Hold the cynicism

At the nutritionistI finally got around to watching Super Size Me, good timing for someone, like I am, who’s taking renewed steps to become less of a fat-ass.

For the record, I am aware that the movie came out more than two years ago. And that it got a ton of press and plenty of favorable reviews, it went through the awards circuit, it got a response from McDonald’s, and it spawned a mini-industry, including books from Morgan Spurlock and his fiancee and a spin-off series (which I haven’t seen).

But I avoided watching it all this time, because I knew exactly what it was — another biased, muckraking, manipulative documentary about how big corporations are evil. The kind that always rails against The Man in defense of honest, hard-working American citizens, while at the same time having the thinly-veiled undercurrent that Americans are fat, lazy and stupid. Besides, McDonald’s brief public rebuttal was kind of a no-brainer — in brief, “No shit, Spurlock! You’re not supposed to eat it all the time.”

So I was surprised that the movie addressed this before the fact, and that it turned out to be a damn fine documentary. Easily one of the best I’ve ever seen. Most surprising to me was that it works so well not because of its objectivity, but its tone. It’s not objective in the least; it’s completely manipulative. But it wins because it’s a) transparently manipulative, and b) gleefully manipulative.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the transitions, with paintings of McDonald’s advertising portrayed as religious imagery. And especially the genius sequence that shows McDonald’s TV commercials set to the tune of “Pusherman.” It’s all disarming enough so you never feel that you’re being preached to, but you’re still reminded throughout that this is a serious subject. It’s just not the end of the world.

And he states up front exactly what his objective is, to provide evidence that was missing in the lawsuit against McDonald’s, that the food can be directly linked to obesity and health problems. And he acknowledges that eating nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days straight is an extreme case done in order to prove a point, but also explains that the experiment isn’t that far off the mark. The company directly targets children, and then encourages customers to overeat and to keep coming back. McDonald’s may say in official statements that you’re not supposed to eat there all the time, but it’s clear that they’d be really, really happy if you did.

And the most important thing is the tone; he somehow manages to stay just left of preachy throughout the whole thing. He acknowledges that the food tastes good, because it’s designed to taste good. He doesn’t condescend to his interview subjects, and never brow-beats anyone, even those he doesn’t agree with. The tone never (okay, rarely) gets to finger-pointing or lecturing; he simply comes across as being an earnest guy in the middle of things with everybody else, trying to figure out what’s going on.

Most interesting to me are the scenes with his fiancee. She comes the closest to representing what I originally thought the film was going to be — militant vegan propaganda, criticizing Big Corporate America for killing us all and destroying the Earth and all that. And he laughs at her attempt to convert him to a vegan diet, and still somehow manages not to be insulting. It’s a great way to show that it’s not all about empty stereotypes and good guys vs. bad guys; it’s people living a lifestyle that suits them and trying to find a practical common ground.

I think here in the bay area, that’s the most important part. San Francisco’s abundance of restaurants makes it easy to eat like crap without ever visiting a chain, so McDonald’s isn’t the only enemy. Consuming without being conscious of what you’re doing to yourself and to the environment is the enemy. And so is making quick-and-easy judgements, even if you’re absolutely convinced that you’re being noble and compassionate about it.

And after a quick google search: Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the movie on salon.com is another of her reviews that I agree with almost 100%. (I didn’t think the gastric bypass segment was as cutesy as she did; I thought it was another great example of how he could show someone with compassion instead of judgement, not pointing fingers at the pathetic fat guy but really taking a look and trying to figure out what’s going on.) Her best phrase: “lazy righteousness.” I must’ve written at least 1000 words on this blog just trying to describe a phenomenon she perfectly sums up in two words.