Super Size Me
a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
with a Second Opinion by J. Robert Parks
This week, a Senate panel is hearing arguments about whether or not a film should be R-rated if it shows characters smoking cigarettes.
It’s not such a wild idea. After all, films get R-ratings if their characters use certain swear words, expose certain areas of their flesh, or if the violence becomes too extreme for the vulnerable minds of younger viewers. So why not give a film an R-rating for giving attention to equally volatile behavior—one that causes cancer, obesity, depression, and even death?
It makes you wonder. Why do we give films strict ratings for certain portrayals of misbehavior while other misbehaviors are shown regularly without any protest?
Isn’t binge-eating on junk food when you’re hungry as irreverent and reckless as spouting off some expletives when you’re cut off in traffic?
The Holy Scriptures are full of exhortations to avoid idle talk and lustful behavior. Thus, many are offended—even outraged—whenever these behaviors are reflected on the big screen. But Scripture also tells us that our bodies are our “temples.” We should honor God by being wise in how we use them and in what we give them. Why are those same Christians undistracted by big screen role models who advertise the pleasures of addictive soda pop, candy, and fast food?
Certainly, if characters who cuss can influence impressionable viewers to make poor choices, so can the presentation of reckless consumption of foods that lack nourishment.
“Ahem. Jeffrey, isn’t this supposed to be a movie review?”
Okay, I’m off on a tangent. I’m getting a bit carried away.
But hear me out: Personally, I don’t think a movie should be rated-R for showing junk food. Likewise, I don’t think it should get the boot for footage of Marlboros. Artists should be free to portray the way human beings behave—both the good behavior and the bad behavior—in contexts that prod the young and the old to think about choices and consequences. Bad behavior is a part of good storytelling. It is up to the viewer to listen to his conscience, avoid those things that cause him to stumble, and learn to be a discerning viewer who is not influenced and persuaded by evidence of worldliness. And it is up to the parent to screen art and entertainment for their children, protecting them from volatile elements until they’ve trained the kids to be discerning on their own. A person who vows to “see no evil” will have to build a wall around himself and never venture out into the world where he can make a difference.
We must be able to exist in the midst of such recklessness without giving in to it. We’ve got to learn to exercise our free will, to abstain from misbehavior, even if it’s condoned by the media or practiced by our neighbors. We are called to “test all things and hold fast to what is good.” That goes as much for our diet as it does for our media intake.
“Jeffrey, when are you going to get to talking about the film?”
I’m almost there.
We’re surrounded by fast food advertising. It has a massive influence on children who watch television. It has turned many grownups into junk food addicts. It is this problem that Morgan Spurlock focuses on in his new documentary Super Size Me.
Whether or not you eat at McDonald’s once a year, once a month, once a week, or once a day, if you’re a discerning grownup, you should get in line to see this eye-opening, entertaining, appalling documentary. Brave and crazy, Morgan Spurlock decided to find out the hard way whether or not McDonald’s fast food is as bad for our bodies as folks say it is. And he did learn. As he committed himself to eating three meals a day from the McD’s menu for thirty days, the hard way proved much harder than he—and his doctors—ever dreamed.
Spurlock’s film explores much more than the disintegration of his health. It also exposes the ruthless business tactics of fast food companies and national food corporations to get kids addicted to sugar and junk food. This (brave? insane?) filmmaker suggests that there’s just as much reason to worry about the discernment and health of people who eat fast food as there is to worry about smokers. The information backs up his argument. So do his internal organs.
If I say much more about the film, I’ll just be repeating information that Spurlock brings together persuasively and powerfully. So I’ll just say this again: See the film. Show it to your friends and neighbors.
At times, Spurlock’s tone becomes too caustic. He takes too much pleasure in using footage of obese people as punchlines. He spends too much time on the damage that bad food can do to us, and not enough time exploring the difference that good food can make. Like Michael Moore, he enjoys the power that the truth gives him, so he uses the truth heavy-handedly.
Instead of making a calm, reasonable argument, Spurlock goes to extremes and dazzles us with sensational details, like the idiot who drinks three two-liter bottles of soda a day. His arguments would be more effective if he just stuck to the habits of normal consumers and showed us how easy and affordable it is to eat right. Every time he shows one of the fast food maniacs, he makes it easier for the typical junk food fans to say, “Jeez! Well, at least I’m not that bad!”
But still, most of Spurlock’s information is helpful. Most of his arguments are properly persuasive. The pros outweigh (if you’ll excuse the pun) the cons. The chapters about the problems of public school lunch programs, about the way children absorb commercials for poison every day, and… most of all… about the way his deterioration amazed and horrified his doctors… these are worth the price of admission.
Many will see this movie and just shrug it off. When you like what’s hurting you, you don’t want to face it. You don’t want to go through the hard work of changing. But those who encounter this kind of truth and just keep doing what they’re doing are in the same boat as drug addicts, smokers, and alcoholics. And they’ll suffer the consequences.
I don’t want to be one of those people.
A Second Opinion by J. Robert Parks
Morgan Spurlock, the director of the hot, new documentary Super Size Me, is a younger, thinner version of Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine). Casting himself as a gadfly of the rich and powerful, specifically the fast-food giant McDonald’s, Spurlock has created an entertaining persona and a humorously engaging film. His gimmick (and all gadflies need gimmicks to be effective) was to eat at McDonald’s and only McDonald’s for an entire month. He filmed not only his meals, and at one point his vomiting, but also his visits to his increasingly-alarmed doctors, interviews with various fast food workers and patrons, and his own feelings about his worsening health.
Spurlock himself is hilarious, and his command of documentary editing is fantastic. He mixes the aforementioned interviews with humorous animated sequences. He also makes some helpful points about how the sub-contracting of school food providers might be leading to our junk-food crisis. He even tries to set up an interview with the chairman of McDonald’s (think Roger and Me) but only gets as far as a phone conversation with a corporate publicist. Apparently, those McDonald’s folks have been watching Michael Moore, too.
My friend Garth found it amusing that a movie that owes so much to Michael Moore would make fun of people that look like Michael Moore. There is certainly an uncomfortable element of arrogance in Super Size Me. The movie may couch its critique of people who eat at McDonald’s on the basis of health, but the reappearing shots of grossly overweight people hold those people up to ridicule. Why else would the director feel the need to blur their faces? There’s no attempt at understanding why people gain so much weight or find so much comfort in food. Instead, we get Spurlock interviewing people about what a calorie is and how often they eat fast food. Those might make for entertaining answers, but they’re also superficial. The clearest example is when Spurlock interviews a man having stomach reduction surgery. The surgery is filmed while the “Blue Danube” waltz plays in the background. Is this supposed to be funny? Insightful? Some weird commentary on the movie 2001?
There’s also an undercurrent of class elitism. At one point, Spurlock implies that people who don’t sign up at a club that provides their own trainer and nutritionist don’t care about their health. That sort of thing might work for a childless couple living in Manhattan (Spurlock and his vegan girlfriend), but much of middle America doesn’t have that opportunity even if they could afford it. The film ends with an intertitle claiming it took Spurlock nine months to lose the 24 pounds he gained in that one month. So I guess it’s no surprise when his voice closes the film by hectoring folks to eat better…and lose some weight. Still, six weeks after this movie appeared at Sundance, McDonald’s announced that it was discontinuing its Super size. Score a point for the gadfly.