Super Size Me

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

15 April

Ray Kroc opens the first McDonald’s, 1955

On this day in 1955, sanctioned by the McDonald brothers Richard and Maurice, Ray Kroc opened the first franchise of one of their McDonald’s hamburger restaurants, in Des Plaines, Illinois, USA. The ninth of a chain started by Richard and Maurice in 1948 in San Bernadino, California, the place was an immediate hit, taking hundreds of dollars in its first day. Kroc, a businessman by nature, itched to open more but the McDonalds weren’t particularly expansionist. So, in 1961, Kroc bought the entire company off them for $2.7 million and set about world domination. The McDonald brothers were idealists, possibly naive, and must have been surprised when Kroc opened a McDonald’s near their original restaurant (now named The Big M, since they no longer had the rights to their own name above the door) and drove them out of business. What Kroc got from the brothers, if not their idealism, was their “Speedee Service System”, which turned the preparation and serving of food in the restaurant into something resembling food production in a factory. This also ensured standardised taste, portion size, cooking times, methods and packaging – a product the same wherever in the state or country (and, eventually, the world) you were.

Super Size Me (2004, dir: Morgan Spurlock)

Super Size Me poses the simple question “what would happen if I ate McDonald’s products alone for a month and always said yes when asked if I want to supersize my order?” It’s the film that made Morgan Spurlock big, in more than one sense, and a great piece of to-camera journalism. It helps a lot that New York-based ageing hipster Spurlock is an engaging presence – affable, cheeky, hungry (in more than one sense) – who’s actually rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of a month of pigging out at the golden arches. Providing the much needed counterweight is Spurlock’s constantly appalled girlfriend, Alex, a vegan chef – a master stroke of serendipity.

The set-up is as meticulous as the execution – Spurlock is weighed, probed and tested by doctors, who write down his body mass index, liver function, lipids, cholesterol and so on. We get a lot of interesting background facts – that 46 million people a day eat a McDonald’s, that there are 48 teaspoons of sugar in a supersize Coke (in the US), that McDonald’s spend $1.4billion a year on advertising worldwide, and so on. All this dropped into Spurlock’s one-month binge of burgers, shakes, fries and supersize colas. The results are pretty much what you would expect – Spurlock gets very sick of it very soon and is soon vomiting into his brown bag at the attempt to get all the food on board. As for the medical results – bad, in short, on almost every measurable index. I’m not sure that this is really too much of a shock either.

Made possible by cheaper, smaller high quality digital film-making equipment, Super Size Me is one of a noughties run of films made by activist citizen journalists who use themselves as star/guinea pig. It’s a brilliant piece of global niche targeting, this selling of a film about the nutritional inadequacy of a burger chain’s food to people like himself – educated, aspirational, status-driven. But at bottom Spurlock is preaching to the choir. His attempt to turn the debate about over-eating on a mass scale into a public-health issue – this is about addiction to salt, sugar and fat, we’re told – is half-hearted at best, deeply suspect at worst. Because where there is personal choice, there is no public health issue – this is not polio. Nor does Spurlock address the obvious fact that there is no such thing as “good food” or “bad food”, just good and bad diets. Though if he had, he’d have no film, so it’s understandable from a personal point of view. Imagine, for instance, if Spurlock had consumed nothing but orange juice, or spelt wheat for a month; he’d be dead. By this measure, McDonald’s looks pretty damn healthy.

Still, thanks to his film and his mad experiment, we now know just how bad eating lots and lots of McDonald’s stuff, with no let-up, is for you. And for this Spurlock deserves praise. That he’s made a vastly entertaining documentary out of the investigation – one which has influenced countless similar documentaries, not to mention the menus of McDonald’s and their rivals (fruit! salad! calorie counts!) – is remarkable too. Like being given a toy with your Happy Meal, in fact.

Why Watch?

  • Spurlock’s first documentary, still his best
  • A game-changing “director as dupe” doc
  • A companion doc to McLibel, about the trial of anti-McDonald’s campaigners in London, UK
  • Whatever else you say about it, Spurlock does do the footwork

Super Size Me – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2014

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