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Twice told tales 

Millions and millions to be served, starting this Friday

The primary challenge facing a documentary project like Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me is whether it can succeed in bridging a huge cultural and social divide. It's not news that cheap, greasy burgers are an anti-nutritious, mechanically produced simulacrum of food. We know fast food is addictive, fattening, dependent on unsustainable agricultural models, and that it degrades our appreciation of real cooking. But, there's a fairly direct correlation between social class, income and education and our appetite for mass-produced burgers and fries. More to the point, it's likely that the most natural audience for Super Size Me are going to be people who know enough--and have the economic wherewithal--to pursue healthier options. But are the millions of Americans who regularly patronize fast food joints, and who contribute to our nation's alarming obesity statistics, going to see Super Size Me? And even if they do, will they be able to change their eating habits?

But, on its own terms, Super Size Me is an effective and entertaining assault on the McDonald's golden arches. By now, the broad outlines of Spurlock's film are well-documented: The lanky, gregarious young filmmaker spends 30 days subsisting on nothing but Mickey D's fare, morning, noon and night.

To further dramatize the effect, the normally fit and vigorous Spurlock also reduces his daily exercise to conform to the sadly inactive American norm. Although it's no surprise whatsoever that he gains weight, going from a lean 185 pounds to a pudgy 210, the real shock is the damage he does to his liver. By the third week of his stunt, his physicians are begging him to end the experiment, with one horrified doctor telling him that his liver has become pate. But Spurlock soldiers on in his adventure anyway, battling his increasing mood swings, lethargy and declining sexual performance. On this last point, Spurlock's girlfriend and foil--almost too perfectly cast as a naysaying vegan chef--testifies that he can only perform adequately "when I'm on top."

(One obvious but unspoken motive for Spurlock's persistence in the face of his doctors' objections is that as his health problems mount, his film gets better and his prospects for Sundance glory get brighter and brighter. More power to him, I say, although one shudders to think what the inevitable copycat filmmakers are subjecting themselves to.)

In between scenes of his culinary self-abuse, Spurlock travels the country speaking to nutrition experts and agribusiness lobbyists, and visiting school cafeterias. Particularly disheartening is his demonstration of the way junk food has invaded public schools, both debilitating our youngsters and creating bad lifetime habits. The soda industry has spent millions of dollars to create a captive market of kids, and the students Spurlock encounters cheerfully eat nothing but French fries and sweets. Somewhere along the way, the adults responsible for our children's education have abdicated their responsibilities, and, were I a parent, these scenes would send me straight to a personal inspection of my child's school cafeteria.

What saves Super Size Me from being a blunt, obvious instrument of fast food bashing is Spurlock's personality.

Although his filmmaking style has been likened to Michael Moore's, the West Virginia good ol' boy turned Brooklyn hipster is much more ingratiating (and svelte). Even his most Moore-like stunts come off as affable joshing, as when he asks tourists in front of the White House to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They keep fouling it up, but when he asks for a McDonald's advertising slogan, his well-indoctrinated subjects nail it perfectly. Most hilariously (and appallingly) he shows pictures of internationally famous celebrities to young schoolchildren. One child misidentifies Jesus as George Bush. ("Good guess," Spurlock deadpans.) The kids aren't so good on the presidents, messiahs and messianic presidents, but of course they know who Ronald McDonald is.

The biggest shortcoming of Super Size Me is that it mostly treats the fast food epidemic as one of ignorance. While there's no doubt that increasing public awareness of the health risks posed by junk food consumption will help us improve our diets, Spurlock's film isn't as comprehensive as the gloomy critique offered by Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a book that seems to have cured me of my lingering appetite for Big Macs. Schlosser demonstrated how fast food culture is a result of a ruthlessly efficient capitalist culture that chews up humans and animals together, like so many chickens recombined as McNuggets.

Schlosser's book is not a cheery analysis, and so Spurlock's film, although relatively simplistic, is much more digestible. Still, as my housemate remarked, it's unrealistic to expect that improved education will solve the problem. "What choice does someone have on his way to a second or third minimum wage job? It's all part of a national epidemic of fucking over the little guy," she says.

Although Super Size Me is vulnerable to the charge of preaching to the choir, it can only help raise awareness of fast food's noxious effects. Even if the film's art house audiences are more likely to lunch at Whole Foods than the corner Mac shack, Spurlock's film is now in the media slipstream and will have a long life in video stores and on television, even if it doesn't manage to cross over into the multiplexes. Furthermore, the film has already drawn blood: Shortly after its sensational bow at Sundance, McDonald's announced that it was ending its Super Size option. Coincidence? Spurlock doesn't think so, and he's probably right.

When Alfonso Cuaron was announced as the director of the third Harry Potter movie, there was widespread expectation that the director of the earthy and unforgettable Y Tu Mama Tambien would inject some manic energy into the series, after two stiff outings by Chris Columbus. By the evidence of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, however, it seems that the storytelling formula is so rigid that any director would be hamstrung. As before, we meet Harry (played again by the charisma-free Daniel Radcliffe) finishing up a vacation from school with his horrid relatives, and once again he's whisked off to a reunion with Hermione and Weasley.

At Hogwarts, they're still playing quidditch and Draco Malfoy is still a sneering and inept bully. (In this film, he gets bested not once but three times by Harry and crew. If this keeps up, I'm going to start rooting for him.)

As usual, there's a new teacher on campus, this time one Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), whose arrival coincides with ominous tidings from abroad. It seems that Sirius Black, a deranged killer, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is making a beeline for Hogwarts. In response, Professor Dumbledore turns the security of Hogwarts over to the spectral, extremely dangerous Dementors. (His speech explaining their necessity is an uncanny echo of a John Ashcroft pronouncement.)

I've no doubt that the millions of Harry Potter fans will find this film to be a satisfying dramatization of a familiar story. However, as a non-reader of the Harry Potter books, I found this movie often tedious going, though there are several inventive and boisterous set pieces and Alan Rickman's Snape, the unloved pedagogical martinet, is a pleasure to watch. What's missing for me in the Harry Potter stories is a real sense of psychological drama.

For all the talk about Harry's murdered parents, he never seems to be any more troubled than your average dutiful 8th-grade apple polisher who does his homework and takes out the trash. No acne, no apparent sexual urges, no teenage sarcasm, no y tu mama tambien. He's just a nice kid with superhuman powers. This, of course, may be a big part of the character's appeal, one I may well have responded to when I was a kid. EndBlock


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