[24 July 2008]
Ever since the 2004 release of Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock has been treated by the commercial press as a kinder-and-gentler version of Michael Moore: thinner, younger, and more personable—with a gorgeous vegan chef, Alex Jamieson, as his accomplice. Although both directors grew-up in working-class locales (Moore from Flint, Michigan; Spurlock from Beckley, West Virginia), Spurlock is better tailored for prime-time than Moore, who wears his blue-collar upbringing like a badge in his frumpy appearance and acerbic wit against anyone he perceives to hold elite pretentions.
Long before Spurlock had taken on a steady-diet of Frankenfood excreted by the golden arches, he had been intimate bedfellows with the commercial media. He was a national spokesman for Sony for two years, an announcer for the 1996 Summer Olympics, and a producer of corporate videos. In 2002 his webcast show I Bet You Will was picked-up by MTV for one season, featuring randomly selected contestants who were challenged to eat disgusting food, endure wedgies, and undergo public humiliation like wearing a thong of udders, being painted like a cow, and eating wheat grass for cash prizes. But in 2004 he discovered his niche: documentaries on fairly obvious subject matter.
This is not to say that Super Size Me is not a good documentary in exposing the detrimental effects of fast-food. Who would have known that liver failure could be one of its tragic results? But it is an incomplete documentary in that it stops right when it’s beginning to become insightful. For example, in addition to showing how fast-food is detrimental to our bodies, why not follow through the line of reasoning and ask the more perplexing question: despite most people knowing that fast-food is bad for them, why do they keep on eating it nonetheless?
Spurlock begins to probe this when revealing the insidious links between the fast-food industry and school lunch programs that are gorging kids with trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup in order to force their adult appetites to orbit around a steady diet of cheap meals and health problems. But, suddenly, the film immediately halts its critique with a smoke-screen alternative of healthy school lunch programs. The choice, according to the film, is ours.
Off-screen, however, lurks more systemic issues: the artificially low-priced fast-foods that are particularly appealing to income-starved public schools, fiscally abandoned by their own federal and state governments; the powerful lobbying efforts of the fast-food industry in Congress to keep wages low and the FDA myopic; and the lower-class as the predominate consumers of fast-food due to their starvation wages and lack of leisure time to prepare healthy alternatives. Basically, thrust out of frame is anything that would significantly challenge the hegemony of the transnational corporations that fund Spurlock’s work. Drawing attention to the class issues that permeate the entire edifice of the fast food industry, which is premised upon a steady poisoning of the poor for profit, is conveniently not on the menu.
In some ways, 30 Days serves as a better format for Spurlock’s ideas than feature-length filmmaking. Its 45-minute segments offer the perfect amount of time for sound-bite glimpses of the issues—illegal immigration, abortion, outsourcing, and jail—that Spurlock presents. Almost in spite of itself, 30 Days: Season 2 at times transcends its own limitations.
For example, Episode 1, “Immigration”, has Frank George, a Cuban exile turned Minuteman who guards the Texas border from illegals, live with a family of illegal Mexican immigrants, the Gonzalezes. As Frank befriends the family, he begins to confront his own ingrained racism of what David Roediger has deemed “the wages of whiteness”—the demonization of other racial/ethnic groups in order to closer associate your group with the privileges of whiteness.
The concept has its origins in W.E.B. DuBois’ 1933 essay “Marxism and the Negro Problem” where he states: “The Irish climbed on the Negroes. The Germans scrambled over the Negroes and emulated the Irish. The Scandinavians fought forward next to the Germans and the Italians and ‘Bohunks” are crowding up, leaving Negroes still at the bottom” (104). But in Frank’s situation it is now a case of the Cubans scrambling over the Mexicans in defending their “American” identity and more, importantly, their rights and privileges.
Never explicitly stated in the episode but deeply felt is Frank’s underlying fear that at any given moment his citizenship, his rights, his very existence can be revoked. In order to bunker against such possibilities, he has renounced for years his Latin American heritage. By better understanding the Gonzalezes, Frank confronts deeply repressed memories of his parent’s own poverty and his initial alienation of being a Spanish-speaker amongst English-speaking Anglos when first arriving to the States. At episode’s end, Armida, the family’s precocious daughter who plans on attending college, asks Frank if he considers any of the Minutemen his friend. He stands in amazement by his own declaration: “No, they are just acquaintances. My only real friend is my wife”—a painful truth tearing through the veneer of his patriotism.
30 Days: Season 2 is at its best when penetrating the individual and psychic fallout that such issues like immigration, abortion, and religion entail. Watching a 37-year-old salesman and his fiancé convert themselves to some of the ways of New Age despite their Christian, uptight, suburban background is simply amazing. This speaks to the best aspects of the show where its participants undergo a profound, transformation in recognizing the limits of their beliefs and lifestyles.
But like the limits accompanying Super Size Me, 30 Days: Season 2 is at its weakest when pretending to offer systemic analysis, as seen in its final episode, “Jail”. Spurlock decides to spend 30 days in the slammer to discover that (guess what?) being in jail sucks. Spurlock briefly notes how “some critics” view the prison-industrial complex as being nothing more than a multi-billion dollar industry for cheap labor and an always accessible workforce. But instead of developing upon how this actually works, Spurlock dismissively segues into how he is nervous that he has to feed 800 inmates after picking-up kitchen duty.
The show at such moments feels like nothing more than a vanity piece, a platform for Spurlock to demonstrate his rugged masculinity at being tough enough to endure the clink. A similar narcissism underlies his most recent clunker Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden (2008), which ostensibly addresses his desire to track down the notorious terrorist to make the world safe for his baby. His discovery that all we need is “peace, love, and understanding” could have been gleaned in three minutes from side one of The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwars instead of a grudging hour-and-a-half watching Spurlock prance across the earth meeting folk.
But the actual point of the film, similar to the episode of “Jail”, is something entirely different than its stated subject. Instead, the film concerns Spurlock’s desire to have one last bout of rugged masculinity before becoming tied down with a newborn and its accompanying domestic drudgery. Question: “Where in the world is Osama Bin Laden?” Answer: “As far away from my pregnant wife as possible.”
Bringing a camera into jail might reveal the humanity of fellow prisoners and their daily life, but it does little to nothing in explaining how incarceration has reached a two million person high when crime in the US has steadily been decreasing during the last 20 years, how a disproportionate number of African-Americans constitute the prison population, and how white collar crimes plead to lesser charges while minor drug offenses remain severely punished. Maybe we need a little less face-time with Morgan and a little more Crackers, the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken, a character from Moore’s TV Nation (1994) who investigated exploitative labor practices in Disney and animal cruelty at Buckeye Farms in Ohio.
Typical of US commercial television, 30 Days: Season 2 is good at humanizing issues, which I suppose is important during a time when terrorist paranoia and religious fundamentalism have reached fever-pitch. If the show can initiate genuine dialogue on such important issues like immigration, religion, the penal system, and abortion, then it at least provides a pathway to a more thorough understanding. (Its accompanying extras with commentaries to two of the episodes help further develop these discussions). Yet as long as cameras remain trained on the prisoner, on the immigrant, on the congregant, they provide the needed cover for the warden, the legislator, and the priest and imam to keep going about business as usual.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/30-days-season-2/