Weighing In: Fitness Films and Ordinary People

Vegetables don’t have it so easy, these days. Weather is threatening, acreage is shrinking, and in many of the most fortunate places on earth, people just aren’t consuming the healthiest of foods. Though there are several products, commercials, and programs devoted to weight loss and healthier lifestyles, the media at large aren’t exactly doing much good in reversing the negative trend.

In fact, recent months have seen several instances of vegetables being used within media as a metaphor for undesirable options. As federal law enforcement agent Luke Hobbs in Fast Five, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson requests bad news and spawns a catch phrase: “Give me the damn veggies.” Within film criticism, The New York Times’ Dan Kois writes a popular essay, , “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables”, which airs his reluctance to indulge in certain slow-moving art films (29 April 11). Most high profile of all is President Obama’s public admonishment that we need to “eat our peas” and make difficult choices in the debt limit debate.

Vegetables: If wrestlers, writers, and politicians are united against you, who can be for you?

Joe Cross — that’s who.

As writer, director and star of documentary Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (2010), Joe pushes back against the anti-veggie rhetoric and lifestyle with a crusade that might be mistaken for a soul-saving campaign. By documenting his quest to get people to “reboot” their lives, the exceedingly confident Cross creates a conflicted new strain of weight loss/self-betterment media. Although the content of Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead is superficially similar to programs such as The Biggest Loser, I Used to Be Fat and Fat Families, the structure of the film is eventually more ethically sound by virtue of its late-breaking attention to the strength, potential and dignity of the ordinary human subject, and to the value of human interaction that supports and empowers physical transformation.

Ironically, at first, the film is all about Joe Cross, and viewers who cannot stomach what appears to be his bid for stardom might never see the film through to its satisfying conclusion. When the documentary begins, Cross is travelling through Arkansas trying to “find somewhere off the freeway, amongst nature” to enjoy his Thanksgiving lunch. Cross is Australian, and he sees America as especially in need of intervention. His solution for the USA is in his hand: it’s a glass of juice.

Cross drinks juice for Thanksgiving and plans to go on a juice fast for 60 days in order to save Americans from themselves. This premise is full of potential ethical hiccups: On whose authority does he enact his plan? Is it safe? Who are these Americans that need to be saved, and why should he be their savior? Finally, if the goal is to help people reboot their health, then why bother investing resources in making a film? Mustn’t there be some ulterior motive? In its first half, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead steps into all of these trouble spots and then slowly works its way out of them, either by chance or by design (more on this later).

When we meet Cross, he presents his personal struggle with weight gain through a mixture of tacky animation, testimony from family and friends, and (most effectively) slow-motion footage of his bulkier self, walking around and then diving into a pool. By displaying this evidence of his own experience with obesity, Cross establishes some authority on “problem” side of the subject. He also recruits several doctors and nutritionists to testify to the value of his chosen solution. We learn that juicing “supercharges” one’s nutrient intake. As one professional says, the juice Cross drinks is “a quick potent source of healthy nutrients.”

From his perspective, not all doctors are equally trustworthy, as Cross also spends several minutes describing the degree to which doctors enabled his unhealthy lifestyle by pushing prescriptions on him to fix his various ills. Cross, who suffers from an autoimmune disease and associated rashes, seems to partly blame physicians for the fact that he’s taken pills for nine years in an attempt to get better. His epiphany arrived, he says, when he considered his childhood bumps and bruises: “When I scraped my knee as a kid… as long as I got out of the way… it just got better”.

This advice — to step away from medicine altogether and embrace juice — is a radical solution, but Cross somewhat balances the extreme approach by highlighting the importance of consulting medical professionals before and during a fast. What he doesn’t do nearly enough of, is take his own advice to get “out of the way” where the film is concerned — a flaw that almost sinks the documentary altogether.

In a hosted fitness documentary of this sort, there is usually a star figure/motivator. Morgan Spurlock owes his fame to being the star and central subject of burger binge Super Size Me. He’s the sacrificial figure of that film, undergoing a self-imposed exercise in gluttony so that we can learn what not to do at the drive-thru.

MTV’s I Used to Be Fat follows a template established by that network’s Made series, which transforms young people’s personalities and lives over the course of a commercial-saturated half hour or hour block. The star of this format is the young person and his/her helpers, which in the case of I Used to Be Fat includes the trainers and coaches that help them shed pounds. On Sky Living’s Fat Families, “weight loss expert Steve Miller” plays the role of a flamboyant sociologist as he “moves into the homes of overweight families to help them shed their bulging bellies.”

Most crowded of all is NBC reality program/game show The Biggest Loser. Featuring an actress turned host, “fitness celebrities” Bob and Jillian, and in-your-face product placements from brands such as Subway and Ziploc, there’s barely enough running time and screen space left over for the ordinary people who are supposed to be at the center of the quest for fitness. Most active within the plot of the show are the individuals who fall into (or play to) character types that sell eyes to advertisers on formatted reality television. Heroes of impossible humility and villains of heightened hubris are the stars of the show. This format also has sequels. Sometimes, if a person gains the weight back after the season wraps, he or she can simply book another season.

So what are the competing values of such programs? On one hand, there is the honest claim to be in the business of transforming lives. Bodies and minds undergo extreme stress and emotion in order to arrive at a fitter state. Yet often lost in the transition is attention to what makes the stories inspiring to viewers in the first place: the notion that the subjects undergoing these life-changing metamorphoses are “real” people. In this process where fitness celebrities turn fat folks into fitness celebrities in their own image, self-preservation and betterment are eclipsed by the value of self-promotion.

It’s within this clash of values that Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead nearly dies on the vine. The presence of actual ordinary subjects in the film calls attention to the degree to which Cross gets in the way of his own movie/message. There are a few person-on-the-street sequences, during which individuals open up to him about their eating habits and past failed solutions. From the beginning of the film, we’ve seen him cruising around in a Mercedes. We’ve heard about his investment-banking, day-trading glory days. All this evidence of his comparative wealth separates him from the lower and middle class Americans he approaches with his camera and microphone.

I Still Want to Slap Somebody

Cross sets himself up as their prophet, pusher, and priest, first preaching the benefits of juicing, then having them drink his concoction, and finally listening as they confess their food sins. In a couple of cases, Cross and his crew try too hard to find stereotypical images of middle American life, creating an unneeded, ripped-from-the-Michael Moore-playbook scene of awkward comedy from a gun store owner and visiting a clearly non-juicy lunch hour at the “Cowboy Café” in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Here he basically accosts a family enjoying their comfort food and has them ponder sickness and death on camera, during their meal. As the gallery of people on the street continues to speed by, they are made to seem increasingly unsophisticated and definitely fatter, many frankly without any hope for living a healthy life.

But not all of the bystanders are portrayed as hopeless, and Cross’s film markedly improves when he steps aside and hands the controlling voice of the film over to ordinary subjects willing to follow his program. The first of these is Siong Norte from Waterloo, Iowa, who pledges to try a ten-day fast. She’s refreshingly straightforward but not without some vanity. She cares about her appearance, but she also wants to rid herself of migraine headaches. There’s much for a viewer to learn in her experience (for one, she reveals how she lost so much waste in the initial days of the fast — an unpleasant reality Cross somehow seems above noting).

Indeed, Norte provides the money quote of the film, admitting, “I’ve meditated, I’ve stretched, I’ve chanted, I’ve prayed — And I still want to slap somebody.” This reaction to a fitness regimen is one to which most viewers could relate. And whereas Cross presents his very controlled image in virtual separation, Norte appears with her husband, who is not fasting and in fact seems to enjoy indulging in all of the things his wife cannot eat. The lack of editorial intervention in these observed moments conveys the actuality of the transformation, and all of its attendant frustration and unfulfilled desire.

The real turning point of the film is Cross’s encounter with Phil Riverstone– a trucker in Winslow, Arizona who, like Cross suffers from an overactive immune system. Cross seems genuinely shocked to meet someone with his exact condition and invites the obese Riverstone to drink some juice. He tells him, “This stuff will save your life.”

Cross and his film move on, but Riverstone lingers in the mind. We see rays of positivity from Norte who, after ten days of fasting, says she would probably do it again. Cross experiences his own milestone, breaking his fast in now-typical showboating fashion. He hires a hot-air balloon ride and says, “Up in that balloon, I renewed my commitment to eat nothing but micronutrient food until I was free of my medication and then the real test: Would I be able to achieve and maintain a life with balance?”

Eight weeks go by, and Cross appears to have achieved “balance”, but in truth he now exists completely outside of the great unwashed world he first infiltrated with his camera. Sure, he’s thinner, but he’s also wearing expensive clothes, investing his riches, and taking meetings with fashion designers who testify to his newfound clarity. This sequence — in which he’s lost some belly fat but taken on all the stereotypically elite trappings of the privileged class — resembles nothing so much as a Christopher Guest film. How is a lady like Norte, a guy like Riverstone, or the average viewer supposed to relate to this display of wealth?

Turns out it doesn’t matter, as Riverstone calls Cross to ask for help and ushers in the film’s meaningful core. Cross’s recurring tangents of self-promotion are barely blips on the screen next to the story of Riverstone’s self-preservation. The cynical view is to say that the production orchestrated Riverstone’s call to add some surprise to the proceedings. But his cry for help seems credible, as it is so genuinely rooted in his extreme condition. Even if he were encouraged to make the call, this is still a desperate man taking a very important step in preserving his life.

Riverstone’s plea causes Cross to rush to Iowa and set him up for a ten day fast. As in the early section of the film, the production consults doctors to approve the subject for the fast. In Riverstone’s case, he’s too large to endure some of their normal tests, but the physicians clear him. It should be noted that Riverstone is given some special considerations to which viewers at home wouldn’t necessarily have access. Cross sets Riverstone up in a waterside retreat where he can avoid temptation while fasting.

Yet it’s in this isolation that the film’s most heartfelt moments occur. In a dimly lit night interview, Riverstone identifies his personal reasons for overeating. This interview is refreshingly absent of the kind of excessive manufactured emotion and editorializing found in The Biggest Loser. He says his life fell apart after a second divorce, and that he’s been a horrible father. His weight and shame have caused him to hide from his family.

When Cross comes back onto the narration accompanied by annoying animation, it’s like a different film has intruded. He unintentionally trivializes Riverstone’s story by using cheap animation (imagine a low-rent Osmosis Jones) in order to emphasize the power of micronutrients. From there, Cross’s appearances become even more egregious, climaxing in a sequence when he drives an expensive Jeep to the beach and strides along the water to INXS’ “New Sensation”.

Despite these increasingly bizarre detours, Riverstone’s tale is truly remarkable. Whereas Cross’s journey began with a desire to help others but appears to have turned into a progressively self-focused endeavor, Riverstone emerges from his closed-off existence to save the lives of others. After he completes a 30 day fast and loses 60 pounds, he begins a community juice fast at a local shop, and other stories like Riverstone’s begin to take shape in his town.

He reaches out to his brother, who is also very unhealthy, and whose heart attack during production provides the wake-up call to a catastrophe Riverstone narrowly avoided. The film treats his journey as a success story not only of individual transformation, but also one of interpersonal encouragement. At film’s end he is hundreds of pounds lighter and looks years younger. More importantly, he’s been able to positively influence others and reintegrate into his family.

While there is a puzzling disconnect between Cross’s social mission and his vanity, he is undeniably responsible for sparking the transformation in Riverstone. Likewise, although Cross frequently goes off message to highlight the superficial benefits of his big weight loss idea, he and/or his editors are wise enough to eventually hand over the voice of the film to the ordinary subject for whom the film is ostensibly being made. In the end, the film’s star is Phil Riverstone, a truck driver who couldn’t be further removed from the suave Joe Cross.

If only viewed as a portrait of these two men, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead is a film impossibly at odds with itself. However, when considered on ethical grounds, the film succeeds by celebrating the possibility of a heroic journey within a regular life.

Compared to similar programming, the film is much better than available alternatives. A recent episode description for Fat Families reads: “The D’Arciers try to shed their jelly-bellies.” Its star host, Steve Miller, is absolutely brutal in his commentary about the mother/daughter subjects, calling them “this pair of fatties” and suggesting that their home in Yorkshire is “more like Porkshire.” More than once, Miller calls them “wobblers”. His continuous stream of catty comments occurs entirely in the voiceover track, which means that he’s able to hurl these insults from a distance.

Then, during his sit-down interaction with the family members, he draws out their tears with cheap emotional appeals. Later, the reward for their exploitation is that he observes, “What a lovely family”, but only after he’s had his way with them.

Similarly, on an episode of I Used to Be Fat, high school student Daria is the seeming host of her own journey through weight loss, but she is at the mercy of the show’s rather merciless format. This means that she’s set up for awkward confrontations with her mother (a classic enabler who says her daughter should love her curves) and her trainer (at whom she screams uncontrollably whilst running on a treadmill). These are the scenes that MTV prioritizes within the plot, so that Daria’s voice and perspective are made less important and secondary to the high drama and dysfunction.

Despite odd juxtapositions and star/director Cross’s tone-deafness to the real value of his effects, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead honors its ordinary human subject in a way that is all too rare in media about weight loss. Encouragingly, the marketing forces behind the film must have identified that as the finished film’s ultimate strength: The YouTube channel for the film hosts videos of viewers and others in the film’s community of fans who are going through their own “reboots” and transformations.

Of course, there’s also the occasional video from thin Joe Cross. But he functions best as a supporting player amongst the everyday people who have become the true stars of his fitness movement.