Super Size Me

Morgan Spurlock before and After in Super Size Me

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

15 April

 

Ray Kroc opens the first McDonald’s, 1955

On this day in 1955, sanctioned by the McDonald brothers Richard and Maurice, Ray Kroc opened the first franchise of one of their McDonald’s hamburger restaurants, in Des Plaines, Illinois, USA. The ninth of a chain started by Richard and Maurice in 1948 in San Bernadino, California, the place was an immediate hit, taking hundreds of dollars in its first day. Kroc, a businessman by nature, itched to open more but the McDonalds weren’t particularly expansionist. So, in 1961, Kroc bought the entire company off them for $2.7 million and set about world domination. The McDonald brothers were idealists, possibly naive, and must have been surprised when Kroc opened a McDonald’s near their original restaurant (now named The Big M, since they no longer had the rights to their own name above the door) and drove them out of business. What Kroc got from the brothers, if not their idealism, was their “Speedee Service System”, which turned the preparation and serving of food in the restaurant into something resembling food production in a factory. This also ensured standardised taste, portion size, cooking times, methods and packaging – a product the same wherever in the state or country (and, eventually, the world) you were.

 

 

 

Super Size Me (2004, dir: Morgan Spurlock)

Super Size Me poses the simple question “what would happen if I ate McDonald’s products alone for a month and always said yes when asked if I want to supersize my order?” It’s the film that made Morgan Spurlock big, in more than one sense, and a great piece of to-camera journalism. It helps a lot that New York-based ageing hipster Spurlock is an engaging presence – affable, cheeky, hungry (in more than one sense) – who’s actually rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of a month of pigging out at the golden arches. Providing the much needed counterweight is Spurlock’s constantly appalled girlfriend, Alex, a vegan chef – a master stroke of serendipity.
The set-up is as meticulous as the execution – Spurlock is weighed, probed and tested by doctors, who write down his body mass index, liver function, lipids, cholesterol and so on. We get a lot of interesting background facts – that 46 million people a day eat a McDonald’s, that there are 48 teaspoons of sugar in a supersize Coke (in the US), that McDonald’s spend $1.4billion a year on advertising worldwide, and so on. All this dropped into Spurlock’s one-month binge of burgers, shakes, fries and supersize colas. The results are pretty much what you would expect – Spurlock gets very sick of it very soon and is soon vomiting into his brown bag at the attempt to get all the food on board. As for the medical results – bad, in short, on almost every measurable index. I’m not sure that this is really too much of a shock either.
Made possible by cheaper, smaller high quality digital film-making equipment, Super Size Me is one of a noughties run of films made by activist citizen journalists who use themselves as star/guinea pig. It’s a brilliant piece of global niche targeting, this selling of a film about the nutritional inadequacy of a burger chain’s food to people like himself – educated, aspirational, status-driven. But at bottom Spurlock is preaching to the choir. His attempt to turn the debate about over-eating on a mass scale into a public-health issue – this is about addiction to salt, sugar and fat, we’re told – is half-hearted at best, deeply suspect at worst. Because where there is personal choice, there is no public health issue – this is not polio. Nor does Spurlock address the obvious fact that there is no such thing as “good food” or “bad food”, just good and bad diets. Though if he had, he’d have no film, so it’s understandable from a personal point of view. Imagine, for instance, if Spurlock had consumed nothing but orange juice, or spelt wheat for a month; he’d be dead. By this measure, McDonald’s looks pretty damn healthy.
Still, thanks to his film and his mad experiment, we now know just how bad eating lots and lots of McDonald’s stuff, with no let-up, is for you. And for this Spurlock deserves praise. That he’s made a vastly entertaining documentary out of the investigation – one which has influenced countless similar documentaries, not to mention the menus of McDonald’s and their rivals (fruit! salad! calorie counts!) – is remarkable too. Like being given a toy with your Happy Meal, in fact.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Spurlock’s first documentary, still his best
  • A game-changing “director as dupe” doc
  • A companion doc to McLibel, about the trial of anti-McDonald’s campaigners in London, UK
  • Whatever else you say about it, Spurlock does do the footwork

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Super Size Me – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Super Size Me”

  1. Living with his vegan girlfriend, Morgan Spurlock decides to try and eat McDonalds for every meal for a month. At the same time he reduces the amount of exercise and walking to match that of the ‘average’ American to make for a fair experiment. After an initial bit of sickness he gets to enjoy the food and eats it three times per day. However after a week or two, his doctors begin to notice significant increases in body fat, cholesterol and blood pressure. Interspersed with this are interviews with experts on the nutritional value, marketing and impact of McDonalds and fast food generally.

    Several years ago I read the book Fast Food Nation and basically that ended my interest in the main fast food outlets and saw my consumption of processed foods drop quite a bit. I did not become a born again Christian and still eat rubbish food and am no role model for healthy living! However, what I have notice in the press and in the audiences for this film is a rather smug ‘look at them’ attitude as if this has no impact in Europe and Americans are some sort of freak show and nothing to do with us. This film may focus on McDonalds because it is the world leader in fast food which is high in saturated fats but if all you take from this film is pleasure at seeing McDonalds taking a kicking then you are missing the point. The film was challenging to me and I hope it was to many viewers – but I have not eaten in McDonalds or Burger King since 2001 and a bad bout of food poisoning in early 2003 ended my ability to enjoy KFC. So why did I find it challenging? Well, because like many others, I eat too many saturated fats and, regardless of where they come from (oven foods, ready meals or fast food) I need to cut them down. Spurlock sends this message in a really entertaining way while also having good digs at McDonalds.

    His relaxed style is refreshing and allows the facts to speak for themselves. He clearly doesn’t like fast food as a concept but he is no Michael Moore and is only slightly biased. He is certainly a lot more interesting than his vegan girlfriend who is one of those overbearing self-righteous types who look down their nose at anything. His good humour makes the film but it is the documentary rather than the gimmick that kept me watching. The facts on obesity do speak for themselves and they are frightening and all the more so when you actually sit and think about what you eat – sweets, colas, ready meals, crisps, processed foods; whether it is salt, saturated fats or sugar, any of these foods spells trouble if they are not part of a balanced diet. My only fear of this film is that many viewers will look at McDonalds and say ‘they are to blame, lets get them’ and simply ignore that it is very easy to eat an unhealthy diet – go to any supermarket and you’ll find ‘easy’ food served up quickly but without the things your body needs. I was challenged because I can easily veg out for several days and be too tired to cook decent food and this reminded me why I need to – hopefully many viewers will take that challenge and not just turn from one fatty diet (McDonalds) to another (ready meals).

    I personally didn’t find the film as funny nor as shocking as many commentators have said it was but it was still consistently entertaining and interesting, true not the most scientific of experiments but that is not the point. True, very few people eat McDonalds every day but many, many people do eat foods high in saturated fats everyday even if they are not all happy meals and, in this way, maybe Spurlock’s experiment wasn’t so far-fetched and, lets be honest, like their own lobbyist said – McDonalds are part of the problem. That the film has had an impact is undeniable – the super size option has been removed and how many salads did you see in McDonalds this time last year? It may seem unfair and I can understand why McDonalds has been quick to counter it and call it unfair and, in a way it is unfair – why should they carry the whole blame for an overwhelming surge in unhealthy eating, but I suppose that’s what you get for being the market leaders!

    Overall this was a very entertaining film that mixes its gimmick well with humour but also a good core of a documentary with interesting talking heads who don’t rant or rave but simply look to the figures in most cases. However, I would say this; if you only see this film to sneer at those visibly unhealthy or to tear a strip off McDonalds then you are missing the bigger point – it is easy to eat unhealthy, cheap food no matter what brand it is – eating it every day and having a poor diet is a major problem and, if nothing else this should challenge all of us to look at our own habits and not just point and laugh at others.

  2. Fast food is good. I freely admit to running through fast food drive-thrus (Wendy’s, Taco Bell and McDonald’s being my top 3) often, sometimes several times a week. And I’m not the only one. I’m also one of the many millions of people in the country who are, uh…not thin. Think there’s a connection?

    In "Super Size Me", a documentary from talented debut filmmaker Morgan Spurlock that manages to be both entertaining and horrifying, he attempts to draw a parallel between the fast food culture we live in and the rampant (and ever-increasing) rate of obesity in America.

    To do this, he launched into a little science experiment. A 33 year-old New Yorker in excellent health, he would eat nothing but McDonald’s for an entire month, to gauge the effects on his body. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner at McDonald’s and whenever they asked him to supersize, he would have to accept.

    Before starting, he consulted three doctors, a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a general practitioner, all of whom said this experiment obviously wouldn’t be GOOD for him, but that the damages would be minimal.

    Instead, the results were pretty shocking. Spurlock gained almost 30 pounds (over 10 in the first week), saw his cholesterol skyrocket, and experienced frequent nausea, chest pains, mood swings and loss of sex drive.

    During this month he also drove around the country, interviewing several different people on the topic (including a "Big Mac enthusiast" who has eaten over 19,000 Big Macs). His research on our fast food culture definitely yields some interesting information, especially when he interviews a group of 1st-graders, and more of them can identify Ronald McDonald than Jesus or George Washington.

    "Super Size Me" isn’t perfect. It’s a little repetitive and has a certain thinness to it (no pun intended!) that prevents it from being one of the truly great comedic documentaries of recent years like "American Movie" or "Bowling For Columbine".

    But even if it falls short of greatness, it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking film (especially if you’re, uh…not thin).

    Spurlock is a witty and engaging host (sort of like Michael Moore but not as much of a windbag), and I also liked his girlfriend (a vegan chef!) who looks on his experiment with a mixture of amusement, horror, and dismay. Just like we do.

  3. I had a report to do on childhood obesity, and I could use this documentary as one of my resources. May I say that I was glad that I watched this film. It is very terrifying what the fast food industry has done to this country. I’m not trying to bad rap them, they’re a business. That’s what they do, they try to make money. Do I agree with all the law suits going on with people blaming McDonald’s and Burger King for making them fat? No, nobody is shoving the food down their throats. But there are so many people out there that are heavy users of fast food, and this documentary shows what the damaging effects can be of eating fast food. I gave up fast food, and have not had any for over a year now, and my health has boosted up majorly. Watching this film might make you want to stay away from the fast food restaurants, but if not, it’ll make you think more about what you are eating.

    10/10

  4. This documentary film by Morgan Spurlock asks the intriguing and topical question: What would happen to a normal 33-year-old man in perfect health who stands six feet two and weighs 185 pounds if he ate nothing but McDonald's fast food for thirty days?

    Well, it is not recorded that he shrunk. In fact, Spurlock, forsaking his vegan girlfriend's healthy cuisine, gained about 25 pounds and saw his cholesterol level shoot up to dangerous levels as he huffed and puffed his way three times a day through myriad Big Macs and fillet o' fish sandwiches, milk shakes, sodas, fries and other not-so-delicate items from the menu of the world's largest purveyor of fast food. He had hired three doctors and a registered dietician to check his vital signs and give him a thorough physical exam prior to this experiment in not-so-fine dining. Before the gorging was done all three doctors and the dietician advised him in the most uncertain terms for the sake of his health to stop eating the sugar-laden, fat-smeared, nearly fiber-free "diet." But Spurlock, trooper that he is, amid the McTingles and the McPukes, hung in there until the very end.

    I can report that he survived the experience. Whether the viewer will is another matter. If you yourself (God help you) are seriously overweight you might want to pass on this excruciatingly detailed misadventure under the Golden Arches. All that fat slapping against those waddling thighs (Spurlock mercifully fuzzed out the faces of his subjects, allowing us only body shots), all that jiggling flesh under those XXXL garments might be too uncomfortably close to home for some sensitive viewers.

    But was this a fair test of the harmful consequences of eating Happy Meals and being super sized? After all, Spurlock eschewed exercise during the experiment, and of course nobody (?) actually eats every meal at McDonald's as Spurlock did. Furthermore he actually doubled his normal caloric intake from about 2500 calories a day to about 5000. Regardless I think we can say that his experience was indicative.

    The real question to be asked here (and Spurlock asks it) is whether McDonald's (or as some have dubbed thee) whether McDeath's can be or should be held responsible for the epidemic of obesity that is sweeping the country. Spurlock implies that McDonald's should be held responsible at least for its advertising aimed at children. I agree with this. But I also think that adults ought to know what they are doing. If they choose to chow down at a place that loves to super size and under nourish them, perhaps they themselves should be held responsible for the consequences. However, some people feel that the advertising has been so insidious for so long and the food so addictive to susceptible individuals that McDonald's ought to be taken to court just as the tobacco companies have been.

    For more information on the epidemic, its consequences, and what can be done about it, I refer the interested reader to The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin by Ellen Ruppel Shell; Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fastest People in the World by Eric Critser; and Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. Schlosser appears in one of the bonus features being interviewed by Spurlock. This interview is one of the highlights of the DVD. Schlosser is articulate, candid, and very well-informed.

    Spurlock of course is a performer as well as a film maker. His directorial style owes something to that of Michael Moore, and his playful on-camera muggings remind me of Ian Wright of PBS's Globe Trekker series.

    See this as an introduction to this most serious threat to the nation's health, especially as it affects children. Morgan Spurlock is to be commended for bringing the reality of the epidemic to the attention of the general public.

    By the way, "McTingles" are those highflying, scary feelings you get after rapidly injecting massive amounts of pure sugar and caffeine into your system, usually by gulping your way through a 64-ounce McCola–and to think when I was a kid, Coca-Cola came in six-ounce bottles. How ever did we survive? "McPukes" are self-explanatory.

    (Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)

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