[6 April 2009]
Perhaps the most outrageous scene in Killer at Large – an activist documentary about the obesity crisis in America – comes about two-thirds of the way through the film. The setting is the perimeter of an enclosed yard; it’s around noon. A whole gaggle of kids, between eight and ten years old, are pressed up against a chain link fence, grasping through the links to procure some meager sustenance from altruistic aid workers who are unloading supplies of food from stacks of boxes. There’s a certain mad desperation to it all, like we are watching bare survival at its most primal and basic.
Is this some sort of refugee camp in a war torn Third World country? Some horrible prison for children in some benighted corner of the globe, far from America? In fact no, it’s an elementary school in California, and the adults handing food to the children are concerned parents. But the “who” involved is not the real shocking part - it’s what they are passing to them: piles and piles of junk food - cookies, candy, soda, etc.
You may remember in 2005 that California Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law state legislation limiting or banning outright the sale of junk food in school vending machines. Children and their parents did not take this incursion on their personal freedom (the freedom to destroy young bodies, mind you) lying down, and whole new schoolyard black market operations (like these parental “aid workers”, or kids selling junk food out of duffel bags) sprung up to keep the kids from suffering the daily indignities of sugar depravation.
This scene is so ludicrous, so flies counter to any reasonable idea of responsible parenting, that it seems almost to veer into mockumentary territory. This has to be a put on, right? But then right on the heels of this comes footage of a march on a PBS studio in LA, where children, accompanied by their parents, protest in picket lines – complete with megaphones and strident slogan-filled signs – over (get this) Sesame Street’s efforts to foist healthy, responsible eating practices on children by having, of all people, the Cookie Monster promote fruits and vegetables. One sign memorably reads “No Cookies, No Peace!”
It would all be blackly comedic if it weren’t so tragic, and have so many disturbing implications. How can we hope to win against the looming obesity crisis when common sense and parental responsibility have been, apparently, thrown out the window? How do we fix a society with its priorities with regard to health and food severely out of whack, dangerously so? And is a solution even possible, or is the problem so deep seated and systemic that we can’t even properly frame what the problem, and any possible solution, is?
So speaking of cookies, I sat down to watch Killer at Large with a stack of them, accompanied by a nice tall glass of milk. I thought it would be a laugh, thumbing my nose at this over-earnest documentary by scarfing down some of the junk food being vilified. But upon being subjected in the opening scene to graphic footage of a liposuction operation, I immediately regretted my decision, and the cookies were almost lost (you know what I mean). Oh, and did I mention that this liposuction was being undergone by a 12-year-old-girl?! And this with the blessing of her parents, and approval by doctors?!
Rather famously (or in-), in 2006, one Brooke Bates, a perpetually overweight but otherwise seemingly healthy young girl, went under the knife to drastically reduce her weight, after it became apparent that diet and exercise were not going to work. The operation was deemed a “success” initially, though a year or two later Brooke started to put back on the weight she’d lost, to the point where she and her parents went to Mexico for a controversial lap band surgery.
I don’t know which is more troubling: a 12-year-old girl feeling so desperately unhappy about her body image that liposuction ends up seeming a reasonable solution; or the notion that perhaps diet and exercise really aren’t enough anymore. Brooke’s case is indicative of the drastic measures urgently needed to combat obesity.
What is made clear, over and over again in Killer at Large, by a whole bevy of experts, academics, activists and politicians, is that what we are facing in the US with regards to obesity and healthy is pretty close to an evolutionary crisis. The makeup of the world we live in – the overabundance of the wrong kind of food, the manipulation of health information through advertising, and most especially, fear and stress – has turned what used to be “merely” a general health issue into an existential crisis, one on which the very survival of the species hinges.
Obesity directly leads to 110,000 deaths a year, and contributes to one-third of cancer deaths, and is the directly linked to a huge spike in Type 2 diabetes. And these statistics are probably on the low side, and just go up every year. We are faced with the rather withering possibility that the current generation of children will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, if things proceed unabated.
And there’s no reason to think things won’t end up this way. The deck is apparently stacked against us. The film presents the government (especially the FDA and USDA) and the major food producers working in seeming collusion to perpetuate lousy eating habits among the general populace by various dubious means, conspiring to keep the American populace stuffed and sedate.
For example, well meaning programs, like having federally mandated caloric levels for school lunches that are meant to keep kids healthy, are undermined by the fact that the only way to meet these numbers is to offer unhealthy options. Advertising agencies for major food companies are hell bent on indoctrinating children from an early age to become “brand loyalists”, wanting to make sure they become “cradle to grave” consumers.
Price comparisons at grocery stores reveal that the least healthy calories we can eat are generally the cheapest, and that people will generally opt for these over pricier foods that are better for us. Even our genetic makeup conspires against us – we are still at an evolutionary point where we are programmed to eat everything in front of us as quickly as possible, the vestiges of being nomadic hunters. In consequence, now with vast quantities of food at our ready disposal, instinct tends to trump common sense, and we gorge far beyond what is necessary.
The alarmist conspiracy theories drummed up here – e.g., linking things back to overabundance of corn and in the end, oil – would seem perhaps a bit nutty if the film weren’t so calmly reasoned. Strident, but never blindly preachy, Killer at Large makes its points, and launches its attacks, at the right villains, but also takes the time to delve into the tangled morass of how and why things got the way they are now—even pointing the finger back at us. We are just as complicit in this as the government, the food companies, the ad agencies, et al. Personal responsibility has to be the ultimate arbiter – no one is holding a gun to our heads and making us eat what we eat, though often it seems like we have no choice.
So then there’re the nagging questions: What can we choose? What are the solutions? Killer at Large tacks on a coda about possible rays of hope in this long dark looming night of catastrophic obesity. Organic farming – local farms, or even in one’s own back yard – coupled with integrating food education directly into schools is a two pronged attack that seems to have success in isolated instances, and one hopes this will become a growing trend.
My hometown of Somerville, Massachusettes, is proffered up as a city on a hill for community wide activism. The film follows the efforts of the city to re-envision itself as a mecca for healthy living, using money given from a CDC grant to overhaul infrastructure, so as to be more conducive to pedestrians and cyclers, as well as support and encourage green and health conscious businesses. Sadly, after an initial burst of success, I think the program has fallen a bit on hard times, losing a good chunk of funding. But it’s the right vision of the sort of total change necessary to combat the crisis.
One of the better solutions, which I remember being in vogue a few years ago, is major companies paying for their employees to join gyms—or even building gyms for them in the workplace—and providing them with healthy meals on the job. The health related problems arising from obesity cost the economy 75 billion dollars a year, so it behooves these companies to do all they can to preserve the health of their employees, even if for purely selfish reason (saving on insurance, etc.).
Though this solution seems to run a bit counter to the film’s main point of diet and exercise not being enough anymore, I can’t see how making people take the stairs instead of the elevator, or giving them fruit over doughnuts is not combating the problem head on, or at least major steps in the right direction.
Killer at Large arrives on DVD with several special features in tow, the most notable being a 45-minute condensation of the film, for use in the classroom. Shaving off a good hour of run time makes the film leaner (appropriately enough) but drains a bit of its attack. Yet still, it’s a good idea, since it fits the film in to a standard class time.
There are several deleted scenes which pick up and run with tangents brought up in the film. A bit about the overproduction of whiskey in the 19th century, again because of the overproduction of corn, draws interesting parallels between health and social crises then and now. There’s a great bit on McDonald’s and the effects of Morgan Spurlok’s kindred film, Super Size Me as well, that are good for a wry laugh.
Also included are a featurette from the New York City that is overlong and quite tedious, and a commentary track with the producers and director which is quite interesting for anyone looking for a good primer for tackling such a wide ranging, unwieldy topic.