food in the arts

Dir: Morgan Spurlock/ USA/ 2004/ 98 mins
 Super Size Me   Super Size Me Two

Supermarket magazines and tabloids first coined the term ‘food film.’ Once adopted by the broadsheets, it entered the filmgoer’s vernacular unchallenged. Oddly, it suggests a genre but is meaningless because it doesn’t really exist. Yet it sounds as if it has been around for a long time. No doubt when the first blockbuster from the ‘Food Film Corporation’ arrives at a cinema near you, the corporate sponsors’ propaganda will allay our fears, quell our rage and distract our attention away from the issues raised by SUPER SIZE ME, all the way back to good, old-fashioned complaisance.


The western world is definitely growing fatter. Compare Britain during World War II, when the population were leaner and healthier than now. In the early 1940s, fearing the enemy might starve our islands into submission, the Ministry of Food devised a simple and effective campaign called ‘Food Facts,’ which were published in the papers and broadcast on the radio every morning at 8:15am.

Food and audiences


Since movies began, the consumption of food has played a role on screen and, during more affluent times, audiences have upped their in-house food and drink intake, accompanied by resounding sound and smell effects. The crunch of popcorn and the slurp of coca cola are a weekly re-affirmation of a cinematic tradition, observed on closed circuit TV by drooling cinema managers, who know that in America, popcorn profits are nearly double admission sales.


Twenty years ago, each BBC Food and Drink programme, featured an important and educational segment on food and health. Upholding the worthier values of public service broadcasting, this estimable item survived until the celebrity chefs took over and the obsessive 'foodie' viewer was born.


The feature-length documentary, SUPER SIZE ME might be better suited to the small screen, where it would reach the viewers for whom it truly matters – people on low incomes.  The poor are getting fatter for many complex reasons, one of which is that McDonald’s and similar fast-food joints represents the only affordable opportunity to dine out.


Question: how do we schedule SUPER SIZE ME on UK TV? Answer: courageously. Question: which mainstream advertiser ought to endorse it? Answer: the Government (and NHS), with the same commitment given to their series of anti-smoking advertisements.


The lessons of SUPER SIZE ME


When Morgan Spurlock, the 6ft 2inch super-fit 38-year-old writer/director went on a one-month fast food binge, he asked himself and his audience: ‘when does personal responsibility end and corporate duty begin?’ As he sat down to eat his ‘last supper’ of fresh vegetable dishes prepared by his partner, a vegan chef, he could not have foreseen the consequences of what he was about to undertake...


He self-imposed four rules: a) He could only eat what was available over the counter (water included.) b) He wouldn’t order super sizes unless offered c) No excuses – he had to eat every item on the menu at least once d) No giving up – he had to eat three square meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, consuming McDonald’s fare exclusively.


Overnight, his calorie intake jumped from 2,500 to 5,000 a day. By Day 8, he had put on 5% of his body weight (which began at a healthy 185.5 lbs, well within his Body Mass Index) and started experiencing pressure on his chest. By Day 9, he felt really depressed and by Day 12 he had gained 17lbs and was hooked on the ‘eat some now, eat some more later’ habit. Intercut with Morgan’s medically supervised record of his kamikaze mission between the golden arches, are shocking observations of how Americans, who eat 40% of meals out, are ignoring health warnings to their cost. Two out of three US adults are overweight or obese.


In Britain, the changes in food retailing are setting us swiftly on the same course. As Joanna Blythman points out in Shopped: the Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, superstores are increasingly blurring the boundaries between cooking from scratch from primary raw ingredients and eating out. ‘They have been instrumental in developing “component cooking” (meals assembled using some prepared items), ready meals and take-aways, such as hot pizzas or fried chicken “to go” or hot sandwiches,’ she writes.


The encouragement to ‘snack on the hoof’ or consume ‘hand-held’ snacks are discouraging any incentive to learn to cook and choose healthy ingredients for our meals. The British Government is finally waking up to the health implications of fast food habits, as obese children are already exhibiting health problems usually only found in adults.


Back across the big pond, let’s give three loud boos for Texas, which nourishes the top 15 ‘fattest’ cities in the USA! Most American schools feed their children with re-constituted school meals, some of which are over 1,000 calories. Only 6 out of 36 meals per month are described as home-cooked (meaning no thawed or reheated food.) One school had the courage to adopt a home-cooked healthy eating programme, banning soda from the premises. Not only did the meals cost the same, it discovered, but there was a marked improvement in the pupils’ previously hyper-active behaviour.


Meanwhile, by Day 18, Morgan’s headaches had returned again, he was exhausted by the end of the day and, according to his partner, the impeded blood flow to his penis, combined with serious overweight, did, well, nothing for his sex drive. His cholesterol, which started at 165, leapt to 225. His GP tells him he is sick. “If you did this with alcohol, it would seriously wipe out your liver,” he says bluntly, adding, “I have no experience of fat destroying liver function, but frankly, I don’t know what might happen.”


On day 21, he woke at 2am, unable to breathe. He felt very hot and it seemed as if he was having heart palpitations. His GP, cardiologist and dietician - the three experts who had been closely monitoring his condition throughout the experiment, advised him to stop the diet. “At the end of this month, I’ll have eaten as much McDonalds as most nutritionists say you should eat in eight years,” announced Morgan, digging in to his next Super-size Mac and chips. On Day 30, just climbing stairs exhausted him, his liver had turned to fat, his cholesterol had peaked at 230 and his final weigh-in was 210lbs.

When SUPER SIZE ME was shown in France, Parisians gasped when they saw some of the larger-than-life derrieres in the film.

Nutritionist Dr Françoise L'Hermite says the French secret to staying slim is to make sure you sit down with friends or family for a meal, eat three times a day at regular intervals, don't snack, don't eat in front of the television, and finally - eat slowly and savour both the food and the company.

"For France, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation," she says. "From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, food is just fuel to give energy to your muscles. If you have no pleasure in it, you are breaking all the rules of eating."

But what about all those French who tuck in to steak and chips, with lashings of red wine, followed by cheese and crème caramel for lunch?

British chef Richard Robe, who works at Taillevent, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris, says the secret is all in the portion size.

"French cuisine is made up of very small portion sizes, so even if we serve you seven courses, you won't feel bloated, and it's the equivalent of maybe two courses in other places."


Historical reference


SUPER SIZE ME is rooted in traditional documentary – investigative reporting, in which the subject as guinea-pig makes a video diary intercut with comments from experts. It echoes the fiction film work of Bunuel, Ferreri and Europhile Greenaway who make observations about their own class’s mores. Although early Bunuel dealt with issues to do with food and poverty (LAND WITHOUT BREAD,1933), it was without exception the middle-class bourgeoisie who became the subject of filmic gastronomic excess. These directors take a curious, arms-length view, without quite being able properly to spell out the dangers of gastronomic greed.

With the development of sound, the cinema became an essential educational tool for disseminating messages about rationing, household economy and nutrition. ‘Food Flashes’ - each one lasting from around 10 seconds to several minutes - were screened between Pathé News and the main feature at local cinemas. Here are transcriptions of two examples.

(Flash 13 - 318 ft) Hands leaf through tear-off calendar, to where the date Sunday 18th October is ringed: "Two old friends turned up again last week. Here's one for you..." Little girl runs towards camera over tree-lined common with a can of dried milk in each hand. “Double rations for the under-fives"...Here's another featuring dried eggs. Woman holds up two tins of dried eggs. Cut to man standing up in cinema, shouting, "And 'ere's one for you - dry up!"


(Flash 26 - 691 ft) "This is one kind of waist you can get round [leering man, sitting on riverbank, puts his arm around girlfriend's waist] but this kind of waste [food being binned] you want to watch out for and avoid. Food doesn't grow in the shops, you know... try and think of ways to avoid waste." On a kitchen worktop, cabbage leaves are cut and put into a pan. The final caption declares “DON'T WASTE FOOD.” [No. 60 ‘Waste’ 3/5/c1943]


Over 100 Food Flashes are preserved at the Imperial War Museum in London, and the diversity of style and message contained in these instant snippets of information show how, during the uncertain war years, lean cuisine was not an option but an essential way of life for everyone.


Timothy Foster and Susan Wolk

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