Super Size Me
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Thursday, July 8 2004, 7:36 PM
Santa Cruz, California is hostile territory for Ronald McDonald. There are regular anti-meat demonstrations outside the local McDonald's outlets and management greases the flagpoles so that the McDonald's flag can't be stolen.
Despite the social opprobrium that attached to being seen in a McDonald's, I used to like dropping by their Ocean St. shop on the way back from classes. I would order a serving of fries, on which I was -- and still am -- very keen.
So I was amused one early evening when Mike Rotkin walked into the place. Mike has been the off-and-on mayor of Santa Cruz over the years, and is usually the only socialist mayor in the United States when he takes office. He is also a lecturer in Community Studies with whom I had made friends during a seminar on Marxism and literature. The guy who stood in front of his Marxism lecture class calling for socialist revolution to an overflow hall of cheering students was doing Big Macs alongside The German Ideology?
No, it was French fries that drove the man's passion. "McDonald's makes the best fries made, don't they?" said Mike. He confessed himself a McDonald's fries devotee too and sat down with his own serving of fries. "If only my political enemies could see me now," he mused. In Santa Cruz, this sort of public anti-social behavior could lose you the vegan voting bloc.
Mike and I shared a moment of gastro-political contradiction, since despite our common anti-capitalist politics we were still sitting down to enjoy corporate McDonald's fries. It is one matter to oppose a mode of production, its environmental devastation, exploitative labor practices, and cumulative toxic effects on consumers. It is another matter, despite acknowledging the systemic effects of the fast food industry, to forego some of its products that you actually like. None of us are pure of conscience.
Morgan Spurlock seems to have encountered many such moments of contradiction. Indeed, his personal motivations to make Super Size Me seem to have emerged from his chagrined awareness that he can occasionally enjoy a Big Mac as much as one of the healthy dishes created by his earnest girlfriend, a vegan chef.
Super Size Me is an excellent documentary exploration of the ill health created by a monomaniacal month-long all-McDonald's splurge. Spurlock's physicians, who initially predicted only minor effects when they took baseline measurements at the start of this month of nutritional torture, are some of the most awed and surprised observers as their patient's blood work indices plummet towards disaster. His once-excellent health is near ruin after only two weeks; he gains 24 pounds over the month, ruining the physique of a former dancer. And as his girlfriend testifies in graphic detail, even Spurlock's sexual virility declines precipitously as a result of his thrice-daily tryst with the McDonald's order counter.
The film tells its audience little about which they likely already do not know about the nutritional catastrophe of a McDonald's diet. Its innovation lies in the voluntary month-long immersion of one individual in its sufferance. There is a political statement in its own right to the Day 3 sight of Spurlock leaning out his car window after a major Super Size meal and puking heartily. The Last McDonald's Supper on Day 31, complete with celebratory clowns, is a relief to all. Detox salvation has arrived.
Spurlock is a devotee of the Michael Moore school of documentary filmmaking, right down to the devices of a prolonged but fruitless pursuit of corporate interviews in Roger & Me and the animation segments of Bowling for Columbine. As a film crew follows him daily and records how increasingly awful he feels, Spurlock exhibits a grace and good humor that carries his project through.
Importantly, this documentary raises the issue of arguments of individual responsibility with which the fast-food industry has defended itself. There is a vast contradiction in an industry asserting that consumers bear sole responsibility for decision-making while spending billions of advertising dollars annually to ensure that consumers make a decision to purchase their products. It is a contradiction monumentally greater than two people with anti-corporate politics discovering that they nonetheless share a hankering for some McDonald's fries.
Corporate politics currently prevail on this issue, however, since the March 2004 passage of the 'Cheeseburger Law' (formally known as the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act) preventing courts from assuming jurisdiction in cases claiming damages against corporations promoting over-consumption of fast food. Or as House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) phrased this attempted legislative denial of access to the courts, "'Ronald McDonald made me do it' should never be considered the basis for a lawsuit." Eventually, after as-yet unknown hundreds of thousands of lives have been needlessly harmed and shortened by such willful corporate irresponsibility, litigation will breach this congressionally erected barrier and fast-food corporations will face the same liability as tobacco companies.
Ideological assertions of individual responsibility and free-market rhetoric have been deployed ceaselessly as legal defenses and cover-ups of corporate irresponsibility. Progressive campaigns have played a crucial role in hollowing out such corporate claims and Super Size Me is a strong contribution to this political work.
To play Burger Man, the official Super Size Me game, visit Supersizeme.com.