adversaries to be named and conquered. Already oversaturated with the threat of external danger, there is only one other place left to turn to-ourselves. In Super Size Me, the audience heckles and gasps at the images of grossly protruding stomachs and saddle-bag thighs, only to be reminded that this is not a foreign vexation. It is on the home front. America has begun to cannibalise its own self as a type of desperate 'comfort food'.

Super Size Me articulates the relation between discourses of economics, the private body and nation. It exposes the great American dream as gluttony of 'epic portions' (although the film's applicability is not restricted to this country alone). In a similar vein to Bowling For Columbine, Spurlock mines and exploits the extremities of his argument. While it may be all too easy to dismiss his reasoning as simplistic and biased, the documentary nevertheless taps into a collective consciousness through the implementation of expert opinion, interviews with prominent figureheads of multimillion dollar conglomerates, street surveys, and bite-size snippets of information laced with a dose of self-deprecation and reflexivity. The result is a film that permits the audience to laugh uneasily, fully aware that they are implicated in the mounting epidemic. Public opinions of Super Size Me are polarised into two camps-those which praise the film, and those which lambaste it as banal and indulgent. With its pop cultural references, MTV-style influences, the tongue-in-cheek commentary and what may be charged as suspect statistics, it is debatable whether Super Size Me is an empirically sound study of human psychology. What is undeniable is that it is convincing filmmaking.

When I exited the multiplex, thoughts that ran through my head were reminiscent of the final words of Ponyboy Curtis. Instead of Paul Newman and a ride home however, all I could think about was a bowl of salad. Without the dressing.



Notes:
  1. Although Moore's films follow in the footsteps of an already established tradition of documentary filmmaking, the political candidness and accessibility of his texts to a wide readership have been paramount to Moore's critical and financial success. This has paved the way for independent features of a similar sort to enter the commercial market, rather than being sidelined as art house productions that receive minimal public exposure.

 


                                                                © THE FILM JOURNAL 2004