'Would you like to Super Size that?'
The day before the United States premiere of Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s chronicle of a month spent eating nothing but McDonald’s, the fast-food chain announced a new product. Surreally, the GoActive Happy Meal comprises a salad, a bottle of water — and a free pedometer.
‘The timing was just an amazing coincidence,” says Spurlock, arching his eyebrows as he echoes the McDonald’s official line on the matter.
Soon after, they began phasing out Super Size meals, too. ‘Again — just a coincidence.” And weeks beforehand, Jim Cantalupo, the company’s burger-loving US chief executive, died of a heart attack. ‘Another amazing coincidence!” exclaims Spurlock — which in that instance, assuming no divine intervention in collaboration with his documentary’s publicists, it presumably was.
‘Obviously,” he adds, poker-faced, ‘a very sad coincidence.” Nothing about the 34-year-old’s $65 000 film project seemed destined to make the Golden Arches wobble.
Spurlock was mainly known, if at all, for a gonzo reality show called I Bet You Will (‘We once persuaded a Wall Street trader to sell us the clothes off his back,” he recalls. ‘We left him in his underwear and his shoes at eight in the morning.”) And in any case, McDonald’s executives must have reasoned, who wants to watch someone shovel away 90 consecutive meals of burgers, buckets of fries, plasticky cheese and litres of Coke, just in case it sends them into some sort of grotesque physical and mental meltdown? Well, yes, exactly: everyone does!
‘That’s the great thing,” says Spurlock, now apparently recovered from his ordeal and lounging next to a huge plate of pastries at London’s Dorchester hotel. ‘You already have an investment in the movie just because you want to know what happens to this guy. It’s a great way to take the edge off a very preachy subject.” At the US box office the film has taken more than $10-million.
Spurlock’s journey to dietary hell is the core of the film — the rules are that he must eat everything on the menu at least once during the month, and must always answer ‘yes” to the question: ‘Would you like to Super Size that?” But following the Mary Poppins principle about a spoonful of sugar Super Size Me also manages to weave in a powerful argument about the politics of food.
The result, which won Spurlock the best director award at the Sundance film festival this year, has also provoked an increasingly loud and coordinated response from McDonald’s, and from several individuals who have taken it upon themselves to conduct rival binges to try to discredit him. In Australia, cinema-goers get to watch a McDonald’s ad arguing that the film they are about to see is full of misleading distortions. (The firm refused to cooperate with the movie itself.)
Spurlock’s month starts off pleasantly enough — for one day. On the second day, he vomits graphically out of a car window, the camera following every splatter.
By the fourth day, he is complaining of ‘weird pulsing feelings” in his stomach, and then his penis.
‘About seven days in, I started to notice this pressure on my chest, and by day nine I was getting incredibly depressed,” he remembers. He had become addicted, he maintains.
‘I would eat the food and feel fantastic for about an hour. Then I’d feel depressed again.” About halfway through, he starts complaining of headaches. This is also the point at which we see Spurlock’s girlfriend — a vegan chef — tell the camera that he’s ‘having a hard time getting it up”.
Soon after, the doctors monitoring his condition stop treating it as a joke and warn him that his liver is ‘turning to pâté”; by the end of the month, Spurlock has gained a 10th of his original body weight and his cholesterol has increased by 65 points.
Subtlety isn’t Spurlock’s forte, but Super Size Me is more than a simple tirade against McDonald’s. The original inspiration was the legal action filed on behalf of two New York teenagers whose parents claimed the chain was responsible for their obesity — ‘I thought they were crazy,” Spurlock recalls. ‘Are we so litigious in America that we’re going to sue a company for selling us the food we buy?”
But the company’s response irked him just as much. ‘A spokesman for McDonald’s comes on TV and says listen, you can’t link our food to these girls being obese. Our food is healthy, it’s nutritious. So I said, well, if it’s that good for me, shouldn’t I be able to eat it for 30 days straight with no side-effects? To live the all-American diet of over-eating and under-exercising, and be fine?”
This, of course, is where the film’s logic falters: a three-McDonald’s-a-day diet is so extreme that it seems, at face value, unlikely to reveal much about more realistic levels of overindulgence. Spurlock pleads artistic licence: plenty of people eat at McDonald’s five or six times a week, ‘and if you’re doing that, let’s be realistic. You’re not going home and eating humus sandwiches and then going to the gym.”
It’s to his credit, though, that one of the film’s best interviewees seems to undermine his point that a fast-food diet is necessarily nutritionally catastrophic: Don Gorske, a Wisconsin man, walked into a McDonald’s in 1972, ordered nine Big Macs over the course of that first day, and has eaten almost nothing else since, clocking up almost 20 000 burgers. He’s not fat.
By the end of the film, Spurlock’s perspective on who should take the blame for fast-food-induced obesity turns out to be surprisingly nuanced. It’s only really the McDonald’s marketing — not its menus, nor the sheer fact of its existence — that seems to provoke him.
‘If you saw someone pouring $1,4-billion into encouraging people to eat apples,” he says, a reference to the amount McDonald’s spends in a single year on radio, television and print advertising, ‘you’d see apple sales go through the roof. Suddenly, you’d have Justin Timberlake on TV going: ‘Man, I love apples! You should eat some apples, too! Look at me — I’m running, and I’m eating apples —’”
He hasn’t been back inside a McDonald’s since the end of his experiment — ‘luckily, they have this wonderful smell of deep-fried cleaning solvent that you only get in their stores.”
He has eaten the food, though, ‘and it just doesn’t taste like food to me any more. The french fries taste like smoked plastic. If I take a bite of a Big Mac, it’ll taste great in that instant, and then I’ll chew it up and swallow it and I’ll get this aftertaste in my mouth, this — McFilm, that I can’t really describe.” —