Food For Thought
By Karen Hershenson
Contra Costa Times
PARK CITY, Utah - The transformation on screen is dramatic: In just one month, 33-year-old Morgan Spurlock goes from being a slender, robust man to a bloated slug with creaky knees and drastic mood swings.
He gains 25 pounds. His cholesterol soars. His liver function is dangerously impaired. At one point, his doctor gravely warns him about when he might want to call 911.
Yet all this physical and mental distress is self-imposed. In order to make a point about the deteriorating American diet and resulting obesity epidemic, Spurlock vowed to eat nothing but food offered at McDonald's for 30 days. The result is "Super Size Me," one of the hot tickets in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, which continues here through Sunday.
The film is both thought-provoking and hilarious. We witness Spurlock wolfing down his first super-sized meal. Soon after come the "McGurgles" and the "McGas," and finally he upchucks in the restaurant parking lot, the camera right there.
Later, his girlfriend, a vegan chef, shares another, more intimate result of a fast-food diet -- sagging sexual performance.
"I think the saturated fats are starting to get to his penis," she says.
Ground-breaking documentaries like this one have become a growing element at Sundance. Following the box-office success of films such as "Spellbound," "Winged Migration" and Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," docs are hot -- there are a record 40-plus of them screening in this year's festival. Even the opening-night film, "Riding Giants," was a documentary.
And the more receptive audiences become, the more the genre evolves. Past Oscar winner Jessica Yu, for example, used a cutting-edge animation technique (and a staff of seven animators) to create "In the Realms of the Unreal," her stunning competition film about Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse who left an amazing legacy -- a 15,000-page novel and hundreds of color-saturated paintings, some more than 10 feet long.
Spurlock, whose work is more in the irreverent, bad-boy vein, agrees that audiences have become more receptive to documentaries because of such pioneers as Moore and Errol Morris ("Thin Blue Line," "Fog of War"), but he also credits TV shows including "The Bachelor" and "The Simple Life" for their growing success.
"In the past few years, with the rise of reality television, I think that's really broken down the barriers of accepting them on a whole new level," he says. "Documentaries are the original reality television."
Spurlock's own dive into an altered reality was more dramatic than he could have imagined. One doctor compared it to "Leaving Las Vegas," in which the Nicolas Cage character tries to drink himself to death in just weeks.
"I felt consistently tired and sick and miserable," says Spurlock. "I don't think anybody realized how bad things were going to get."
Yet the filmmaker insists he wasn't trying to nail the fast-food chain, which never responded to repeated interview requests.
"McDonald's is a symbol for me in the film," says Spurlock. "They're Everyman food. They're all over the world, they're the biggest, and they represent every single fast-food restaurant every place."
He had rules for his McAdventure: he could only eat what was on the menu; he had to try everything; had to eat three square meals a day; and had to super size if it was offered. He worked closely with a team of medical experts, who charted changes in his body. Before the month was over, they were begging him to stop.
Spurlock still thinks the Big Mac is a tasty burger, but labels the Filet O'Fish "a disaster."
Still, the problem extends beyond fast food, he says. It starts at home, where overworked baby boomers are all too willing to tell themselves, "Hey, I do deserve a break today," and eat the majority of meals out.
At press time, Spurlock was negotiating with several potential distributors. But along with a theatrical release, he would love for "Super Size Me" to air on cable (he doubts the networks would touch it), and for it to be shown in schools and on college campuses, where unhealthful eating is rampant.
And while the public may crave sizzling hot fries, they're also starting to crave real stories like this one; films that make you think. They're tired of seeing the same formulas over and over, Spurlock says. Documentaries offer something original.
"We're tired of being spoon-fed such inane curiosities. ... There's only so many times you can watch 'Police Academy 6 or 7.'"


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