Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Not-so-Super Size Me

Finally got around to watching at least part of Super Size Me. I'm quite disappointed.

Morgan Spurlock had a brilliant idea, and he deserves full credit for following through. For those who missed all the hype, he went on an all-McDonald's diet and significantly cut his exercise. The rapid weight gain and onset of other medical symptoms is staggering. He takes his camera into the physicals he takes during his month of gluttony, and the reaction of the doctors -- who are actually surprised at the severity of his problems -- is some of the best "reality" programming you'll ever see. That part of the film is terrific, as are some of the general points he makes about the toll of obesity. (Warning: Look away during the surgery scene.)

Unfortunately, he broadens the scope, and in doing so, he undermines his point. Seen as an example of what happens when someone makes poor diet and exercise decisions, it's a solid piece of work. Seen as a broadside against McDonald's, soda commercials and school lunches, it's a strident, misleading political film that confirms all the worst stereotypes of the Left.

It's all too easy to go Mystery Science Theater 3000 on this film when he's doing anything other than following his own descent into blobness. He goes into a McDonald's and has difficulty locating the nutritional information, which will ring false to anyone who spends any time in Mickey D's. His bit on school lunches reminded me of the overbearing documentary maker in Beavis and Butt-head, who was hell-bent on showing a generation in crisis no matter how long he had to follow around our favorite teen wastrels. And yeah, we get it, more kids recognize Ronald McDonald than whichever dead president Spurlock decides to show them.

The part that made me put on the headphones and crank some Afro Celt Sound System was his exposition on calories. It started as a fun bit in which all his "man on the street" interviewees didn't know what a "calorie" actually is. He then offers up an expert to define it -- the amount of energy needed to heat a kilogram of water by 1 degree. OK, smirk, smirk, smirk. Now could you explain why that's significant? Why a cyclist or swimmer may eat 2-3 times as many calories as someone who only gets mild exercise? Anyone?

In other words, he complains that no one knows what a calorie is, and then he offers only the irrelevant part of the answer. Morgan, this -- not the soda machines -- is why our schools suck. We think kids are smart because they can raise their hands and give utterly trivial regurgitated answers. (Yeah, it worked for me when I was applying to college, but ...)

The easiest criticism of the film is that Spurlock takes the diet to the extreme. He eats way more than he's supposed to, and he cuts out the exercise. He responds at the end of the film that there are indeed people who eat and (don't) exercise that way. Fair point. But when so many other scenes in the film are snide comments about McDonald's itself, it's easy to read it as "McDonald's sucks" rather than "Hey, go easy on the fries and do some power walking, dude."

The goal, of course, should be moderation. That'll help anyone's diet, and it would've helped the film. Instead, it's too easily derided as a shrill, anti-capitalist rant. (If you read that sentence and think, "Hey, that's the big problem with Michael Moore, too," I'll take your word for it. I wasn't interested in seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 because documentary footage of Bush putting on makeup -- as if that made him any different from any president of the television era -- didn't appeal to me.)

The reaction I've seen to the film generally misses the boat as well. Wikipedia's contributors dutifully compiled a list of "rebuttal experiments" showing you can lose weight by eating only at McDonald's. Sure, if you make careful choices and eat only 2,000 calories a day, fine. They're essentially arguing personal responsibility, which is Spurlock's penultimate point. (Again, he leaves himself open for such criticism by making his final point a Ronald McDonald tombstone.)

McDonald's UK operations came up with a clever response, and they wisely start by conceding that the Spurlock diet would be bloody awful. They also tout their healthier options, some of which have come about quite recently. Unfortunately, their "true-false" quiz (hint: check "false" over and over) inaccurately implies that Spurlock made the "true" points, and the "balanced diet" they offer sounds terrible. If you want to go to McDonald's each day and eat nothing but fruit and lettuce, more power to you.

Then there's Spurlock Watch, which is the typical self-congratulating libertarian bullshit that made you lock your dorm's resident drunk out of the building back in college. Among the clunkers here: "And as regular readers of my blog know by now, today's adolescent or teen is still 200-700 times more likely to have anorexia or bulimia than to have Type II Diabetes. So all of this focus on weight and food with respect to kids is probably doing a hell of a lot more harm than good."

Riiiight. We don't want to push Dylan and Madison off the self-esteem cliff into bulimia, so let's run into McDonald's and shred all those mean old nutritional guides. If they think the Big Mac diet is good for them, well, they can't handle the truth.

My advice: Record or rent Super Size Me and just fast-forward or zone out through the pontificating. And switch to the small fries.


Bonnie said...

So, what'd you think of his series? Or did you catch it?

Great stuff. Morgan Spurlock is much more manageable in 49-minute blocks.

Neel Mehta said...

I agree with Bonnie. The TV show works when Spurlock isn't the test subject, but the episode that sticks out most to me is the pilot, when he and his saintly girlfriend go Nickel and Dimed and try to live 30 days off of minimum wage. The brilliance of the episode? They can't.

The problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 is that Michael Moore quietly realizes something: this satiric film about Dubya was also the first feature-length film to deal with 9/11, and so the grieving mother has to take over the movie. The tone completely changes, and Michael Moore is unable to refocus the movie to address his personal politics. It's not bad, but it's not Bowling for Columbine.