Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Super Size Me

A friend of mine used to work shifts at a ‘food preparation’ plant. This was a glum, prison-like building on an out-of-town industrial estate. Here, frozen food was prepared and packaged for delivery to fast food franchises.

Seldom did my friend come off a shift without adding another horror story to his repertoire: an ever-expanding ‘Thousand and One Nights’ of culinary and hygienic outrage.

There were tales of chicken being thawed and refrozen so many times during preparation that the meat was yellow by the time it was ready for delivery. There were hair-raising encounters with rats outside (and sometimes inside) the building. I particularly remember one incident: my friend saw a large, vacuum-packed bag of chicken wings dropped, its contents cascading across the floor. These stringy (and by now decidedly unclean) bits of meat were promptly shovelled up and dumped into the vat containing the breadcrumb/coating mix.

It is because of his experiences at this insalubrious establishment that I have not eaten at a franchise fast food joint for over a decade. It is also why ‘Super Size Me’ should be compulsory viewing for anybody who still does. Its 100-minute running time is as cumulatively queasy as any of my friend’s anecdotes, but if it means that everyone who sees it stops eating at McDonalds, KFC, Burger King or any of the other global-corporate fat-cat food-chains, then that can only be for the good.

The premise of ‘Super Size Me’, a Michael Moore-style documentary in which a serious social problem is addressed in an accessible and often humorous manner, is disarmingly simple. Director Morgan Spurlock sets himself a challenge: for 30 days, he will eat nothing but McDonalds meals. He will work his way through the entire menu, always opting for ‘super size’ when offered*, and consume three meals a day.

Ordinarily, this regime would constitute Grade A masochism. Spurlock, however, emerges as a martyr. And if you think that's a rather over-the top-statement (martyrdom usually conjures images of Christ dragging five-hundredweight of wood up to Golgotha), all I can say is what Spurlock goes through in ‘Super Size Me’ makes ‘The Passion of the Christ’ look like the soft option. This is the Sam Peckinpah of food films – an alternative title might have been ‘Bring Me the Head of Ronald McDonald’.

Morgan Spurlock pigs out, gains weight, voms, and suffers depression and mood swings so that we don’t have to. He dares potentially serious damage to his health (the bollocking his doctor gives him on day 21 of “this ridiculous diet” is as intense and compelling a confrontation as anything in a Scorsese picture) so that we might know the risks.

Of course, the film’s twin revelations - (a) McDonald’s is a corporation and therefore evil; and (b) their food is shite - are hardly unexpected. But Spurlock broadens his remit and the film demonstrates a cynical manipulation of children, a specific and intense targetting of the family unit, by the food industries and those who helm their advertising campaigns.

In a scene that’s almost funny until you remember it's non-fiction, Spurlock shows a group of children pictures of George Washington, Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald. Guess what? The only one they can all identify is Ronnie. (One of them pegs Jesus as George W Bush – now that’s scary!) The Catholic Church once used the slogan “the family that prays together stays together”. Nowadays, it seems the family who watch TV together suffer obesity together.

Four years ago, I took a trip with my father through the Yukon Territory and into Alaska. Towards the end of the trip, we returned the RV we’d hired to the dealership in Whitehorse and went off round the city on foot. All through the trip, the roadside diners we’d fetched up at had offered menus that were so high-calorie you'd have thought Elvis and Rosanne Barr were running the kitchen.

The restaurant we wandered into in Whitehorse was no exception. We were shown to a table and two glasses of iced water appeared before us. The menus had pictures of the food. A couple lumbered past us to the next table. All I could think of was the scene in ‘Jurassic Park’: the concentric rings rippling across the glass of water, the heavy footfalls of the dinosaur resounding offscreen. My father offered an observation in a somewhat more direct fashion: “You know something, lad,” he opined, “I'm getting pissed off with looking at fat arses.”

*Two months after ‘Super Size Me’ premiered at Sundance, McDonalds abolished the ‘super size’ option. Mr Spurlock, sir, you done good!

1 comment:

Patrick Roberts said...

finally got around to seeing Super Size Me... i was impressed by Morgan Spurlock's insight as his movie gets into not only the physical but also the social effects of consuming fast food