Arch enemy

…Spurlock ploughs his way through all 83 of the chain's outlets in Manhattan and a few more across America, his weight balloons, his energy and libido flag and he begins to crave all forms of McFood, even though it is making him feel sicker and sicker. He sticks with the project even as his worried doctors see skyrocketing cholesterol levels and signs of potentially fatal liver damage, the result of an unholy excess of salt, fat and sugar. The viewer is left wondering if Spurlock will fade to black before the movie does.

The Toronto Star
April 23, 2004

Arch enemy
Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me grills Mickey D's. A highlight of the Hot Docs festival.
Peter Howell

PARK CITY, Utah—Morgan Spurlock, the director and star of Super Size Me and Public Enemy No. 1 of the McDonald's hamburger empire, has a story about a McChicken sandwich and a filing cabinet. It should be disgusting, but it isn't.

"A friend and I used to play pranks on one another," says the energetic 33-year-old New York filmmaker, sipping coffee in a hotel lounge during the Sundance Film Festival in January.

"We'd get food and put it in one another's office and let it start to rot. You'd smell it and you'd be on a hunt to try and find out where the source of this thing was. I wanted something that would really stink. So I got this deep-fried McChicken sandwich and I put it up on top of the filing cabinet in my friend's office. A month goes by. Two months. Three months. Nothing ever happens.

"One day, he's lying on his couch and he looks up and says, ‘What is that?’ Now it's been almost a year. He calls me and says, ‘Oh, I found this little present you left me. When did you do that?’

"The bread hadn't gone mouldy. The chicken hadn't broken down. The lettuce and sauce had gone away, but other than that, you could have put it a microwave and eaten it right then. There was no decomposition happening. That's crazy. That's very scary."

Indeed. But not as crazy and scary as the munching masochism Spurlock indulged in to make Super Size Me, a breakout hit at Sundance that won him the festival's award for best director, the debut feature for this award-winning playwright (The Phoenix), Web impresario (I Bet You Will) and media savant.

Super Size Me receives its Canadian premiere tomorrow at the Bloor Cinema as part of Toronto's annual Hot Docs festival, prior to its May 7 release at regular theatres.

Concerned about soaring obesity rates in North America, an epidemic largely blamed on fast food, Spurlock wanted to see what would happen if someone ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month.
The idea came to him and his friend Scott Ambrozy (the film's director of photography) while they were watching a TV news report about an unsuccessful lawsuit against McDonald's by two overweight women, who blamed the company for their condition. The judge in the case ruled that there was no proof a McDonald's diet had caused their massive weight gain.

Spurlock wanted to test the assertion. He volunteered to be a guinea pig, scarfing down dozens of Big Macs, bushels of fries and gallons of shakes for 30 days, while three doctors, a nutritionist and a fitness instructor charted his changing health statistics. He captured it all in the first-person guerrilla style of Michael Moore.

The movie begins as a comedy, but turns into something more like a horror film as his increasingly alarmed doctors discover what a steady diet of junk food can do to an unsuspecting body.

We see Spurlock at the outset as an energetic New Yorker (originally from West Virginia), who walks everywhere, who works out regularly and who enjoys the tasty vegetarian dishes prepared by his girlfriend Alex Jamieson, who is a vegan chef. Standing 6-foot-2, weighing 185 lbs. and with no serious health complaints or bad habits, Spurlock is declared by his doctors to be an example of healthy living.

He sets strict rules for his McDonald's experiment. He has to eat three full meals a day at the Golden Arches. He has to try everything on the menu at least once, including salads. And if asked if he wishes to "supersize" his order, he has to say "yes."

He's an extreme example of a McDonald's customer, but he's by no means the only freak. The film includes an interview with a Wisconsin man named Don Gorske who has eaten more than 19,000 Big Macs in the past 30 years, at least two per day.

"A lot of people eat at McDonald's every day," Spurlock says. "People don't realize it."

As the test month progresses, and Spurlock ploughs his way through all 83 of the chain's outlets in Manhattan and a few more across America, his weight balloons, his energy and libido flag and he begins to crave all forms of McFood, even though it is making him feel sicker and sicker. He sticks with the project even as his worried doctors see skyrocketing cholesterol levels and signs of potentially fatal liver damage, the result of an unholy excess of salt, fat and sugar. The viewer is left wondering if Spurlock will fade to black before the movie does.

"I think that's part of the reason why the film is getting the response it is," says Spurlock. "I think people go in expecting it to be something else. It's really encouraging that people have come out and been so moved by it. As a filmmaker, to have affected someone like this, you couldn't ask for anything more."

Well, you could also ask for the kind of distribution deal that Spurlock landed, a real coup for this first-time filmmaker. (In Canada, the movie is getting a big push by Odeon Films.)

Super Size Me can take at least some of the credit for the recent seismic shift in the thinking at McDonald's, the world's largest purveyor of fast food, with 30,000 McOutlets in 119 countries. During the making of the film, the company steadfastly refused comment.

But shortly after the film's Sundance premiere, McDonald's announced it will phase out the "Supersize" portions of its fries and shakes by the end of 2004. The company has also announced plans to expand its range of healthier food options, even as it dismisses Spurlock's film as "a supersized distortion of the quality, choice and variety available at McDonald's."

The burger baron sniffs at Spurlock's 30-day eating orgy as "a gimmick to make a film," claiming it was irresponsible of him to gobble 5,000 calories a day — even though the company's own Web site shows a typical lunch of a Big Mac, large fries, large shake and apple pie dessert adds up to nearly 2,000 calories, an entire day's-worth.

"Look at that, huh?" Spurlock says of McDonald's spin control. "Of course, I want to think that Super Size Me is making all these things happen, and hopefully it has.

"A lot of people are asking, ‘Why pick on McDonald’s? There are a lot of fast food places.' But McDonald's is an icon. It's a cultural icon and a cultural phenomenon.

Nothing says ‘America’ and ‘food’ more than them. One in eight Americans has worked at a McDonald's in their lifetime. The only company that trains more people in the world is the U.S. Army. In my opinion, they represent every food, every chain, and they're also the ones that can institute the most changes. If things are going to happen, if we're going to shift the paradigm, we have to start with a company like this."

Spurlock rhymes off a host of alarming health statistics in Super Size Me, which all point to how fat North Americans have become in the past 20 years. He also shoots down the popular notion that fast food is cheap food — it cost him $800 (U.S.) to eat at McDonald's for a month, about $200 more than he would have paid to have a catering company deliver fresh, hot and wholesome meals to his apartment every day.

Spurlock hasn't always been a food evangelist. He used to smoke and drink, and he fell off the vegan bandwagon and went back to eating meat — including hamburgers.

He's still working to drop the last four of the 24 1/2 pounds he gained on his Big Mac diet.


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