It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.
"Look after the customer and the business will take care of itself."-Ray Kroc, McDonald's founder
When we go to see a movie, even a documentary, we are setting out to be entertained. If a documentary bores me or loses my interest, I would consider it a failure, even if it does make interesting points. Showmanship is an essential part of entertainment, and this remains true regardless of the type of entertainment you engage in. Over the last few decades, there has been a rise in the documentary of several individuals who make themselves the movie they are in, either because they find themselves to be the most fascinating part of any story they tell, or because they feel that making their movies personal will make them more effective. The most prominent figure of this school of documentary filmmaking is Michael Moore, and we will get to him later in this feature. Yet another rising star of this type of filmmaking (let's call it the docuMEntary) is the director of today's film: Morgan Spurlock.
Personally, I have never liked Mr. Spurlock, even in spite of the face that I had never seen any of his movies until I watched Super Size Me for this feature. Partially, this is because I don't think his ideas for movies are particularly original or, it must be said, good. The rest of my dislike stems from the fact that in every interview I have ever seen with him, and in fact in the movie we will discuss momentarily, Spurlock comes off as a smug, self-righteous narcissist, an exploitative hack who is far too satisfied with the incredibly obvious points he is making. His second film Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? was a documentary examining the war on terror, a topic so shockingly unique I can think of five other documentaries that cover the exact same thing in the time it took me to write this sentence. His newest film, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is about product placement, a topic I have heard discussed, debated, and overtly mocked by television shows SO often in the last few years that I can barely manage to care. Also, let it be said that I don't think product placement is the worst thing ever (while I don't watch Chuck, fans of the show are probably very grateful to Subway for the show's continued existence, and I think if Burger King is willing to finance an episode of Arrested Development that mocks the fact that it was financed by Burger King, everyone in that situation wins).
I tend to feel that when the entire purpose of a movie, documentary or not, is to impart a message that is basically just common sense, that movie is a waste of my fucking time. I always cite Traffic as an example of this; the movie's entire message boils down to "drugs are bad" and it wasted two and a half hours of my life beating me over the head with that fact. Before going into Super Size Me, I knew that eating McDonald's three meals a day for a month would be bad for you, that corporate interests have a stranglehold on American politics, and that fast food restaurants are actively targeting children to create lifelong customers who will consume their unhealthy food. In a nutshell, this means that the only advantage Super Size Me has over Traffic is that it isn't as long.
Chuck Klosterman once wrote a piece (included in his stellar book IV) in which he ate nothing but Chicken McNuggets for a week. Eight Years later, Morgan Spurlock released a movie with basically the same premise. Spurlock sets out to eat only food sold at McDonalds for a month, a promise he sticks to so stringently that he even refuses to take aspirin because McDonalds does not sell pharmaceuticals. He has a nutritionist and three doctors along for the ride, all basically there to tell him that eating only McDonalds is a bad idea and to track his devolution over the course of the month. Along the way he also ties in asides on the nutritional value of school lunches, the advertising campaigns used by McDonalds, and the lobbying efforts that go into ensuring the success of the fast food industry.
Klosterman wrote a great essay on the film for Esquire in which he both questions the accuracy of the film (he lost a pound and suffered few ill-effects from his experience) and questions whether the movie makes a valid point. His answer, with which I whole-heartedly agree, is that it doesn't. We all know fast food is bad for us. Even the people who eat McDonalds every day know that. When we eat fast food, we are making a choice. It is a shitty choice, sure, but it is our own choice nevertheless. Spurlock references tobacco lawsuits and discusses at length the suit brought by two young girls against McDonalds for making them fat. The girls lost their lawsuit, and they should have. There are exorbitant amounts of information out there telling us that fast food is incredibly unhealthy for us and that eating it will have detrimental effects to our health. No one thinks McDonalds is the ideal meal, and if they choose to eat a lot of it, they will live with the consequences.
Kudos must be given to Spurlock for some interesting musical choices (including use of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" as kids dance around with Ronald McDonald) to underline his fairly obvious points. For me, the highlight of the film was all of the McDonalds related art he uses as transitions throughout the film. Turning fast food chain mascots into rampaging monsters destroying a city beneath a recreation of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," or having an obese Ronald McDonald at the center of a "Last Supper" recreation is all in good fun in my book, even if most of the art he chooses is fairly obvious as well. I would rather watch an entire movie dedicated to people repurposing Ronald McDonald for art that satirizes our fast food culture than one who snidely reminds us that burgers and fries aren't as healthy as fruits and vegetables.
The largest problem I have with Super Size Me is Spurlock's self-righteousness. Sure, he's better than his Vegan chef girlfriend (the two are now married) who tries to guilt him into veganism by comparing ham to heroin, yet he still seems to take every opportunity to show off how healthy he was before he started this experiment, to express his total disgust at the meals he is eating and at the people who eat them a lot, and to show how much he hates doing this thing that he chose to do and could stop doing at any point. There are numerous montages of obese people throughout the film, not because they're necessary to show that McDonalds makes you fat, but because obesity is disgusting to Spurlock and he wants you to be disgusted as well.
I have no doubt that Spurlock was putting on a performance throughout the film. I've eaten terrible food for three days straight and didn't feel the need to vomit out my car's window (but still in view of the camera), and nothing about the parameters of his self-assigned task required him to eat all of the food he ordered. That bothers me less than some of the exploitative portions of the film, the worst of which involves Spurlock showing pictures of several well known figures (among them George Washington, Jesus, and George W. Bush) interspersed with photos of fast food mascots. Manipulating kids never wins a filmmaker support in my eyes (and was one of my many, many problems with Davis Guggenheim's terrible Waiting For Superman last year), and it isn't that shocking to me that more six year olds know Ronald McDonald than George Washington. It's depressing, to be sure, but it isn't surprising, nor is it particularly enlightening.
Ultimately, Morgan Spurlock asks the obvious questions and is incredibly self-satisfied when he "uncovers" evident answers. He expresses shock and dismay at the fact that kids choose to eat pizza and French fries for lunch at school when left to their own devices, and more than implies that the school should be stopping them from doing that. Should schools serve healthier lunches? Of Course. But the revelation that when they don't, kids will pick unhealthy food every time isn't investigative journalism, nor is it interesting filmmaking; its obviousness masquerading as revelation. Super Size Me is a movie you can see without ever watching it. If you expect a film about a man who eats fast food and becomes less healthy as a result, you've basically already seen the movie anyway. I waited seven years after the film's release to sit down and watch it; after the credits rolled I felt like I had seen the movie seven years ago, just by watching the trailer. I don't always have a problem with docuMEntaries, but I do think that if you're going to put yourself at the center of a film, you should make sure you're interesting first. And barring that, you should at least make sure you're examining an issue you might be able to shed a light on. Otherwise what you'll end up with is Super Size Me, a docuMEntary with an annoying center and a message so redundant you'll probably find more enlightenment in your average McDonalds. It may not be better for you, but eating a Big Mac sure is more fun.Read more It's Been Real here
Coming up on It's Been Real:
11/13: Dear Zachary
11/27: Capturing the Friedmans
12/11: Triumph of the Will
12/25: Young at Heart