North American culture has long relied on ever-increasing levels of consumption as a symbol of progress. But could resistance be growing to this ‘more, more, more’ attitude? Two new documentaries argue that the continent’s over-consumption has become a problem of mammoth and dangerous proportions.
Super Size Me chronicles a month in the life of Morgan Spurlock, a fit and healthy 30-something resident of New York City, as he embarks on what many an eight-year-old child would consider a dream come true. He has decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for a month and to limit his physical exercise to that of the average American office worker. Watching Super Size Me is painful but compelling. When Spurlock’s McDonald’s month begins he boasts ‘above average’ fitness and 11 per cent body fat. By the time he completes his experiment his body is distinctly lardy and he is dangerously ill. The three of the doctors who have agreed to monitor his health express utter shock that in just a few short weeks a McDonald’s diet has given Spurlock the liver of a chronic alcoholic, not to mention heart palpitations, shortness of breath, a limp libido and extreme mood swings.
Super Size Me also includes interviews with food industry critics such as John Robbins, the man who inherited the Baskin-Robbins ice cream dynasty only to disown it in favour of healthy eating. Although these are insightful, Spurlock’s physical decline is the most powerful thing about this film. With a film like this in circulation, it’s no wonder several fast food firms have recently announced they will scale back on meal portions.
Go Further also touches on fast food culture – arguing that much of it simply shouldn’t be considered food – but it is primarily concerned with the environmental damage wreaked by unfettered consumerism. The film takes us on the road with Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson and his band of friends as they travel south along the west coast of the US by bicycle and by a biofuel-powered bus, making frequent stops to speak to university audiences and to meet pioneering green businesses. Go Further could so easily have ended up a dumbed-down celeb talkshop, but instead it’s a charming and idiosyncratic take on green and healthy living likely to appeal to precisely the demographic group Harrelson wants to reach – affluent 20-somethings. Harrelson himself comes across as a bit odd – his raw food diet certainly raises eyebrows – but there’s no questioning his environmental awareness. ‘We’re in the middle of a mass extinction and we’re the cause of it,’ he says, baldly stating what so many people in the consumptive West refuse to acknowledge.Erin Gill