“Super Size Me”: Morgan Spurlock’s Latest Con

Two weeks ago, I flew to a film festival in Austin, Texas, to watch what could be one of America’s hottest movies this spring: an engaging documentary called “Super Size Me,” which shows what happens when you stuff yourself for a month and don’t exercise.

The creator and star, Morgan Spurlock, won best director honors at Sundance, and Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper have given the movie two thumbs up. It won’t reach theatres until May 7, but the word of mouth is already deafening.

Here’s the premise: Spurlock eats only at McDonald’s and stays sedentary for 30 days. He gains 24 pounds, his cholesterol rises 40 percent, he feels lousy, and his sex life collapses.

The movie is certainly timely. The Centers for Disease Control just reported that the number-two cause of death in the United States after smoking is “poor diet and physical inactivity.”

But “Super Size Me” is not a serious look at a real health problem. It is, instead, an outrageously dishonest and dangerous piece of self-promotion. Through his antics, Spurlock sends precisely the wrong message. He absolves us of responsibility for our own fitness. We aren’t to blame for being fat; big corporations are! And the remedy, he suggests, is to file lawsuits and plead with the Nanny State and the Food Police for protection.

While the film demonizes McDonald’s and other restaurants, Spurlock’s weight gain and health decline have nothing to do with where he ate (after all, Robert DeNiro gained 60 pounds for his role in “Raging Bull” by dining at great restaurants in Italy), but rather with how much he consumed and how little he exercised (Spurlock even cut down on normal walking).

It’s no accident that Spurlock’s production company is called “The Con.” A prankster and scamster from way back, he briefly ran a program on MTV called “I Bet You Will,” where he paid people to do disgusting things.

He gave a woman $100 to eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach. A man got $25 for eating a clam out of a stranger’s armpit. Another woman shaved her head, combined the clippings with butter to form a gigantic hair ball and then ate it — for $250.

Sorry for the unappetizing detail, but it tells who this Morgan Spurlock really is. He presents himself as a socially concerned artist, but, in fact, he is up to his old tricks (among the scenes in “Super Size Me” are a rectal exam and a vivid vomiting sequence). This time, however, the person who cashes in isn’t the hairball eater; it’s Spurlock himself.

The math of weight gain is simple. Someone Spurlock’s size can eat 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day and maintain his weight. In the movie, he eats 5,000 to 5,500 calories a day. Nutritionists calculate that a man gains roughly a pound for every 3,500 extra calories, so roughly every three days, Spurlock overeats his way to an extra two pounds or more.

He could have gained that extra weight anywhere — at a health-food restaurant in Cleveland or at Taillevent in Paris. He could have burned off the extra weight if he had exercised, but he gives such a solution short shrift. He whines that it’s all Ronald McDonald’s fault, when really it’s a matter of calories in and calories burned.

In fact, it’s not easy to eat 5,000 calories at McDonald’s.

Consider this daily diet: a breakfast of Egg McMuffin, orange juice and coffee; a lunch of Big Mac, medium fries, Coke and hot caramel sundae; and a dinner of 10 chicken McNuggets, sweet and sour sauce, milk and Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait. Total calories, according to an excellent calculator on the McDonald’s website: 2,730. No skimping here. Now, double it (two Big Macs, 20 McNuggets) and you get a notion of what Spurlock ate every day.

He got fat. Duh!

The question is whether you fall for this sleight-of-hand trick, as many enthusiastic reviewers already have. Are you really as dumb as Spurlock and the agents of the Food Police who appear on the film — like lawyer John Banzhaf, who sees a tobacco-like pot of gold — think you are?

What Americans need is balance: Sensible eating plus exercise. Staying fit is a matter of personal choice and responsibility — which are just what this con man and his co-conspirators want to take away from you.

The New Yorker on Michael Moore

There is so much that is overpoweringly vile about Larissa MacFarquhar’s portrait of Michael Moore in the this week’s New Yorker, that it is hard to know where to begin. Start with the multiple layers of radical chic phoniness entailed in the New Yorker celebrating for its wealthy Manhattanite readers this rust-belt working-class hero who is, himself, actually a wealthy Manhattanite (at least Leonard Bernstein feted genuine Black Panthers). Then consider MacFarquhar’s tone of fawning admiration for Moore, seen in some laughably exaggerated statements made with a straight — no, a reverent — face.

  • “People revere him. After he gave a speech at last year’s Oscars denouncing President Bush and the Iraq war, he received many letters from soldiers thanking him for opening their eyes to the lies of the government and for confirming their view that they are fighting for a country where dissent is embraced.”
  • “Moore has been a hero to comedians for fifteen years…”
  • “…someone suggests — as people frequently do — that he run for President.”
  • “His influence is extraordinary.”
  • “A few of Moore’s stunts did effect some remarkable changes. ‘TV Nation’ reported on undocumented workers who had been fired for trying to form a union, and the adverse publicity got them their jobs back.”

Never mind that MacFarquhar reports that Moore’s movies haven’t done well with working-class audiences, and that his television shows have been cancelled after short runs. She dutifully and uncritically reports Moore’s claim that working-class people “thump him on the back and congratulate him.” Never mind that MacFarquhar reports that Moore funded his first movie with the proceeds of a wrongful termination suit against the leftist rag Mother Jones. She quotes on Moore associate saying, “‘I just hate the way the left is always cannibalizing itself'” and Moore’s ex-wife bragging, “‘Past employee grumblings are somewhat pointless…They exist in a comedy ghetto, one we have pole-vaulted over.'”

The article does not fail to cite Moore’s shortcomings or quote his critics. But these elements are presented in a way that either trivializes them, offers defenses against them, or even turns them into virtues.

  • “When Moore gets annoyed by people griping about his money — his nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the private school that his daughter attended — he is not being hypocritical.”
  • “He believes in sacrifice…”
  • “Moore has been criticized, sometimes inaccurately, for getting facts wrong; he says he employs fact-checkers and lawyers but that some mistakes inevitably get through. The most recent instance of this problem was Moore’s characterization of Bush as a ‘deserter’… As if often the case with Moore’s mistakes, it was quite unnecessary; he could have drawn damaging attention to the months that Bush went missing from his National Guard duties, but by using incorrectly the military term ‘deserter’ he damaged his own side.”

The most astonishing case is when MacFarquhar reports on Moore’s flat-out lying to a lecture audience when asked whether three men in uniform were his bodyguards. He asked the audience why they would assume that they were guards:

“‘Because they are black?…One’s my Pilates instructor, one’s my yoga instructor, that’s my sister Anne, she’s my bodyguard.’ …he started talking in a serious tone again. ‘I have somebody traveling with me who’s working on my next movie…So that’s what’s up.'”

Later in the article MacFarquhar reveals that “The three uniformed men traveling with Moore were, of course” — of course! — “security guards — as Moore did not deny when asked later on (though they also function as assistants).” She explains, “his instinctive response was to attack, and then to say something just short of a lie, delivered in the form of a joke.”

For MacFarquhar, any of Moore’s lies can be explained away as humor — no, more than explained away: alchemically transformed from lie, beyond truth, all the way to ‘Art.’ “‘You can’t debate satire,’ Moore says.”Either you get it or you don’t.”

This particular defense of Moore helps MacFarquhar with another necessary bit of alchemy: the transformation of what is, fundamentally, a commonplace celebrity puff-piece into a the kind of highbrow Art Criticism that would deserve publication in the New Yorker. So we are treated to MacFarquhar’s nihilistic theory of comedy — “It takes the point of view that, in the end, we are just bodies, eating, defecating, and copulating, and everything else is pretentious rubbish.”

And then there’s MacFarquars political history of comedy. I’ll bet that until now you didn’t know that after the Vietnam war, “…much explicitly political comedy migrated to the right.” It’s true — and MacFarquhar’s evidence is that “one of the emblematic right-wing humorists of the time, P.J. O’Rourke, appears on one of his book jackets dressed like an investment banker from 1985…” As opposed to all the other emblematic right-wing humorists; there are so many to choose from. Then she reports that “Recently comedy has switched sides again” citing “humorists on the left like Moore (and Molly Ivins, Jon Stewart, David Cross, and Janeane Garofalo).” Bet you didn’t know that syndicated political columnist Molly Ivins has a stand-up act.

This is all further evidence — as if it were needed — that Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter is on the right track: the intersection of leftist politics and popular celebrity is today’s winning combination for selling magazines to the elite. In this same issue of the New Yorker, the Moore article has to compete for the attention of the fashionable with a piece advising Democratic candidates on how to “win the war,” and an expose of the Bush administration’s connections with Halliburton. I have been hopelessly naive to the extent that I have allowed myself to be disappointed that the New Yorker would follow this trend so very slavishly.